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Turkey’s Terrible – But Predictable – Turn

By on April 22, 2017
Endy Zemenides

by Endy Zemenides

The Washington Post recently adopted the motto “democracy dies in darkness”. But democracies can also die in broad daylight.  That’s what many observers fear is happening in Turkey. – The Council on Foreign Relations’ James Lindsay, on April 18, 2017 The President’s Inbox podcast

With a narrow victory in a constitutional referendum to shift from Turkey’s parliamentary system to one of an executive presidency and presidential system, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has inched closer to his apparent goal of surpassing Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the most significant figure in modern Turkish history.  I have referred to “Erdogan’s Turkey” in these pages several times; this referendum victory – and what is almost sure to follow – will ensure that Erdogan leaves his indelible mark on the country and, unfortunately, the region.

Only a few years ago, Turkey was still a celebrated ally of the U.S. and Europe when it came to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East.  Turkey was treated as the model for countries coming out of the Arab Spring.  The, U.S. treated Turkey as a bulwark against Russia.  Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy was supposed to stabilize multiple regions.


But all were deceived.  Erdogan played enough of a reformer to earn the aid of the West in neutering the Kemalist Deep State.  When they had been dealt with, he moved onto the next biggest obstacles to absolute power, his one-time co-conspirators the Gulenists.  Now Friends of Turkey are writing books titled “An Uncertain Ally: Turkey under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.”  American foreign policy experts are calling Turkey a frenemy as often as they classify it an ally.  Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, a former Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces and Israeli Defense Minister, has openly called Turkey the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East.  Steven Cook, one of America’s top Turkey experts, reacted to Erdogan’s referendum victory with an article titled: “RIP Turkey – 1921-2017”.

On the one hand, it is tragic that all the hopes associated with Turkey are fading away.  Yet it is equally tragic that many of these hopes were pinned on Turkey (either blindly or unjustifiably) in the first place.  Cyprus, Armenia, the Kurds have for decades been sacrificed at the altar of political expediency by both the U.S. and Europe; relations with Turkey were simply more important.  The West ignored several red flags that arose in Erdogan’s Turkey – multiple denials of the use of Incirlik, consistent broken promises regarding granting greater religious freedom, rising anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in Turkish popular culture – and continued to pin great hopes on Turkey.  They promoted the idea of Turkish membership in the EU, despite the fact that Turkey failed to meet the most fundamental requirements of membership.

The illusion is now over.  Turkey is not a Western democracy.  It is a questionable Western partner.  We can only hope that no emerging democracy looks to it as an example.  Yet even for those who warned that Turkey would get to this point, this is not a time to celebrate.  The West is still vulnerable to Turkey’s lack of reliability as it is still “hooked” on Icirlik to some degree.  Europe may start relying more on Turkey as a transit point for energy.  Turkey could complicate the fight against ISIS by refusing to cooperate or active obstruction.

On Greco-Turkish issues, major question marks exist.  Before the referendum, Greek and Cypriot diplomats maintained in private that a confident Erdogan could be more amenable to compromise in Cyprus and other issues.  Now that a narrow referendum victory is likely to lead to a less than confident Erdogan, will the opposite hold true?  With the intensification of the war in Syria at hand and summer coming, will Turkey make the Aegean a refugee crossing point to the degree it was two summers ago?  Will Cyprus become a more active flashpoint, as Turkey refuses concessions and new energy exploration commences?  Will Turkey’s challenges to Greek sovereignty in the Aegean pick up?  And will Turkey make its Christian minority – and specifically the Ecumenical Patriarchate – part of its next purge?  There are few – if any – positive signs coming out of Turkey.  What is sure, is that there has to be a new Western policy when it comes to Ankara; hope can no longer be a strategy.

About Endy Zemenides

Endy Zemenides is the Executive Director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council (HALC), a national advocacy organization for the Greek American community. To learn more about HALC, visit www.hellenicleaders.com