Talking Turkey.

To rehash the well-known, the Islamic State (ISIS) seized a lot of territory in eastern Syria, then broke out into western Iraq several years ago.  This encumbered the fair hopes of the Obama administration to beat a dignified retreat from the Iraq mess.  Destroying ISIS at minimal costs in American lives became the policy choice of the Obama and Trump Administrations.  That grinding effort, which has involved a lot of work by both the Kurds and the Iranians, looks about ready to pay-off with the Iraqi capture of Mosul and the Syrian Kurds’ capture of Raqqa (the capital of the ISIS caliphate).

To rehash more of the well-known, the Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and—fatally—Turkey.  Kurdish nationalism threatens to disrupt these countries.  The Turks, in particular, see their own Kurdish political party (PKK) linked to the Syrian Kurdish political party (PDK) and to its American-armed militia (YPG).[1]  They’re probably right.[2]  Iraq’s wing of the PKK has attacked Turkey in support of its Turkish partners.  Hoping to earn American patronage for their ambitions, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have done much of the heavy lifting in the fight against the Islamic State.  So, it is important to keep the Kurds happy.

To rehash still more of the well-known, the president of Turkey—Recep Tayyip Erdogan—is a moderate Islamist head-case who is bent on turning the country into a Sunni version of Iran.  He barely scratched out a majority in a referendum on super-charged presidential powers in April 2017, yet he sees the vote as an endorsement of his ambitions.

This puts the United States in a bit of a quandary.[3]  Over the short-run, who cares what the Turks want?  The militia of the Syrian Kurds, the YPG, is seen by American military leaders as the best bet to capture Raqqa.  American military leaders also see Turkey as having no real alternative strategy.  So when Turkey bombed several YPG positions and threatened land forces incursions, the US military began running convoys of American military vehicles flying large American flags through the target area as a warning to Turkey.

Over the long-run, many people should care what the Turks want.  On the one hand, Erdogan is an anti-Western Islamist.  He is aiming at a dictatorship.  His victory in the referendum on expanded presidential powers fell far short of the expected majority and is dogged by charges of fraud.  Political turmoil seems the likely future for Turkey.[4]

On the other hand, Turkey is a member of NATO (brought in to the alliance, in part, because Greeks won’t fight).  Turkey has the second largest army in NATO; it is an industrializing country; it has sought membership in the European Union (EU), and the Turks have been extending their cultural influence through the southern tier of states liberated by the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Erdogan has battered Europe with an engineered refugee crisis.  The European Union is never going to admit Turkey to its ranks, even if it has to soak up huge numbers of outsiders without Emma Lazarus to provide a moral justification.[5]  He has both barked at and cowered before Vladimir Putin.  He is afraid that the U.S. has struck a bargain with the Kurds.  And he will visit Washington in May 2017.  The regional implications of Turkey’s course matter far more than do the headlines about ISIS.

[1] If the Kurds get Russian military assistance, maybe they could be re-branded as the RPG?

[2] The Americans engage in a lot of hair-splitting over this issue.  The U.S. government insists that Turkey’s PKK is a terrorist organization, while Syria’s PYD and—even more—the YPG are not terrorists.  Instead, they are “partner forces.”  Which people can read as “allies” or “hired guns” as is their wont.

[3] Yarolslav Trofimov, “In Syria, U.S. Is Caught Between Ally Turkey and Kurds,” WSJ, 5 May 2017.

[4] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Erdogan’s Narrow Win Could End Up Undermining Him,” WSJ, 17 April 2017.

[5] A “wall” is more likely.

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Erdogan in 2017.

Donald Trump is not a fascist, but there is good reason to think that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, is a fascist.  He became prime minister as leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002; then became president; then campaigned for much stronger powers for the president; then, in June 2015, saw the AKP blocked from winning an outright majority for the first time; then played the anti-Kurdish/antiterrorism card to regain a majority for the AKP in November 2015 elections; then ruthlessly exploited a failed in July 2016 to purge Turkey’s civil and military institutions of purported supporters of the coup; and then proposed a referendum on greater powers and time in office for the president.

One of Erdogan’s closest advisers told the Wall Street Journal that “In these lands [i.e. the Middle East], if you need to survive, you need a very strong system.”  The proposed constitutional changes include getting rid of the prime minister and transferring powers from parliament to the president.  If the voters in the referendum–tentatively scheduled for June 2016–approve his plan, Erdogan could remain president until 2029—or until the cows come home.[1]

The AKP has 316 seats in the legislature.  It needs 14 more have number required to win parliamentary approval for the referendum.  Where will Erdogan find the votes he needs?  One theory is that the conservative MHP party will support the legislation in hopes of gaining a voice in the new government.  However, between May and November 2015, Erdogan refused to form a coalition government when his party lacked a majority.  Why would the MHP view the offer of a vice-presidency in the new government for its leader as anything other than a short-lived transaction to get the referendum approved?  The MHP would soon find itself discarded.  Erdogan seems more likely to use national security issues to stampede support.

In the mellow, holiday-induced state of mind, it might be possible to view the prospects for the Middle East in 2017 with a certain optimism.  The horrible Syrian civil war appears to be grinding to an end with an Assad victory in western Syria.  In Iraq, the Shi’ite majority, with the backing of Iran and a lot of American airpower, are battering at the eastern borders of the ISIS caliphate.  The caliphate seems likely to collapse entirely in the coming year.[2]  The Iranian nuclear agreement has muted the drum-beat for a new war for the time being.

However, Erdogan’s justification for strengthening the powers of the president rests on a belief that things are going to get worse, not better in the Middle East.  First, there is the Kurdish problem.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq created an autonomous proto-state in northern Iraq.  With American backing, the Kurds of Iraq and Syria have played an important part in the containment of ISIS.  Turkey sees Kurdish nationalism as a grave threat to its national existence.  The Shi’ite majority in Iraq takes a similar view.  The Kurds are likely to rise to the top of their opponents’ To Do list once the fate of the Assad regime is settled and ISIS is defeated.  Attacks on the Kurds will pose problems for American diplomacy.

Second, there is the problem of Turkey’s future orientation.  Will Turkey remain in NATO and continue to press for membership in the European Union (EU)?  In 2016, Erdogan unleashed a flood of refugees and economic migrants on the EU in a bid to extort financial aid and revived negotiation on Turkish entry into the EU.  On the other hand, recently Turkey has patched up its several quarrels with Russia.  What real inducements can Vladimir Putin offer Turkey to shift its alliance?  Aside from the psychological affinity of two authoritarian leaders?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Violence Bolsters Erdogan’s Power Play,” WSJ, 23 December 2016.

[2] Surviving fighters are likely to flee abroad.  Many of these refugees will become a counter-terrorist policing problem in Europe and elsewhere in Arab countries.  ISIS itself will cease being a military problem.

The heirs of Mustapha Kemal

Turkey has been an emphatically “secular” country since its foundation. Mustapha Kemal “Ataturk” (“Father of the Turks”) wanted a secular state, not one of those messed up backward Arab countries. He prohibited the wearing of the fez for men and veils for women. He granted women equal rights with men (including the outlawing of polygamy). He insisted upon the separation of Church and State. This included banning the “sharia” (Islamic religious law).   Kemal was a general and the army he created has been the guardian of Turkish identity since its foundation. The army has overthrown governments from time to time when they strayed too far from honest or secular government. Explicitly religious parties have been banned from time to time.

A bunch of the religious politicians migrated from the banned parties to the Justice and Development Party, which was formally not a religious party. (Wink, wink.) In 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a majority in the parliament and formed a government under prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Hostility soon mounted between the AKP and the army. In 2007 the generals were alarmed by the direction being taken by the AKP. They made a veiled threat of a coup. Many Turks took offense at the threat and voted for the AKP in the next election, increasing its majority. In 2008 the army tried to get the Constitutional Court to declare the AKP illegal on the grounds that it was trying to impose the “sharia” on the country. The Court rejected this charge. The AKP government then launched a hunt for conspirators among the ranks of present and—especially—retired officers. From 2008 to 2010 hundreds of officers were arrested and many were charged with conspiring to commit terrorist offenses. At the same time journalists, professors, and human-rights activists also were targeted. The government alleged a plot to provoke Islamists into violence, then to use that as a justification for a new military government in place of the AKP. The government leaked a huge file of documents to the press. The army’s response is that all the government has found are the records of contingency planning for an Islamist revolt.

“The struggle for Turkey’s soul,” The Week, 26 March 2010, p. 15.

The quarrel between the secularist military and the democratically-elected AKP has important implications. First, Turkey has been trying to get into the European Union. The Europeans are deeply concerned about Muslim immigration and Muslim fundamentalism. What Frenchman wants to see Notre Dame turned into a mosque? So the prospect of a fundamentalist government in Turkey does nothing for the country’s prospects of admission into the European Union.

Second, the United States sees Turkey as an important regional power in an area of American concern. The Greeks are nice, but the Turks are tough. The Turks offer a model of what other Muslim countries might become if they would just get their ten pounds in a five pound bag. Turkey borders on the Kurdish part of Iraq and contains its own large Kurdish population. The possibility of Kurdish nationalism messing up conditions in both Iraq and Turkey is very real. Turkey was the one Muslim state that was reasonably pro-Israel. American officials dread that “one man, one vote” in an Islamist Turkey might take place only one time, leaving the country in the hands of a pro-fundamentalist, pro-Iranian, and anti-American government.

Third, ISIS is on the southern border. So the Army will protect the Republic, right?