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Turkey After Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Istanbul, October 10, 2016
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Istanbul, October 10, 2016

Under ordinary conditions the police raid that was launched on October 31 on Turkey’s most respected opposition newspaper, Cumhuriyet, and the arrest of senior staff on implausible suspicion of supporting terrorism, would have stirred up a storm of protest from human rights groups and Western governments. But the suppression of Cumhuriyet is just one maneuver in a campaign of repression that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been conducting since the failed coup of July 15. Turks have reacted to what is but one more assault on freedom of expression with resignation; while the international response has been muted.

Confident that he can get away with anything while America’s attention—such as it is, amid the perspiring domestic politics of Trump’s election—is fixed on the battle for Mosul and the related conflict in Syria, Erdoğan hasn’t contented himself with cracking a few media heads. His aims are structural. He is creating conditions for an all-powerful presidency. He is laying waste to tracts of the Kurdish southeast in a revived war against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has killed 1,700 people since a ceasefire broke down in the summer of 2015. And he is airing historical grievances that could allow Turkey, already heavily involved in the fighting in Iraq and Syria, to take over pockets of the Levant. Consider the “safe zone” that Turkish forces and local Islamist allies such as the Nour al-din al-Zenki Movement have already carved out across the Syrian border, which the Turks intend to use as a holding area for refugees and a buffer to protect their southern provinces against Kurdish irredentism.

Last summer’s attempted coup against Erdoğan was launched by the followers of an Islamist former ally, the Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen, and it was defeated by popular resistance. In the turmoil, two hundred forty-one were killed and Erdoğan himself evaded capture by minutes. The Turkish leader responded to this narrow escape with a tsunami of retribution that has submerged not only Gülenists but also Kurds and liberals—the other main groups that oppose him. Under cover of a state of emergency that was extended for a further ninety days on October 3, the authorities have arrested some 37,000 people and sacked or suspended 110,000. (Some 90,000 already-incarcerated Turkish prisoners have been paroled in order to make room for the new detainees.) These numbers includes Kurdish nationalists, despite the fact that they opposed the coup; the government has suspended 11,000 teachers accused of sympathizing with the PKK and has relieved some thirty mayors of their duties. On November 4—a few days after the raid on Cumhuriyet—the authorities arrested more than a dozen pro-Kurdish deputies, including the joint leaders of the country’s main Kurdish nationalist party, who may face charges of spreading terrorist propaganda.  

The wave of arrests has led to allegations that torture, which was for many years in abeyance, is once again a feature of Turkish jails. A recent Human Rights Watch report documented thirteen cases of alleged mistreatment of recent detainees, including severe beatings and sexual abuse. According to Hugh Williamson, Human Rights Watch’s Europe and Central Asia director, the government’s decision to suspend anti-torture safeguards in detention centers following the coup amounted to “a blank check to law enforcement agencies to torture and mistreat detainees as they like.”

The hapless folk at Cumhuriyet, European-style social democrats for the most part, seem to be paying the price for their trenchant criticism of the president’s unchecked authoritarianism. The paper’s biggest scoop, in 2014, was to catch the government illegally sending arms across the border into Syria, presumably destined for Turkish clients among the Sunni Arab opposition. Some 160 media outlets have been shut down since July 15, and more than 130 journalists are in pre-trial detention; many more have been silenced or have fled abroad.

Political repression has been accompanied by an asset-grab by the Erdoğan administration. According to government figures some $5 billion worth of Gülenist businesses, property, and schools have been taken over by the government; the real figure is probably closer to $13 billion. Once-thriving businesses live in fear of closure or seizure by the government; and academics receiving foreign job offers have speedily relocated. (I recently bumped into one in northern Ohio). This bodes ill for the security of private enterprise in a country that was until recently a byword for exuberant frontier capitalism. One might very well ask why Erdoğan, who had every opportunity to show magnanimity following the widespread popular rejection of the coup, has chosen instead to soil his own nest.   

Of course this is not how Turkey’s president sees things. Erdoğan (who came to power as prime minister in 2003) long ago succumbed to the classic dictator’s disease of regarding himself as coterminous with the country he governs—which the spike in his popularity in the aftermath of the attempted coup has only encouraged. Although he already enjoys considerable powers as commander in chief and acts as de facto head of government (the prime minister, Binali Yıldırım, makes no pretense at political independence), he wants his dominance formalized in a new constitution making him an “executive” president. To achieve sufficient parliamentary support to be able to hold a referendum on the subject, Erdoğan has been wooing a far-right nationalist party with promises to reinstate the death penalty, which was abolished in 2002 as part of the country’s now moribund EU accession process. It is hard to imagine an action that would more definitively signal the end of Turkey’s European aspirations.  

Would Erdoğan really entertain such a brutal break with a European vocation as old as the Republic itself?  In recent months, much attention has focused on Turkey’s complicated relationship with Russia and the extent to which Putin might provide an alternative kind of alignment. The two countries are on different sides in the Syrian conflict and relations had reached breaking point following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military jet in November 2015. But there has been a recent rapprochement between the two powers, with suggestions that Russia has acquiesced to a Turkish buffer zone along the border in return for a free hand in Aleppo.

But Turkish-Russian relations are driven by expediency and the mutual regard of one strong man for another, not shared ideology or trust, far less concerns over human rights. (It has not escaped his critics’ notice that the Islamist Erdogan is now cozying up to a country whose armed forces have mercilessly killed thousands of his fellow Muslims.) And Russia cannot rival the economic, diplomatic, and military benefits that Turkey receives from the West. Russia takes just 2.5 percent of Turkish exports—compared to Germany’s 9.3 percent. Moreover, there will always be a strong element of strategic competition between Turkey and Russia, as evidenced by the Turks’ plans to lay pipelines for non-Russian gas to cross their territory, and thus challenge Russia’s dominance over the European energy market.

For all the difficulties inherent in an eastward pivot, however, relations with the European Union have never been worse. Erdoğan has infuriated senior Europeans with his betrayal of human rights and he has threatened to pass onto Europe some 2.7 million Syrian refugees who are currently living in Turkey. (The EU is contributing to their board and lodging under an agreement that was negotiated between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Erdoğan amid singular ill-will.) In fact many refugees have integrated well in their new Turkish home and have been promised citizenship And while Turkey could, in a fit of pique, reopen the refugee spigot, its recent sealing of the Syrian border and establishment of safe havens on Syrian territory suggest, on the contrary, a slackening of migrant pressure.  

Turkey’s evolving policies toward Syria and Iraq indicate how Erdoğan will try and extricate himself from what he regards as a crisis of Turkish sovereignty caused by blowback from the south. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war his ambition was to replace Assad with a friendly Sunni regime and thus counter the influence of Shia Iran over the government of neighboring Iraq. But Syria’s turmoil turned out to be a chance for the Kurds of that country and their cousins in Turkey to make common cause. By 2015, to all intents and purposes, Turkey’s southeastern Kurdish regions and their equivalents across the border had merged.

Having made the cooption of moderate Kurdish nationalists a theme of his first decade or so in power, in 2015 Erdoğan changed course. He abandoned the ceasefire with the PKK and violently dismantled local Kurdish autonomy—Turkey’s main Kurdish towns are now rubble and many of their inhabitants have been put to flight. In September Turkey’s army crossed into Syria, smashing the ambitions of local, PKK-affiliated Kurds to control a continuous belt of territory along the border. Turkey and local Islamist allies now hold an area of Syria ninety kilometers wide—a wedge dividing Kurd from Kurd—and the Turkish government is demanding that the US let it have a major part in the coming assault on Raqqa, the ISIS stronghold further south.

“We will be there for the fighting,” Erdoğan vowed last month, “and we will be there at the table.” He was speaking of Iraq, where he has deployed two thousand Turkish troops (against the wishes of the Iraqi government) to protect the Turkmen minority and counterbalance Shia forces, but his words also apply to Syria. Partly, no doubt, to whip up the public in advance of a referendum on the executive presidency, Erdoğan has dressed up his southern excursions as a brave rejection of the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, under which the nascent Turkish Republic relinquished former possessions in Syria and Iraq.

Erdoğan commands an army much weakened by the purges (and perhaps still not to be trusted). His ability to expand Turkey’s military footprint in Syria and Iraq is limited. But he has managed to persuade the United States, which has used the Syrian Kurds as an extremely effective battering ram against ISIS, to apply a brake of its own to Kurdish irredentism. On a recent trip to Turkey, John Kerry, the secretary of state, was at pains to rule out the possibility of a Kurdish enclave along the Turkish border. “There will be no [Kurdish] corridor,” he said. The aim, he insisted, was a “united Syria.”

What does all this mean for a Donald Trump presidency? There are grounds to believe that, for all his dislike of Muslims within the United States, and his ambivalence towards NATO (of which Turkey is a longstanding member), Trump will in some ways be preferable in Erdoğan’s eyes to Barack Obama—and to what might have transpired had Hillary Clinton had come to power. Erdoğan is tired of taking what he considers hypocritical Western flak on human rights, an irritation that under a Clinton administration might have been expected to continue; she was further suspect in his eyes because her campaign accepted donations from the Gülen movement.

If anything, the pattern for future Turkish-US relations may be provided by Turkish-Russian relations. Now that Erdoğan has abandoned his former policy of regime change in Syria, and is concerned above all to contain the resurgent Kurds, the solution for him may be some kind of formalization of the status quo; if the Trump administration tolerates Erdoğan’s smashing of the Kurds, and desists from harping on about human rights, it will find Erdoğan a more enthusiastic accomplice in whatever plans it has for destroying ISIS, even if that involves allowing Assad a rump state. Inside Turkey, it seems likely that Trump will be bad news for the Kurds and other opponents of President Erdoğan. The leader of Turkey’s main opposition party leader recently accused Erdoğan and his allies of “creating their own Baathist state.” Will Trump care?