BACKGROUND: The interplay of internal and external dynamics has historically determined the political evolution of Turkey. External enticement or pressure has on occasion been decisive in pulling Turkey in a more democratic direction. The liberal Ottoman reforms during the 19th century were in part encouraged and imposed by European powers. When a multiparty system was introduced at the end of the 1940s the principal dynamic was internal, but external dynamics were no less crucial.
Bordering the Soviet Union, Turkey was strategically indispensable for the West; it had to be fully integrated into the Western alliance structures, which was not the case with other right wing dictatorships, like Spain and Portugal, which unlike Turkey were not geographically at the front-line of the Cold War. If the one party regime had been maintained, the argument that Turkey should be counted as a full member of the “free world” would have been impossible to uphold.
The second time that external dynamics encouraged democratic steps in Turkey was the period that preceded the ascent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power and the subsequent, first years of the party’s rule. At the end of the 1990s, Turkey’s center-right coalition took the first steps in order to secure the start of membership negotiations with the European Union. During its first five years in power, the succeeding AKP government accelerated the reforms.
However, external dynamics have more often had the opposite effect, boosting authoritarianism. Turkey’s strategic value as a sentinel during the Cold War, as the eastern outpost of the Western alliance, gave the Turkish regime a tacit license to violate political freedoms and minority rights. When the military took power, it always enjoyed American support. Even when elected governments were in power, Turkey was at best an illiberal “democracy”; right wing authoritarianism and rigid nationalism were always influential. As the Turkish political elite saw it, being a “sentinel” in the Cold War required that democratic freedoms be restricted; they were deemed a “luxury”: nothing that smelled of left could be tolerated, lest the defense against the encroachments of world communism be undermined. And that view was never contradicted by the Western patrons of Turkey who for the most part overlooked the democratic transgressions of their Turkish sentinel.
IMPLICATIONS: The historical pattern is now being repeated. On November 29, the leaders of the European Union decided to give Turkey three billion Euros, re-open the membership negotiations and start holding regular, bi-annual summits with Turkey in return for a Turkish commitment to arrest the flow of refugees to Europe. Just as during the Cold War, Turkey has once again become indispensable as a sentinel.
Turkey is officially home to more than two million refugees from Syria, but the number is believed to be significantly higher. Turkey argues that it carries a disproportionate burden, and deserves financial support. More importantly, the Turkish regime craved respectability and international legitimacy. European leaders have shunned President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and EU-Turkey relations were frozen since the violent suppression of the peaceful protests in Turkey in 2013.
During the summer of 2015, tens of thousands of refugees started to leave Turkey, crossing the Aegean Sea toward Europe. The Turkish authorities did not intervene to stop the refugee traffic inside Turkey, which they could easily have done.
In October, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel traveled to Istanbul to plead with Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu that Turkey check the flow of refugees. Turkish democrats criticized Merkel for boosting the standing of President Erdoğan’s authoritarian regime during an election campaign that had been marred by violence against the Kurdish and leftist opposition. They could also note that the publication of the EU’s annual report on Turkey, detailing the country’s democratic regression, was delayed until after the November 1 election.
The support of the EU has always been crucial for AKP. A decade ago, the support of the EU both bolstered the party’s reformist and democratic credentials internally and helped it survive the opposition and machinations of the old state establishment. The Turkish military could not take on a government that enjoyed the full support of the European Union and the United States. Today, the EU’s endorsement works in the opposite direction, bolstering authoritarianism: it does so as it bestows international legitimacy on an AKP regime which has turned authoritarian. The democratic opposition does not in any way threaten the AKP’s grip on power. Nonetheless, the Turkish regime has craved an international legitimacy that underscores the futility of mounting any kind of opposition to one party rule.
While the EU’s endorsement of the AKP regime a decade ago dissuaded the generals from staging a coup, it today works to discourage democrats. The EU leaders proceeded to reward Turkey in return for its commitment to guard Europe against refugees, even though a court in Istanbul just two days before the EU-Turkey summit ordered the arrest of Can Dündar, the editor in chief of the daily Cumhuriyet – the country’s sole remaining significant opposition newspaper – and of one of the reporters of the daily. The two journalists are charged with “espionage” and “terrorism.” The daily incurred the wrath of President Erdoğan, who personally called for judicial action against its publisher after the publication of a news story about the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) transporting arms to rebels in Syria.
However, Erdoğan did not contest the veracity of the information itself, saying “What if they were transporting arms?” Until recently, Turkey’s border to Syria has remained porous; jihadists have been traveling freely across it to join the war in Syria, and crossing back into Turkey to recover and receive health care. The Turkish involvement in Syria is in fact yet another expression of how Western interests and geopolitical considerations and Turkish ideological inclinations interact to yield democratically undesirable effects. Just as the EU’s interest in preventing refugees from reaching Europe now gives Turkey’s authoritarian regime a boost, American geopolitical choices in the Middle East have had a similar effect: they have worked to reinforce the Sunni militancy of Turkey’s ruling party.
There was always an ideological affinity between the Sunni conservative Turkish regime and the Sunni Islamist cause in Syria; however, that affinity has deepened during the course of the Syrian war. The AKP initially hoped and expected that the Baath regime would be replaced by a “moderate Islamist”, Muslim Brotherhood government in Damascus in its own image; subsequently, however, Turkey has come to shepherd radical jihadist groups. Nonetheless, what set Turkey on course and what determined its Syria policy was that the United States decided that “Bashar al-Assad must go,” as President Barack Obama expressed it in 2011.
It was in concert with the United States that Turkey stepped into Syria. Washington and Ankara began a close cooperation in 2012 with the stated aim of bringing about the downfall of the Syrian regime. Officials from the U.S. State Department and the Turkish Foreign Ministry met regularly to plan the future of a post-Assad Syria. Americans and Turks may not always have agreed on which particular Sunni rebel group should or should not be supported; yet it was American encouragement that emboldened the Turkish AKP regime to venture into Syria.
The way the United States now chooses to define its interests in Syria is going to determine what follows in Turkey as well. Turkey is engaged in an attempt to permanently put down the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. (PKK) President Erdoğan has stated that there will be no more talks with PKK; he has made clear that the Kurdish militants only have one option: “to put down their arms and bury them under concrete.” However, neutralizing the Kurdish challenge requires that Turkey is in a position to influence developments in Syria as well.
The Kurds in Syria have nearly succeeded in establishing control over a zone that stretches all along the Syrian-Turkish border; only 98 kilometers now separate the three Kurdish-controlled cantons. If the forces of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) succeed in joining the three Kurdish cantons, a contiguous Kurdish region from the Syrian-Iraqi border to the Mediterranean will have been established. That is a nightmare scenario for Turkey that dreads the effects the establishment of a contiguous Kurdish “state” will have on Kurds on the Turkish side of the border. Ever since July 2012, when the Kurdish region in Syria, Rojava (Western Kurdistan), was declared autonomous, the main objective of Turkey in Syria has been to disrupt Rojava.
On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian-Turkish border. Turkey sees the Russian intervention in Syria as a threat to its vital interests; the Russian air force has been pounding the positions of militias in north-western Syria that are supported by Turkey. Ankara had on several occasions during past weeks warned Moscow to back down; Turkey seeks to preserve tools in Syria that it can continue to deploy against the Kurds. The United States and NATO defended Turkey’s right to shoot down the Russian plane. The extent to which Turkish interests in Syria remain in harmony with American and NATO strategic considerations, and the way they continue to interact, is going to prove decisive.
CONCLUSIONS: President Erdoğan and the Turkish generals will be hoping that the United States and NATO will decide that it is geopolitically insupportable that Russia becomes entrenched in the Middle East, and allow their ally Turkey to establish a military presence in Syria as a Western sentinel, with a tacit license to check Kurdish aspirations for autonomy. Regardless, it is reassuring for the authoritarian Turkish regime that Turkey has once again become indispensable as a guard-post for its Western partners.
Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, where he heads the Turkey Initiative and is Editor of the Turkey Analyst.
Image attribution: www.telegraph.co.uk, accessed on Dec 7, 2015