European Affairs

Further emboldened by the outpouring of popular support in the aftermath of the failed coup on July 15 which he described as a ‘gift from God’, Erdogan spearheads a people’s revolution. Opposition forces fear he intends to annul the secularist pro-Western revolution of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of Republican Turkey. However, the early phases of both Ataturk and Erdogan have authoritarianism in common. Observers can no longer offer analysis on Turkey without factoring in Erdogan’s personal ambitions. The nation is heading towards one-man rule, having rapidly moved away from the league of emerging democracies.

From the Western perspective, post-World War II Turkey is largely gone. In old Turkey, no matter the turbulence of domestic and international affairs, even under military rule after occasional coups, Ankara was usually attentive and receptive to what the major Western nations and institutions such as NATO, the Council of Europe and OSCE had to say. The new Turkey, however, no less nationalist but certainly less guarded, has adopted a more openly critical and argumentative posture vis-à-vis the West.

Take Ankara’s long-held policy of integration with Europe. Ironically, Erdogan who helped lay the foundation of ongoing accession talks with the European Union a decade ago as prime minister is now undermining it. In response to Turkey’s authoritarian trajectory, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution on November 24th calling on the European Commission and the member states, “to initiate a temporary freeze of the ongoing accession negotiations with Turkey.” According to the negotiating framework, in the case of a serious and persistent breach in Turkey of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law, the Commission will recommend the suspension of negotiations and propose the conditions for eventual resumption.

With more than 125,000 thousand ousted from government jobs due to suspected ties with the opposition Hizmet (Gulen) movement, nearly 36,000 jailed amidst credible allegations of torture, independent media almost completely shut down and 145 journalists in prison, the Turkish government was condemned by the European for ‘disproportionate repressive measures’ by using state-of- emergency powers in the wake of the abortive putsch. Erdogan’s response: Yelling Europe ‘know your limits’ and threatening the Union with a Syrian refugee influx by opening borders if visa free travel deal for Turkish citizens is not granted.

Those who had hoped that Turkey would stand between Middle East and Western Europe as a stable buffer zone are now painfully watching its Middle Easternization in various ways: Loss of appetite for democracy and rule of law, pumped-up anti-Western populism, systematic corruption, economic mismanagement, return of torture, and continued internal bleeding from ethnic, religious and ideological conflicts fueled by oppressive practices. Foreign policy has been a frequent tool for Erdogan’s regime to distract the public from mounting domestic problems, and to project a false sense of power via military interventions in the immediate neighborhood and grandiose rhetoric.

Turkey’s foreign policy troubles in the Middle East started after the abandonment of sectarian-blind attitude which for a long time marked relations with pre-war Syria and post-invasion Iraq. Similar to his ambition to become the first executive president of Turkey, Erdogan sees Turkey and himself fit for leadership of the Sunni world. Confrontational approaches with Egypt, Syria and Iraq are generated by such aspirations. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s dearest partner in the Middle East is the Muslim Brotherhood, a widespread Sunni religious and political movement. Ankara’s anti-Mubarak, anti-Sisi and anti-Assad policies are indicative of his alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey harbors Muslim Brotherhood leadership which the Egyptian military regime has declared terrorist.

Some of the radical Sunni groups such as the Jabhat Al-Nusra Front, who fight against the Assad regime and the Kurds, are among the closest co-operatives of Ankara in Syria. The only exception are the Kurds, who Ankara has positioned itself against due to fear of Kurdish autonomy or self-determination in Turkey and the immediate neighborhood. That complicates coalition building against ISIL, since the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria is one of the most effective forces on the ground against the Islamist terrorists. Ankara maintains that the PYD is aligned with the PKK, a militant group that fights for Kurdish political rights in Turkey, and has been designated terrorist by Turkey and NATO. Turkish military operations aim both at ISIL and PYD, focusing more on the latter.

Absent a comprehensive solution of the decades old Kurdish question, Ankara will continue to complicate the situation in Syria. However, due to domestic political reasons and strategic concerns, Erdogan recently aligned himself with ultra-nationalists who have abandoned the peace process with the Kurds and have adopted an extremely hawkish line. Top Kurdish political leaders, such as Turkey’s third largest party HDP’s chairman Selahattin Demirtas, have beenjailed. Dissenting Kurdish voices in media and civil society are being silenced one by one while Kurdish towns are demolished during anti-terror operations. Erdogan capitalizes on U.S. dependency on critical Turkish military bases and the EU worries about a renewed refugee flow from the East to contain Western pressure on Ankara’s anti-Kurdish and other political crackdowns.

Relatively muted official Western reaction to Ankara’s reckless behavior has boosted Erdogan’s self-confidence to the point where he has publicly challenged the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which determined most of modern Turkey’s geographical borders.

Alarm bells went off in Greece when Erdogan followed his Lausanne Treaty remarks by stating that Turkey ”should not disregard its kinsmen in Western Thrace.” Western Thrace is Greek territory abutting Turkey in the north Aegean area where a minority population of ethnic Turks live. The Greek foreign ministry quickly responded: “Thrace is Greek, democratic and European. Any other thought is unthinkable and dangerous.”

Erdogan also mentioned Cyprus (historically part of the Ottoman empire), where the hopes of resolving the decades old conflict in Eastern Mediterranean has spurred 18 months of talks sponsored by UN. One of Ankara’s incentives is to finally normalize relations with Israel after six years of diplomatic tension to make room for Israeli natural gas exports to Turkey via Cypriot waters. Resolution of the Cyprus issue, however, will be necessary before Nicosia consents to a pipeline crossing through its Exclusive Economic Zone

In Iraq, oil rich Mosul and Kirkuk are also up for grabs. Ankara injected itself in coalition operations to retake Mosul from ISIL, despite objections from regional players. Turkish insistence on using the Bashiqa military base near Mosul has seriously raised tensions between Baghdad and Ankara. For the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Ankara is making a militarized push to reclaim rights and privileges in formerly Turkish-governed territories in the Middle East. The high stakes game stirs up historic rivalries and grievances, especially with Iran.

Within this context, the new Turkey-Russia dynamic assumes even greater importance. Shortly before the July 15 failed coup attempt, Erdogan restored ties with Moscow which were strained due to disagreements over Syria and the downing of an intruding Russian warplane. Like Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys playing hardball. Erdogan had to back off in the face of Russian economic sanctions, and a global propaganda campaign highlighting Ankara’s alleged cooperation with extremist fighters in Syria and tilt towards the Kurds. Turkey might incur several costs from a rapprochement with the top enabler of the Assad regime and Iran, but Erdogan reaps benefits from cozying up with Russia as well. He capitalizes on the Russian card to keep NATO and the West at bay when it comes to criticism of human rights and democracy. Whenever the West sees a geo-strategically important Turkey flirting with Russia, it offers new incentives to ensure that Ankara is not alienated further. Erdogan’s expression of intent to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization perfectly serves that purpose. In fact, playing Russia against the West had been a frequent Ottoman survival and negotiation tactic which helped buy time before the collapse of empire. Nevertheless, real threats posed to Turkey by an ambitious and historical rival, Russia, especially when they are turning the pro-Assad portion of Syria and Eastern Mediterranean into a military base, might turn out to be too dangerous for Ankara.

Erdogan's increasingly erratic behavior on foreign and domestic policy will continue to have implications for the U.S. Initial messages of goodwill between Erdogan and president-elect Donald Trump could be misleading, given the fundamental flaws in U.S.-Turkish relations: Turkey’s regime change policy in Syria, uncoordinated military activities, controversial engagements with anti-Assad extremists, clash with America’s friends in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. Erdogan’s obsession with the extradition of the alleged mastermind of the failed coup, who resides in the US, his challenge to the rule of law and unabated authoritarian trends are not going to make things easier for the new White House team. On the other hand, as business oriented pragmatists with thin skins, Trump and Erdogan might personally enjoy a few things in common, until there is a clash of interests or egos. If Trump sets the bar high, as did President Obama, who initially declared a “model partnership” with Turkey, he might end up having to content himself with a purely transactional relationship.

Ali H. Aslan is a Turkish journalist based in Washington, DC and former Washington Correspondent for Zaman.

Perspectives is a periodic feature of European Affairs, reflecting the opinion of members of The European Institute on timely issues.