The Turkish Republic—as we’ve known it for about the past half century since its transformation from an initial authoritarian phase (1923–50) into a creaky but democratizing multiparty polity—has fallen. For any practical purpose it is no more, and Western policymakers need to shake themselves from their mental torpor and wishful thinking to take the full measure of what this means.
It has been clear for years that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) phenomenon is grounded in seismic changes in Turkish society and not a transient phase between periods of modern republican rule owing to the corruption and poor leadership of the old secularist parties. Many older Western hands, used to the “Six Arrows” Atatürkist Turkey of the Cold War era, have still not resigned themselves to that reality, because it is painful and because it goes against their deep-seated belief that the process of modernization does not have a reverse gear.
Now the conceptual challenge is much greater: It’s not just about who runs the Turkish Republic but about its existence. The country is either headed back toward its pre-democratic phase, only with Eurasianists and Islamists rather than Western-oriented modernists at the authoritarian helm, or it is headed toward some as yet undefined form.
Turkey has suffered under emergency rule since this past July, when a breakaway military faction tried but failed to topple the elected government of strongman Recip Tayyip Erdogan and slaughtered more than 300. Since then, a process set in motion years ago by the ruling AKP to dramatically remake the political foundations of the country has accelerated. What legal and institutional constraints on the President’s powers existed before have been systematically dismantled. With dizzying speed and efficiency, tens of thousands have been detained or purged from the judiciary, the free media, the national educational system, and the military, with the intent of subordinating all these institutions to the party.1 Civil opposition has been muzzled, with many fearing for their reputations and livelihoods if they speak out against the “palace” in Ankara. A push is now underway to formally codify Erdogan’s powers via a constitutional referendum, slated for early 2017.
The demise of the Turkish Republic intermingles in several ways with the ongoing collapse of the post-1991 geopolitical settlement across Southwest Asia. Our Turkish allies, for their part, are asking where NATO has been—really where Washington has been—as the world has come crashing down around them. Russian dominance has been established in the Black Sea, and now its strategic reach is being enlarged across the Mediterranean thanks to its new, seemingly permanent deployments in Syria. Iranian-backed militias have poured into the Greater Levant, opposed only by the metastasizing forces of Salafi jihadism, which are arguably stronger now than ever despite the territorial retreat of the ISIS caliphate. President Obama has ramped-up U.S. military efforts against ISIS, but the core strategic problem—the crisis of governance among Sunni Arabs and Iranian expansion into the resulting vacuum—has gone unaddressed, thereby undercutting the U.S. military’s mission, and possibly making it futile.
Meanwhile, ISIS attacks on Istanbul and elsewhere inside the country have shown that Turkey, once imagined as a bulwark against Middle Eastern chaos, is perilously exposed to it; the AKP government has proven unable, or unwilling, to police its long southern border. To secure access to the Incirlik Air Base, as well as Erdogan’s help in walling off Europe from the multitudes fleeing for their lives, Western officials have preferred to raise concerns over the steady dismantling of Turkey’s free institutions only privately with their counterparts in Ankara. This approach has failed.
That failure has left many millions of pro-democracy Turks to fend for themselves, while a once-fringe ideological element in the AKP, reared on Islamist supremacism, has been emboldened. Indeed, many Turks have greeted the fraying of their relations with the West as a liberating chance to make their country into a great Eurasian-Islamist power.
In the meantime, the Turkish military, the historic mainstay of republican ties to the Atlantic world, is being thoroughly gutted and remade. This renovation of the armed forces is undermining their capacity and will as a cooperative NATO ally. In the crises of recent decades, the U.S. and Turkish governments have, to be sure, not seen eye to eye sometimes. But that now looks to be not the exception within the bilateral relationship but very much the rule. The West’s conceit that Turkey has no alternatives to it is mistaken; Erdogan is not looking for allies to rally to the defense of the republic so much as enablers of his own rule. In the palace’s view, Russia, and even more likely cash-rich China, could become that, with the Shanghai Pact and the Silk Road Belt the basis of a new Trans-Asian configuration of power.
Erdogan sees himself as surpassing Atatürk, the father of a New Turkey. But unlike Atatürk he is not a state-builder; he is a social-movement builder. The emergent AKP-state wants to monopolize power, and it has relied on religious nationalism—with hatred and fear deployed as means—to whip into line the parliamentary majority it needs for constitutional restructuring. But the AKP vision is not meshing well with the sociological mosaic that is Turkey. Instead sectarianism is breaking down the country’s cohesion and civil defenses, making it more vulnerable to factionalism and to outside coercion. Tellingly, the AKP’s internal security has been more effective at cracking down on schoolteachers and journalists because of their dissenting political or religious views than in rolling back ISIS and other jihadi sympathizers inside the country.
The most dangerous fault lines to deepen under AKP rule are along the three borders Turkish society shares with Kurds—in northeastern Iraq, in Syria’s autonomous enclaves, and internally in the southeast. The Kurds in these areas are politically fragmented, yet they are swelling in numbers. This is bringing enormous pressure to bear on what’s left of the state-based order; politics as usual cannot contain them. In the Southeast, Ankara needs a federal arrangement for the sake of preserving the republic. Farsighted Turks also think a condominium with the PKK-linked Kurdish polity of Syria, like the one with the KRG in Iraq, is attainable.
Yet anti-Kurdish sentiment is proving politically useful to the AKP leadership, and so Erdogan has chosen war. As the PKK has become a more urban movement, its organization has broken down and spawned radical offshoots, making the rebellion more amorphous and terrorism harder to suppress. The Turkish army’s heavy-handed tactics in the southeast have left cities in ruin, displacing as many as 500,000, according to Kurdish sources. Meanwhile, the AKP-state is imprisoning the very civilian Kurdish leaders it needs to make peace. In this, Erdogan’s will to power is putting Turkish national security at risk. ISIS is zeroing in on these glaring divides, trying to exploit them for its own purposes. In time, the collusion of intransigent PKK factions with Iran or Russia, Turkey’s centuries-long rivals, may pose an even greater threat.
All this has left NATO contemplating a future without its southeastern anchor. The West has positions to fall back to, and the ongoing implosion of regional order, which is dragging Turkey along with it, obliges the alliance to seek out alternatives and to harden them. Even so, Turkey’s significance remains profound; as President Truman saw in 1947 when he urged Congress to shore-up Turkey’s “free institutions” in a policy that led to the formation of NATO, the country’s political character affects the strategic construction of all of Eurasia. The Trump Administration will need to see if it is possible to get the republic back, and if so, how.
Erdogan is an erratic opportunist. When his ambition hits a wall, at home or geopolitically, his survival instincts prompt him to change course. The clientalist basis of the AKP-state is also susceptible to economic pressure. This month the European Union will consider sanctions on Ankara, and, unless the palace undertakes to restore the republic, the U.S. government should join them. Reassuring the estranged U.S. protectorates in the Arab Gulf against Iranian aggression may also help secure their cooperation. The Gulf Arab leaders have lavished Erdogan’s court and the AKP-controlled economy with aid to fend off Iranian influence, but an AKP-state in conflict with Turkish society cannot possibly restore the Middle Eastern balance.
The Trump Administration also needs to make the case for the Atlantic Alliance boldly to Turks on both political and strategic grounds. The prospect of cementing Russian power on the Mediterranean has implications for European and Turkish security that need to be addressed. But the urgent priority is to end the wars in Syria. As a first step, a deal between NATO and Russia, Syria’s Alawi ruling structure, and elements of the majority Sunni and minority populations for the managed decomposition of power across Syria may be attainable—but only on the condition that foreign proxies, those of Iran especially, be expunged from the country. If that does not happen, one way or another, suppressing Salafi jihadism is inconceivable.
Meantime, a plan for peace sustained by free institutions inside Turkey must be foremost on the U.S. diplomatic agenda. Among Turks and among the Kurds the U.S. government still has influence with critical masses of people of goodwill that it must use. This is likely to take years to work out, but it is now crucial both for resuscitating republican government in Turkey and for reconstituting order in the Middle East.
1For example, Turkish military personnel assigned to NATO headquarters in Brussels have found themselves in a kind of no-man’s land. Most have been ordered back to Turkey; some have obeyed orders only to be arrested on arrival. Some have requested political asylum in Belgium. Others are just staying put for the time being, keeping low; but they are without passports, jobs, or a sense of the future, and are worried about government AKP pressure on their families still in Turkey.