The Republic of Turkey has long been an important ally for the United States, occupying an extraordinarily strategic geographic location as the bridge between the Middle East and Europe. Established in 1923, Turkey was the successor to the Ottoman Empire, the majority of which had been split up between France and Great Britain in the aftermath of the First World War. Mustafa Kamal Atatürk, a military commander who had helped achieve an Ottoman victory at the Battle of Gallipoli, led the Turkish War of Independence in an effort to revoke the Treaty of Sèvres, which had completely partitioned the Ottoman Empire amongst the Allied powers. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born, with Mustafa Kamal Atatürk as its first president. Atatürk would remain president until his death in 1938, and is regarded as the “Father of the Turks” (which is what “Atatürk” translates to). Atatürk is credited with championing the creation of a secular, parliamentary democracy in the Muslim world, symbolic of the position Turkey holds as the link between Europe and the Middle East.
Neutral in WWII, the Truman Doctrine in 1947 placed Turkey and Greece under the protection of the United States in the face of post-war Soviet expansion. Eventually becoming a member of NATO, Turkey has enjoyed close relations with the United States and has been an important ally in the Middle East. A region ripe with weak, embattled, and failing governments, a stable ally like Turkey on the border of Europe has helped to contain that unrest to the Middle East. As the Arab Spring showed, popular uprisings are now possible through social media, and the strategy of relying on dictators to keep countries stable is simply no longer sustainable. The sad truth is that Turkey is moving closer and closer to authoritarianism, a development which should alarm policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Turkey’s slide towards authoritarianism has not been sudden. In 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected Prime Minister of Turkey. Erdogan, the founder of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (or AKP, its Turkish initials) brought economic and political stability to Turkey while simultaneously restraining its powerful military. The military had a history of overthrowing elected governments it suspected of trying to alter the secular constitution or it viewed as a threat to national security. Turkey’s armed forces have long defended and enforced Atatürk’s vision of a secular democracy, so the rise of an Islamist leader like Erdogan was troubling to say the least. Over his twelve years as prime minister, however, Turkey’s economy tripled in dollar terms, growing his popularity while simultaneously raising concerns of authoritarianism.
As parliamentary republic, the position of president in Turkey is largely ceremonial, with most of the power being granted to the prime minister. When Erdogan was sworn in as president in 2014, however, he made plans to rectify that. If his AK Party won a majority in parliament in 2015 (which it did not), Erdogan had announced plans to establish an executive presidency by altering the constitution. Critics argued that this would put too much power in the hands of a autocrat and worried that Turkey was straying further and further away from Atatürk’s secular ideals. Erdogan’s plans were halted when the left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) prevented the AKP from gaining a majority in parliament. While Erdogan did not get what he wanted, this episode made it clear his intention to concentrate more and more power around himself.
After July 15th’s failed coup attempt, President Erdogan has overseen a crackdown against political opponents, protestors, and journalists. Since the coup, 120 journalists have been jailed and 3,000 more people have been arrested on charges of insulting the president, included the former Miss Turkey, who posted a satirical rewording of the national anthem on her Instagram account. Roughly 150 news outlets have since been shut down and the editor of Cumhuriyet, Turkey’s last major independent newspaper, is sitting in jail. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey has replaced China as the number one jailer of journalists. Crackdowns on the press is nothing new in Erdogan’s Turkey, but severity of the problem has drastically increased in the aftermath of the July coup attempt.
Remember the left-wing HDP that helped deprive Erdogan’s Islamist AKP from gaining the parliamentary majority necessary to pass an amendment to give him more power? In late October, two of the co-leaders of the HDP were arrested after early morning raids as part of a counterterrorism investigation. Simultaneous raids throughout the capital of Ankara and the southeast city of Diyarbakir ended in the additional arrests of nine of HDP’s members of Parliament. Additionally, 12,800 police officers, including 2,523 police chiefs, were suspended in early October on suspicion of having links with the coup. Erdogan also fired 11,000 teachers across the country on suspicion of supporting the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, and the Turkish government took control of 28 municipalities whose mayors it claimed were either funding or supporting the PKK. On November 22nd, Erdogan dismissed another 15,000 state employees, ranging from soldiers and police officers to tax collectors and midwives, bringing the total number of dismissed state employees to 125,000. 375 more institutions, including more news outlets, were shut down as well. As of late November, over 40,000 people have been arrested or detained in response to the coup attempt.
The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) is the latest attempt by Turkey’s Kurdish minority to protect its rights through democratic and peaceful means. The HDP is closely linked with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group based in Iraq which has been in conflict with the Turkish government since the 1980s. The HDP has had to walk a fine line regarding their links to the PKK, condemning PKK attacks publicly to maintain credibility with the Turkish public while simultaneously attending the funerals of PKK fighters to maintain support amongst Turkish Kurds.
The PKK was designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) by the State Department in 1997. In 1999, the United States captured the PKK’s leader Abdullah Ocalan and turned him over to Turkey, where he remains imprisoned. The United States was content to allow Turkey to handle the PKK on its own until the Islamic State began seizing large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014. In desperate need of forces on the ground to counter the spread of ISIS, the United States turned to the Kurdish militias, the Self Defense Forces (YPG). The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. Now, the United States is in a situation not unlike that of the HDP: it must cooperate with and support the YPG to fight ISIS while simultaneously trying to not alienate Turkey, whose sworn enemy now comprises the backbone of the American anti-ISIS strategy.
Because we need Turkey’s cooperation in the campaign against ISIS, Washington has been prepared to accept Erdogan’s crackdown as the price of doing business. That price, however, is now too high to tolerate. Erdogan’s authoritarianism, if left unchecked, will greatly increase the longterm chances of instability and upheaval in a country that is integral to European security and stability. Over the past year, the European Union has struggled to deal with the inundation of refugees fleeing the violence in Syria and Iraq. That refugee crisis would be much worse if Turkey was not on Europe’s periphery to either turn away people who would not be eligible for asylum status or slow the flow of refugees into Eastern Europe. A stable Turkey is vital to the equation, and, while the coup attempt raised fears that Turkey could descend into civil war (which, thankfully, it didn’t), concentrating more power around Erdogan and allowing the destruction of the free press that underpins a free democracy is also a step in the wrong direction. The Arab Spring taught us that long-standing dictatorships and autocracies in the Muslim world were not invincible, and the result of those popular uprisings have been chaotic civil wars in Syria and Libya, the ascension to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (for a short while), and Tunisia becoming a “magnet for the Islamic State”. An Arab Spring-style uprising in Turkey in response to Erdogan’s authoritarianism would be devastating to say the least.
Washington, it’s time to start worrying about Turkey.