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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Erdogan?
Slowly, but inexorably, Turkey is headed off a cliff.
Houston, we have a problem. A serious problem. Slowly, but inexorably, Turkey is headed off a cliff. The signposts ahead are bleak indeed. Despotism. Terrorism. Civil war. Just over the horizon, scenarios like “failed state” and “forced partition” are coming into view. The day may be approaching when U.S. policymakers, much as they’d prefer not to, will finally be forced to grapple with the question: What do you do with a NATO ally gone seriously bad?
Turkey’s depressing, seemingly irreversible descent into one-man rule continues apace and may even be accelerating. Five weeks ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who just six months prior had led their Justice and Development Party (AKP) to a major electoral victory, securing nearly 50 percent of the vote and a large parliamentary majority.
So what was Davutoglu’s transgression? What malfeasance had he committed that justified summary dismissal and humiliation? None — save, apparently, the sin of being insufficiently obsequious to Erdogan. As my colleague at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Aykan Erdemir, has pointedly noted, Davutoglu’s slavish compliance for nearly two years with 90 percent of Erdogan’s agenda was simply no longer good enough. Only total, 100 percent submission to the new Sultan is now deemed acceptable.
What appeared most intolerable to Erdogan was Davutoglu’s inadequate enthusiasm for the president’s monomaniacal desire to jam a new constitution down the throat of a dangerously polarized society — a constitution that would dispense with Turkey’s parliamentary system in favor of an executive presidency, or more accurately, an imperial presidency. This new role would lend ex post facto legitimacy to Erdogan’s consolidation of absolute power and to his systematic, multi-year, extra-constitutional assault on nearly every major public and private institution in the country — the military, judiciary, media, private business, civil society — that might serve to check his totalitarian impulse.
In Davutoglu’s place, Erdogan commanded the AKP to install his hand-picked successor. For a ruling party that has dominated the commanding heights of a major nation for almost 15 years, you might expect such a decision to be grounds for some degree of discussion, debate, even competition among ambitious politicians with their own records of independent accomplishments and their own visions for Turkey’s future.
You’d be wrong. Instead, the order came down from Erdogan’s thousand room palace that one Binali Yildirim — and only Yildarim — would replace Davutoglu as leader of the AKP and as Turkey’s new prime minister. Yildirim has been part of Erdogan’s inner circle for decades, an absolute loyalist certain to do his bidding. In a display of party discipline that would have made Lenin proud, more than 1,400 AKP delegates thereupon saluted smartly, sang paeans of praise and obedience to their great “chief” Erdogan, and voted unanimously to confirm his chosen candidate.
For his part, Yildirim dutifully made clear that he would be little more than a cipher for Erdogan’s will to power. “Mr. President,” he pledged, “we promise that your passion will be our passion, your cause will be our cause, your path will be our path.” Lest any doubt remain about his priorities, Yildirim for good measure declared: “The most important mission we have today is to legalise the de facto situation … by changing the constitution. The new constitution will be on an executive presidential system.”
Yildirim also underscored that he would support unquestioningly Erdogan’s other misadventure, Turkey’s all-out war against the Kurdistan People’s Party (PKK). Ten months of renewed conflict across the cities and towns of the country’s predominantly Kurdish southeast have resulted in levels of devastation that have at times exceeded the worst days of the PKK insurgency in the 1990s. Unlike in the past, the center of gravity of this latest round of fighting has been concentrated in urban areas, not the mountains, inflicting much wider damage on civilian populations caught in the crossfire. More than ever, Turkey’s conflict with the PKK risks morphing into a more generalized Turkish-Kurdish conflict, something that begins to look more like a civil war than a limited counter-terrorism campaign.
The promise of Erdogan’s 2013 ceasefire with the PKK is now long dead, discarded when it became evident that mobilizing nationalist sentiment against Kurdish terrorism offered a more reliable pathway for advancing his despotic ambitions than an ambiguous peace process. But the long-term price that Turkey may yet pay for Erdogan’s short-term gain could be high indeed — not just in lives lost and property destroyed, but in an entire generation of Kurds across the country’s southeast growing increasingly radicalized and convinced that they have no future in remaining part of the Turkish state.
The danger is magnified when one looks at Turkey’s demographic trends. Kurds already comprise something like 20 percent of the country’s population. But ethnic Kurds today are estimated to have fertility rates that may be twice as high as those of ethnic Turks. Erdogan has obsessed over this data for years, repeatedly warning that Turkey faces a demographic time bomb; indeed, just last week, he excoriated Turkish women for using contraceptives. But all to little avail. According to some projections, that could mean that within a generation more than half of Turkey’s military-age population will come from Kurdish-speaking households. To the extent that Erdogan’s policies today are working overtime to fan the flames of ethnic resentment and Kurdish nationalism, he may indeed be dooming Turkey’s long-term geographic viability. The specter of outright partition in the southeast is almost certain to grow larger.
That threat, of course, has been greatly exacerbated by the civil war in neighboring Syria, and the emergence of a self-governing Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border — one that happens to be dominated by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Two years ago, Erdogan might have sought to co-opt the PYD into a broader strategy to influence, shape, and ultimately tame the region-wide Kurdish awakening under a Turkish umbrella, consistent with his successful outreach to Iraqi Kurdistan and the PKK peace process. Instead, Erdogan chose to interpret the rise of Syria’s Kurds as a mortal threat that had to be crushed — even if that meant indulging all manner of Sunni jihadists, including the Islamic State.
Needless to say, that policy has been a strategic disaster for Turkey. Erdogan’s apparent readiness in late 2014 to allow the Islamic State to massacre Kurdish civilians in the Syrian town of Kobani alienated millions of Turkish Kurds. It also led to a serious breach with the United States, as America intervened, over Erdogan’s objections, to help the YPG defend Kobani and inflict a major defeat on the Islamic State. Ever since, U.S. military cooperation with the YPG has steadily deepened as the group has become Washington’s most effective and reliable partner on the ground in combating the Islamic State in Syria. Its successes, both on the battlefield and in relations with the United States, despite Erdogan’s increasingly shrill protestations to the contrary, have inevitably fueled Kurdish ambitions on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s less-than-vigilant record in combating the Islamic State has now come back to haunt the country. As Turkey has come under growing international pressure in the last year to more fully support the anti-Islamic State coalition by shutting down the group’s Turkish lifeline, the Islamic State has struck back with a vengeance, launching a steady string of mass casualty attacks in Turkish cities. These atrocities come on top of several other terrorist bombings perpetrated by a militant PKK offshoot since the resumption of fighting in the southeast. Both Istanbul and Ankara have now been struck multiple times. The frequency of the attacks, as well as the death toll, are rising rapidly. The growing sense of danger and instability on multiple fronts is having a devastating impact on Turkey’s vital tourist industry, threatening further damage to an increasingly shaky economy.
The catalogue of Turkey’s downward trajectory doesn’t stop there. Erdogan recently forced through a law that would lift the immunity of parliamentary deputies, for the primary purpose of criminally prosecuting members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, for their alleged links to the PKK. They would join a growing list of others, including journalists, academics, and civil society activists, who have been accused of supporting terrorism for raising questions about Turkey’s policies toward the Kurds and the war in Syria. Even more Orwellian: Almost 2,000 people have been charged with the crime of insulting Erdogan. Let that sink in for a moment.
And then consider the spectacle that played out during Erdogan’s March trip to Washington when he unleashed thugs from his security detail to assault peaceful demonstrators on the streets of Washington, who had shown up to protest a speech he was giving. For good measure, the same goons also sought to forcibly evict from the audience duly invited Turkish journalists known to be critical of the Erdogan. Extraordinary, really, when you think about it: the hubris of a foreign leader who thought nothing of attempting to extend the reach of his expanding despotism to the heart of the world’s greatest democracy and defender of free speech. A warning sign, you think?
More immediately threatening to U.S. interests: Turkey’s not-so-stellar record on the Islamic State has been compounded by even more active support for other Sunni jihadist groups fighting in Syria, including al Qaeda’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra. Meanwhile, a handful of operatives from Palestinian terrorist group Hamas enjoy safe haven in Istanbul. And Erdogan has been brazen in his threats to manipulate the flow of refugees out of Turkey as a weapon of extortion against the European Union, demanding benefits ranging from large-scale financial assistance to visa-free travel for Turks. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees on buses,” Erdogan warned EU officials in late 2015. “[W]e can tell [the Europeans]: ‘Sorry, we will open the doors and say goodbye to the migrants.’” In a closed-door briefing to U.S. lawmakers last January, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said that Erdogan “believes in a radical Islamic solution to the problems in the region” and the “fact that terrorists are going to Europe is part of Turkish policy.”
U.S. officials have been waking up as well to the emerging catastrophe that is Erdogan’s Turkey. Last summer, a year after the Islamic State declared its caliphate in Iraq and Syria, Obama told a press conference that thousands of foreign fighters were still pouring into the region via Turkey. While allowing that not every wannabe jihadist could be stopped, Obama said that “a lot of it is preventable — if we’ve got better cooperation, better coordination, better intelligence, if we are monitoring what’s happening at the Turkish-Syria border more effectively.” Why in the world a NATO ally of more than six decades was still not providing that kind of essential support to the U.S.-led war effort was left for others to ponder. Instead, Obama simply noted, “This is an area where we’ve been seeking deeper cooperation with Turkish authorities who recognize it’s a problem but haven’t fully ramped up the capacity they need. And this is something that I think we got to spend a lot of time on.”
Obama’s assessment of Erdogan was much blunter in an extended interview published in the Atlantic two months ago. The interviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, wrote, “Obama acknowledged that he initially viewed Erdogan, mistakenly, as the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West — but Obama now considers him a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria.” Ouch.
The president is right, of course — as far as he went. Erdogan is a failure. But he is also a growing threat to U.S. interests. His policies are certainly endangering the well-being and stability of Turkey, a vital member of NATO. But they are also fanning the flames of extremism and terrorism beyond Turkey’s borders — in Syria and the Middle East for sure, but increasingly in Europe as well. The country that is supposed to be a reliable bulwark for security and stability on NATO’s southern flank is fast becoming a major source of risk to both the alliance’s democratic values and, and more importantly, its interests.
What, if anything, can be done about it is, as always, a much more challenging proposition. Given Erdogan’s absolute domination of Turkish politics, he is very much the problem. Were he to exit the scene or start acting in a more restrained manner, much could change for the better. But neither of those scenarios appears likely. For years, people have speculated that some of the AKP’s more responsible leaders would finally say enough is enough, split the party, and establish a truly serious center-right opposition to short-circuit Erdogan’s rapidly advancing authoritarianism. But one after another, from former President Abdullah Gul to former Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc to Davutoglu himself, these figures of independent stature have been kicked to the curb and humiliated by Erdogan, only to balk at taking him on and saving Turkey from his mounting excesses and outrages.
There are a handful of other developments — admittedly, low-probability events, true black swans, really — that could throw a wrench into Erdogan’s works were they to emerge. The eruption of another mass protest movement, like the one that rocked Erdogan’s government in 2013 in Gezi Park, involving millions of citizens taking to the streets in peaceful protest for an extended period of time, could in theory give pause to his headlong rush for the imperial presidency.
Some kind of military intervention also can’t be dismissed entirely — especially if coupled with widespread popular opposition to Erdogan’s rising despotism and disregard for Turkey’s existing constitution. Though conventional wisdom maintains that Erdogan’s trumped-up court cases against the Turkish officer corps early in his tenure successfully neutered the military of any residual instinct to ever again play a role in the country’s politics, a few analysts have recently raised doubts about that assessment. The suggestion is that starting in 2014, and especially since his resumption of all-out war against the PKK, Erdogan has increasingly come to rely on a tactical alliance with the military to confront some of their common domestic opponents, thereby inevitably resurrecting the military’s power, its standing, and perhaps its ambitions. Should Turkey’s situation continue to deteriorate, the theory goes — increased terrorism, political strife, and worsening relations with traditional Western partners, for example — it’s not unthinkable that the military would turn on Erdogan in order to “save” Turkey from his road to Islamist dictatorship and state failure.
One more possibility that is very much off the radar: a resurfacing of the huge corruption scandal that implicated the AKP, and even Erdogan himself, in December of 2013. Erdogan made the cases against him, his family, and some of their closest AKP cronies disappear in 2014 by means that amounted to the near total subversion of the Turkish justice system — a genuine abomination and travesty against the rule of law. Thousands of prosecutors, judges, and police involved with bringing the scandal to light were summarily purged and replaced by AKP loyalists. Bye-bye corruption scandal, hello imperial presidency.
Or maybe, just maybe, not. In a bizarre twist, the Turkish-Iranian businessman at the heart of the corruption scandal, Reza Zarrab, was arrested when he tried to enter the United States three months ago for a family vacation at Disney World. The U.S. attorney for the southern district of New York, Preet Bharara, wants to prosecute Zarrab for his role in a massive scheme to evade sanctions on Iran — a scheme in which Turkey and Turkish officials allegedly played a critical role thanks to tens of millions of dollars in bribes paid by Zarrab.
It seems likely that Bharara will limit the case to the narrower issue of sanctions evasion and Iran. But what if he decides to broaden it to include Zarrab’s Turkish activities? Interestingly, in a pre-trial bail hearing, Bharara’s brief for the court incorporated detailed information from the jettisoned Turkish corruption investigation, citing payments that Zarrab allegedly made to ministers in Erdogan’s government, as well as a charity headed by Erdogan’s wife. It’s certainly not beyond all possibility that in an effort to save his own skin, Zarrab might offer to spill the beans entirely on the extent to which politicians at the very highest levels of the Turkish government were up to their necks as willing accomplices in his criminal enterprise to undermine U.S. policy toward Iran. Exactly what kind of impact such a bombshell coming out of an American court case would have on Erdogan’s political fate in Turkey is anyone’s guess. The fact that within a few days of arresting Zarrab, Bharara’s following on Twitter skyrocketed from a few thousand to over 200,000 suggests that a lot of Turkish citizens believe the impact could be fairly substantial.
Beyond Zarrab, what should U.S. policy toward Erdogan be? It’s a truism that Erdogan is a master at manipulating U.S. and European criticism to his own advantage, amping up the anti-Western diatribes, which have become a staple in his playbook, for political survival. That said, Erdogan knows that a sustained impression that he is bungling relations with Turkey’s most powerful ally could be risky for him at home — especially in light of the fact that his policies have already engendered enormous tensions in Turkey’s ties with most of its neighbors, many countries in Europe, and especially with Russia, thanks to Turkey’s shoot down of a Russian jet over Syria last November.
Accordingly, Washington should lose any reluctance to be plainspoken when Erdogan takes actions that threaten our interests in Turkey’s trajectory, both at home and beyond its borders. The Turkish people should not be left wondering whether the United States supports Erdogan’s assault on Turkey’s democracy, free speech, and the rule of law. They should be clear about U.S. concerns that Erdogan’s war against the PKK is not winnable militarily, and that the faster a peace process can be resurrected with the Kurds, the more likely Turkey will be able to avoid literally ripping itself to pieces. They should know that we are wise to Erdogan’s dangerous dalliance with Sunni jihadism, in Syria and elsewhere, and highly disapproving. And they should be left with no doubt that any effort by Erdogan to weaponize the refugee tragedy to undermine and destabilize our European allies is unacceptable.
To its credit, the Obama administration has been doing more of this of late. This has been evident in the president’s criticism of Turkey’s efforts against foreign fighters and the dismal view of Erdogan revealed in the Atlantic interview. Other instances: When Erdogan attended a nuclear summit in Washington in March, his push for a formal White House meeting with Obama was turned down, an alleged snub much remarked on inside Turkey. Last month, the State Department expressed concern that Erdogan’s push to lift parliamentary immunity posed a threat to free speech in Turkey. But perhaps of greatest significance has been the administration’s persistent willingness to brush off Erdogan’s persistent wailing about America’s expanding military relationship with the YPG in Syria.
There is a much bigger move that the U.S. should seriously consider: finding a suitable replacement for Incirlik, the Turkish air force base that has been so important to U.S. and NATO military operations in the Iraq-Syria theater, both today and in years past. America’s reliance on Incirlik has without question increased U.S. reluctance to take issue with Erdogan’s most destructive policies, conferring on him great leverage. Indeed, despite urgent U.S. requests, Erdogan only granted American planes the right to fly from Incirlik a year into the war against the Islamic State, and only in conjunction with his controversial decision to relaunch Turkey’s war against the PKK. And while the Obama administration has been unwilling to accede to Erdogan’s demands that it sever ties with the YPG, concerns about jeopardizing U.S. access to Incirlik have almost certainly constrained the scope of U.S. cooperation with Syria’s Kurds, hindering the speed and effectiveness of the anti-Islamic State campaign.
A U.S. decision to study basing alternatives to Incirlik would be a powerful shot across Erdogan’s bow, a clear warning that Washington would not allow its interests to be held hostage to his dangerous policies indefinitely and would be prepared to hedge its bets in favor of more reliable and willing partners. Iraqi Kurdistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, might top the list.
The problem of Erdogan’s Turkey has been building for years. And for years, U.S. officials have sought to avoid dealing with it, hoping beyond hope that the problem wasn’t as bad as they feared, or that it might somehow resolve itself, sparing them the need to confront difficult decisions with respect to a historical, longstanding ally that happens to occupy some of the most geo-strategically important territory on earth. But providence has not intervened to spare us. Instead, the Erdogan problem is getting worse, metastasizing, creating greater and greater risks for U.S. interests. Sooner or later, a day of reckoning is likely to come. The United States should start preparing now to mitigate the damage.
Photo credit: YASIN BULBUL/AFP/Getty Images