By now, faced with the rise of the Islamists and effectively abandoned by the US, the Turkish security establishment continued to maintain its ties to the Israeli government. Unfortunately, as Turkey’s Islamists increased their political power, Israel’s government was also taking an increasingly hard-line approach towards the Palestinians. This made the alliance with Israel increasingly unpopular among the Turkish populace, both secular and religious.
The policy of the US in the five years leading up to Mr. Erdogan’s election in 2003, was to “muddle through”, a euphemism for not having a policy. Additionally, the US lobbied heavily for Turkish membership in the European Union (EU). EU membership required diminishing the power of the military and improving Turkey’s human rights record and policies regarding freedom of religion. Mr. Erdogan leapt at this approach and benefitted greatly. In the name of supporting Turkish EU membership, Mr. Erdogan had US and European support for neutralizing the internal threat posed to an Islamist government. Whether Mr. Erdogan ever planned, or even wished, to have Turkey join the EU is debatable. But the process involved in meeting EU requirements allowed Mr. Erdogan to dismantle the already crumbling role of Turkey as a staunch Western secular client.
Perhaps the most obvious turning point in Turkey’s role in NATO came when the Turkish parliament refused to allow the US-led coalition to base operations out of Turkey. Perhaps the Turkish military chose to teach the West a lesson out of anger over the restrictions on military sales and a general atmosphere of criticism and disrespect. Or perhaps the military was already so weakened by that time that it was powerless to determine the vote’s outcome. Whatever the reason, it did tremendous damage to Turkey’s military importance in Western eyes. Once the US realized it could operate in the Middle East without Turkish support, it took away the argument, long-used by US and European critics of Turkish military-to military relations, that the Turkish military played a vital role in all military activity in Iraq. As soon as the invasion of Iraq went ahead without Turkish involvement, the West wrote off the Turkish military as a critical ally. From that point onward, the Islamists had free rein to weaken the Turkish military’s role inside Turkey without risking objections from the United States and NATO.
The continuing destruction of Ataturk’s legacy can be observed by anyone looking at Turkey from within or without. Mr. Erdogan has managed to change the Turkish constitution, imprison, banish or kill his opponents, pay off private lobbyists around the globe to encourage the US and Europe to look the other way and engage in obvious, egregious corruption affecting everything from his personal wealth to his party’s election victories.
Still Mr. Erdogan has most of the world fooled. He has ensured that Israeli atrocities are well-publicized among Turks. He has presided over the process of undoing the close Turkish-Israeli relationship. He staged the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010, which united global public opinion against the Israeli government, then he sowed the seeds of and fueled the civil war in Syria.
His Syrian efforts have backfired, as is evident from the recent kidnapping of 49 Turkish citizens from the Turkish Consulate in Mosul by ISIS, a group Mr. Erdogan did not oppose until September 2013. ISIS has labeled Mr. Erdogan an “apostate” and is now a declared enemy, but there was a time when ISIS could count on backchannel Turkish support in Syria.
At some point, Mr. Erdogan may find he has nowhere to turn to for support in combating threats from the Islamist groups he has helped to grow and thrive. Mr. Erdogan has defanged his internal secular military threat for the time being, but as Turkey becomes more of an Islamic backwater, incapable of even protecting its own officials in neighbouring Mosul, even religious Turks may turn against him.
So what do relations between Turkey and its NATO allies look like in Mr. Erdogan’s Turkey today? The phrase “walking on eggshells” comes to mind, in spite of efforts to pretend otherwise. Any Turkish official who has genuinely close ties to the secular West risks firing or imprisonment. Turkish businessmen are only free to negotiate deals with foreigners if they show their support for Mr. Erdogan’s party through payments and other political support to AKP officials and their surrogates. And as Turkey’s standing in NATO declines, so do its prospects for EU membership.
Another telling sign that the US and NATO no longer value Turkey as geostrategically as they once did is the lack of concern over a corrupt, anti-Western Turkish government overseeing the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. When the United States hurls accusations of Russian annexation of Crimea, few seem concerned over Mr. Erdogan’s corrupt cronies controlling Russian access to the Mediterranean from the Black Sea. If Russian control of Crimea were a serious US concern, control of the Bosphorus by a formidable pro-Western Turkish government and military would be necessary. Instead, the US seems content to have the Bosphorus in the hands of an Islamist Turkish dictator whom everyone with access to social media has heard discussing bribes, manipulating the media and plotting false-flag attacks in neighbouring Syria.
Turkey remains a member of NATO and its relations with the West have not been severed. It is unlikely that those relations would ever be completely cut off, if for no other reason than potential geostrategic interests. Still, with the level of corruption and unrest inside Turkey and growing chaos in Syria and Iraq, it is possible that Turkey’s government will face an existential crisis down the road. If so, Turkey may well find that NATO support will be its only hope. And while various individual power players in NATO may have benefitted from Mr. Erdogan’s pay-offs, the conditions needed to justify NATO forces coming to Turkey’s defense will be decided by nations, not individuals, and certainly not by Mr. Erdogan.
For the first time in almost a century, the situation in Turkey is beginning to look like the final days of the Ottoman Empire, when civil unrest and regional war made it seem unlikely that Turkey could rise from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created the Turkish phoenix from those ashes. As Mr. Erdogan continues to weaken the very identity of the Turkish state as a secular, Western NATO ally, who, if anyone, will be waiting in the wings to resuscitate Turkey if necessary?
At this point, it would seem that the once formidable Turkey is becoming increasingly untrustworthy, problematic and, by extension, irrelevant.
Gwenyth Todd a former Adviser to President Clinton, expert in international security policy, she hold M.A from Georgetown University, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“