Since 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics.  That isn’t to say that he has met no opposition.  In 2015, Erdogan’s party lost its majority in parliament.  Erdogan responded with an anti-Kurdish offensive that led to new elections in November 2015 that recovered the majority.   In July 2016, a bunch of soldiers tried to overthrow Erdogan.  They missed their punch, not least because a lot of Turks hold fast to the idea of democracy.  Erdogan responded with a state of emergency that allowed him to purge the military, the bureaucracy, and civil society.  Now he is campaigning to change the constitution to gain great new powers that might threaten the survival of Turkish democracy.  This challenges many Turks.[1]

It challenges others as well.  Since the time of Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk,” Turkey has sought to balance Westernization against its Turkish identity.  Membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and a desire to join the European Union (EU) formed hall-marks of this effort.  Erdogan has broken with that policy.  On the one hand, he took advantage of the Syrian crisis to deluge Europe with refugees in order to extract promises of aid and accelerated consideration of Turkish membership in the EU.[2]  On the other hand, Turkey has been tilting toward Russia in the latest phase of the Syrian struggle while NATO’s members have been agog at Russian behavior.  Then, Erdogan has been campaigning for support among the Turkish diaspora in Europe.  Germany and Holland blocked the attempts by Turkish officials to address Turkish voters in those countries.  Erdogan’s savage response pandered to Turkish nationalism.

Historians inevitably think in analogies.[3]  Among historians, Italy long has been a historical laughing-stock.  French armies won its independence.  It then paid shipping companies to take away Neapolitans and Sicilians to foreign lands.  It only granted the vote to all men the in 1907, then rigged the election results.  In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes regrets having been grievously wounded on “a joke front” during the First World War.  Then it wound up with Benito Mussolini and a Fascist dictatorship that eventually got the country creamed in the Second World War.

There is a photograph of the Fascist Party headquarters building in Rome in 1934.  The four-story façade is covered in in propaganda: at the center of a black background is a silver image of Mussolini’s face (looking rather like a cat) surrounded by rows of “SI” (“Yes”).[4]

Without in any way wishing to suggest a parallel, the current referendum campaign on extending the powers of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is marked by huge bill-boards bearing pictures of Erdogan and the message “Yes.”[5]  The “Or Else” part of the message comes from Erdogan’s surrogates who suggest than anyone who opposes Erdogan is a terrorist (read: Kurd) or traitor (read: Euro-Kurd).  Erdogan’s party (AKP) expects a landslide victory.

Will they get it?  That is—suddenly, surprisingly—less clear.  Erdogan needs the support of a right-wing party, but opinion polls suggest that its members are much less enthusiastic than are its leaders.  If Erdogan loses the vote in the referendum on 16 April 2017, how will he respond?  Observers think that “when faced with challenges to his authority,” Erdogan “escalates[s] crises and creates new ones.”  So, many things could go wrong after 16 April 2017.

[1] See: “The Devil and the Deep, Blue Sea.”

[2] In the cases of Portugal, Spain, Greece, and all the post-Soviet Eastern European countries, the creation of democratic political systems was a prerequisite for membership.  It isn’t clear that Turkey could meet that standard.

[3] They are not alone.  See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton University Press, 1992).

[4] See:

[5] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Stakes Are High in Turkish Referendum on Erdogan’s Power,” WSJ, 24 March 2017.

A Turk’s Head Knot.

After years of keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria within its borders, Turkey has been allowing many of them (and from other troubled places) to leave for Europe. How can we explain this sudden shift in Turkish policy?

In the June 2015 elections, long-time ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority to a coalition of Kurds, leftists, secularists, and young people under the umbrella of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).[1] The defeat, however, did not create a clear majority for Erdogan’s opponents. Instead, it created a “hung parliament” that made new elections necessary on 1 November 2015. One key element in the popular estrangement from Erdogan had been his increasingly autocratic tendencies and his desire to revise the Turkish constitution to grant more power to the executive. The frustrated Erdogan cast about for some means of regaining the lost voters before the looming election.

One answer came in an attack on the Kurds. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) resulted in a protected area for Kurds in northern Iraq. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the creation of a nascent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Since Summer 2014, the war against ISIS has bolstered American support for the Kurds. A Kurdish state has been rising on Turkey’s southern border for some time. However, Erdogan’s government had been engaged in peace-talks with the Kurds. Suddenly, after the June elections, Erdogan lashed out. Turkey belatedly joined the air war against ISIS, but its attacks have mostly targeted Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria. These attacks struck groups purportedly linked to the Kurdish autonomist (i.e independence) group, the PKK. Nationalist mobs attacked Kurdo-phile[2] sites in Turkey.[3] In mid-October 2015, two suicide bombers killed about 100 people at an anti-government rally in the capital city of Ankara. Although police already had discovered suicide vests in raids on ISIS hide-outs in turkey, security at the rally appears to have been very lax.[4]

Another answer came in an attack on the European Union. Although the EU seems to have been content to ignore the increasing authoritarianism in the leader of a country seeking EU membership, this hasn’t satisfied Erdogan. Suddenly, huge numbers of Syrian (and other) refugees in Turkey began to flood westward.   Most of them departed from a narrow section of the Turkish coast adjacent to the Greek island of Lesbos. Recently, the over-whelmed European Union (EU) sent German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to negotiate a solution with President Erdogan. The Turkish president opened the conference by demanding $3 billion in EU aid for the 2 million refugees currently in Turkey. However, he extended the deal beyond just the refugee crisis. Erdogan asked for an end to the requirement that Turks entering the EU obtain a visa and for revival of and progress on Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union. In return, Turkey would halt the flow of refugees out of the country. Merkel could make no firm response to Erdogan’s proposal because any change in policy would have to be approved by the EU member nations. Thus, it is clear that Turkey is manipulating the refugee crisis to advance other policies.

How did this strategy pan-out for Erdogan and the AKP? In the 1 November elections, the AKP won 49.5 percent of the vote and 317 legislative seats, giving it majority of 84. The question now is whether Erdogan has poisoned one or more wells in his quest for a majority.

[1] “Turkey: Onslaught against Kurds as election nears,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 15.

[2] Is this a real term?

[3] While the cops stood around with their hands in their pockets.

[4] “Turkey: Who benefits from a gruesome attack?” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 14.


After the former general Mustapha Kemal “Ataturk” established the Turkish Republic, the Army became the guardian of his secular and modernizing vision of Turkey’s future. On four occasions since 1960 the Army has overthrown civilian governments that diverged from its vision of Turkey’s proper course.

Recip Tayyip Erdogan forged an alliance between his own Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Fethullah Gulen, an imam with a wide network of supporters in the bureaucracy, business, and media. In 2002 Erdogan led the AKP to power in free elections. The position of the Army with regard to a religious party worried Erdogan.[1] Those worries increased in advance of the 2007 elections when the Army publically affirmed its role as guarantor of Turkey’s secular identity and that Islamism was incompatible with that identity.

In 2010 prosecutors charged 236 senior serving or retired Army officers with planning a coup against the government. Government prosecutors based their case largely on computer files regarding “Operation Sledgehammer,” an alleged army plot dating back to 2003 to overthrow the Erdogan government. They won convictions after the court refused to allow the defendants to introduce evidence that the computer files were fraudulent.[2] Most of the defendants got long prison terms.

By 2012 Erdogan had begun to fall out with Gulen. Erdogan and the AKP had worn out their welcome with many Turks. Having been in power for over a decade, they had lost their strict sense of right and wrong. Critics accused the government of corrupt alliances with business interests under the guise of modernizing Turkey. In Summer 2013, massive demonstrations took place in Istanbul over plans to convert a public park into a shopping mall. In December 2013 prosecutors—apparently part of Gulen’s network of supporters–charged several government ministers with graft. Erdogan lashed out at Gulen’s “parallel state,” which he accused of plotting its own coup. Thousands of members of the police and judiciary were summarily removed as Erdogan sought to purge the administration. Erdogan now found himself in an awkward position. He had allied with the Gulen network to tame the Army, but now he had fallen out with the Gulen network.

To make matters worse, in Summer 2014, ISIS suddenly exploded as a regional danger in neighboring Iraq and Syria. Like Al Shabab in Somalia, the Houthis rebels in Yeman, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS is made up of irregular fighters who cannot stand up to a real army backed by an effective government. ISIS posed no danger to Turkey so long as the Army would fight and the government could act. Aye, there’s the rub. Would the Army back Erdogan against both the Gulen network and ISIS, or would it devise its own solution?[3]

In 2014 the convictions were over-turned by the constitutional court, which ordered a re-trial. In Spring 2015, the government appointed a new prosecutor to handle the case. In March 2015, Erdogan announced to a gathering of senior Army officers that “starting with myself, the whole country was misled, tricked. We were subjected to a conspiracy, a coup attempt, to seize control of Turkey.” The prosecutor asked the court to dismiss the charges because he was shocked, shocked to discover that there was gambling going on. No, wait, he discovered that the computer files on which the conviction had been based were fraudulent.

[1] Emre Peker, “Turkish Court Acquits Officers in Coup Plot,” WSJ, 1 April 2015 (although I believe the report to be true).

[2] For example, documents dated in 2003 could be shown to have been produced using Microsoft Word 2007.

[3] The latter might involve shooting Erdogan and tossing his body on a garbage heap.