Open Essay

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: The Cost of the Strongman

Waiel Awwad, a former South Asia Bureau Chief of Al Arabiya TV channel, is a war correspondent. The views expressed are his own
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How Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s version of political Islam added to the chaos of the Middle East

FOR TURKEY, 2017 started on a bloody note with a terror attack at a popular nightclub, Reina, which killed 39 people in Istanbul. According to eye-witnesses, it was carried out with at least three armed terrorists, and not a sole attacker as the media had declared. According to Islamist sources, the attackers fled to Raqqa in Syria, the capital of the terrorist organisation IS (also known as Daesh). Such events, however, are not new to Turkey. The country faced as many as 21 terror attacks last year which left more than 370 people dead and scores injured. The second attack this year was in Izmir, its third largest city. It left two dead and 10 injured. Ankara was quick to accuse the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) of the violence. In mid July last year, a failed coup against the regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had resulted in 350 deaths, and December saw the assassination in Ankara of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov by a gunman identified as an ‘off-duty’ police officer. The political and economic instability can be traced to policies adopted by the ruling party led by Erdoğan, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP), the ‘Justice and Development Party’. Turkey’s foreign policy was one of ‘zero problems’ with neighbours, for example, but the country ended up with problems with all.

In recent years, Turkey’s moderate Islamic rule—with political Islam playing a role in governance— has been looked upon as an example for other Arab and Muslim countries. Parties similar to the AKP came up in most countries of North Africa, each using religious sentiments and anti-incumbency as tools to achieve their objectives. The West has been involved, too. In 2009, there was a secret meeting in Ankara between US representatives led by American diplomat Jeffrey D Feltman, Erdoğan and organisations of the Muslim Brotherhood to replace secular regimes in the Arab world with those of the latter.

An opportunity was presented in 2011 by the Arab Spring in North African states, when Muslim Brotherhood organisations found the conditions ripe to gain ground in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. People there were out on the streets in the hope of changing the regime, establishing democracy and gaining more freedom and openness for civil society. Unfortunately, these aspirations were hijacked by Brotherhood organisations that gained power in Tunis and Cairo, and the influence of people at large on public life began to recede again.

The recent attack on the Reina club, in particular, reflects the Erdoğan government’s intervention in the Syrian war. Jihadists were allowed to move freely from Turkey to Syria with the approval of the US and other NATO allies to implement its ‘regime change’ policy. One of the attackers is believed to be an Uzbek, while the earlier suspect broadcast was a Muslim of ethnic Uighur origin from the Chinese province of Xinjiang that borders Central Asian countries. Many members of this minority group were recruited by the Turkish government, given Turkish identity papers, and settled in villages on the Syrian border as ethnic Turks. Several of them joined the IS and Jabhat Fateh Alsham (JFS), a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda.

That Turkey was the attacker’s target, and not Syria, is no surprise. It was its power and influence in the region that led Turkey into the Syrian quagmire in the first place. Earlier, Erdoğan had supported such terror groups as Al Nursa Front as part of a policy directed by the US administration. Supply routes were opened along the 950 km border with Syria, and, according to intelligence reports, military intelligence officers and Islamist activists were collaborating in this covert operation that resulted in links being forged between the Erdoğan regime and terrorist groups. This cooperation goes back to the American occupation of Iraq, where cadets who were later to join the IS were trained by a US company known as Blackwater through a contract with Saudi Arabia, an initiative that had Erdoğan’s support. The training was carried out in secret Turkish military bases close to Iraq’s border with Syria. Erdoğan himself visited these camps and assessed their battle readiness more than once.

Now that terrorist sleeper cells have been awakened and military establishments and tourist spots in Turkey are under attack, Erdoğan can do little to save the country from violent forces

The Arab Spring led to a shift in Erdoğan’s thinking from partnership with countries like Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Saudi Arabia towards a policy of dominance. The US had by then promised him a leading role in the New Middle East and North African States Order drafted by the Pentagon; Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon, with the then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking of a new order in the region, was part of a larger plan. But Israel’s aggression failed to achieve its objective, and over the years the dream of a neo-Ottoman Empire led by Erdoğan began to fade.

Later, after a rift with the US, and with moderate and extremist organisations alike, Erdoğan started floating a conspiracy theory against him, accusing the CIA and supporters of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen of trying to overthrow him through violence. Ethnic and other tensions had been growing in the period between the coup attempt and the president’s late- 2015 re-election, after which he had started attacking Kurdish parties, letting communal divisions flare up, consolidating his political authority, and preparing a new constitution which would concentrate power in his hands.

THE FUTURE OF Turkey under Erdoğan is grim. No country can prosper by ignoring half the population and indulging an autocrat. The regime’s crackdown on civil liberties, legitimate dissent and academic and political institutions will further polarise the country’s heterogeneous society. This makes for neither stability nor security, and will not be able to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. On its part, the West is apprehensively watching Ankara tilt towards Moscow and Eastern Europe, even as terror strikes further west give rise to right-wing nationalist parties that use Islamophobia as a tool to gain popularity.

Now that terrorist sleeper cells have been awakened and military establishments and tourist spots in Turkey are under attack, Erdoğan can do little to save the country from violent forces beyond his control. That his own role has been so murky offers no comfort. It was Ahmet Saif Yayla, chief of the counter- terrorism and operations division of the Turkish national police between 2010 and 2012, who broke the news of a nexus between the Erdoğan government and Islamic State. In an interview with Insurge Intelligence, he revealed Turkey’s high-level links with IS, for which arms and ammunition were smuggled into Syria through a humanitarian relief foundation. To divert attention, the president used his Gaza Flotilla Vessel in 2010, a public relations effort to show support for Palestinians under siege.

There was an agreement between Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US to recruit mercenaries from all over the world, especially from Muslim communities in countries like China, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Chechnya , Tajikistan, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, to form an Islamist militia. Arab recruits came from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. They were trained, armed with sophisticated weapons, and sneaked into Syria and Iraq. Behind all this, trade between IS and Turkey’s regime flourished. Crude oil stolen from Iraq worth millions of dollars was smuggled out via Syria and Turkey, with profits shared by the conspirators.

According to WikiLeaks, it was Erdoğan who persuaded the US government to release Abu Bakr al Baghdadi from an American prison in Iraq and brought him to Turkey with instructions to form the IS with the help of Iraq’s former vice- president Izzat Ibrahim al- Douri. Ankara’s objective was to take Syria and Iraq under Turkish control as a step to expand its influence to other parts of the Islamic world and Europe.

When the United Nations declared the IS and Al Nusra Front as terrorist outfits, Washington asked Erdoğan to sever ties with these. But the bond was multifaceted and difficult to break and his foreign policy began to swing between friends and foes. He charged Washington with the coup attempt and raised anti-American sentiment on the Turkish street, even as he blamed Gulenists for leading it. Turkey’s president also suddenly discovered that the international intervention in Syria was not only for a regime change but also to create a ‘Kurdish enclave’ with CIA support that would threaten national security. Distancing himself from the US and European Union, he began to threaten them with opening up Europe’s gates for a mass refugee influx, closing the Incirlik military base used by NATO forces, and getting closer to Moscow instead.

According to WikiLeaks, it was Erdoğan who persuaded the US to release Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and brought him to Turkey with instructions to form the IS

The regime believes it was Moscow that saved its leader from an assassination bid just before the failed coup. In accordance with Russian aims, Ankara no longer seeks a regime change in Damascus, preferring to fight terror groups in Syria instead.

Since 2002, when the AKP attained power in Ankara, the party’s project has been to alter Turkey’s character as a secular state and undermine democracy in favour of an autocracy under Erdoğan. Among the obstacles was Gulen, his one-time spiritual guru, and the power of the military. The latter’s role in governance he reduced with the aid of an August 12th, 2010 referendum on the matter. As for Gulenists, many were jailed for allegedly trying to topple him, even as key institutions—including the army, intelligence apparatus and academia—were purged of their presence under emergency measures taken after the coup attempt. Many are still in jail, if not gagged. Media houses opposed to the regime have been closed and threatened. Many leaders of the Kurdish parliamentary HDP party are in prison too.

A new constitution, expected this spring, could give Erdoğan his dream of wielding absolute power. With Islamist ideologists on the ascendant and minorities under threat, strife will be a given. The economy has been hurt already. Exports are down, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) has fallen, and GDP growth has slipped to 2.5-3 per cent a year. Unemployment, inflation and social unrest are on the rise.

American goals for the Middle East and North African States lie unachieved even as Shia-Sunni battles create chaos in the region. US President Elect Donald Trump had stated earlier that he is against the Obama administration’s regime change policy in Syria, but he may not get a free hand in dealing with this complex issue, especially since the US establishment will warn him that Iran will emerge a winner in the region, an outcome that would be considered a threat to Israel. Hence the turmoil in the Arab world will continue for years to come.

The consequences are alarming enough already. Libya is turning out to be a jihadist hub from where arms are smuggled into Algeria, Egypt and Syria. Unrest is surfacing on the streets of Cairo again, and may lead to an armed confrontation between the Egyptian government and forces of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey remains trapped by its own doings. Its project to gain regionwide influence is likely to end in failure even as the enhanced role of political Islam in governance generates further chaos. While Europe separated religion from politics centuries ago, large parts of the Muslim world have gone the other way in recent decades. The fallout of Erdoğan’s dissimulation on this front may have an adverse impact on the rest of the region. To the dislike of his Islamist supporters, he suddenly normalised Turkey’s relations with Israel in spite of his aid for Gaza in 2010. His misadventure in Syria is dragging Turkey into a long war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Syria, after a lull during his honeymoon with Syria’s President Bashar al Assad, and at a time when the US, Israel and Europe throw their weight behind the Kurdish cause in the region.

Of worse consequence, Erdoğan has turned Turkey into a haven for Salafi-Wahhabi jihadistsm and only now are Turkish officials ready to recognise what effect instability in Syria and Iraq will have on their own country’s national security. Yet, the meddling goes on, with Erdoğan instructing Al Nusra Front in Syria to escalate attacks against soft targets in Syria to blackmail Damascus during a round of forthcoming talks. At the same time, he keeps playing the Kurd card as a national threat to his country, refusing to have Syrian Kurds at the negotiation table. Anti-Iran slogans will continue and pressure will be put on representatives of Islamist militant groups in Syria to place conditions for a permanent ceasefire in that country at a meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan, scheduled for January 23rd.

The US-led West does not want Russia and Iran to emerge winners in Syria, and will probably try to keep the war going so long as petrodollar-rich countries pay the bills and its arms industry flourishes. The sale of sophisticated weapons to the Gulf states, in particular, are now at a record high. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have taken a lead role in implementing US policy in the region under the pretext of supporting revolutions against autocratic Arab regimes, even while the Arabian peninsula itself is convulsed by violence in Yemen as part of a war in which too many have a stake.