Protecting the West’s Interests in Turkey
Turkey has recently come to look like a beat-up boy. At home, it seems to have regained the authoritarianism of its past. Abroad, its behavior looks rough edged and militaristic. It gets blamed for not doing enough, or the right things, on Syria, the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Europe’s migrant crisis. Some have concluded that this country, its regional policies in tatters and under the assault of an autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, can no longer be regarded as an ally.
Much of the criticism is on target, some less so. Real issues exist in Turkey and in the relationships that the United States and European countries have with it. At a tough time for the region, concerted and effective strategies to protect the interests the United States and its allies have in and with this key European and Middle Eastern country are more important than ever.
Only a few years ago, Turkey was the cock of the walk. Political reform, economic liberalization, and a “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy seemed to add up to a country addressing challenges at home and exporting soft power and helpful influence abroad. Though the idea of a Turkish “model” was always off-key, the country had stability, effective governing institutions, and rising prosperity—real accomplishments in a region where these attributes are few. That it was an asset, perhaps a bridge, for Western governments struggling with extremism and problems with Islam generally seemed obvious. Turkey enjoyed years of unusually positive coverage in American and European media, a far cry from the more common 1980s and 1990s narrative of economic policy buffoonery, brutality, and military domination.
US-Turkish relations flourished as the 2003 bilateral breakdown over the US invasion of Iraq got replaced by collaboration—in that country and on a range of other issues. President Obama included Ankara on his first trip abroad. Contacts opened up and down the line in State, Defense, trade, and intelligence circles. Whether the issue was improving economic ties via a new cabinet-level Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation, partnering on Syria and Iran, combating piracy off East Africa, and on other issues, Turkey and the United States seemed to have discovered new and unprecedented ways of accomplishing things.
True, there were problems and obvious contradictions. Abroad, the May 2010 blow-ups with the United States over the Iran nuclear issue and with Israel over the Mavi Marmara made Ankara’s friends in Washington and elsewhere incredulous, as did the persecution at home of military leaders based on fabricated evidence of coup-plotting. The old Turkey was not done, of course. But the country that for years punched below its weight in international affairs seemed gone, replaced by one that was confident, competent, more in sync with the West than not, and reasonably successful.
To the extent that positive picture was real, it has changed.
The poster child of a new, more negative Turkey domestically was the government’s vicious and over-the-top brutality toward the May-June 2013 Gezi Park protests. Six months later, Erdoğan’s government defiantly hounded office judges and prosecutors investigating his family and top lieutenants for corruption, followed by a witch hunt to destroy everything and everyone associated with the Fethullah Gülen movement that allegedly masterminded that investigation-cum-coup attempt. The Kurdish issue went from dialogue and political inclusion back to the violence of the 1990s. Journalists in jail, unfriendly newspapers shut down, academics labeled terrorists for questioning the government’s security policies, charges against hundreds for “insulting” the president: the list goes on.
For many, the image of a confident and competent country dealing with issues has been replaced by what Turkish writer Elif Şafak calls an atmosphere of paranoia and intimidation. According to Metropol, a respected and nonpartisan polling organization, the share of Turkish citizens who believed the country was getting better in early 2015 fell to 36 percent, down from 43 percent six months earlier, while over half the population expected worse things to come.
As if its self-inflicted wounds at home were not enough, ISIS voted negative on Turkey too via dramatic suicide bombings in Istanbul, Ankara, and elsewhere. These and separate attacks by an offshoot of the violently anti-Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed 1,000 dead and wounded in just a few months, adding fear, insecurity, and economic loss to the equation.
Turkish policy and cooperation with the West in the region also came a cropper. Constructive engagement on Iraq’s myriad problems got scuppered when Ankara broke with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and began using energy ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to pressure him and other Shia leaders. Collaboration on Libya, marked by a Turkish role in the NATO campaign to unseat long-time strongman Muammar Qadaffi, fell apart as Ankara backed horses not supported by Washington. Israel proved hard to fix.
These and other discontinuities pale in comparison to Syria, which has become today the driver of instability in Turkey and in its alliance relationships with the United States and Europe.
Syria per se is beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that all the players revel in their bitternesses. Many in Washington believe the Turks were willfully uncooperative on ISIS (or perhaps supported it), prioritize the persecution of Kurds above all else, and cannot be relied upon. Prominent European leaders chafe at the country’s blind eye to migrant smuggling—or see complicity in it. Mirror image complaints exist in Ankara—that the United States willfully abjures policies to fix Syria that are essential for stopping what ISIS exploits there and wrongly pursues an alliance with the Syrian Kurdish faction most closely associated with the PKK, and that Europe has been unsympathetic and indifferent to the refugee burden it and Syria’s other neighbors bear.
Regional discord, Erdoğan’s autocratic bent, and now the spread of ISIS mayhem into Turkey have led some to conclude that the game is up. Recent headlines showcase this: “Undoing Years of Progress in Turkey” (New York Times), “Turkey has Become a Rogue State” (The Independent), “Erdoğan’s Foreign Policy in Ruins” (Foreign Policy), “Turkey’s Erdoğan Must Reform or Resign” (Washington Post), and “The War of All against Turkey” (Wall Street Journal). Some suggest that Turkey can no longer be viewed as an ally, that we should reconsider its membership in NATO and the US use of its facilities at Incirlik Air Base, and that perhaps the Kurds should anchor the United States in the region instead.
But while the symptoms and the disease in many respects may be correctly diagnosed—Turkey and its regional role are a mess—too many of the prescriptions implicit in these lines of argument risk its loss and the strategic calamity that would represent for US and Western interests.
True, Erdoğan has come to seem obnoxious, and he should be (and has been) called out on his excesses. But it would be wrong to think that all of the country’s domestic instability is due to him: there is ISIS, the PKK is organizing a violent insurrection, and the mainstream political opposition, sadly, seems capable only of failing to convert public discontent into political success. It would also be wrong to think that US pressure will turn Turkey around domestically. Nearly any official approach, especially a public one, would shift the narrative onto us, rather than on issues Turkish citizens have to argue out and resolve. In sum, they have to fix their country—with appropriate support, of course—themselves.
True, Turkey has become obdurate regionally, but it would be wrong to ascribe a Middle East gone haywire to that. As one senior administration official remarked privately, “Our policy in Syria is failing, and it’s easier to blame Turkey than to consider why.” On Syria and most issues in international affairs, Turkey wants the same things the United States and Europe want; making things work, however, is another matter.
Four Suggestions Going Forward
US Leadership Bound up with Our Allies: One of Turkey’s senior-most leaders stated confidentially in 2013 that the unilateralism of President George W. Bush had been a problem, but that the Obama administration had gone too far in the other direction. His was a cry for more American leadership—not necessarily militarily or in a bombastic way, but decisive statecraft, led by the United States and developed with its allies, oriented around achievable goals, and backed by resolve to accomplish them.
It is axiomatic that when and as the most crucial defense and security challenges are right on Turkey’s borders, its local sensitivities go up exponentially. What country is different? Too much of our dialogue has consisted of telling the Turks (and others) what they should do, rather than the more painstaking work of developing a common strategy and working through collaborative ways to pursue it. To succeed, the next president will have to accommodate how we develop our regional policies and strategies, and to some extent those policies and strategies themselves, with this in mind—that being, among other things, effective leadership.
ISIS and Syria: Little real evidence justifies the claim that Turkey supports or supported ISIS. But clearly it was and is reluctant to commit fully to the anti-ISIS coalition. Ankara’s principal concern was the absence of a plan with regard to Iraq and Syria, where sectarianism and the marginalization of Sunnis (and others) by Shia and Alawites, respectively, contributed immensely to the success of ISIS and would nurture a new version of it if not addressed. We had a not bad answer with respect to Iraq (Maliki’s departure and other strategies to promote more inclusivity), but not regarding Syria—and still do not. The next president will need one for US policies there to succeed.
Syria’s Kurds: The United States has already opposed the Kurds’ self-declared federal ideas for the future of Syria which also seem to be anathema to the other 90-plus percent of that country’s citizens who are not Kurds. Enough instability already exists in the region, and we should not support those whose who would add to it.
While military expediency may necessitate working with Syrian Kurds against ISIS on the ground, we should make clear that this cooperation also requires their reconciliation with Turkey. They actually have no choice, any more than the KRG did, but to accommodate themselves to and with it, the alternative being acute vulnerability and isolation in a dangerous region. Ankara, which unsuccessfully tried several years ago to court Syrian Kurdish leaders despite their PKK ties, also has no real choice. With our help, they can be reconciled sufficiently, security on Turkey’s—and NATO’s—southern border will improve, and the task of destroying ISIS will be made easier. It must not wait for the next president, but should begin now.
Democracy: As difficult as the policy and security challenges are around Turkey, the domestic piece is harder. It’s not just Erdoğan and AK Party supporters who bristle at and reject any suggestion that the United States should tell them how to run their country. It has long been the case that the European connection was the best and most effective mechanism for promoting democratic change there. It still is. European Union accession is certainly a very long way off, but small, if steady steps forward will point Turkey away from repression and toward liberty and give the European Union standing to advocate—standing the United States can strongly support. The next president should back that effort and make it a key plank of US policy toward the European Union.
United States Ambassador to Turkey, 2005-2008
United States Ambassador to Azerbaijan, 2000-2003