06/18/2013 01:28 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2013

Turkey Proves Itself Worthy of Europe

Two very important events unfolded in Turkey last week that are worth taking notice of. The first could very well herald the beginning of the end of the current prime minister's political career. The second could, if Mr. Receb Tayyip Erdogan is astute enough, re-launch his career and help him win back some of the popularity he lost over the riots that erupted when the people opposed the transformation of a park in central Istanbul into a shopping mall.

A wise politician knows when it is time to back away from an argument or time to back down from a fight. A wise politician knows not to bet all his money on a loosing horse. And Gezi Park, the root of the prime minister's most recent woes, was a loosing horse. Being able to gracefully back away can be turned into a victory, if one is wise enough and humble enough. The first could very well be among the qualities Mr. Erdogan possesses, the latter we have yet to find out.

Then to make matters even worse for himself almost as an afterthought, he decides to send in riot police to clear the park of protester, hoping this would be a face-saving exercise. Big mistake.

Regardless of his qualities and his ability to win over the electorate or not, the fact remains that the prime minister lost a major political battle by huffing and puffing, and then huffing and puffing some more and finally capitulating to the diktat of the street.

However, his retreat, honorable as it may seem, or honorable as it may be portrayed by his damage assessment team, could not have come at a worse moment for himself, his party and for the coalition of allies backing the armed resistance in Syria, when taking regional events into consideration. The reason being that his position may be regarded as one of weakness by his adversaries across the border where the government did not hesitate to use heavy mortars, artillery, attack helicopters and fighter jets against its own people.

By comparison, the use of water cannons and tear gas must be considered as somewhat rather mundane by Turkey's neighbor to the south.

It is therefore a safe bet to think that the prime minister's strong-headedness over the Gezi Park affair will end up costing him dearly and could end up harming his political career. This comes at a time of grave crisis as the civil war in neighboring Syria risks spreading beyond its borders and Turkey needs a leader who can be firm enough in dealing with foreign threats yet sensitive enough to the demands of his own people. To date, Mr. Erdogan has shown neither trait.

Speaking of foreign affairs, this is the second reason why Mr. Erdogan comes across looking weak when he has so far failed to respond -- other than verbally, and perhaps covertly - to Syria's acts of aggressions committed to date against his country.

In June 2012 a Syrian anti-aircraft missile downed a Turkish Air Force fighter jet that had strayed into Syrian air space over the Mediterranean. Other than threats of strong-handed retaliation there has been no (visible) reply to that incident.

Another major incident occurred just a few weeks ago in May when two powerful car bombs exploded in the Turkish town of Reyhanli, close to its border with Syria. The Turkish government wasted no time in pointing an accusing finger at the Syrian government and its intelligence services for the attack which left 40 killed and more than 100 wounded.

And in between those two events there have been several other isolated shootings by Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad, as well as a number of mortars and artillery shells fired "inadvertently" by force loyal to Assad at Turkish targets.

In the two years during which the civil war has raged in next-door, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has time and again threatened to take firm action and yet has failed to do so. Empty threats, particularly when addressed at individuals who do not shy away from resorting to violence, tend to be interpreted as signs of weakness. As one analyst familiar with the situation is Turkey said of Mr. Erdogan, "He has become a paper tiger."


Unless the Turkish prime minister is far more astute than anyone gives him credit for and that during those past two years the Turkish prime minister has fired back using covert rather than overt methods and remaining modest and discreet about it. Nevertheless, the Istanbul park debacle will remain a political blemish on his career.

But what may be bad news for the prime minister could end up being very good for Turkey as a nation, as a modern democratic society, as a vibrant, intelligent and politically astute society; one that stood up to the government when it needed to do so. As the recent events of the past two weeks clearly demonstrated to the rest of Europe, indeed Turkey, without reservation, belongs in the European Union.

A Turkey that both Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the founding father of the modern Turkish republic, and Robert Schuman, one of the main instigators of what has today become the European Union, would be proud of. Time for Europe to reciprocate. And who knows, Mr. Erdogan could end up reclaiming some of his lost political mileage after all.

Claude Salhani is a political analyst and editor of He tweets @claudesalhani.