What a difference a few years can make. A little more than a decade ago, regional rivals Turkey and Syria nearly went to war over the latter's sponsorship of the radical Kurdish Workers Party in its struggle against the Turkish state. Today, however, cooperation rather than competition is the order of the day, as highlighted by recent news that the two have kicked off joint military drills for the second time in less than a year.
The thaw in Turkish-Syrian ties is a microcosm of the changes that have taken place in Ankara over the past decade. Since November of 2002, when the Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party, or AKP, swept Bulent Ecevit's troubled secular nationalist coalition from power, Turkey has undergone a major political and ideological metamorphosis. Under the direction of its charismatic leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the AKP has redirected the Turkish ship of state, increasingly abandoning Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's ideas of a secular republic in favor of a more religious and ideologically driven polity.
Part and parcel of this transformation has been a monumental reorientation of foreign policy. The only Middle Eastern member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has long served as a stalwart of the West, and a critical force multiplier for European and American interests in Eurasia. Increasingly, however, Ankara no longer seems comfortable playing that role.
Relations with the United States soured way back in 2003, when Turkey's opposition to war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq led it to deny overflight and basing permissions to the U.S.-led coalition, thwarting plans for a "northern front" against Baghdad. Since then, diplomats in both countries have made a public show of mending fences, but deep distrust still lingers. In 2007 Turkish approval of the U.S. hit an all-time low of just 9%, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, eclipsing such bastions of anti-Americanism as Pakistan (then logged at 15%) and the Palestinian Authority (13%). Since then, matters have improved slightly. But today, at just 14% favorable, Turkish attitudes toward the U.S. can hardly be called pro-American -- or a sound basis for ongoing partnership.
Turkish attitudes toward Europe have cooled considerably as well. Membership in the "Eurozone" has been a central objective of Turkish foreign policy since the late 1980s. But since formal E.U. accession talks began in 2005, anger over Europe's obvious reluctance to accept the country's 77 million Muslims into its fold has gradually soured most Turks on the idea of European membership, and the cause of integration has plummeted in popularity. When tallied by Pew in 2007, only 27% of Turks viewed the E.U. favorably -- less than half the number that did just three years earlier.
Predictably, Turkey's ties with the country that used to rank as its most reliable regional partner, Israel, have also deteriorated. Back in the late 1990s, Ankara and Jerusalem cobbled together a formidable strategic partnership on military and defense issues, animated by what Mideast scholar Daniel Pipes then described as their "common sense of otherness" in an inhospitable Middle East. Today, however, that convergence is just a distant memory. Over the past two years, a series of very public political spats has roiled diplomatic ties between Ankara and Jerusalem, and military and defense cooperation has virtually ground to a halt. The late-April announcement from Israel that it was temporarily freezing all arms sales to Turkey in protest over public criticism from Erdogan was just the latest sign that all is not well in the Turkish-Israeli entente.
But Turkey has to belong somewhere. Which is why, in place of these traditional alliances, Ankara has increasingly drifted into alignment with countries it once considered mortal enemies. Ties with Syria, historically deeply troubled, are now anything but, with the two countries boasting multiple new agreements on economic, political and military cooperation over the past year. Turkey has likewise mended fences with Iran; a ballooning bilateral trade and growing diplomatic warmth between the two countries has made clear that -- unlike its predecessors -- the current government in Ankara views the Islamic Republic more as a partner than a regional competitor or security threat.
Still, for those concerned about this drift away from the West, there are tantalizing signs that Turkey could soon change course once again.
The first is political. For years, disarray within Turkey's notoriously fractious secular opposition prevented the emergence of a serious competitor to the AKP. Now, however, a dynamic new political challenger has arisen. Since it appeared on the scene less than a year ago, the Turkish Movement for Change (TDH), with its agenda of economic renewal and neo-Kemalist foreign policy, has captured the imagination of many Turks tired of the AKP-dominated status quo.
It's not by accident that the movement's message, and its rhetoric, is so reminiscent of President Barack Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign. The TDH sees itself as a sort of midcourse correction that would re-center Turkish politics after years of drift. "Turkey is becoming an increasingly polarized society," Zeynep Dereli, one of the movement's founders, explains in the latest issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly. "To bring true democracy to Turkey, we must focus on four pillars of prosperity: a free market economy, universal social services, participatory democracy and respect for human rights and freedoms." And that, Dereli makes clear, involves bringing Turkey back into alignment with the West on a range of foreign policy issues.
The second development is religious. Over the past couple of years, the Turkish government's influential Department of Religious Affairs has quietly launched an effort to modernize a key element of Islamic law. According to the BBC, this little-known effort entails the creation by theologians at Ankara University of a document revising the Hadith, the compilation of the spoken word of the Prophet Muhammad that serves as Islam's second most sacred text.
If it is successful, the overhaul -- still in progress -- will be the closest thing the Muslim world has yet had to a religious "reformation" of the sort that brought Christianity into the modern age. It could also become a powerful counterterrorism tool, redefining and demystifying parts of the Islamic tradition that until now have been exploited by radicals to justify overriding hostility to the West.
Both trends, of course, are still nascent. The TDH's priorities have put it on a collision course with the AKP, and coming months will determine whether it can in fact serve as a durable political alternative, as its proponents contend. Even if Turkey doesn't experience a secular "reset," though, it may well spark a religious one, provided the Turkish government's plans for an Islamic "reformation" materialize and gain currency in the wider Muslim world.
Either way, it seems, Ankara's political evolution is far from over.