Turkey: Back to the 20th Century?

by Eldar Mamedov

When Turkey suffered the deadliest terror attack in its history on October 10 in Ankara, the country’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was quick to blame it on a wholly implausible “terror cocktail” of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), the regime of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and the PKK and its Syrian arm PYD. But a very different kind of “cocktail” proved to have devastating effects on the outcome of the snap elections on November 1.

This pro-government “cocktail” consisted of pro-AKP (ruling Justice and Development Party) mobs ransacking offices of the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democracy Party), the government’s seizure of critical media outlets such as the Koza-Ipek group, the disproportionate coverage given by TV stations to the AKP to the detriment of other parties (including a de facto ban on the HDP, and an overall climate of jingoistic intolerance unleashed by AKP supporters. The elections thus fell far short of being fair. But this “cocktail” handed the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan the victory he sought, albeit short of the constitutional majority needed to switch to a presidential system, his long-time goal.

In terms of the West’s relations with Turkey, early signs point to a return to a 20th-century pattern. Back then the West turned a blind eye to Turkey´s appalling human rights record as long as Ankara played the role of guardian of NATO’s southern borders against the Soviet threat. These days, Turkey’s geo-strategic importance is enhanced by the effects of the ongoing disintegration of the Middle East, which includes the civil war in Syria, the IS threat, and the flows of refugees to Europe these crises have spawned. For these reasons, as a senior member of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) has privately remarked, Turkey’s importance now is even higher than during the Cold War. This raises concerns that human rights and democracy issues will, again, be relegated to the back burner.

The EU’s Gambit

Indeed, in an unprecedented move, the EU decided to postpone the publication of what was expected to be a highly critical report on Turkey’s EU membership talks until after the Turkish elections. Merkel visited Turkey before the elections to seek Erdogan’s help in stemming the flow of the refugees to Europe. She also deliberately muted any criticisms of human rights abuses. Now that the AKP has won decisively, this realpolitik approach could be consolidated even further at the expense of the EU principles. The model here might be Egypt, where the EU is busy re-building relations with the regime of al-Sisi, whose human rights abuses far exceed Turkey’s.

The EU itself is partly to blame for such an unappealing trade-off. Had it been strategically wiser beginning in 2005 when Turkey started membership negotiations, the EU might today be dealing with a vastly different, more “European” Turkey. A harmful debate on Turkey’s “Europeanness,” spearheaded by such leaders as France´s conservative former president Nicolas Sarkozy and an inability to solve the Cyprus problem effectively froze membership negotiations. This, in turn, has cost Brussels the leverage it once had over Ankara’s domestic policies.

This historical error should not be compounded now by looking the other way when it comes to worrying developments in Turkey. Precisely because Turkey is so important to the West, its policy choices can either advance or harm Western interests. Nowhere is this more clearly the case than Syria.

Approaching Syria

Turkey’s primary goal in Syria is to prevent the Kurdish region of Rojava from becoming a model of Kurdish self-rule and a magnet for Turkey’s own restive Kurdish population. As the party that initiated the Kurdish peace process in Turkey, the AKP was uniquely positioned to reinforce the trust of the Kurds by cracking down on IS while also cultivating the PYD Kurds in Syria—just as it did with Barzani’s Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The difference, of course, is that PYD, unlike Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party, is close to the PKK. But then Erdogan himself negotiated with the PKK for almost three years. Instead, Erdogan’s power drive has pushed him to embrace hawkish Turkish nationalism. He has adopted the view, held by part of the security apparatus, that the PKK/PYD is the biggest threat to Turkey and that IS can be a useful counterforce. The PYD, however, also happens to be the West´s best ally in fighting IS. Erdogan’s vow to “liquidate” all PKK fighters has predictably led to the PKK announcing the end of its truce with Turkey. This can only complicate the fight against IS, which is the West’s main priority, and further polarize and destabilize Turkey.

Another key Turkish goal is the removal of President Assad from power in Damascus, which has led Ankara to support hard-line Islamist groups battling the Syrian government. Given that Russia and Iran are stepping up their support for Assad, this raises the risks of a Turkish-Russian or Turkish-Iranian collision in Syria. A recent incident involving Russian air jets violating Turkey’s air space could be just a prelude to further conflict. Turkey as a NATO member is entitled to protection by its allies. But one of NATO’s implicit goals is to discipline its members from taking unilateral steps that would trigger a conflict with a third party. NATO should be careful not to be dragged by Turkey into the Syrian conflict on the side of the hard-line Islamist groups Ankara supports. NATO should also resist those who relish a new era of confrontation with Russia as a means of reasserting the fading relevance of the alliance.

Instead of acquiescing to Turkey’s more objectionable policies, the United States and EU should put a lot more pressure on Ankara (as well as the PKK) to restart a Kurdish peace process, conduct a thorough investigation of the Suruc and Ankara bombings, and hold the responsible parties accountable. Ankara must also rein in such extremist organizations as Osmanli Ocaklari who were behind the mob attacks on the HDP and the secularist newspaper Hurriyet. Turkey must also abandon maximalist and unrealistic goals in Syria that only serve to prolong the bloodshed in that country. After all, if the West needs Turkey’s cooperation, then Turkey needs stability in the country and its neighborhood even more. Otherwise, the AKP will jeopardize its singular achievements in raising Turkey’s economic and social standards.

Photo: Ahmet Davutoglu (via Flickr)

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.


One Comment

  1. Mr Mamedov’s thesis is interesting. However, since its failed effort to facilitate the overthrow of Assad, Turkey may seem entering an era reminiscent of 20th century, but the reality is we are in the 21st century with social and political characteristics that never existed even thirty years ago. Putin’s Russia, the internet and social media come to mind. Turkey could never have decimated the people of the Dersim province with impunity, killing over 50,000 – today – as they did in the late 1930s, with gassing and death marches ending in mass murder, like their genocide of the Armenians only twenty years earlier.

    In the 20th century, Turkish diplomacy was cautious and generally successful. While somewhat conservative, but with Byzantine intrigue, it did take advantage of prevailing politics to further its perceived interests. This included land swaps with Iran, the engineered acquisition of the Sanjak of Alexandretta (Hatay) just before WWII, NATO membership after WWII, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, etc. Even in the realm of neo-con and liberal-interventionists, Turkey remained rather cautious although it engaged in active support of Balkan Muslims to Chechens to Uyghurs and others in between after the post-Soviet era.

    As Erdogan/Davutoglu/AKP gained power (economic, as it provided goods and services where others wouldn’t venture) a once alert Turkish FP turned into one characterized by poor assumptions and historical determinism cautiously call neo-Ottomanism. Turkey is unravelling. From a failed zero problems with its neighbors policy to misreading the “Arab Spring” and having not taken into account chaos in regional events, is uncharacteristic of 20th century Turkey. Turkey might be licking its wounds today, but it ventured into uncharted seas, appearing to have survived, but the jury is still out. Turkish growth has stagnated as its friends and markets disappeared from Libya to Egypt to Syria and was exacerbated by the Mavi Marmara adventure. The Russian South Stream gas pipeline almost morphed into a Turkish Stream gas pipeline, but that effort was aborted early on.

    Only a month ago, days after Russian jet(s) veered into Turkish airspace, Turkish military helicopters violated Armenian airspace twice. Turkey claimed it was an accident due to “bad weather”. It was not bad weather but was a tit-for-tat reaction to Russian jets in Turkish airspace. Was Turkey under orders from NATO to find bad weather? Whatever the excuse, this is unlike 20th century Turkey. Turkish ISIL jihadists are returning to Turkey after their bases were pounded by Russian jets. This will have its own dynamic that has not existed in Turkey since the early 1920s when Kemal Ataturk eliminated a whole class of Muslim clergy deemed not nationalist enough. In the 21st century there will be regional powers pressuring Turkey the likes of which it has not seen. These include: Iran, Israel, Putin’s Russia, Iraqi Kurdistan, with many supporting a spectrum ranging from Kurdish insurgency to Kurdish autonomy. The Turkish stance on the siege of Kobani is not something that will be soon forgotten.

    In the 21st century, Turkey will have to face the prospect of a Kurdish demography that will not disappear and regional powers throttling this situation.

    Yerevan, Armenia

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