08 Aug 2016
TLDR Upfront: Aside from obvious short-term civil and human rights concerns arising from Erdogan’s purge, a medium-term risk looms large. Turkey’s permanent exit off the pathway to European Union membership may signal an end to fifty-five year effort to integrate Turkey and the European mainland. Such a shift, especially if it included ejection from NATO or closer alignment with Russia or Iran, would have profound effects, a sort of Middle Eastern Red Wedding.
Full Context in the Back:
After the botched (or perfectly executed) coup-attempt of two weeks ago President Erdogan has arrested over 13,000 military, police, judiciary, academics and media. Add to that tens-of-thousands of civil servants sacked from their jobs, entire schools shut down as well as charities shuttered. In total over 60,000 may have been arrested or fired so far. Many newspapers have been shut down and television stations have been put under state control. Emergency powers have been declared, approved by the legislature, but bypassing the Constitutional Courts. (1) These actions are not a sharp departure for President Erdogan. He has after all embarked on a protracted multi-year effort to shutter; or at least, curtail media freedoms in the country that included efforts to ban social media outlets in the country. (Ironic given Erdogan’s use of Facetime, an Apple product, to make a key appeal during the height of the coup itself.)(2)
This whole-sale purge, Erdogan claims, is targeting Fettelah Gullen supporters whom the President claims are responsible for the coup. All masterminded by Fettelah Gullen himself, a former Erdogan ally and now bitter political rival living in exile in Pennsylvania. (Remember this – its important later). This begs an obvious question – if Gullen had such entrenched systemic support why was the coup so easily defeated? The official story is that coup plotters, having discovered Turkish intelligence agencies were on to them, rushed the operation. And conspiracies as to what actually happened will probably last for decades. But there is a mid-term problem looming of potentially greater consequence arising from the post-coup realities.
Turkey has a long history of trying to get closer to the various incarnations of what is now the European Union – reaching back to 1963 and the original incarnation of ECC. Almost always the two major stumbling blocks have been the economic disparity of Turkey relative to European members and its human rights records. However, with the admission of post-Soviet eastern European countries in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, the European Union seemed willing to overlook the poverty angle. Leaving only recalcitrance based on Turkeys perceived shady authoritarianism and human rights record. Ironically this was originally more about the militaries tendency to intervene with a coup anytime things went sideways in democracy – as well as the emergency powers levied over Kurdish territories for a decade or longer.(3) Indeed, the Justice Party Erdogan leads is just the latest incarnation of one side of a secular military vs. Islamist conflict in Turkey that has snaked like parallel lines for decades. The past coup attempts the secular military put down could rightfully be described as ideological predecessors of Erdogan’s own Islamist Justice Party. (4)
However, the distance between Turkish and European political institutions was not mirrored in military relationships. When Turkey joined NATO in 1952 it became a pivotal partner, ideally located on the key geographic location that for thousands of years has been the contested center of east-west/north-south foreign affairs. Turkey was so important to NATO that the alliance was willing to look the other way when Turkey military generals hung the Prime Minister in a former coup.
Today however, the drift away from the European Union towards an independent hegemony has been paralleled by a drift away from the military alliances both with NATO and key NATO states. This was driven home when an informal agreement to use Turkey as a staging base for US forces for the invasion of Iraq, made between senior US and Turkish military officials, collapsed during a Turkish parliament vote in early March 2003 just weeks before the invasion.(5)
Now…this tangent is important – so bear with me. The vote to ban US forces to base in Turkey occurred on March 3rd during a tumultuous period of change in Turkish politics easily overlooked in the US during what at the time was 100% focus on Iraq.
However, after the financial crisis of 2001 – the ruling coalition of Turkish politicians were ousted in November of 2002. In that watershed election a recently formed Islamist Justice Party, led by a Erdogan himself, leapt from a small minority of seats to over 2/3rd’s majority of the Parliament. Erdogan himself was Prime Minister in-the-wings from November 2002 through March of 2003. He was barred from holding any political position due to a criminal record; a tactic frequently used by the military to prevent Islamists from holding office by charging them with religious violations of Turkey’s highly secular laws.(6) With the Justice Party seated however, they changed the law preventing office holders from having a criminal record then held a March 9th by-election for a few seats in Siirt – one of which went to Erdogan. Now a member of Parliament, Erdogan was quickly nominated and elected to Prime Minster of Turkey on March 9th. Eleven days later the Iraq War began, without US forces opening a “northern front” via Turkey. (7)
In other words, the crack in the military alliance parallels the rise of the Justice Party itself – and leads forward to the tortured negotiations with the US over a response to ISIS. Turkey wanted Assad gone, Obama wanted ISIS gone. Each was more focused on their own priority than the other. (Suspicions that Turkey is secretly behind ISIS because its not a top priority is like saying Obama is secretly behind Assad because it was not a top US priority.) Ultimately this was resolved by an agreement so complicated I gave up infomulleting it when it happened that basically allowed US to base warplanes out of a single Turkish airbase in exchange for the US allowing Turkey to go after the PKK in exchange for Turkey allowing the Peshmerga and YPG to stage ground troops…just…trust me its complicated.
Since the coup things have only gotten worse. Erdogan has blamed Obama indirectly for failing to act on Gullen; claiming he warned the President the exile was plotting a coup. Already President Erdogan has demanded extradition of Gullen to face trial in Turkey, a move President Obama reacted to very coolly. More stridently, there are numerous claims now arising in Turkey of direct involvement of US retired military personnel of organizing and leading the coup. (8) This lays a clear exit-path from NATO from Turkey’s perspective. On the other side of the Atlantic, Secretary of State Kerry was the first to bring up Turkey’s removal from NATO via ejection. (9)
So now we have the very real possibility of Turkey exiting both the European Union pathway AND NATO.
So what does the future hold? ?
For the last few years I have been noticing, with concern, a growing alignment between President Erdogan and President Putin of Russia; not as a matter of geopolitical states and mutual self-interest insomuch as of personalities and a relationship between leaders. This personality based tie has then been bolstered by economic treaties forged over that personal relationship. Erdogan was the only head-of-state from NATO or European Union states to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics held in Sochi (this was just after Russia invaded South Ossetia and Georgia). The two leaders cut a deal that opened up trade between the two countries, now accounting for close to $36bn; oil and gas from Russia to Turkey and agriculture products from Turkey to Russia. They also launched ambitious infrastructure projects – a $20bn nuclear reactor in Turkey and a joint gas pipeline.
I was rightfully mocked at first with the counterpoint that a deep cultural dislike between Russia and Turkish peoples, regardless of leadership, would prevent any such alignment. But with Putin seizing almost complete control of Russia and Erdogan on his way to doing the same in Turkey; what role will the people have? Also, another counterpoint on a realpolitik rather than cultural front. Economic interests may align – but geopolitical interests were opposed. Turkey was a part of NATO, Turkey and Russia were on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, a tension exacerbated when Russia intervened and culminated in the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by Turkish air force last year.(10) Stoked by Russian statecraft the nationalism directed against Turkey was no more friendly. (11)
Fast forward. First, after months Erdogan apologized to Russia for the downing of the aircraft in late June. Then, just a handful of days before the coup, the Turkish Prime Minister Yildirim went off-script suggesting openly that Turkey was ready to normalize relations with Syria.(12) This would remove a key structural impidement in terms of realpolitik aligned interests between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Even moreso, Putin’s consigliarie Sergey Lavrov has been courting his counterpart Yildirim over the last few months. (13)
What scenarios could arise from this? Three I can think of.
1) Return to Detente
Turkey is not the first nation within the European Union country to declare expansive emergency powers and a suspension of civil rights; France did so after the November terrorist attack and has renewed them several times. However, France is a member and Turkey is not. Membership has its privileges. Nor is this the first time Turkey has deployed martial law within its history – both against a failed coup in the 1980s and for over 15 years in the Kurdish territories. It’s possible that after President Erdogan cleans house and return to a kind of cold-detente. I don’t think there will ever be a return to the reform days of 2003-2011; those days are gone. Turkey has learned if it wants something from Europe, it’s better to negotiate from a position of strength and quid-pro-quo – offer to provide something Europe wants in return for something Turkey needs. Europe wants the refugee problem solved, Turkey needs 10bn Euros, boom – problem solved. The same coldly-transactional approach is taken to NATO – if allies want Turkey’s assistance, they better come prepared to deal.
Turkey’s pathway into the European Union would not be formally withdrawn – but it wouldn’t be going anywhere fast either. A sort of limbo ‘in-name-only’ on hold until either President Erdogan leaves power, significant and substantial reforms are made or some other unforseen shift occurs.
2) Regional Hegemon Part II
Turkey tries to go-it-alone – again. Erdogan attempts to regain the position of regional kingmaker he sought out during the heydey of the Arab Uprising. Of course sequels are always worse than the original and the original wasn’t that good. The Arab Uprising failed, Turkey failed to influence resolution of the Golan Heights and with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War its hard for Turkey to cast itself as above-the-fray. It’s too big to get involved, too small to stand above. And because of it’s mixed stance Turkey doesn’t truly have any strong friends in the region. It tried to stand above multiple partners and failed – so they at best all have cool relations having formed their own clubs. Iran with Russia and Syria. The Gulf States with the GCC. The remaining Arab authoritarians want nothing to do with Turkey, especially as its now run by Islamists they are oppressing. It could serve as bastion of the Islamist movement – a kind of Iranian version of the Muslim Brotherhood; but that doesn’t seem in the cards.
3) The Red Wedding
If Turkey exits the European Union and there is a break with NATO then there’s a possibility that Erdogan will seek rapprochement with Russia and alignment within a Russian-Iranian-Turkish framework alongside normalizing relations with Syria. This would be the Red Wedding of middle-eastern politics with President Erdogan playing the part of Roose Bolton. The strategy of every country in the middle east is, in part, predicated on the stability of the trajectory of Turkey’s membership in NATO, its stance vis a vis European and Middle Eastern allies, and that this will not change. Any major shift would have enormous domino effects. All participants would have something to gain – trade between all three is already strong. Russia has always sought secure access to the Mediterranean and its (modern) Syrian naval ports through the Black Sea. Iran has also built navy ports on the western coast of Syria and was indeed developing heavy rail lines to facilitate resupply when the Syrian Civil War broke out. A normalization of relations between Turkey and Syria and, presumed, end to the Syrian Civil War would allow those plans to continue. Turkey wouldn’t have to help Syria, just, do nothing. (Of course ISIS sits right atop those strategic lines, so there is that.) Kurdistan in Northern Iraq for example would find itself effectively cut-off, surrounded by Turkey, Iran and Shia-Iraq. The GCC states would freak-out…Turkey has always had warmer ties with Iran than the Gulf State Arabs. But as a partner in NATO, the GCC never viewed Turkey as a potential partner of Iran. The US might also join the GCC in seeking new laundered britches. Including proxy and puppet states that’s a regional alliance that stretches from the border of Jordan and Saudia Arabia up through the Antatartica west to the borders of Europe and east to Afghanistan. The Turkish military is chock-full of western technology and kit, its soldiery professional and well trained (something all middle eastern armies seriously lack.) Combined with Russian strategic projection and advanced technology, Iranian heft and size – its a formidable alliance. Of course, there are barriers. But in an authoritarian state – the personality of the strongman begins to matter a lot more than the structural or institutional barriers of the state or culture. This need not even result in disastrous trade embargoes. After all – Europe still trades with Russia and Iran, and the pressure Russia could exert on Europe for gas concessions and other key agreements would be even higher.
In conclusion – the short term crisis in Turkey is grim enough. But what this means in the medium and long term is especially critical as to whether Turkey remains on a European pathway and/or as a member of NATO. Or does it take a permanent off-ramp from either to go it alone. Without those ties, and especially in an authoritarian state; the checks we might expect to limit personality-driven adventurism and alliance-making reminiscent of Europe in the late 19th century simply aren’t there.
What to watch? A key summit between Erdogan and Putin occurs in Sochi tomorrow leading into a G20 Summit in September 2016. Monitoring what announcements come out of those meetings, or any more duets by Lavrov and Yilibrim could give indications of which medium to long term scenario is playing out.