Last week, we (as in, the news-following world) were productively minding our business with the situation in Syria when suddenly we were hit in the side by a steamroller: the Turkish protests. Immediately attention shifted: there were new freedom-seeking idealists to be focused upon (rather than boring ourselves much further with the increasingly disappointing slogging match known as the Syrian civil war).
But let me go out on a limb here and say this: actually Turkey is a side-show, and we should continue to focus on Syria. Here’s why.
First we should ask what the importance of Syria is. It’s manifold. On the one hand the war in Syria is a signal development in the string of uprisings known as the Arab spring. In particular, Syria represents a few important turns in those uprisings: from non-violent to violent, from democratic to sectarian and fundamentalist, from Western support to Western apathy and hesitance. Further, Syria is central to various major geopolitical developments, not least the renewed Russian-American rivalry and the grand Sunni-Shi’ite conflict dividing the Middle East. Finally the outcome of Syrian conflict may carry critical consequences for developments within other Arab countries, ranging from issues concerning democracy and liberalism, to the fate of political Islam, to the very continued existence of unified multi-ethnic Arab states.
So what about the importance of Turkey? It depends on the various readings of what is really going on there.
One reading — which, given the material and messaging coming from Turkey’s protesters seems not altogether unreasonable — suggests that the protests essentially follow the theme of the ‘occupy’ movement, and in this sense can be compared to the protests in recent years in countries like Spain and Greece (complete with the same sort of police brutality). On this reading, the real issues in the minds of the Turkish public are ‘crony capitalists’, the authoritarian way in which the Turkish economy is being expanded, and in general the fairness of the capitalist model.
If this ‘occupy’ account is true, then we can pretty much immediately dismiss the larger importance and long-term relevance of events in Turkey. Sure, in general the issue of the place of (southern) European economies in the world economy is hugely important. But the point is: these issues are immensely complicated, and to this complex debate the occupy movement’s protesters are contributing exactly nothing. This is because there is absolutely no way that any state, even bankrupt ones like Greece or Cyprus, will follow the young ‘occupiers’ program of dismantling capitalist economies and retreating into some form of communist autarchy. Indeed, even much more limited issues like crony capitalism and market monopolies are not particularly likely to be altered by radical socialist-style urban protests. This is because neo-anarchism (or neo-communism) fails to provide any feasible model whatsoever for producing affluence, feeding giant populaces, allocating goods, or fostering innovation. Simply put: occupy just is not suggesting rational tweaks to market economies, and therefore is irrelevant. As such, it is no coincidence that previous protests in Greece and Spain have not resulted in the achievement of any occupy goals, or even the more moderate rejection of austerity policies. As it turns out, there just is little alternative to participation in the capitalist world economics. (Indeed we should pretty much consider it a reductio ad absurdum of the ‘occupy’ position that the protestors typically use such iconic capitalist creations as twitter and facebook to get their message out.)
A second reading of events in Turkey is somewhat more sophisticated, and focuses on a supposed debt problem for the Turkish economy. But this account does not lead to any greater relevance of the Turkish protests. First it is hard to figure out how plausible the account itself is; one still can also find hagiographic accounts of Turkish economic performance, and it’s hard not to be a little suspicious that weaknesses in the Turkish economy are being discovered right in time for the protests. Second, even if the Turkish economy has a debt problem, so what? Clearly for Turkey’s economic future this is relevant, but it does not make the Turkish protests likely to be of great consequence. After all, pretty much all southern European countries face the problem of sustaining economic growth while not at the same time incurring enormous debts; protesting is not going to provide a solution to this much larger problem.
Which leaves a third set of explanations: concerns about Erdogan’s style of leadership and anti-urban, anti-secular policies. These concerns are quite plausibly at the heart of the protests and, of course, serious to the people involved. But again: so what? What democratic country does not have secular urban elites periodically angry at their leadership? To be sure, one rarely sees such massive protests and police brutality, but the point remains: Turkey’s protesters will just have to vote for someone else next time. Turkey remains a democracy, which simply leaves the potential for earth-shattering political system-changes much diminished.
So here is my point. If you’re a Turkey enthusiast, of course pay attention to the political consequences of Erdogan’s impopularity. But for the larger issues animating interest in the Syrian conflict, whether geopolitics or the Arab Spring, Turkey’s protests are highly likely to be a dud. In the end, Erdogan will remain in power, Turkey will remain a market economy (whether debt-fueld or not), and the fundamental considerations shaping Turkey’s foreign policy will not have altered. So I don’t know about you, but I’m going back to reading about Aleppo and Damascus.
[Note: there are those who think we shouldn’t compare the Turkish protests to any other recent uprisings, since these events are typically fairly unique; all true, but we do want to understand what’s going on and what’s going to happen, and analogies are roughly all we have to go on].