U.S. and Turkey Headed for Show­down

The Washington Times Daily - - TURKEY - By Eric Brown Eric Brown is a se­nior fel­low at Hud­son In­sti­tute. He di­rects re­search and analysis projects on Asian and Mid­dle Eastern af­fairs, in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity and devel­op­ment, al­ter­na­tive geopo­lit­i­cal fu­tures and strat­egy.

A sce­nario Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man once feared — the fall of Turkey to tyranny and out­side co­er­cion — seems near. The coun­try’s strong­man, Pres­i­dent Re­cip Tayyip Er­do­gan, and his rul­ing AK Party have dis­man­tled the repub­lic’s free in­sti­tu­tions in the run-up to the wa­ter­shed Turk­ish ref­er­en­dum on April 16.

Turkey is far along in a dra­matic trans­for­ma­tion that has un­cou­pled it from its mod­ern strate­gic and po­lit­i­cal moor­ings in the West. Since the failed July 15 mil­i­tary coup, Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan has ruled un­der emer­gency law and shred­ded the re­main­ing checks on his power. The ju­di­ciary, academia, in­de­pen­dent me­dia, the po­lice and the mil­i­tary have all been purged and re­stocked with Mr. Er­do­gan loy­al­ists. Dis­sent is be­ing crim­i­nal­ized, with many ei­ther in jail or fear­ing for their lives — or at least their liveli­hoods — if they cross the pres­i­dent. This month, Turks will de­cide on whether to ce­ment Er­do­gan’s im­pe­rial pres­i­dency in a new con­sti­tu­tion.

For years, West­ern na­tions have soft-ped­alled Er­do­gan’s Is­lamist na­tion­al­ism and thug­gish be­hav­ior in the hopes that NATO’s long-time ally will even­tu­ally come to its senses. Turkey, as it was in Tru­man’s time, is in a haz­ardous strate­gic predica­ment. Iran and Rus­sia, the Turks’ cen­turies-old ri­vals, have ex­ploited the on­go­ing wars and melt­down of the state-based or­der across the Greater Le­vant to en­large their po­si­tions and in­flu­ence. Hav­ing been rapidly en­cir­cled, Turkey, West­ern gov­ern­ments hoped, would reprise its Cold War role as a strate­gic bul­wark.

But Mr. Er­do­gan has had other ideas. To max­i­mize his power at home, he has been tear­ing up Turkey’s re­la­tions with the West and court­ing with Iran, ji­hadist forces, even the Krem­lin — a dan­ger­ous game. In­stead of strength­en­ing Turkey, he is mak­ing it weaker.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant trends in Mid­dle East pol­i­tics has been the de­com­po­si­tion of large, re­li­giously and eth­ni­cally var­ie­gated coun­tries into smaller, more ho­moge­nous poli­ties, as peo­ple de­mand more say in their own gov­er­nance. Well­formed re­publics can de­cen­tral­ize and man­age this peace­fully. Au­thor­i­tar­ian states like Turkey now must com­mit enor­mous sums to in­ter­nal re­pres­sion — or they vi­o­lently crack up.

Er­do­gan’s re­li­gious na­tion­al­ism has ex­ac­er­bated the coun­try’s many fault lines — be­tween civil democrats and caliphate re­vival­ists, among ri­val re­li­gious broth­er­hoods, be­tween Alevi and Sunni, and above all, be­tween Turks and Kurds.

Af­ter abandoning an ear­lier con­cil­ia­tory pol­icy to­ward the Kurds that had shown some prom­ise, the pres­i­dent, again for per­sonal po­lit­i­cal gain, plunged his coun­try into a mil­i­tar­ily un­winnable war with Kur­dish mil­i­tants that has wors­ened. The army’s heavy-handed tac­tics have dec­i­mated Kur­dish cities and towns, dis­plac­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands from their homes. Rad­i­cal Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) fac­tions have re­cruited thou­sands of sup­port­ers as a re­sult, while Mr. Er­do­gan has jailed the very Kur­dish civil­ian lead­ers (HDP) needed to make peace. Is­lamic State is try­ing to ex­ploit th­ese di­vides. Rus­sia and Iran could, too. Mr. Er­do­gan has hard­wired Turkey for de­bil­i­tat­ing con­flict and, po­ten­tially, jeop­ar­dized its na­tional in­tegrity.

With Turkey’s se­cu­rity and econ­omy in a down­ward spi­ral, Er­do­gan’s reach for an im­pe­rial pres­i­dency may yet be de­railed. But don’t count on it.

Given the real po­lit­i­cal en­tropy in Turkey in which peo­ple are fear­ing for their lives and liveli­hoods, the short-term ad­van­tage will go to the dom­i­nant AKP fac­tion, whose pa­tron­age net­works are flush with money — thanks to its Arab Gulf pa­trons. More do­mes­tic chaos in com­ing months may even give Er­do­gan’s AKP a boost rather than hurt it. In any case, Mr. Er­do­gan will not per­mit him­self to lose.

Re­gard­less of what hap­pens, the U.S.-Turkey al­liance is be­com­ing a fic­tion from a strate­gic point of view, and U.S. pol­i­cy­mak­ers need to plan and act ac­cord­ingly. In­dulging Mr. Er­do­gan will only has­ten Turkey’s degra­da­tion.

Wash­ing­ton’s task now is to build a new se­cu­rity ar­chi­tec­ture in the re­gion — one that doesn’t de­pend on Mr. Er­do­gan — to cope with the on­go­ing im­plo­sion of or­der. As­sum­ing Europe is roused from its slum­ber, bal­anc­ing Rus­sian power and deal­ing with Turk­ish frailty is pru­dent and points to­ward build­ing up NATO po­si­tions in South­east Europe and the Mediter­ranean.

The United States also has al­ter­na­tive po­si­tions to re­in­force in the Mid­dle East, par­tic­u­larly among the Kurds in North­east­ern Iraq and in Eastern Syria, both stal­warts in the anti-ISIS fight. In this, Wash­ing­ton and Ankara are headed for a show­down in the lead-up to the bat­tle over Raqqa, ISIS’ cap­i­tal in Syria. The United States should dou­ble down on its part­ner­ship with the Kurds in Eastern Syria. True, this may draw Er­do­gan’s ire and ob­struc­tion­ism, but it un­der­scores the need for in­de­pen­dent U.S. ac­cess to Iraqi Kur­dis­tan and Syr­ian Kur­dis­tan via Iraq and Jor­dan.

All the same, the United States must not give up on Turkey. As it was in Tru­man’s time, Turkey’s po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter and sta­bil­ity is vi­tal to the pur­suit of or­der in the Mid­dle East. For this rea­son, the United States must be care­ful not to treat Kurds as merely mer­ce­nar­ies. The Kurds don’t want to be a part of some­body else’s em­pire, and strate­gi­cally-wise Turks are fully aware the ad­vance of en­light­ened Kur­dish self-rule along Turkey’s south­ern bor­der is in their in­ter­est. In ad­di­tion to bol­ster­ing them mil­i­tar­ily, the United States needs a fol­low-through plan for build­ing the Kurds’ ca­pac­ity for self-gov­ern­ment. If Amer­ica does not do this, Iran’s em­pire-builders or Rus­sia will, with pro­foundly detri­men­tal im­pli­ca­tions for Turk­ish se­cu­rity.

Mil­lions of Turks and Kurds want the se­cu­rity and free­dom that only repub­li­can gov­ern­ment can pro­vide. As the United States adopts “tough love” to­ward Pres­i­dent Er­do­gan’s Turkey, it needs to align with th­ese civil demo­cratic forces and make clear the repub­lic’s re­vival is essential.

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