Following the downturn in US-Turkish relations and the recent re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Turkish Republic, only this time with enhanced powers, some have begun to ask what happened to Turkish democracy?
But the question is misplaced. Sure, Turkey has certainly drifted from liberal democratic politics in recent years; however, the reality is that Turkey was never, ever, a democracy. It is worth having a brief historical recap in order to remind western journalists, politicians and wonks as well as some of their self-deluded Turkish counterparts of this fact.
The idea that Turkey is a democracy is a western construct. It is an invented and artificial idea based on the hopes of western policy makers (and some wishful thinking Turkish intellectuals) who, in the post 9/11 war on terror, thought they needed an example of a modern, western friendly and democratic Muslim country in order to convince the Muslim world that they were not at war with Islam. This construct was given additional impetus after the misnamed Arab Spring of 2011. Again, the international community wanted to point towards a model or example of a Muslim democracy. They pointed to Turkey, but they shouldn’t have.
Following Turkey’s establishment in 1923, Turkey was under the one-man rule of its principle state-builder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Secularist, reformist, revolutionary, moderniser and visionary, Kemal-Ataturk was, however, no democrat. There were a couple of short periods when he experimented with a two-party system, but when the politics of the opposition drifted in a direction not to his liking, he swiftly did away with it. Following his death in 1938, Kemal-Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu took over the mantle. Elections took place in 1946 which the ruling party won in a landslide because, quite frankly, they were unfree, unfair, and undoubtedly rigged. It was not until 1950 that free and fair elections finally took place and even brought about a change of government. Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party became Prime Minister. However, ten years later the military ousted him in a coup. Incensed by Manderes’ handling of the economy, his creeping autocratic nature and his popular appeals to Islam, they decided he needed to be gone for good. One year after the coup Menderes was hanging by the neck.
And like a kid with an open packet of Oreos, the military just couldn’t help itself. It staged another intervention in 1971 and another in 1980 after urban political violence was tearing the country apart. Until 1983 Turkey was led by a military junta. In addition to arresting hundreds of thousands of citizens, executing dozens and the many incidences of torture, the men in uniform oversaw the drafting of the 1982 constitution. They also vetted political candidates ahead of the 1983 elections. Even after return to “normal” civilian politics, the military retained control of nearly all institutions of state through informal networks and by heading supervisory bodies. Nothing could happen from foreign policy to television broadcasts if it were against the will of the generals.
The main challenge to the military’s grip over power was the rise of Welfare Party and its leader and Necmettin Erbakan who became Prime Minister in 1996 and advocated an openly Islamist foreign policy. No problem for the boys in uniform. In 1997 they gave Erbakan an ultimatum which made him obliged to resign. He was then banned from politics and so was his party.
But hold on a minute. As far removed from democracy as the above might sound, it doesn’t relate to the whole of the country. While all this was taking place, the southeast was a different case altogether. The 1920s and 30s were marked by insurrections and brutal crackdowns by the full arm of the state. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly dreadful as insurgency and counter insurgency claimed the lives of 40,000 citizens. Death squads roamed southeastern cities assassinating Kurdish leaders. Thousands of villages were destroyed and perhaps millions displaced. There were many instances of extrajudicial killings and torture which still remain uninvestigated let alone punished. So when you hear people talk of Turkish democracy, they are usually talking about only part of the country, the places where people go on holiday and policy makers and businesspersons visit rather than the southeast which resembled a war-zone.
It was not until October 2001 that Turkey entered a period of democratization with the first of a series of reforms geared towards EU accession. Not long after, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government. The following year, after his ban from politics was lifted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister.
This was perfect timing for the West which was in the early stages of the War on Terror. Running the show in Turkey were outwardly pious politicians whose political careers emanated from Islamist parties. They had covered wives, reframed from drinking alcohol and talked about piety, and, yet, Turkey still appeared to be pro-western and friendly. These Turkish politicians even talked the talk about democracy.
But it was all nonsense. Throughout this period, Erdogan and the AKP worked hard to undermine Turkey’s opportunity at democratization. Just a few examples to illustrate the point. In 2005, Erdogan sued Musa Kart and the Cumhuriyet newspaper for a cartoon that “insulted” him. This was while 60 academics, journalists and publishers were already in prison or facing prosecution. The onslaught against freedom of expression which would go full speed ahead ten years later had already begun. Meanwhile, the infamous article 301, which banned the insult against “Turkishness” was also in full sway and used against novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. Also, in 2004, there were serious discussions by the AKP government to criminalize adultery. Yes, you heard right – criminalize adultery! To make matters worse, the AKP got into bed with the Gulen movement who had infiltrated the judiciary and police force and laid fraudulent charges on hundreds of military officers in what turned out to be a successful bid to ouster the military’s ability to interfere in politics. It was also designed to make room for the rise of Gulenist ranks within the armed-forces. Although the military was by far an anti-democratic force, these means to supress it were contrary to the rule of law. They made a mockery of the courts.
In 2008 there was an attempt through the constitutional court to shut down the AKP for anti-secular activities. Ultimately it failed (although it did slap the party with a fine and a warning). However, in response, the AKP spearheaded the 2010 constitutional changes which began the process of eroding Turkey’s fragile system of checks and balances.
All the while, politicians and liberal intellectuals in the West and Turkey were heaping praise on Turkish democracy, and, by extension, Erdogan and the AKP. In reality, democracy in Turkey was barely in existence. And I haven’t even gone beyond 2010 when things got even worse. The myth of Turkish democracy should be understood as just that, a piece of fiction.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
Once again US-Turkish relations have reached a new low. That phrase “new low” is getting a bit repetitive and overused when describing Turkey’s relations with Europe, the US and the West in general. This in itself tells us a lot.
The current crisis came after President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence both tweeted that Turkey could face harsh sanctions if Ankara does not fully release Pastor Andrew Brunson, who is currently facing trial in Turkey on trumped up (no pun intended) terrorism related charges. Ankara has responded by declaring the threats “unacceptable” and is refusing to bow down to US pressure.
The sanctions that Trump and Pence have in mind are in addition to defence budget legislation which is currently being drafted in Congress and contains clauses pertaining to Turkey’s involvement of the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. After the draft legislation is passed by both houses it will need a Presidential sign off. Currently the bill contains a reference to Turkey’s purchase and involvement in the F35 project, calling for Turkey’s participation to be contingent with the release of pastor Brunson and Turkey forgoing its purchase of Russian S400 surface to air missiles.
Added to this impasse is the recent victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June following simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections. The overarching power of President Erdogan, secured after a constitutional referendum last year, is now all but sealed. President Erdogan’s power is so overwhelming that excuses for not releasing Brunson such insisting that Turkish courts are independent, just doesn't fly. Arguably, such excuses never washed anyway - let’s not forget that last year Erdogan offered the US a swap, Brunson for Gulen. This led to the detention of Brunsen to be labelled by some quarters “hostage diplomacy”.
This recent crisis is the latest of many fallings out between the two former allies. Currently at least a dozen US citizens are consular employees are being held in detention. There’s also the issue of US support for Kurdish militias in Syria fighting the so called Islamic State. Ankara claims these militias are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but the Pentagon sees as an effective indigenous force against Islamic militancy. Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S400 Surface to air missiles, incompatible with NATO hardware, is an act that obviously strained ties. A purchase and deployment of such equipment risks the leaking of sensitive NATO military data to Russia. Meanwhile, Turkish banks, probably with the blessing of the country’s President, broke US led international sanctions against Iran. Plus, just recently Turkey rebuffed US efforts to enforce sanctions against the Islamic Republic, declaring that Turkey will not follow them. All of these issues alone are serious enough to strain relations for the foreseeable future. Taken together it is inevitable that relations have taken a nosedive.
In fact, relations have dipped so low that it would be foolhardy to expect that they will ever go back to how they were. Elsewhere I have recommended that the strategic component of the West’s relations with Turkey should be reconsidered. I think now more than ever that I am right. The strategy that some analysists and policy makers have recommended to either the US or European governments is continued engagement with Turkey. They believe that western countries should recognise and take steps towards meeting Ankara’s security needs while ensuring Ankara respects their own security concerns. Meanwhile, the argument goes, the sides should work towards greater cooperation in fields outside of the strategic dimension. This may have been sound policy advice a while ago, but quite frankly this method has been tried with Ankara over the past couple of years and is clearly not working.
Instead, it is time for the US and Europe to work towards a transactional relationship with Turkey when it comes to strategic issues. The first thing to do is recognise that the alliance between Turkey and the West is not one of mutual strategic interests, not is it one of shared values. However, there are some fields where western and Turkish interests converge and collaboration should be sought. Issues such as terrorism, aspects of regional security and the future of Syria are areas where there can be some cooperation and serious discussion.
However, this should not be mistaken for a strategic alliance and therefore the west should limit Turkish involvement in projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter and NATO operations until a time when relations improve and warrant an upgrade. However, when it comes to trade, businesses and corporations on both sides should be encouraged to invest, buy and sell until their hearts are content. The same goes for cultural diplomacy. And who knows, maybe they will be the harbinger for strategic convergence at a later date.
Although this state of affairs may seem disappointing, this is the nature of international relations. Alliance form and alliances collapse. A period of transactionalism and trade may be the step back that both sides need before relations become warm again because soon Turkey will discover that the US and the West make better bedfellows that Russia, Iran or China.
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