An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Myth of Erdogan’s Power

Far from a sultan, the Turkish president is hemmed in by the nationalists who back him—and they don’t want him to get too close to Russia.

A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Ankara on July 18, 2016.(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
A supporter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan waves a flag against an electronic billboard during a rally in Ankara on July 18, 2016.(Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

This month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intimated that his country might consider leaving NATO. Meanwhile, on a visit to Moscow last week, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu referred to Russia as a “strategic partner”—a first. This talk is empty. Erdogan may well be angry at Washington, but ultimately, Ankara is going to have to do whatever it takes to restore its ties with the West. Doing so might not be enough to pull the country out of its economic crisis, but Erdogan has few other options if he wants to avoid a potentially worse political meltdown: He depends too deeply on forces in the Turkish state that will have difficulty stomaching a permanent shift away from the United States and toward Russia.

In mid-August, U.S. President Donald Trump said that Turkey has been a “problem for a long time.” And that is true. But, at least in part, that’s because the United States has also been a problem for Turkey. Washington’s current list of grievances against Ankara include its detention of the American pastor Andrew Brunson, its opposition to U.S. attempts to empower the Kurds in Syria, and its deepening relationship with Russia, from which Turkey has agreed to purchase four batteries of S-400 air defense missiles by 2019. Yet from Turkey’s perspective, all of these actions seem reasonable.

Consider the case of Brunson, who was arrested in December 2016 after an attempted coup against Erdogan. Brunson was accused of having ties to the religious and political movement led by the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen that is thought to have been behind the coup. He’s also been linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Whatever the validity of those charges, Brunson is a valuable political bargaining chip; Ankara hopes to exchange him for Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a former deputy general manager of the Turkish state-owned Halkbank who has been sentenced to prison in the United States for violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. Turkey may eventually return the pastor, but it believes that it would be unwise to do so without getting something in return.

When it comes to the Kurds in Syria, meanwhile, U.S. and Turkish strategic priorities in the Middle East have been drifting for a long time. Ankara was first rattled by U.S. support for the Kurds in northern Iraq during the 1990s. Today, it fears what will follow the de facto establishment in Syria of an autonomous Kurdish region, Rojava, controlled by affiliates of the PKK, which has been waging an insurgency against Ankara since 1984. The United States, meanwhile, has opted to back the Kurds over Turkish objections, because the Kurdish militia was an ally against the Islamic State and remains a loyal U.S. asset in Syria after the defeat of that group.

Despite the two countries’ diverging interests, as late as 2012, then-U.S. President Barack Obama still named Erdogan as one of his most trusted friends among the world leaders, and there’s no reason to doubt that Erdogan hoped to enjoy a privileged relationship with future U.S. presidents as well. Like other right-wing Turkish leaders before him, Erdogan often deferred to American power. For instance, he knew that Turkey could only achieve its ambitions in Syria—including helping the Muslim Brotherhood come to power—through cooperation with the United States, which is why the two countries at first worked together to try to oust Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

The third sore spot in the relationship between Ankara and Washington—Turkey’s recent turn to Russia—can thus be understood as act of desperation. The United States’ pro-Kurdish policies in Syria are felt as such an existential threat to Turkey that the country sees no alternative but to seek the cooperation of Russia and Iran (and their protege, the Syrian regime) to thwart Kurdish ambitions. To understand how awkward this alliance is, remember that in 2015, Turkey actually shot down a Russian aircraft that crossed into Turkish airspace while presumably on a mission to target rebel forces. More fundamentally, though, aligning with Russia simply goes against the grain of the Turkish state.

Key figures among Ankara’s elite, on whom Erdogan depends to exercise power, represent a political tradition that is deeply hostile to Moscow. These right-wing Turkish nationalists see Russia as the archenemy of the Ottoman Empire and the enslaver of the Turkic peoples. Historically, they have been firmly pro-American. They would have remained so had it not been for the United States’ support for the Kurds. Their ranks include Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which for several years has been allied with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party.

Bahceli’s support has been crucial for Erdogan. For one, the president would have lost his re-election campaign in June had Bahceli not instructed his supporters to vote for Erdogan. But just as crucial is the fact that the MHP supporters are deeply entrenched in the Turkish state. Indeed, the MHP has chosen not to enter the government openly, but it wields vast power indirectly, occupying thousands of positions in the bureaucracy. With the Gulenists having been purged from the bureaucracy after the failed coup two years ago, the MHP and its sympathizers are now on top. And Erdogan is not a new sultan lording over these people; he is in fact beholden to Bahceli and MHP loyalists.

Consider, for example, the appointment of Hulusi Akar, a former chief of the general staff, who is known to be a Turkish nationalist in the MHP mold. Nationalist circles buzzed with talk that it was at Bahceli’s request that Erdogan named Akar as minister of defense after the June elections. Akar does not trust the United States, nor does he like Russia. In his first statement as defense minister, he stressed the importance of mobilizing “national resources” to ensure the independence and security of Turkey.

This isn’t the first time MHP has wielded power behind the scenes in its self-appointed mission to protect the Turkish state. During the 1970s, MHP cadres were mobilized to crush the democratic left that was then on the rise. With the support of the bureaucracy and military, MHP militants laid siege on the social democratic government, killed thousands of leftists, and paved the way for a right-wing military coup in 1980.

Now, the MHP has assumed the mission of restoring the authority of the state and of consolidating power in order to ensure that factions within it—be they Gulenists or some other as yet unknown formation—will not usurp power in the future. To that end, it was Bahceli who, in the wake of the failed coup in 2016, called for the introduction of the presidential system that is now in place. His motive was not to cater to Erdogan’s personal hunger for power. Rather, from the vantage point of the MHP, the presidential system has the benefit of limiting the space in which factions can thrive and grow, because power is so concentrated.

However, the institutional redesign notwithstanding, a sense of security still eludes the Turkish state. And that will continue as long as Washington continues to side with the Kurdish militants in Syria and appears unsympathetic to Ankara’s concerns about the Gulenists. Washington’s refusal to extradite Gulen—combined with the fact that the Obama administration issued no statements of solidarity or condemnation of the coup as it unfolded—amounts in Turkey’s eyes to complicity. The coup attempt left the state scrambling for security wherever it could be found, including through buying Russian air defense missiles, which will be used to protect key government installations, including the presidential palace, if necessary.

At the same time, close ties with Russia can’t last forever, given the right-wing nationalists’ distaste for such an alliance. Further, faced with a prospect of a deep economic crisis—something with which Russia, itself in economic trouble, is ill-suited to help—the Turkish state elite have realized that tensions with the United States cannot be allowed to linger.

To be sure, Erdogan and Bahceli will not try too hard to get back on the good side of the United States as long as the threat of a U.S.-backed Kurdish state in northern Syria remains. And at that price, Washington may conclude that the alliance with Turkey is not worth saving. But that would amount to saying that it does not matter for the United States if Turkey, a NATO ally, remains friendly toward Russia or collapses all together. Ultimately, the United States is going to have to make a choice: between Rojava and Turkey, between a socialist-radical experiment and a right-wing authoritarian state.

Halil Karaveli is a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: Right-Wing Rule From Ataturk to Erdogan.