The Turkish Question; An Emergence of Opportunity in the Levant In The Moment of Turkish Instability
“A nation which makes the final sacrifice for life and freedom does not get beaten.” – Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
The world watched with trepidation as military tanks rolled through the streets of Ankara the night of July 15th. Within a matter of hours, soldiers once loyal to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the Chief of Military Staff hostage, attacked both the Turkish parliament and intelligence headquarters, exchanged gunfire in Taksim Square with loyalist forces, and commandeered media channels to announce a victorious overthrow of Erdoğan’s government. Or so it seemed.
Turkey is no stranger to military coups d’etat, having experienced four successful instances since 1960. President Erdoğan has also withstood barrages from political opponents throughout his 14-year hold on power. It has been assessed that the frequency of these strikes against the Turkish government have been somewhat of an experimental tradition in Turkey; a protection and preservation of Turkish democratic principles against minacious leaders. That said, the residuum of July’s attempt has demonstrated to the Turkish citizens President Erdoğan’s Achilles heel—a loose grip on the reins of power—and has tightened his grip on Turkey with government and military purges, a long-awaited military campaign in Iraq and Syria, souring the relationship with the European Union, agitating relations with the United States over the extradition of rival Fethullah Gülen, and a strategic pivot towards Russia in a burgeoning joint-military and energy partnership. These policy tasks in just the two months following July 15th have brought scholars and analysts to question whether the light of the once-heralded beacon of Eurasia will dim or brighten under Erdoğan’s tighter hold on power.
In this analysis, I will assess the questions that have been and should be asked during this moment of Turkish instability. These enquiries will assess Turkey’s position moving forward into a post-purge state after nearly 58,000 Turkish citizens have been deposed of their positions, as well as the country’s standing on the international stage and in regional institutions. The aftershock of Turkey’s political earthquake has proved consequential—–to the United States, the European Union, the Kurdish people, and of course, the Turkish constituents. While the achievement of internal stability will continue to ebb and flow, I predict the country will converge as a theater to play out geopolitical conflicts, and where invested actors will exploit opportune interests—particularly of the United States’ struggle in the Levant.
Purging for Prepotency; Erdoğan’s Grasp on Government
On July 15th, the Turkish nation awoke to a government shaken by force and a leader rattled by such events. In a widespread expulsion so colossal that many have considered it to be pre-conspired, Erdoğan imprisoned over 7,500 soldiers, 118 generals and admirals, 3,000 members of the Turkish judiciary, 1,500 state ministry staffers, and 100 intelligence officials. This widespread purge of lingering governmental opposition did not halt at the state level, but even seeped into the Turkish educational sector, religious institutions, and media outlets; 21,000 private school teachers, 1,577 university deans, and 100 journalists were dismissed. Of these, 9,000 remain in custody. This leaves all facets of the Turkish government and public services overwhelmingly understaffed across all fields and professions. This “counter-coup” signifies a newfound tenacity that will characterize a new era of the Erdoğan administration—one that will flex its muscle of control at home, while exercising defying the wishes of the West and appeasing the East.
Strongman rule is not new under Erdoğan. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2002, Erdoğan has been controversial in his pursuit to institute and champion political Islam in a traditionally secularpolitical system, initiating a slew of experimental reforms that exacerbated the political differences between Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), the Justice and Development Party, and other Turkish institutions of democracy. This development necessitated political partnerships, such as the alliance with a Sunni clerk, Fethullah Gülen, the founder of the Hizmet movement. Such a movement swept the nation with a message of religious tolerance and moderate policies of educational immersion and national service, prompting many followers of Gülen to become civil servants in Erdoğan’s administration. But political convenience steered the AKP, and a growing schism between Erdoğan’s political Islam and Gülen’s cultural Islam emerged, resulting in Gülen’s flight to the United States due to a rumored deposition plot and a governmental declaration deeming Gülenists a terrorist organization. In Erdoğan’s political reality, such political adversaries and connivances are commonplace—an intrinsic perspective that become intertwined with Turkey’s foreign policy platform abroad.
The NATO Question
This phenomenon has brought a series of questions to the assemblies, podiums, and cabinets of governments and regional organizations across the international system. The Turkish moment has not been taken lightly in the global order. Turkey’s relative instability, Erdoğan’s autocratic tendencies, combined with the geopolitical and strategic goldmine of Turkey’s location, is an important policy issue leaders will face in the next year.
In the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey stands as the second-largest military in membership, and serves as host to 24 NATO military bases. Even before July 15th, Turkey’s membership had been criticized of its failure to uphold the principles of the Treaty’s first preambulatory clause that mandates members have “stable democratic systems, pursue the peaceful settlement of territorial and ethnic disputes, have good relations with their neighbours, show commitment to the rule of law and human rights, establish democratic and civilian control of their armed forces, and have a market economy.”
Erdoğan’s policies have had a dangerous downward trajectory in protecting constituents’ human rights, with intense discriminatory policiestowards ethnic minorities and a reputation for quashing freedom of expression and assembly. Erdoğan’s discriminatory policies towards the Kurdish people, an ethnic minority dispersed throughout Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, have been reported to infringe on the rights and lives of the Kurdish people, including disproportionate charges on the basis of supposed “terrorist motives.”
Yet despite the series of perceived violations, the July 15th attack on the Incirlik air-base has become a fulcrum for NATO’s concerns about the Turkish military’s durability and their adherence to the treaty. The Incirlik base has been an invaluable asset in both the U.S. European Command and U.S. Central Command, as well as the anti-ISIS coalition’s fight in Syria and Iraq. The base is a bulwark in assisting air defense missions and generates significant intelligence cooperation with NATO allies, especially the United States. The base’s operations against Daesh were shut down as well as its commercial power and airspace the night of the attempted coup. Along with a five-day power outage, ten Incirlik officers and their commander, General Bekir Ercan Van, were detained in suspected coordination with anti-Erdoğan soldiers. While the base has regained power and operations have recommenced, the events of July 15th will continue to call into question NATO’s reliance on the security of their own bases in Turkey and cause NATO members to second-guess Turkey’s strategic capability under such an unstable political system. An air base forced to operate with backup generators while continuing to wage war against Daesh without access to their airspace is an inept one, which will pressure NATO into rethinking their reliance on Turkey.
This shift in relations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Turkey is not equivalent to suspension or expulsion, contrary to the arrayof experts calling for the removal of Turkey as a NATO member. In fact, there is no official process or protocol of discharge regarding a member state within the NATO structure. Even if the organization were to establish a mechanism of expulsion, Turkey is too great a strategic treasure for such a consideration; Turkey is perched in the crossroads of the East and West; between NATO and its adversary, Russia, and between the Middle East and Europe.
The Turkish Moment Bears Inestimable Opportunity
How will the North Atlantic Treaty Organization deal with an incalculable Turkey? One scenario will involve maneuvering, rather than containing, Turkey’s recent shift towards Russia. Both countries recently struck a renewed energy and military partnership in St. Petersburg, after a chilled six months of stalled relations and sanctions. Moreover, NATO members can either reinforce strained relations by deterring Turkish European Union candidacy and further deliberation surrounding the question of Turkey’s NATO membership. Alternatively, NATO could incorporate the recovered Turkish-Russian relationship into their fight against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. Many have perceived this renewed alliance as a betrayal of Turkey’s responsibilities to NATO, as well as an example of Russian encroachment upon a vulnerable political system and paranoid leader. Yet, I argue that this is not a lost cause, but rather an unwonted opportunity.
President Vladimir Putin has provided military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a policy fundamentally divergent from the United States and its allies, there has been rare proof of limited western-Russian cooperation against Daesh bears fruit. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 established a tentative timeline that incorporated U.S., Russian, and foreign cooperation, urging “all states to use their influence with the government of Syria and the Syrian opposition to advance the peace process.” A failed 48-hour ceasefire sought to accomplish just that, brokered between the United States and Russian forces in Syria that attempted humanitarian assistance and civilian evacuation for nearly 275,000 people without the disruption of strikes from the Syrian government, Free Syrian Army, Syrian Democratic Forces, and foreign forces. The violation of the ceasefire and the continuation of airstrikes in Aleppo has emerged as a strained point of contention for the United States and Russia in both militaristic and diplomatic spheres. But cooperation is still a necessary feat in Syria, even after animosity between the two superpowers. The Obama administration extended a hand to Moscow this past year, with a proposed air campaign combatting Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formally the al-Nusra Syrian branch of al-Qaeda, in addition to joint air-strikes expunging Daesh from its stronghold in Raqqa. From the established Russian front in Northwestern Syria and Turkey’s northern position, the United States and its allies could arrange a strategic operation that targets Daesh from its western stronghold in Palmyra to the East in Markadeh. No individualized military effort could accomplish such a feat in the region.
Russia’s position in Syria is one of immense strength and, while the United States’ presence has been felt in the Levant, Putin has greater leverage with Iran and the dormant Syrian government. Scholars Gordan Adams and Stephen Walt have advocated this as well, reiterating that no single power can defeat Daesh nor establish political stability in Syria. A united international coalition against the Islamic State continues to flounder without Russia’s presence, and will continue to as the Levant unravels into political pandemonium. Yet collaboration does not guarantee Assad’s deposition from power, just as cooperation with Erdoğan does not ensure Turkish avoidance of attacking Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in Syria and Iraq. It will be the United States’ responsibility to make the precarious decision whether to take a sensitive, but necessary step in their fight against Daesh.
This past summer, Turkey became a Eurasian flashpoint that marked a new wave of uncertainty towards the cohesion of their political system, the dependability of their military and NATO membership, and the respect of their constituents as a democratic institution. These questions will persist, as Erdoğan enforces his paranoia through stringent reforms and purges of officials. The entry of Turkey into the war against Daesh too sends a message of strength; President Erdoğan strives to grip power tightly as his administration recovers from an ill-fated coup attempt against him.
Yet while the global order has reason to lament over a clear shift in Turkish foreign policy, the moment of Turkish instability presents as many opportunities as it does challenges. A renewed energy and joint-military partnership struck between Erdoğan and Putin in St. Petersburg can serve as an opened door to the United States and NATO allies in their fight against Daesh in the Levant. International coalitions against the terrorist organization have proven weak and lacking in unity, and while the scarce cooperative efforts between the two hegemonic powers have not yielded success, U.S.-Russian collaboration could be the key to securing the Levant from Daesh.