The earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria on February 6 killed around 40,000 people in Turkey alone, destroyed or severely damaged 200,000 buildings, and left around 1.5 million people homeless. Miners, construction workers, and other volunteers converged on the stricken area to pull survivors from the rubble, while across the country people lined up to donate food and clothes. These acts of solidarity did not mask the country’s divisions for long, however. The government’s sluggish distribution of emergency aid, its venomous response to criticism of the relief effort, and the growing realization that the entombment of people in their homes was the consequence of substandard building practices and official corruption opened still-deeper wounds of anger and shame.
The earthquake is the worst disaster in the century-long history of the Turkish Republic, and its effects will be felt for generations. The only good that might emerge from it, I was told by my Turkish friends, will be if voters recognize the failure of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to prepare for and respond to the earthquake as the crowning abomination of their long misrule and eject them from office in elections in May. Only then will Turkey be able to rebuild, not just in the physical sense but in the way someone rebuilds mental and emotional capacities after a long and increasingly unendurable incarceration.
In the days after the earthquake Erdoğan toured the affected area, giving speeches in which he glided over “delays” in the provision of relief, promised to complete reconstruction and recovery “within one year,” and warned the media to give no credence to “provocateurs,” by which he meant the parliamentary opposition and the few independent Turkish journalists who haven’t been imprisoned, driven abroad, or bullied into silence. When Turkey suffered its last very costly earthquake, in 1999, the death toll was 17,000 and the government then in power was excoriated for its lack of preparedness. Almost a quarter of a century later, the ragged remnants of Turkey’s once-cacophonous civil society are being pilloried for pointing out shortcomings on an even bigger scale.
One of the Erdoğan government’s first actions after the February 6 earthquake was to create an app enabling people to report “disinformation.” On February 15 the interior minister issued a veiled threat of legal action against Haluk Levent, an aging rock star whose public health and poverty alleviation NGO, Ahbap, has received large sums from people who don’t trust the government’s emergency relief organization. A columnist at the big progovernment daily newspaper Sabah (not that the qualification is really necessary—it’s impossible for a big daily to survive without being progovernment) wrote:
From coup plotters who have fled abroad to “opposition” politicians and journalists at home, all are engaged in the same dirty work. Their only goal is to create paralysis and chaos and lay the ground for civil war.
After the 1999 earthquake Turkey imposed stringent construction standards but did not have the will to enforce them. Reducing the number of stirrups—the steel loops that stop load-bearing columns from buckling—makes buildings cheaper and quicker to build. Exceeding the permitted number of floors seems like a harmless way to make a few extra lira. In the cozy world of owners, builders, and inspectors, money changes hands and deals are sealed over a good lunch. (In all but the town of Erzin, it seems, which despite lying near the epicenter of the quake suffered not a single loss of life, in part because its mayor is a stickler for construction rules that were ignored elsewhere.)
Presiding over local malfeasance is a national government that sees illegal construction not as an evil to be suppressed but an udder to be milked. Since it came to power in 2002, it has introduced six amnesties under which substandard buildings are made legal in exchange for a fine. Murat Yetkin, an opposition journalist, summarized this process on his YouTube channel: “You take money, you declare the building safe…. My friends, you might be able to cheat the laws of politics, but not the laws of nature!”
The most recent “construction peace,” in the government’s euphemism, came into effect in May 2018, a few weeks before Turks went to the polls to elect their first executive or “super” president endowed with additional powers following a referendum on folding the offices of prime minister and president into one. The government marketed the amnesty with a slick TV ad that has received more criticism since the earthquake than it did at the time. In it a middle-aged woman confesses a little bashfully that she has built “a couple of units” on the sly and lives in fear that the authorities will demolish them. Not to worry, replies a man with a white beard and the kind of voice you can trust, “the government is here to solve people’s problems,” and he urges her and others to grasp the state’s “hand of tenderness.” An elderly man shuffles forward and asks if the house he has built in his garden for his hard-up son and daughter-in-law will also benefit from the peace. “Don’t worry, dear uncle,” comes the beaming response, “it suffices for you to register the house online!” Erdoğan won election to the superpresidency with 53 percent of the vote, 22 percentage points more than his nearest rival.
The following year, in a visit to Kahramanmaraş, Erdoğan told a cheering crowd that the building amnesty program had “solved the problems” of 144,000 of the city’s residents—a piece of good fortune for which many paid with their lives in February. In an interview with the BBC after the earthquake, Pelin Pınar Giritlioğlu, a leading figure in the country’s engineers and urban planners union, estimated that up to 75,000 buildings in the affected area had received construction amnesties. If Erdoğan prioritizes speed over quality in the reconstruction, as he seems resolved to do, there is every chance that the next generation of Turkish buildings will be no more earthquake resistant than the last.
Erdoğan looks threatened in the coming election, due to be held on May 14. Inflation is running at 57 percent, in large part thanks to his refusal, born of an ideological aversion to usury, to raise interest rates. His decision to take in 3.6 million Syrian refugees who fled across the border during the civil war has also come back to haunt him. Since the earthquake anti-Syrian feeling, strong already, has intensified, with nationalists accusing refugees of hogging aid and social media awash with videos that show Syrians being beaten and humiliated after they were purportedly caught looting.
In 2019 the AKP lost the crucial mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara. In Istanbul the election was annulled, and in the rerun Ekrem İmamoğlu, the candidate of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), won by a much wider margin than in the first one. On March 6, an alliance of six opposition parties chose Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP’s veteran leader, to be their unified candidate in the presidential poll, and the country’s main Kurdish party, the Peoples’ Democratic Party, which isn’t in the alliance, indicated that it may throw its support behind his candidacy.
Erdoğan is arguably the world’s most successful electoral politician. And he never lets a crisis go to waste. On February 9 the Turkish parliament, which is dominated by the AKP and its far-right allies, imposed a state of emergency in the earthquake zone, augmenting the president’s already considerable latitude to govern by decree. Pliant judges have already been stacking the odds in his favor, as happened last December when İmamoğlu was sentenced to two and a half years in jail and banned from politics for calling election officials “idiots.” He remains in office pending appeal.
Whether it’s as a democrat, an Islamist, or most recently a nationalist, Erdoğan’s instinct is for the political center, where the most votes lie. Having made his name in the 1990s as an efficient young mayor of Istanbul, he won power nationally in 2003 by harnessing a widespread desire for a more pious political culture after decades of dominance by an out-of-touch secular elite. He spent his early years as prime minister making Turkey’s authoritarian political system more democratic and thus more reflective of the religiously observant Sunni majority. He stopped the police from torturing dissidents and started a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which had taken up arms against the Turkish state. His economic reforms ushered in a period of growth and prosperity—what emerging-market fund managers around the world called the “Turkish miracle.”
As a Muslim-majority NATO member espousing democracy and pluralism in the aftermath of September 11, Turkey seemed like a model for avoiding a “clash of civilizations”; there was, as the US diplomat Richard Holbrooke put it, “no country in the world of more strategic importance.” In 2005 the European Union rewarded Erdoğan’s efforts by opening negotiations for Turkish membership.
But before long it became clear that EU leaders like France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel had no intention of letting a big Muslim country into their club. The Kurds also snubbed Erdoğan, demanding political autonomy beyond the cultural rights they were offered, while liberals and the Alevis, members of a quasi-Shia minority numbering perhaps 15 million people, were repelled by his increasingly intolerant, pro-Sunni rhetoric. Gradually the basis of Erdoğan’s politics changed from conciliation to grievance. Into a growing circle of foes went his former ally Fethullah Gülen, a preacher who immigrated to Pennsylvania in 1999 and whose followers wielded much power in the police, judiciary, and education system; Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, whose “godless” regime Erdoğan vowed to topple at the outset of the Syrian civil war; the “interest rate lobby” (financiers, particularly Jews); and much of the perfidious West.
No matter how fervently his opponents hope that a weakened Erdoğan has been weakened further, he’s come back from positions of acute vulnerability in the past. In December 2013, when he was prime minister, more than fifty of his most powerful allies, including bankers and construction magnates, were hauled in for questioning on corruption charges by Gülenist prosecutors. As the net tightened around Erdoğan and his family home in Istanbul was placed under surveillance, he phoned his son Bilal several times from the capital, Ankara. Their conversations were taped by the Gülenists and uploaded to YouTube.
Millions of Turks heard Erdoğan tell his son in the gravelly tones of the all-powerful paterfamilias to get rid of the at least €50 million in cash that was in the family safe. They heard him warn Bilal to be careful with his words, for “we are being monitored.” Kılıçdaroğlu dubbed Erdoğan the country’s “thief-in-chief.” Much of the media, less constrained than it is now, declared the prime minister’s career over.
But Erdoğan did not succumb. He struck back, purging the judiciary of Gülenists and turning the following year’s municipal elections into a referendum on his rule, which the AKP won easily. Two years later he used an attempted coup by Gülenist army officers as a pretext to bring millions of his supporters into the streets and to purge hundreds of thousands of opponents—not all of them Gülenists by any means—from the army, the bureaucracy, the media, and the universities.
The longer authoritarians stay in power, the more necessary it becomes to eject them from office and the harder it becomes to do so. Erdoğan isn’t simply the head of a government. He has built a regime in his image in which no major institution is free of his influence. In the perceptive words of the country’s most prominent Kurdish politician, Selahattin Demirtaş, tweeting from his prison cell (this is where being Kurdish and perceptive gets you), Erdoğan’s twenty-one years of political dominance have
gone by under such heavy pressures that many people think that Erdoğan is the state. They [by which Demirtaş means the president’s propaganda machine] have succeeded in making people think that as soon as Erdoğan goes the state will collapse.
In Erdoğan’s War, Gönül Tol writes that under “Erdoğan’s electoral authoritarianism” elections are emotionally taut “events” in which voters renew their allegiance to the “embodiment of the nation.”
Tol, a respected Washington, D.C.–based analyst of Turkish affairs, happened to be in Turkey with her sister when the earthquake struck. As she recounted in a recent podcast, they awoke that morning to learn from Tol’s brother-in-law that his family had been buried under the rubble in Antakya. They rushed to the city, but not until many lives had ebbed away, including those of Tol’s relatives, did rescue workers show up, and even then
only to tell us that they could not help us because they had been given instructions to focus their rescue efforts somewhere else. There were no agencies in the first forty-eight hours, there was no one, there was no civil society, the military hadn’t been dispatched, so people were basically left alone.
One rescuer Tol encountered had specific instructions to find a home belonging to relatives of a member of parliament.
Tol’s fascinating book tells the story of Erdoğan’s career by following his policy toward Syria, which, to anyone interested in Turkish politics, has the effect of shining a new light on familiar events. Erdoğan once referred to Syria as a “domestic matter.” The countries’ long land border and unresolved territorial disputes, their overlapping Kurdish minorities, and the five centuries that Syria spent as an Ottoman province have left many modern Turks with a sense of noblesse oblige.
The modern Republic of Syria is led by its Alawite minority, heterodox Shias who are distantly related to Turkey’s Alevis and have a history of suppressing homegrown Sunni Islamists. Erdoğan is a Sunni Islamist. But at the beginning of his rule his policy of cultivating smooth relations with Turkey’s neighbors engendered strong commercial and cultural ties between the two countries. Erdoğan referred to Assad as his “brother,” and the two leaders vacationed together with their wives.
Fraternal feeling lasted only until the Arab Spring, however. For empire nostalgists like Erdoğan, the toppling of authoritarian dictators in Egypt and Tunisia was an irresistible invitation to spread a “Turkish model” of development and Sunni piety across the former Ottoman world; and in March 2011, when the Syrian revolt began, it looked as though Assad would fall next.
For Erdoğan, foreign policy is at least partly about his domestic position, and Tol is at her most illuminating when she describes Erdoğan’s conception of Sunni solidarity as a means of reformulating national identity along sectarian lines, binding the (mostly Sunni) Kurds to himself and creating an internal enemy in the form of the Alevis. Kılıçdaroğlu is an Alevi; at the peak of the fighting, Erdoğan taunted him that Syrian freedom fighters were getting rid of “their CHP.”
As part of his overture to Turkey’s Kurds, Erdoğan took to brandishing a government-produced Kurdish translation of the Quran while campaigning in the Kurdish areas, and he taunted the Kurdish nationalists for their indifference to religion. In Tol’s telling, his admiring references to his longing to pray at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, a hugely significant Sunni place of worship, and to Salahuddin Ayyubi, the Sunni Kurdish leader known to his Crusader foes as Saladin, “highlighted Erdoğan’s Sunni vision for both Turkey and post-Assad Syria.” He also counted on support from Turkey’s Kurds for his plans for a superpresidency. “Are we ready to realize the goals of new Turkey,” he asked a Kurdish crowd in 2014,
adopt a new constitution, switch to a presidential system and resolve the Kurdish issue? Give us 400 seats [more than the two thirds of parliament he needed in order to change the constitution] and let us solve this peacefully.
Erdoğan’s government urged the Obama administration to commit to regime change in Syria, and Turkey became the organizational hub of the Syrian opposition. His foreign minister at the time, an Ottoman revivalist named Ahmet Davutoğlu, assured him that Assad would fall in a matter of weeks and that “we will reunite with our brothers” and “render the borders meaningless.” But Davutoğlu was wrong. Assad didn’t fall and the Kurds had another kind of reunification in mind. A Syrian offshoot of the PKK took advantage of the fighting to seize tracts of northern Syria and set up self-governing Kurdish cantons that attracted many of their Turkish kin. Erdoğan’s offer to Turkey’s Kurds of Sunni solidarity paled in comparison with the pleasures of liberation being enjoyed across the border, and he feared that the enclaves would grow into a Kurdistan extending across both countries and dominated by the PKK.
Erdoğan also underestimated Obama’s distaste for regime change. In 2014 the US president decided his priority wasn’t overthrowing Assad but countering the emerging threat of ISIS, and to this end he airdropped ammunition to Kurds who were fighting the group. “Our NATO ally is arming terrorists,” Erdoğan fumed, but when Tol related his words to a US official who had been trying to persuade Turkey to stop helping jihadi groups, the official replied, “He now knows how we feel.” Earlier that year Turkish intelligence had been caught by its own gendarmes sending arms across the border to ISIS-controlled parts of Syria. In return for fighting the Kurds in Syria, the Turks not only allowed ISIS what Tol calls “freedom of action in border towns,” but also let them use Turkey as a conduit for revenue they received from oil sales in their territory.
By 2015 Erdoğan’s Syria policy was a mess, and in elections that June the AKP lost its parliamentary majority. Over the next few months a wave of bombings—which the government blamed variously on ISIS, the PKK, and, implausibly, a coalition of the PKK, ISIS, and Syrian government agents—killed hundreds of people across the country and prompted accusations that Erdoğan had unleashed the darkest forces of the deep state to create chaos. By the time new elections were held that November, Erdoğan had shelved his Kurdish Quran and wrapped himself in the Turkish star and crescent. He campaigned before flag-draped coffins of soldiers who had been killed in clashes with the PKK, and his majority was duly restored. Two years later, when Erdoğan narrowly won the referendum on setting up a superpresidency, he did so with the support not of the Kurds but of a far-right party of extreme nationalists—Turkey’s new political center.
With the divergence of Turkish and US interests in Syria, a strategic partnership that had defined Turkish foreign policy since the Korean War came to an end. Erdoğan has since launched several military offensives against the Syrian Kurds, with the acquiescence of his new ally, Russia. His aim is no longer Assad’s overthrow. It is to end the Kurds’ experiments with autonomy and to carve out a “safe zone” into which Turkey’s Syrian refugees can be repatriated. In the words of one Syrian rebel commander, embittered by Erdoğan’s abandonment of the cause, “dirty, secret deals between Ankara and Damascus gave Erdoğan the Kurds but sacrificed the revolution.”
“Despite the zigzags in his Syria policy,” Tol writes, “Erdoğan has always had one primary goal in the war-torn country: to consolidate his rule.” Looked at from this angle, Erdoğan’s War, for all its rich detail, is not really about Syria and still less about the countless Syrians whose lives were ended, immiserated, or impoverished as he tried and failed to realize his ambitions there. It’s about the corrupting effect of power.
“In 2008,” an Economist report on the country said recently, “Turkey aligned itself with 88% of the EU’s foreign-policy decisions and declarations. By 2016 that share had fallen by half to 44%. Last year it was only 7%.” Countries can be lost. Europe’s leaders share the blame in this case: having promised Turkey a future in the EU, they took that future away. The Turkish precedent should be in the minds of today’s EU and NATO leaders as they make promises to another aspirant, Ukraine. As for the Turks, instead of having a retired prime minister whom history would have judged to be one of the ablest and most effective politicians of his generation, they are saddled with a forever president whose only trick is to present himself as the solution to crises of his own making.
—March 8, 2023