By Daniel Pipes
Daniel Pipes is an American historian, writer, and political commentator. He is the president of the Middle East Forum, and publisher of its Middle East Quarterly journal. His writing focuses on the American foreign policy and the Middle East.
The Republic of Turkey, long a democratising Muslim country solidly in the Western camp, now finds itself internally racked and at the centre of two external crises: the civil war in next-door Syria and the illegal immigration that is changing European politics. The prospects for Turkey and its neighbours are worrisome, if not ominous.
The key development was the coming to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002, when a fluke election outcome gave him total control of the government, which he parlayed into a personal dominion. After years of restraint and modesty, his real personality — grandiloquent, Islamist and aggressive — came out. Now he seeks to rule as a despot, an ambition that causes his country incessant, avoidable problems.
Initially, Erdogan’s disciplined approach to finance permitted the Turkish economy to achieve China-like economic growth and won him increasing electoral support while making Ankara a new player in regional affairs. But then conspiracy theories, corruption, short-sightedness, and incompetence cut into the growth, making Turkey economically vulnerable.
Initially, Erdogan took unprecedented steps to resolve his country’s Kurdish problem, acknowledging that this ethnic minority making up roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population has its own culture and allowing it to express itself in its own language. But then, for electoral reasons, he abruptly reversed himself last year, resulting in a more determined and violent Kurdish insurgency, to the point that civil war has become a real prospect.
Initially, Erdogan accepted the traditional autonomy of the major institutions in Turkish life: law courts, the military, the press, banks, schools. No longer; now he seeks to control everything. Take the case of two prominent journalists, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul: because their newspaper, Cumhuriyet, exposed the government’s clandestine support for Islamic State, Erdogan had them imprisoned on the surreal charges of espionage and terrorism. Worse, when the Constitutional Court (Turkey’s highest) reversed this sentence, Erdogan accused the court of ruling “against the country and its people” and indicated he would ignore its decision.
Initially, Erdogan maintained cautious and correct relations with Moscow, benefiting economically and using Russia as a balance against the US. But since the reckless Turkish shoot-down of a Russian warplane last November, followed by a defiant lack of apology, the little bully (Erdogan) has more than met his match with the big bully (Russia’s Vladimir Putin) and Turkey is paying the price. French President Francois Hollande has warned of “a risk of war” between Turkey and Russia.
Initially, Erdogan’s accommodating policies translated into a calming of domestic politics; now, his bellicosity has led to a string of acts of violence. To make matters worse, many of them are murky in origin and purpose, building paranoia. For example, before Kurdish militant group TAK claimed responsibility for the bombing last Sunday that killed 37 people near the Prime Minister’s office in Ankara, groups blamed included, variously, the Kurds, Islamic State and the Turkish government. It was interpreted as intending to justify a more forceful campaign against domestic Kurds or punish the government for attacking the Kurds; to encourage a Turkish military invasion of Syria or to frame Erdogan’s political enemy, the Gulen movement.
Initially, Turkey became a plausible candidate for membership in the EU thanks to Erdogan’s muted behaviour. Now, his slide towards despotism and Islamism means the Europeans merely go through the motions of pretending to negotiate with Ankara while counting on the Republic of Cyprus to blackball its application; as Turkish journalist Burak Bekdil says, “modern Turkey has never been this galactically distant from the core values enshrined by the European civilisation and its institutions”.
In the early months of the Syrian uprising, Erdogan offered sage advice to the dictator in Damascus, Bashar al-Assad, about relaxing his grip and allowing political participation. Things have gone so awry that, as Dundar and Gul reported, Erdogan now supports Islamic State, the most fanatical and Islamist organisation today, perhaps ever. That support has taken many forms: permitting foreigners to cross Turkey to reach Syria, allowing recruitment in Turkey, providing medical care and provisioning money and arms. Despite this, Islamic State, fearful of betrayal by Ankara, threatens and attacks Turks.
Erdogan’s error of backing Islamic State and other Sunni Islamist organisations in Syria has hurt him in another way, leading to a huge influx of Syrian refugees to Turkey where, increasingly unwelcomed by the indigenous population, they cause social and economic strains.
Which brings us to Erdogan’s latest gambit. Syrian refugees wanting to go on to northwestern Europe provide him with a handy mechanism to blackmail the EU: pay me huge amounts of money (€6 billion at latest count) and permit 80 million Turks to travel visa-free to your countries or I will dump more unwelcome Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Somalis and others on you.
So far the ploy has worked and the Europeans are succumbing to Erdogan’s demands. But this may well be a Pyrrhic victory, hurting Erdogan’s long-term interests. In the first place, forcing Europeans to pretend they are not being blackmailed and to welcome Turkey with clenched teeth creates a foul mood, further reducing, if not killing off, Turkish chances for membership.
Second, Erdogan’s game has prompted a profound and probably lasting shift in mood in Europe against accepting more immigrants from the Middle East — including Turks.
In combination, these errors by Erdogan point to more crises ahead. Gokhan Bacik, a professor at Ipek University in Ankara, says “Turkey is facing a multifaceted catastrophe”, the scale of which “is beyond Turkey’s capacity for digestion”. If Iran is today the Middle East’s greatest danger, Turkey is tomorrow’s.
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.