By Ian Trevett
In April’s bitter and divisive referendum proposing substantial changes to the Turkish constitution, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won the day, albeit among claims of electoral foul play. Now power is firmly entrenched in the President’s office, with the office of the Prime Minister abolished and Erdoğan’s increased control over appointments to the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors. After last year’s decisive crushing of an attempted coup, the detention of political opponents and concentration of constitutional control, Erdoğan is all powerful in Turkey. And the West should be very worried indeed.
Farewell to NATO?
In rallying his faithful, Erdoğan pledged to “Stand up to the West”, which is hardly an unusual refrain as you travel into Asia, but not a message you’d expect from a key member of NATO. So just how long Turkey will stay aligned to the military alliance of which it has been a member since 1952?
Most regional commentators are deeply concerned. Take Leonid Bershidsky, writing for Bloomberg: “Relations with the Netherlands are all but broken off , Germany is struggling to remain civil under a barrage of Erdoğan insults, and Denmark is siding with its north European neighbours.
Add to this Turkey’s differences with the U.S. and the perennial tension between Turkey and Greece, and it’s no longer clear how much of a NATO member Erdoğan’s country really is.”
Worryingly, it would seem that we need them more than they need us, as Bershidsky explains: “The U.S. and its top European allies tolerate Erdoğan’s brinksmanship because a Turkish departure would, in effect, put the Black Sea and the Balkans officially in play as parts of the world where Russia and Turkey can openly vie for influence. The West would also lose a key Middle Eastern foothold.
“In reality, however, Erdoğan is nobody’s long-term ally. He’s a populist, mostly interested in consolidating domestic power for the long term, and his country’s strategic importance to everyone - Europeans, Americans, Russians, Arabs - gives him a sense of impunity. Turkey is only bound by treaties so long as they don’t force Erdoğan to do anything he doesn’t like.”
Turkey is the strategic ally that everyone needs but few actually want. The President has spread terror through large-scale purges and the hounding of dissidents, as well as by throwing his military forces into full-on war against Kurdish separatist groups. Freedom of speech has been extinguished with Turkey holding the highest number of journalists in prison of any country in the world. Almost 2,000 people have been charged with the crime of insulting Erdoğan.
The Spectator’s Douglas Murray succinctly spells out the demise of a secular beacon in EurAsia: “Well farewell then Turkey. Or at least, farewell the Turkey of Kemal Ataturk. It’s a shame. Ataturk-ism nearly made its own centenary.
“But the nation that he founded, which believed broadly in progressive notions such as a separation of mosque and state, has just been formally snuffed out. President Erdoğan’s success in the referendum to award himself Caliph-like powers for life finally sees the end of Turkey’s secular and democratic experiment.”
The end of the European Dream
It seems it was only months ago when the debate was all about when, not if, Turkey would be joining the EU. Relations appeared decidedly cordial when the EU and Turkey agreed a deal to stem the flow of migrants heading into Europe. In reality, few in Turkey believed that the EU would ever allow Turks access to the Schengen visa-free zone.
According to The Times’s Turkey correspondent, Hannah Lucinda Smith, Erdoğan’s enmity to the west dated back to four years ago, when protests were held against his leadership at Gezi Park, fuelled, he believed, by western powers stirring dissent. Starting out as a sit-in against an urban development plan, the heavy-handed response of the authorities saw the demonstrations go viral.
Three and a half million people were estimated to have taken an active part in almost 5,000 demonstrations across Turkey. Eleven people were killed and more than 8,000 were injured, many critically.
Europe looked on with distaste and Turkey’s EU membership looked ever more remote. Equally, European liberal values are at odds with an increasingly Islamisation in Turkey.
The Brexit debate was telling. The Brexiteers warned that staying in the EU would open up our borders to a Turkish influx, with Turkey inevitably joining the club. The Remainers said that Turkey was nowhere near membership, and would in all likelihood never be accepted. In other words both sides saw Turkish admission as unwelcome. It goes without saying that this would have been heavily reported in Turkey.
During the Turkish referendum, relations plummeted to a new low, after the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany banned rallies in favour of a Yes vote, but the bans probably just played into Erdoğan’s hands - he was, after all, the man who stands up to the west.
As the Dutch sought to close down a Turkish demonstration in Rotterdam, the pictures of European police battling Turks was beamed back to Turkish TV screens. The New Statesman’s Cemal Yazsil, reported the reaction to the scenes:
“Turks are watching graphic images from Rotterdam, where pro-government Dutch Turkish protesters clashed with police, hit with batons and bitten by attack dogs. For many Turks, the scenes have confirmed suspicions that European nations see them and their compatriots as lower status.” Yazsil believed the result was to cast the protesting Turks as underdogs, battling the arrogant establishment, just as blue-collar Americans railed against Hillary Clinton when she labelled Trump supporters as “Deplorables.”
The European dream had died, and Erdoğan shed few tears. The final death knell came with the news that Turkey will most likely soon reinstall the death penalty - a red line that the precludes any hope of EU membership.
And what of the deal to stem migrants? It is a weapon the Erdoğan can deploy any time he feels like it. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees on buses,” Erdoğan warned EU officials in late 2015.” Few would bet against him acting out his warning.
The Kurdish issue
When the ancient Ottoman Empire was carved up in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, all the interested parties had their say and the creation of modern Turkey was finally agreed. It was ratified by the Turks, Greeks, French, British, Italians, and even the Japanese. Except, it would appear that no-one asked the Kurds.
Today, the non-existent state of Kurdistan is split between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, and the Kurds are still fighting for their own homeland. For much of Turkey’s history, the Kurds have been persecuted. Since 1984, the militant separatist organisation, PKK, has waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state for equal rights and self-determination for the Kurds in Turkey. But finally in 2013, it appeared there might be a lasting ceasefire.
Things became complicated when the ISIS death cult took over swathes of northern Syria and Iraq, creating a brutal caliphate. For many months, the only opposition to ISIS was the indigenous Kurds. As the world looked on in admiration at the bravery of the Kurds, Erdoğan faced a dilemma. Turkey was expected to play its part in the war against ISIS, but did he want to fight his enemy’s enemy?
According to John Hannah at foreignpolicy.com, “Erdoğan 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.”
Indulging ISIS was not a way to make international friends and America exerted its influence. The American’s (and the RAF) have airmen permanently stationed at Incirlik, a strategically important Turkish air base, though at first, the Turks steadfastly refused US permission to use launch strikes at ISIS. After a year they relented, but at a price - Erdoğan simultaneously relaunched Turkey’s war against the Kurds and the PKK.
With two enemies close by, Turkey’s cities have experienced atrocities inflicted in bloody acts of revenge, from both ISIS and the PKK. With ISIS on the back foot and surrounded by foes, it is the Kurdish issue that won’t go away.
Hannah writes: “The long-term price that Turkey may yet pay for Erdoğan’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% 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. Erdoğan has obsessed over this data for years, repeatedly warning that Turkey faces a demographic time bomb; indeed, 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.”
It became a political problem when a liberal Kurdish-rooted party, the HDP, started to gain significant support amongst Kurds and Turks. But Erdoğan got lucky. When HDP deputies attended PKK funerals the support collapsed. Sympathy for Kurds was certainly not extended to PKK suicide bombers who slaughtered innocent civilians.
As is so often the case, Erdoğan’s opposition was fragmented, divided and ultimately, ineffective.
Putin or Trump?
After Erdoğan’s constitutional power grab, European leaders responded with alarm. Angela Merkel pleaded for Turkey to bring together its divided nation, while Jean-Claude Juncker called for claims of electoral malpractice to be investigated.
Donald Trump chose the pragmatic path and phoned Erdoğan to congratulate him. The inference was - who cares about right or wrong? US strategic relations outweigh all such considerations.
Perhaps this was the sensible option. Turkey resents the US support of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, and is equally angry that America refuses to extradite the anti-government cleric Fethullah Gulen, the man they blame for the failed coup in 2016. But Turkey is vital for western interests in the region.
Meanwhile, the ever-closer relationship between Turkey and Russia sends shivers down the spine.
Historically they have rarely been on the same side and recent incidents should have hammered a wedge between them. In the last couple of years Turkish soldiers have died in Syria from Russian ‘friendly fire’, the Turks have shot down a Russian plane, and a radicalised Turkish police officer attacked and shot dead the Russian ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov. Karlov was only the fourth Russian ambassador ever killed in the line of duty. These are the kind of incidents that trigger wars - think Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914.
The downing of the Russian fighter plane in November 2015 did cause a breakdown in relations, only broken after Erdoğan offered a suitable regretful apology. After such volatile incidents you might expect a cool relationship between the countries but they appear to be the closest of comrades. By June 2016, Russia was apparently tipping Erdoğan off about the impending coup attempt, and now they are gleefully carving up Syria.
Russia has accepted the Turkish view that the YPG (Syrian Kurdish army) are “terrorists”, and in return Turkey backs Russia’s support of Bashar al-Assad (even though they originally opposed him). It seems both sides are bending over backwards to become partners, prompting many observers to ask why.
Maxim Trudolyubov, writing in Newsweek, asserts: “Something big and important must be at the heart of a relationship in which both sides are able to overcome the pain they repeatedly inflict on each other. Russia and Turkey, historically adversaries and newly active allies, are one such case.
“… seem to have found a way of pursuing larger goals while agreeing to disagree on the many diverging interests that will always keep the two countries apart.
“The two countries’ mutual history is rough. They clashed incessantly and waged war on each other once every quarter century when they were still empires. Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey ended up on opposite sides of the Cold War divide.
“Russia and Turkey have been supporting opposing forces in Syria. And yet some major force has been bringing them back together. It must be bigger than immediate politics.”
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was born in Istanbul on February 26, 1954, the son of a coastguard, and was raised on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. When he was 13, his father decided to move to Istanbul, hoping to give his five children a better upbringing. Recep inherited an authoritarian streak from his father, who once hung him from the ceiling by his arms for swearing.
As a teenager, the young Erdoğan sold lemonade and sesame buns to earn extra cash. He attended an Islamic school before obtaining a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University - and playing professional football.
During the 1970s-1980s, he became involved in politics become a member of Necmettin Erbakan’s Welfare Party and was also active in Islamist circles.
On March 27th, 1994, Erdoğan was elected Mayor of Metropolitan İstanbul, and during his time in office he embarked on many significant infrastructure projects. Hundreds of kilometres of new pipes were laid to supply clean water and modern recycling facilities were built. To alleviate traffic congestion and transportation deadlock, more than 50 bridges, passageways and freeways were constructed.
On December 12, 1997, he read a poem at a public gathering in Siirt including the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.” Although Erdoğan said the poem had been approved by the education ministry to be published in textbooks, it appears this was not the original version. Deemed an incitement to violence and religious or racial hatred, he was arrested and spent four months in prison.
After his imprisonment he established the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) on August 14, 2001, a party rooted in conservative Islam, which has shown a fierce determination to clip the military’s wings.
Taking over the Prime Minister’s office on March 15, 2003, Erdoğan again showed a determination to improve the infrastructure, constructing dams, residential units, schools, roads, hospitals and power plants. He also removed six zeros from the Turkish currency, giving back the Turkish Lira its creditability, and a considerable increase in the national income per capita was achieved.
To his supporters he was the man who brought Turkey years of economic growth, but to his critics he was an autocratic leader intolerant of dissent who harshly silenced anyone who opposed him.
He was elected President on August 10, 2014 and his biggest battle with the military came in attempted coup in 2016, which claimed at least 240 lives and, according to his officials, also came close to killing Erdoğan, who had been staying at the Aegean holiday resort of Marmaris.
In less than 12 hours he was back firmly in control, having outmanoeuvred the plotters. He appeared on national TV and rallied supporters in Istanbul, declaring he was the “chief commander”. But the strain on the president was clear when he sobbed openly while giving a speech at the funeral of a close friend, shot with his son by mutinous soldiers.
He has denied wanting to impose Islamic values, saying he is committed to secularism, but he says he supports Turks’ right to express their religion more openly.
In October 2013 Turkey lifted rules banning women from wearing headscarves in the country’s state institutions - with the exception of the judiciary, military and police - ending a decades-old restriction.
Erdoğan’s has in the past attempted to criminalise adultery, introducing “alcohol-free zones”. He opposes any kind of birth control, extols motherhood and criticises feminism.
Will secularism be wiped away with the President’s new powers? In a closed-door briefing to U.S. lawmakers last January, Jordan’s King Abdullah II said that Erdoğan “believes in a radical Islamic solution to the problems in the region” - and he says it is a “fact that terrorists are going to Europe as part of Turkish policy.”
It may just be fear-mongering, but there is no doubt that Erdoğan is a deeply religious man in a country where the elites are staunchly secular. It would not be a surprise if his country were to be run with religion at the forefront.
The New Ottoman Empire?
It seems unlikely that Turkey will become religiously intolerant in the manner of Saudi Arabia, Iran or indeed the Taliban or ISIS. Erdoğan’s prime motivation may be nationalistic rather than theological.
Less than a century ago, the Ottoman Empire still existed, and at its height was the one of the largest and longest lasting Empires in history. It was an empire inspired and sustained by Islam, and Islamic institutions. It covered much of North Africa, Arabia, the Balkans and Europe, reaching the gates of Vienna.
According to Wikipedia, as President, Erdoğan has overseen a revival of Ottoman tradition, greeting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with an Ottoman-style ceremony in the new presidential palace, with guards dressed in costumes representing founders of 16 Great Turkish Empires in history.
While serving as the Prime Minister of Turkey, Erdoğan’s AKP made references to the Ottoman era during election campaigns, such as calling their supporters ‘grandsons of Ottomans’ (Osmanlı torunu). This proved controversial, since it was perceived to be an open attack against the republican nature of modern Turkey founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Many critics have thus accused Erdoğan of wanting to become an Ottoman sultan and abandon the secular and democratic credentials of the Republic.
Jared Malsin of Time Magazine elaborated on the Ottoman theme: “Turkey’s leader represents a throwback: an elected autocrat… The Presidential mansion completed in 2014 that Erdoğan calls home has more than 1,000 rooms. The decor, heavy on red carpets, marble and chandeliers, suggests a return to Ottoman glory.”
Lucinda Smith also sees Ottoman links. “Erdoğan’s idea is to look first at its natural periphery, the countries of the old Ottoman Empire, with which it shares cultural and often religious links.
“Go to Macedonia or northern Iraq today - both countries once ruled from Istanbul - and you will find shopping malls full of Turkish brands and families gripped by the latest Turkish soap operas. Culture and business have been paving the way for politics for years.”
While the west wonders, nervously, where Erdoğan is taking Turkey, other observers look on with a sense of pride and hope. Writing for The Sydney Morning Herald, Kuranda Seyit offers an alternative view:
“Turkey has the potential to become the main power both militarily and economically in the Middle East and to become a quasi-sheriff state, policing much of the issues in the volatile region.
“Erdoğan has carved his own name indelibly into Turkish history having successfully manipulated his party’s political supremacy over four elections and his personal ascendancy as the president.
“One could argue he is the greatest leader the nation has known since Ataturk. He’s firmly established economic successes for the nation, bringing a new found affluence that most Turks have never tasted.
“… A new US-style presidential system in Turkey could mark the end of an era of instability marked by military coups and political turmoil. … Transition into a representative republic could see Turkey become the beacon of hope for the rest of the Muslim world. If Turkey follows a similar path to that of Indonesia it could become a superpower by 2030.
“… For Turkey as a nation, a strong and stable president will allow the economy to grow and the society to prosper. Without Erdoğan, Turkey will be manipulated by foreign powers and pushed back into a position of mediocracy, becoming the limp-fi sh of the region.
“For the Muslim world, a strong Erdoğan-led Turkish state, which is proud of its Islamic roots and identity, will bring some glimmer of optimism for millions of Muslims who have lost hope in their own political leaders.”
East or West?
Turkey is a huge country of contrasts standing between Europe and Asia, and bridging the Black Sea and Mediterranean. To the west are the wealthy, liberal European nations. Across the Black Sea is the might of Russia. To the south are the violent failed states of Syria and Iraq. To the East is the Shia stronghold of Iran.
It feels like the crossroads of the world. Each of its borders leads to a different ideology, religion and culture.
The world’s superpowers all want their influence felt in Turkey. Few places can be as strategically important. To allow Turkey to fall into the arms of Russia or the Islamic fundamentalists would be disastrous, but does this mean we have to tolerate breaches of human rights and the jailing (or worse) of dissidents?
The west fear that Erdoğan will become Putin’s puppet, and Erdoğan knows that he cannot alienate Russia again. But the move to wrest power from the prime minister, the judicary and the military suggests that the President has ambitions to make Turkey a power in his own image - a return to the spirit of the days of its old empire. Erdoğan has no plans to be anyone’s puppet, and the world
should be ready for bold new force on the soil of a very old dynasty.