A scenario President Harry S. Truman once feared — the fall of Turkey to tyranny and outside coercion — seems near. The country’s strongman, President Recip Tayyip Erdogan, and his ruling AK Party have dismantled the republic’s free institutions in the run-up to the watershed Turkish referendum on April 16.
Turkey is far along in a dramatic transformation that has uncoupled it from its modern strategic and political moorings in the West. Since the failed July 15 military coup, President Erdogan has ruled under emergency law and shredded the remaining checks on his power. The judiciary, academia, independent media, the police and the military have all been purged and restocked with Mr. Erdogan loyalists. Dissent is being criminalized, with many either in jail or fearing for their lives — or at least their livelihoods — if they cross the president. This month, Turks will decide on whether to cement Erdogan’s imperial presidency in a new constitution.
For years, Western nations have soft-pedalled Erdogan’s Islamist nationalism and thuggish behavior in the hopes that NATO’s long-time ally will eventually come to its senses. Turkey, as it was in Truman’s time, is in a hazardous strategic predicament. Iran and Russia, the Turks’ centuries-old rivals, have exploited the ongoing wars and meltdown of the state-based order across the Greater Levant to enlarge their positions and influence. Having been rapidly encircled, Turkey, Western governments hoped, would reprise its Cold War role as a strategic bulwark.
But Mr. Erdogan has had other ideas. To maximize his power at home, he has been tearing up Turkey’s relations with the West and courting with Iran, jihadist forces, even the Kremlin — a dangerous game. Instead of strengthening Turkey, he is making it weaker.
One of the most significant trends in Middle East politics has been the decomposition of large, religiously and ethnically variegated countries into smaller, more homogenous polities, as people demand more say in their own governance. Well-formed republics can decentralize and manage this peacefully. Authoritarian states like Turkey now must commit enormous sums to internal repression — or they violently crack up.
Erdogan’s religious nationalism has exacerbated the country’s many fault lines — between civil democrats and caliphate revivalists, among rival religious brotherhoods, between Alevi and Sunni, and above all, between Turks and Kurds.
After abandoning an earlier conciliatory policy toward the Kurds that had shown some promise, the president, again for personal political gain, plunged his country into a militarily unwinnable war with Kurdish militants that has worsened. The army’s heavy-handed tactics have decimated Kurdish cities and towns, displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes. Radical Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) factions have recruited thousands of supporters as a result, while Mr. Erdogan has jailed the very Kurdish civilian leaders (HDP) needed to make peace. Islamic State is trying to exploit these divides. Russia and Iran could, too. Mr. Erdogan has hardwired Turkey for debilitating conflict and, potentially, jeopardized its national integrity.
With Turkey’s security and economy in a downward spiral, Erdogan’s reach for an imperial presidency may yet be derailed. But don’t count on it.
Given the real political entropy in Turkey in which people are fearing for their lives and livelihoods, the short-term advantage will go to the dominant AKP faction, whose patronage networks are flush with money — thanks to its Arab Gulf patrons. More domestic chaos in coming months may even give Erdogan’s AKP a boost rather than hurt it. In any case, Mr. Erdogan will not permit himself to lose.
Regardless of what happens, the U.S.-Turkey alliance is becoming a fiction from a strategic point of view, and U.S. policymakers need to plan and act accordingly. Indulging Mr. Erdogan will only hasten Turkey’s degradation.
Washington’s task now is to build a new security architecture in the region — one that doesn’t depend on Mr. Erdogan — to cope with the ongoing implosion of order. Assuming Europe is roused from its slumber, balancing Russian power and dealing with Turkish frailty is prudent and points toward building up NATO positions in Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean.
The United States also has alternative positions to reinforce in the Middle East, particularly among the Kurds in Northeastern Iraq and in Eastern Syria, both stalwarts in the anti-ISIS fight. In this, Washington and Ankara are headed for a showdown in the lead-up to the battle over Raqqa, ISIS’ capital in Syria. The United States should double down on its partnership with the Kurds in Eastern Syria. True, this may draw Erdogan’s ire and obstructionism, but it underscores the need for independent U.S. access to Iraqi Kurdistan and Syrian Kurdistan via Iraq and Jordan.
All the same, the United States must not give up on Turkey. As it was in Truman’s time, Turkey’s political character and stability is vital to the pursuit of order in the Middle East. For this reason, the United States must be careful not to treat Kurds as merely mercenaries. The Kurds don’t want to be a part of somebody else’s empire, and strategically-wise Turks are fully aware the advance of enlightened Kurdish self-rule along Turkey’s southern border is in their interest. In addition to bolstering them militarily, the United States needs a follow-through plan for building the Kurds’ capacity for self-government. If America does not do this, Iran’s empire-builders or Russia will, with profoundly detrimental implications for Turkish security.
Millions of Turks and Kurds want the security and freedom that only republican government can provide. As the United States adopts “tough love” toward President Erdogan’s Turkey, it needs to align with these civil democratic forces and make clear the republic’s revival is essential.
• Eric Brown is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute. He directs research and analysis projects on Asian and Middle Eastern affairs, international security and development, alternative geopolitical futures and strategy.
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