Is Turkey Changing Sides?

Alert and ready to act, Vladimir Putin is courting Erdoğan, while outmaneuvered, the Obama administration appears paralyzed and in denial. The question is: Will the next U.S. administration regain its sense of mission?

By Nicholas Dima | August 16, 2016


Turkey’s recent military coup attempt is worrying the West and there are good reasons for concern. For several decades, Turkey kept a balance between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam and between NATO and Russia. Turkey’s membership in NATO is very important and a change of sides is hard to imagine. Yet, the daily Romania Libera announced that Ankara could leave the alliance.

On July 15 some elements of the Turkish military attempted a coup, apparently, with the intention of keeping the country on a secular track. Turkey’s elected president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, appealed to the people using social media allegedly to save his democratic regime. The coup failed. In the process 290 people lost their lives and for a short time normal life was disrupted. Judging by the crowds that demonstrated for democracy, the majority of the people sided with the president. His policy, however, is pro-Islamist and his critics accuse him of authoritarian rule.

Certain critics claim that Erdoğan used the coup to impose a dictatorial regime. He accused his former ally, Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, of masterminding the failed uprising. And Ankara asked Washington to extradite Gülen, who now lives in the United States. Gülen denies any ties with the coup, while the State Department asked for proof of his involvement.

Erdoğan is caught in his desire for increased power between the Islamist movement and the West. Yet, his regime resorted to wide-spread domestic reprisals. According to AP, AFP and other media sources, over 10,000 Turks were arrested and jailed after the coup and another 50,000 were fired from their jobs. The Turkish Anadolu News Agency announced that among those arrested are military men, journalists, judges, professors and members of various institutions suspected to have sympathized with the coup leaders. AP of July 28 mentioned the arrest or removal of 149 generals and admirals and 47 senior journalists. The authorities also closed many newspapers, television and radio stations, and three news agencies. The presidency also decreed a three-month state of emergency. Amnesty International criticized Ankara for violating human rights.

Ironically, Russia defended Erdoğan’s policy, while the Balkan countries accused him of wanting to revive the old Ottoman Empire. Based on their historical experiences, most Balkan countries reject Turkey, but Romania, which was victimized historically by Russia, maintains good relations with Ankara. This year Romania’s president visited Turkey and President Erdoğan offered to build in Bucharest the biggest mosque in Europe. The Romanians were outraged and the issue is still pending.

(The site selected for the mosque is one of the best in Bucharest and is located across the Romanian American University, where I teach as a visiting professor. One can already see crosses erected by people on the site to prevent building the mosque.)

A little history

During the 19th century the Ottoman Empire was considered the sick man of Europe. While Istanbul was Westernized to a certain degree, Anatolia remained an Islamist hinterland. The military defeat during World War I left Turkey in disarray. The country was saved by General Mustafa Kemal and his allies. The new government abolished the Ottoman Sultanate, proclamed the Republic of Turkey and banned the old Caliphate. At the same time, it introduced many Western-type reforms and even banned the traditional Muslim clothing for both men and women. Turkey was on its Western course, but the reforms did not manage to reach deep into Anatolia. Yet, whenever a pro-Islamic government tried to depart from the new secular trend, the military intevened and forced Turkey back on Kemal’s pro-Western road.

During the last decades several events challenged Turkey’s status quo. Membership in NATO did anchor Ankara to America and Europe, but repeated rejections for membership by the European Union angered the people and the govenment. At the same time, the radicalization of the Middle East and the conflict between Israel and the Arabs fed a domestic Islamist resurgence. Increasingly, more and more Turks began to adhere to a strict form of Islam and to exert influence over the authorities. It was in this climate that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party came to power and began to change Ankara’s policy.

Implications and consequences.

Turkey is now at a crossroad. For the last several decades Turkey has been a bridge between East and West, but the route Ankara is choosing will have deep implications for the future. During the Cold War, Turkey was crucial in deterring the former Soviet Union. Currently, Turkey still has the largest NATO military second only to the U.S. It is also in Turkey, at the Incirlik Air Force Base, where the United States maintains a large stockpile of nuclear warheads. According to the July 24th Los Angeles Times, this is America’s largest foreign stockpile of nuclear weapons. Should Ankara change sides, it would be a huge loss for America and a big gain for Russia and Iran.

Regionally, Turkey and Iran are divided on the issue of hegemony in the Middle East. Yet, the two countries are united by Islam and by their policy of keeping the Kurds under control. They both reject Washington for creating an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. On the other hand, dictatorial rule is also very tempting for Erdoğan. He is already one of the richest political leaders in the world and lives in an enviable palace. A change of U.S. policy may make him a sort of ayatollah for life.

As for Russia, the failed Turkish military coup is even more significant. Putin is deeply opposed to the NATO alliance and to the recent NATO summit held in Poland. He and Russian intelligence are working hard to divide Europe and to remove it from American influence. The recent UK Brexit referendum weakened both the NATO alliance and the European Union. The potential separation of Turkey from NATO would ostensibly weaken the alliance further. Putin greeted both events, while Washington was left to wonder on the side lines.

Alert and ready to act, Vladimir Putin is courting Erdoğan, while outmaneuvered, the Obama administration appears paralyzed and in denial. The question is: Will the next U.S. administration regain its sense of mission?

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.