Moscow is confused, the US is confused – everybody seems to be when it comes to Turkey, who is with whom and what its next move will be. Anything you write about Turkey is old news by the time you get done with it, as they keep moving the goalposts in this game. As Victorian poet Matthew Arnold said, “Journalism is literature in a hurry” – but no matter which direction we go in, certain trends are clear and need to be addressed.
This video has some excellent info on Turkey’s agenda, how it is not so hidden, and what the consequences will be for everyone else: . It might be said to be biased, as it is produced by an Armenian. However, perhaps only the Kurds have a similar understanding of the Turkish mindset, as both peoples have had to deal with it, and not merely in highly publicised cases, such as the Armenian Genocide, but on an ongoing basis.
Erdogan’s desire to make himself a “big player” is leading him into dangerous waters. He can only be as big as greater powers will allow him to be, but he is therefore trying to exploit all sides.
This effort is doomed to failure, but that is the point. In an age when the West is arming and funding Islamist terrorists who proclaim exactly the opposite values to its own, what could be more appropriate than an Islamist martyr, who can become, dead or alive, the sponsor of these murderers?
This is part of the path Turkey has taken under Erdoğan – both clambering on board and jumping ship at the drop of a hat. Sometimes it is the same hat. States tend to dislike lack of predictability in the conduct of other states, but Turkey sees no problem with that as long as it can exploit the situation.
You scratch mine and I won’t have to scratch yours
Erdogan is demonstrating that you can get away with a lot in the name of democracy and antiterrorism. Everyone wants democracy in principle, but in Turkey this is not necessarily true in practice, as the behaviour of civilian politicians has led some of the population to welcome repeated military takeovers designed to get rid of them. However the West still likes to think people always prefer democracy, so as long as he can maintain the facade of civilian rule Erdogan will be given a long leash, and is exploiting this to the full.
Erdogan has become what he always intended to be – an Islamist dictator who uses everyone he encounters to accomplish his goals. But as long as he maintains the state apparatus the West regards as a model he will be allowed to continue unabated. It is the West’s own fault if it only listens to what it wants to hear, but if it continues to do so the consequences will be everyone’s burden.
Erdogan has been given the ability to simultaneously blackmail EU, the US and even Russia, as described in the above mentioned video, by Western hypocrisy, the same double dealing which enables Russia to conduct its foreign policy on autopilot. In Turkish hands the State of Israel, Islam and NATO will become deadly doomsday weapons.
Turkey is proud of its ability to exploit greater powers, and does not hide what it wants. This map of the wannabe Turkey, broadcast on Turkish TV, gives the game away. Both Syria and northern Iraq are under direct threat of annexation, justified on the same nationalistic grounds used by Hitler. Now we can see what purpose the Turkic Council, so often ignored or seen as harmless, actually serves in the hands of Erdogan’s Turkey, whether its other members like it or not.
Erdogan has found himself, through his own efforts and the tacit agreement of his allies, in a position where he can’t lose. If he succeeds in his ambitions he will have blackmailed his way to the top table, and will then set its menu. If he fails, he will be the poor Islamic victim of a hostile, Islamophobic world order which other Muslims can no longer trust to lead them to victory.
Erdogan will be the first to reveal what he and many others know of the Western support for ISIS, which he has helped facilitate to give him another blackmail tool. He will also say that he is now being sacrificed merely because he is Muslim, and should therefore lead the murderous legions to take their revenge on the West, as the West has long begged us to believe they will. He will be able to say this because the West will have given him the means to do so, with White Helmets and Grey Wolves, whether or not he remains in power within Turkey.
Doing it by the book
While Red China had the Thoughts of Chairman Mao and Hitler had Mein Kampf, Erdogan bases his actions on a 2001 book by Ahmet Davutoglu called Strategic Depth. In this the former Turkish Prime Minister talks about creating Lebensraum for the Turkish people, however fluid the concept of an ethnic Turkish identity is in practice.
Significantly, he also refers to his views as “pan-Islamism”, knowing full well that actual pan-Islamism is the antithesis of the Turkish nationalism espoused by both Davutoglu and Erdogan. As Davutoglu intended, the term is seen as code for Neo-Ottomanism, Erdogan’s desire to recreate the Ottoman Empire, which is again no secret .
The West is arming and funding ISIS to create a compliant Kurdish state in Iraq. Turkey doesn’t want this state to include or incite its own Kurds, but will accept it in exchange for direct control of part of the dismembered country. As the West only wants its support for Islamic terrorists to go so far, it sees advantages in partnering with “democratic” Turkey, which it regards as eternally dependent, to keep expectations reasonable when it has achieved its strategic goal.
Erdogan is playing this situation very well. If a future Kurdish state is held in check by Turkey and Western allegiance this will make Erdogan the de facto leader of the part of the Islamic world which has political influence. He will be indispensable in converting that Islamic world from the hotbed of inhuman radicals the West portrays it as to a sane and sensible partner, whose religion is to be celebrated rather than used as proof of the criminality of its adherents. We will see more mainstream media stories like those which portrayed China as soft and cuddly after the US recognised it, and Croats as plucky victims of Serbian aggression during the Yugoslav wars.
But if the West wants Erdogan gone, or reneges on any deal it has made with Turkey – real or imagined – Erdogan is still positioned as the leader of the radical part of the Muslim world. Radical Islam deals with the West to see what it can get out of it, and if this arrangement doesn’t deliver the goods it isn’t going to go away.
Radical Islam’s leaders will then talk about betrayal and the need for the triumph of pure Islam. Everyone will have a different idea of what that means in practice, but the view which prevails will depend on who can get the most done. That will still be Erdogan, whether or not he is in power in Turkey, as he has a dedicated mechanism at his disposal.
In Erdogan’s Turkey, you get to where you are by adopting certain positions, and the cull after the “attempted coup” he manufactured has magnified the dominance of his supporters. Everyone everywhere who loses power thinks they can regain it when the wind changes, and there are many examples of this happening. A man such as Erdogan, who is trying to remake his country in a form he considers morally superior, obviously identifies with a martyr for a cause, and particularly with those who rise from the political dead, as Islamism in Turkey already has.
When Napoleon escaped from Elba most of the French army and political class joined his attempt to regain power, despite the fact the French State had declared him an outlaw and washed its hands of him. With Erdogan able to call on a largely complete state structure, and bands of Islamist terrorists, to help him lead the wider Muslim world to install himself as its leader, how many of the Turks who owe their positions to him are going to support any new Turkish government which considers them the very force it was put there to remove?
As bad as each other
For now, Erdogan holds all the cards. Criticise him for doing something and he will simply do more of it, as we see with the flow of migrants to Europe, which seems to increase every time Europe hypocritically complains about Turkey’s part in facilitating this. The only question is how long he can continue playing these advantages until someone else is able to make better offers.
Russia has plenty of reasons not to provoke Turkey. It is worried about radical Islam at and within its own borders. It also wants to maintain access to the wider oceans through the Bosphorus, to keep Turkey as a large market for Russian gas and to make the currently dormant South Stream gas pipeline, which will pass through Turkey to Italy and the rest of Europe, a reality. Furthermore, it doesn’t like US bases and missiles being there, but never managed to remove them during the decades of hostility which the US remains keen to return to.
The US has long held Turkey to be a strategic partner, and given its location it would not contemplate withdrawing from there. But the US no longer has the resources to impose its military will wherever it likes, as successive conflicts, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria, have demonstrated. It will have to treat Turkey as a real partner to achieve anything, as hostility would only result in Erdogan calling its bluff, removing its bases and defending himself against any attack with the help of the radical Islamic world. The US could not be seen to be losing that conflict even temporarily, after all its own rhetoric about what Islam is and what Muslims will do to you given the chance.
It cannot be denied that Erdogan is a political achiever. Although the modern Turkish state was founded on strictly secularist principles he has managed to become effectively an Islamist dictator by breaking away from another Islamist party and presenting himself as enough of a secularist to earn wider popularity, even when this meant manufacturing his own arrest in 1999. Like any successful politician he has used his enemies to his own advantage, almost eating them whole. In 2000 he even met Gulen, and used this to gain media coverage which contrasted him with his opponent in a way which appealed to Gulen’s own supporters.
But does the world really want Turkey calling the shots? Ask the people of Greece, or any of the other countries which broke away from the Ottoman Empire after centuries of domination. All these countries see continuity between the conduct of secularist Turkey and the Empire whose defeat they celebrate in most of their public holidays. They may be friendly with it to varying degrees on a political level, but the mistrust is still there for all to see, and Erdogan’s policies and practices are demonstrating that this remains justified, whatever bigger game the politicians think they are playing.
Too little too late
At present the biggest threat to Erdogan may come from within his own leadership. He is not a man who makes or keeps friends easily. This again is often a characteristic of born dictators: when the whole country hangs on your every word, this more than compensates for an ability to form personal friendships with people who might one day be greater than you.
To neutralise his opponents Erdogan is using another standard trick. A recent article in the LA Times entitled As parliament bickers and brawls, Turkey’s Erdogan could be on the cusp of claiming vast new powers, describes the lengths he is going to, so to not only gain new constitutional powers, unprecedented in Turkey even during military rule, but to institutionalise himself above party.
Elements within his own AKP, which he founded to make himself look more secular, are turning against him for being a dictator, and other former allies did this long ago. But the constitutional changes now being pushed through parliament would make parties irrelevant, as the president will be the source of all power, regardless of the opinions of the voters, meaning he will no longer need friends.
The final changes will be subject to a national referendum before they become law. Theoretically, this will engender a major national debate. But with so many foreign policy cards in play, will enough people pay any attention? Erdogan is pursuing policies many voters feel benefit Turkey by giving it an ever greater say in regional and world affairs. Giving him more powers may not be an attractive option in itself, but taps into an important part of the psyche of electors in a country founded on defeat.
Erdogan’s supporters are claiming that the constitutional changes which will put Erdogan above the state will create an executive government analogous to that of the US, which is needed to bring stability to the country at a time of frequent terrorist attacks – the justification used for the infamous Patriot Act. The other side of this argument won’t be heard, because the media outlets, the streets and the internet won’t be safe for people who might state it. That is not like the US, but this little detail won’t be mentioned in the Turkish media either.
Turkey has a tradition of being one step ahead of the pack. For example, it was one of the first countries to recognise the State of Israel, not because it wanted a national homeland for Holocaust survivors but because it made it a perpetual friend of the US, regardless of what else it did, and created problems for Arab countries in the days when Arab nationalism was more popular in the Muslim world than a pan-Islamism led by Turkey.
Now Turkey has found itself in a position where it can manipulate everyone around, and is led by an Islamist determined to do exactly this. He is temperamentally fitted for the role, and is acquiring ever more power to do this, both domestically and through the failures of other powers.
Even now policymakers in many states are calculating the opportunity costs of either martyring Erdogan or waiting for him to martyr everyone else. They may find out that martyring Erdogan, before it is too late, is the lesser of two very large evils.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.