Dealing With Turkey: Taking the Long View
By Svante E. Cornell
October 31, 2017
The U.S.-Turkish relationship has recently become so bad that analysts in both countries now wonder if it is beyond repair. There are good grounds for the worsening of this relationship, not least President Tayyip Erdoḡan’s increasingly blatant anti-Americanism. But going forward, American leaders must not make the mistake of equating Turkey with Erdoḡan. They must devise a policy that maintains a long-term view of Turkey as an American ally.
Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have been deteriorating since at least 2013. Much of the blame goes to the Turkish strongman. Under Tayyip Erdoḡan’s leadership, Turkey developed an increasingly Islamist and authoritarian direction. Erdoḡan’s foreign policy became adventurist, increasingly and at odds with American interests after the Arab uprisings in 2011. To gain influence, his government began supporting Islamist groups ranging from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to jihadi groups in Syria. Not staying at that, Erdoḡan developed increasingly anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric, often obliquely and sometimes directly blaming some combination of Jews and America for Turkey’s problems.
These tendencies worsened with the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoḡan. The United States was slow to condemn the coup, which Erdoḡan blames on Pennsylvania-based preacher Fethullah Gülen. There is indeed good reason to think that supporters of Gülen in the Turkish military were implicated in the coup. Erdoḡan’s conspiratorial worldview cannot countenance that a network led from Pennsylvania could operate without guidance from American authorities – or that American prosecutors can hold an Erdoḡan acolyte, Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, without guidance from the “deep state.”
Worse, Erdoḡan appears to think the Trump administration could just hand these individuals over by bureaucratic fiat. Indeed, Erdoḡan seems to think that lashing out against America makes it more likely that he gets his way.
In fact, he has good reason for this. During Barack Obama’s tenure, the U.S. largely tolerated such misbehavior. For eight years, Washington responded with appeasement to Turkish provocations – such as Erdoḡan’s threat to expel the American ambassador, or his repeated accusations that America orchestrated the 2013 protests against him. Summing up the mood in Ankara, a key advisor to President Erdoḡan was once overheard telling his president that “Americans are weak, if we push hard they will back off.”
However, Erdoḡan miscalculated the changes in Washington since the Trump Administration took over. Apparently, Washington’s patience with such abuse had run out, as had its appetite for appeasement. Going forward, it is tempting to focus on Erdoḡan’s appalling policies, and conclude that Turkey can no longer be a U.S. ally. Calls to kick Turkey out of NATO or leaving the base at Incirlik are growing. However, the question is: would such policies serve U.S. interests or make Turkey a more pliable partner?
Erdoḡan wants to be equated with Turkey, but America should not fall into that trap. Erdoḡan’s rule is increasingly authoritarian precisely because he is no longer able to win elections fair and square. At least half of the population vehemently opposes him. As Erdoḡan insists on controlling all major issues personally, the economy is stagnating. While Erdoḡan appears unassailable, his opponents are sensing weakness.
Erdoḡan’s Justice and Development Party, having been reduced to no purpose except expressing its love for the leader, is in deep disarray. A recent internal poll shows the party at around 35 percent of the vote, a far cry from the 49 percent it received in 2015. This summer, main opposition leader Kemal Kiliçdaroglu attracted widespread support when he walked the 300 miles from Ankara to Istanbul to protest Erdoḡan’s judicial abuses. Meanwhile, a new political movement led by former Interior Minister Meral Ak?ener has broken away from the sclerotic Nationalist Action Party. If it succeeds in adopting a center-right identity, it could threaten Erdoḡan’s core voter base.
The point is that Erdoḡan’s rule is not forever, and Washington should not fall into the trap of equating the country with its leader. American policymakers must focus on the long-term: while responding to Erdoḡan, they must consider policies that could help restore the U.S.-Turkish relationship in the future.
The Trump administration did the right thing by indicating to Erdoḡan that his behavior has consequences. But America needs a coherent strategy in Turkey, including increasing America’s leverage by reducing its dependence on Turkey. This means keeping the U.S. presence at the Incirlik base, but increasing redundancy by boosting cooperation with partners from Jordan to Georgia. Second, American officials must counter Erdoḡan’s anti-American propaganda. Today, a vast majority of Turks are hostile to the U.S. This was not always the case, and need not be in the future if proper public diplomacy efforts are undertaken.
America must also carefully review its Syria policy. In the short term, support for Kurdish forces there may make sense – especially since Erdoḡan’s Turkey has hardly behaved like an ally there. However, in the long term, U.S. support for the fragmented Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq may backfire. It will alienate not just Erdoḡan’s supporters, but all Turks, who rightly point out that some Syrian Kurds supported by America are under the effective control of anti-Turkish terrorist groups. America will need to balance these interests carefully.
Turkey is not yet lost. American officials must take steps to rekindle respect for the U.S. in Ankara. However, they must also work toward the long-term goal of rebuilding, after Erdoḡan, the U.S.-Turkish alliance.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Policy Advisor the Gemunder Center at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America with a focus on Turkey and the Caucasus. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.
Turkey has a unique position in the Muslim world as a country that held the Caliphate for several hundred years but then turned into a secular republic. Over the past ninety years, Islam has coexisted uneasily with the Turkish state, which has tried both to co-opt and suppress a powerful political Islamic movement that began gathering force in the 1960s. Turkey is unique in the fact that a movement rooted in political Islam managed not only to come to power in democratic elections, but proved able to stay in power and continue to win elections for over a decade. Whereas this aspect of the Turkish experience is widely lauded by Western observers, there is nevertheless another side to the coin. As the power of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) grew, they also turned increasingly authoritarian and Islamist. Turkey’s experience is indicative of the broader nature of “moderate” political Islam, and its relationship with democracy; it suggests that “moderate Islamism” has embraced the mechanics of electoral democracy but not its fundamental values.
Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, July 19, 2016
Svante E. Cornell, "A botched coup and Turkey’s descent into madness"
A lot remains unclear regarding the attempted coup that shook Turkey. But it is possible to draw some preliminary conclusions about its background and implications.
The coup was not planned and implemented within the chain of command. The Chief of General Staff and the heads of the crucial First Army and Special Forces remained loyal to the government. This, not people on the street, was the key reason the coup failed. Not least, it allowed President Erdogan to slip out of Marmaris before being caught and to get to Istanbul.
The coup appears to have been hastily put together and poorly implemented. The failure to seize or liquidate the president, cabinet, and vital communication infrastructure made it possible for Erdogan to regain the initiative. This suggests that the plotters’ hands were forced, and that the coup was launched prematurely. There are suggestions that a list was leaked before the coup of officers scheduled for discharge and arrest, which could have precipitated the coup, explaining the lack of proper preparation.
The most vexing question concerns the exact identity of the coup plotters. Who were the architects behind what appears on the surface to be a faceless, even leaderless coup? The Turkish government is pointing fingers at the Fethullah Gülen movement – something that may seem counter-intuitive, because it was precisely Erodgan’s confrontation with them two years ago that led him to let the military back in from the cold and rebuild for himself a ruling coalition much more right-wing nationalist in nature, united by the struggle against the Kurds.
But that said, it has long been assumed that Gülenist cliques were present in the military at mid-career ranks. But no one believes that Gülenist officers had risen to the ranks of three or four star generals. Thus, while it is very likely that Gülenist officers were involved, it is equally obvious that they could not have carried this out on their own. The more senior generals apparently involved do not seem to have any Gülenist affiliations.
Hence, the coup may have been carried out by an unholy alliance between a faction of old-school Kemalist and Gülenist officers. If this is the case, it would mean that while Erdogan allied with the top military brass against the Gülenists, another military fraction allied with the Gülenists against Erdogan.
This is what Turkey has come to: its politics in the past few years can best be understood as a struggle for power between two Islamic sects. In the process, Turkey’s military appears now to have at least three separate fractions and to be much more politicized and divided than has been assumed.
A further important aspect of the coup was President Erdogan’s response: he mobilised his supporters through the use of Islamic rhetoric that would have been unthinkable even five years ago. Mosques were ordered by the State religious directorate, which Erdogan has built up into a behemoth, to broadcast calls for prayer all through the night and to call regime supporters out on the streets. Often, the call appears to have been framed as “Jihad”.
And indeed, those who came out to oppose the coup almost exclusively looked like Islamist activists singing Islamist chants. It is already apparent that President Erdogan has concluded that Islamist mobilisation was what saved him, hence the remaining inhibitions against further Islamisation of Turkey will dissipate. Erdogan’s Turkey is likely to more openly deploy Islamist rhetoric and policies.
The Gülen fraternity’s alleged responsibility for the coup is already being used as pretext for a full-scale purge of state institutions. Unlike previous occasions, the coup gives Erdogan the opportunity to arrest and jail opponents by the thousands. It is already clear that repression will spread beyond Gülenists: entire lists of scholars, journalists and officials to be jailed have already been leaked. Whatever is left of Turkish democracy is about to be neutralised, and if Erdogan completes this repressive purge, it goes without saying that Turkey can no longer be called a democracy.
The failed coup will have important foreign policy implications. Erdogan and his entourage have long believed the Gülen fraternity to be following Washington’s orders, and senior government officials have already suggested that the U.S. was behind the coup. Erdogan appears to be making extradition of Gülen a litmus test of the U.S.-Turkish alliance, a demand that will likely not be granted, given the lack of any kind of concrete evidence. In fact, the involvement of Gülenist officers does not necessary implicate the ailing preacher himself in the coup.
In any case, the U.S.-Turkish relationships has been put at risk, and Secretary John Kerry’s threat of consequences for Turkey’s NATO membership has shown that perhaps Washington is tiring of Erdogan’s antics. The most likely immediate point of contention will be the Incirlik military base, which the U.S. uses to hit ISIS targets in Syria.
Similarly, Turkey-EU relations will be impacted, most immediately because it is hard to imagine how the EU will now go ahead with visa liberalisation. In turn, that likely puts the cynical migration deal between Brussels and Ankara to death. If Turkey reinstates the death penalty, which is quite plausible, Turkish-EU relations are likely to deteriorate even further.
In conclusion, it is important to see the coup attempt as an indication of the deeper decay of the Turkish state under Erdogan’s rule. As Erdogan has sought to concentrate power in his own hands, the exercise of power has become increasingly informal, all checks and balances removed, and all institutions including his own political party increasingly ineffectual. This made the coup possible in the first place, and future coups can be avoided only if Turkey develops strong, accountable democratic institutions.
But instead, under Erdogan’s personal rule, Turkey’s destabilisation is likely to continue. Thus, European leaders now need to see what has been obvious for some time: rather than an ally with which to handle regional problems, Turkey will itself increasingly be the problem.
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a Joint Center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.
March 29, 2016
NATO Must Demand More From Turkey
By Halil M. Karaveli
Turkey has always been an awkward NATO member. Since it joined in 1952, the country has rarely lived up to official alliance standards of democracy and human rights. During most of this time, Turkey has been ruled by authoritarian governments. Even when elected governments were in power, Turkey was at best an illiberal “democracy” as right-wing authoritarianism and rigid nationalism were always influential. In that sense, there is nothing that is new with Turkey’s authoritarian “drift” today.
Turkey with the Brakes Off: What Does Erdogan's Victory Mean?
Wednesday, November 11, 2015, from 5 to 7 p.m.
(reception at 5 p.m., followed by main program at 5:30)
Turkey's ruling AKP restored its majority in parliament on Nov 1. But the election was held after President Erdogan refused to accept the June 7 election's results, sabotaged efforts to form a coalition government, relaunched war in the country’s southeast -– and after a massive suicide bombing in Ankara.
Will this election stabilize Turkey? What does this election mean for Turkey's regional posture, and what kind of partner will it be for the U.S.?
Speakers at this forum will draw from Turkey Transformed, a recently published study in which CACI scholars partnered with the Bipartisan Policy Center to investigate Turkey's transformation under Erdogan.
Eric S. Edelman
Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
Svante E. Cornell
Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Director of Foreign Policy, Bipartisan Policy Center
Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
John Hannah (TBC)
Senior Advisor, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies
Moderator: Mamuka Tsereteli, Research Director, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
Rome Building, Room 806
SAIS - Johns Hopkins University
1717 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036