The Istanbul airport attack last week may mark the beginning of a new, less ambitious, and more cautious foreign policy on the part of Turkey, and the end of what some observers had called “Neo-Ottomanism” in the Middle East. The horrific bloodletting at a major transportation hub, staged by Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) from its Syrian capital of Raqqa, may have been the final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s attempt in recent years to punch above its weight in world affairs. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s feuds—with Russia, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and the PKK Kurdish guerrillas—had taken the country from a policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to one of unrelenting crisis on the country’s borders.
The two strongest leaders Turkey has had during the past century were polar opposites ideologically, but perhaps not so dissimilar in personality. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881–1938), who founded the Turkish Republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, and current President Erdogan both sought to put their personal stamp on an entire nation. But Ataturk was a militant secularist who admired the French Third Republic and wanted nothing to do with Islam or the Middle East. Erdogan, who served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014 and has been president since then, is a champion of Muslim causes who sought to make Turkey again a key economic and political player in the Middle East.
Turkey’s pro-fundamentalist politics also began affecting its relations with the Arab world. Ankara supported the 2011 revolution in Egypt, as well as the religious-right Muslim Brotherhood government that emerged in its aftermath the following year. Ankara was furious when Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew elected president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013, and has had bad relations with Cairo ever since.
Although Erdogan had attempted to cultivate Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the late zeroes, when Assad decided brutally to repress the Syrian Revolution that began in 2011, the Turkish leader denounced Damascus for war crimes and began funneling arms and money to rebel groups. Some of those groups later turned radical, but Erdogan was undeterred by this development, insisting that Assad be overthrown, even if by relatively hard-line fundamentalists. Erdogan appears to have been entirely unconcerned about the rise of Daesh after it broke with Al Qaeda in 2013.
When Russia decided to intervene in Syria in the fall of 2015 to prop up the Assad regime, it subjected rebels supported by Turkey to heavy aerial bombardment. In the mountains of the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia, next to the Turkish border, some of the Syria rebels were themselves ethnic Turkmen. Russia saw them make battlefield alliances with Al Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front) and bombed them. In response, Erdogan ordered a Russian bomber shot down last November. Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted with cold fury, canceling Russian tourism to Turkey and contracts for Turkish fruits and vegetables, among other steps. Tourism accounts for 5 percent of the annual Turkish GDP of some $733 billion, or about $37 billion, and Russian tourism was a significant proportion of the whole.