Response

Erdogan’s Heir Apparent Isn’t a Problem

Turkey’s minister of defense is a staunch nationalist—but that doesn’t mean he’s anti-Western.

By , a senior fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar looks on as he arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on June 26, 2019.
Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar looks on as he arrives for a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels, on June 26, 2019. VIRGINIA MAYO/AFP via Getty Images

Steven A. Cook writes in a recent Foreign Policy piece that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be too ill for reelection and that Hulusi Akar, the minister of national defense and former chief of the General Staff, seems best positioned to assume leadership of the country after Erdogan. But this, Cook argues, is not good news for the United States. “No one should expect Akar to be friendly to the United States,” he warns.

Cook opines that Akar has “made common cause with a fiercely nationalist, anti-Western group of officers” and that “they have colluded to punish officers who … spent significant time in Europe and/or the United States” for “alleged links to the controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen.” Finally, Cook lists the fact that the Turkish minister of national defense was “directly responsible for Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Mediterranean during the summer of 2020 that pitted Ankara against its own NATO allies Greece and France” as proof that Akar is anti-Western.

Cook gets Hulusi Akar wrong. It would be unfortunate if U.S. policymakers were to heed his advice and write off Akar as an enemy of the United States. On the contrary, Akar would, if he became president, work to restore Turkey’s alliance with the United States. Tellingly, he recently invited the United States to rely on Turkey to project power on behalf of the West in the Middle East.

Steven A. Cook writes in a recent Foreign Policy piece that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be too ill for reelection and that Hulusi Akar, the minister of national defense and former chief of the General Staff, seems best positioned to assume leadership of the country after Erdogan. But this, Cook argues, is not good news for the United States. “No one should expect Akar to be friendly to the United States,” he warns.

Cook opines that Akar has “made common cause with a fiercely nationalist, anti-Western group of officers” and that “they have colluded to punish officers who … spent significant time in Europe and/or the United States” for “alleged links to the controversial cleric Fethullah Gulen.” Finally, Cook lists the fact that the Turkish minister of national defense was “directly responsible for Turkey’s aggressive posture in the Mediterranean during the summer of 2020 that pitted Ankara against its own NATO allies Greece and France” as proof that Akar is anti-Western.

Cook gets Hulusi Akar wrong. It would be unfortunate if U.S. policymakers were to heed his advice and write off Akar as an enemy of the United States. On the contrary, Akar would, if he became president, work to restore Turkey’s alliance with the United States. Tellingly, he recently invited the United States to rely on Turkey to project power on behalf of the West in the Middle East.

Akar has lamented that the United States acts in a way that does not befit an ally, but he has not turned against the United States. He has only insisted that Washington cease to finance and arm the Kurdish militia in Syria, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has been waging an insurgency against Turkey since 1984. Cook wrongly claims that Akar “comes from a similar place, ideologically, as Erdogan.” Akar, however, is not an Islamist—he is a conservative nationalist, historically the dominant force in Turkish military and state establishment. Traditionally, this group is staunchly pro-American. They have seen the Soviet Union/Russia as the existential threat against Turkey, which led them to seek the protection of the United States and NATO during the Cold War.

Since 2015, when Erdogan’s party lost its majority, he has relied on the support of the conservative nationalists to stay in power. The conservative nationalists are secular, but they have no compunction in using a religious rhetoric when the state interest is deemed to require it, as was the case during their Cold War campaign against the left and is the case today with their attempts to buttress national unity. They see Erdogan as particularly useful in this respect. And Erdogan is no less pro-Western than Akar. It’s true that the United States has lately alienated the dominant faction in the Turkish military and state by supporting the Kurds in Syria. Formerly pro-U.S. conservative nationalists have increasingly come to see America as an existential threat. If Washington persists with its pro-Kurdish policies in Syria, the Turkish military may indeed eventually turn into a fiercely anti-Western force.

Yet contrary to what Cook claims, Akar is not allied with the anti-Americans in the military; he’s opposed to them. It’s true that Akar joined hands with the anti-Western officers against a common enemy, the Islamist Gulen fraternity that had infiltrated the military and attempted to overthrow the government in 2016. But it was not because these officers had spent significant time in Europe or the United States, as Cook suggests, that they were punished by Akar, who was then the chief of the General Staff, but because he—with good reason—suspected them of being in collusion with the putschists. And Cook seems unaware that Akar no longer makes common cause with the anti-Western officers; the conservative nationalists’ alliance with their anti-Western faction was temporary, and recent purges have instead targeted anti-Western officers who oppose the moves that Erdogan and Akar have made in the Black Sea region against Russia that were designed to endear Turkey to the United States.

Cook makes the mistake of seeing an anti-Western motive behind Turkey’s moves in 2020 in the Mediterranean that led to a conflict with its NATO allies France and Greece. Yet the fact that Akar was responsible for these moves—which Ankara perceived to be in the national interest—does not make him into an enemy of the West. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s first president, was resolutely pro-Western, but he also did not hesitate to aggressively push Turkish interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, laying claim to the then French-held Alexandretta province, which brought Turkey to the brink of war with France in 1938. In 1974, the social democratic Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit, another pro-Western Turkish leader, risked war with Greece when he ordered the invasion of Cyprus.

Cook’s policy advice—to write off Akar as anti-U.S.—is counterproductive. That would only strengthen the anti-Western inclinations in the military. Not only would it be possible for the United States to work with Akar, but Washington also needs to be accommodating toward what used to be its traditional allies in the Turkish state—the conservative nationalists of Akar’s sort—lest these lose ground to the anti-Western, pro-Russian faction.

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: From Ataturk to Erdogan.

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