Turkey has turned its back on the West. To be fair, we in the West didn’t do much to prevent it.
When Turkey sought entry into the European Union, other members balked and resisted—though not without reason. Many Europeans were alarmed by the rise of Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). The AKP sought to undo the reforms that made Turkey a modern, secular nation upon its independence in 1923. Up to that point, Turkey had been the seat of power for the Ottoman Empire—the last, great Islamic empire—and was dismantled after World War I. From 1923 onward, the country was ruled by a secular autocracy and became an integral component of NATO’s southern flank during the Cold War.
Now, Turkey is becoming fast friends with Russia and pushing the West away.
The move away from the West in Turkey began around 2002. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP Party burst onto the political scene, taking advantage of deep divisions within Turkish society. Erdogan supplanted the autocratic, secular junta that had ruled the country for decades.
Once firmly ensconced in power, Erdogan’s Islamists began methodically enacting “reforms” to make Turkey comport with traditional Islamic values. In the intervening years, Turkey has banned the sale of liquor, cracked down on any form of political opposition, and instituted a requirement for Turkish women to wear a headscarf—not exactly the stuff of European liberalism or Western freedom.
Today, Turkey is strengthening ties with China, as the Chinese carry out their One-Belt-One-Road-Initiative to link Eurasia as never before (under Beijing’s control, of course). In fact, President Erdogan has repeatedly said that Turkey’s future lies to its east, with the Turkish population in China and Central Asia, rather than in Europe and the West.
Turkey is currently purchasing Russian S-400 air defense batteries instead of Western-made systems, such as the U.S. Patriot missile, thereby complicating NATO’s collective defense measures. The Turkish government insists that it is only buying Russian-made air defense systems because Western governments balked at selling Patriot missiles to Ankara in 2015. That’s true. The reason is Turkey has a long history of doing illicit business with Iran and funding jihadist terror groups operating in Syria, including ISIS. The United States doesn’t want some of its best weapons falling into Iranian or jihadist hands.
The Turks still refuse to crack down on the virtually ceaseless flow of refugees from the Middle East over its borders into Europe, despite official promises to their European “partners” that they would. The Turkish government has become a primary element in facilitating Iran’s rise in the Mideast by backing an Iranian-Russian pipeline meant to deliver Iranian natural gas and oil to Europe—negating a similar U.S.-backed Saudi pipeline to bring energy sources from Qatar onto the Continent. Thus, Turkey supports Russia’s play to monopolize all energy flows into Europe, thereby isolating Europe from the United States, and forcing Europe to become a mere vassal of Russia.
Further, Erdogan’s government remains convinced that the Obama Administration and U.S. intelligence services backed a coup attempt against Erdogan in the summer of 2016. The coup was perpetrated by a handful of disgruntled Turkish military officers who supposedly were members of the Gülenist religious movement, a small group of Sufi Muslims seeking to purify what they perceive as Turkey’s corrupt political culture. The Gülenists initially supported Erdogan’s rise in 2002, but slowly turned against him, as Erdogan’s rule became increasingly autocratic and corrupt.
Fethullah Gülen, the leader of this politico-religious opposition movement, took refuge in the United States several years ago and has spent his time in the country making alliances with key political figures of both parties. Because of his presence in the United States, Erdogan’s supporters in Turkey believe last year’s coup was directed by the United States. Gülen’s influence with America’s political elites is limited, however, and there is no evidence he managed to get American leaders to back the coup effort. In fact, many analysts today question whether the coup attempt had anything to do with the Gülen movement at all (or if it was fabricated by Erdogan to accrue more power at a time when his rule was becoming increasingly unpopular domestically).
Even if the United States were planning to overthrow Erdogan, the truth is that Turkey moved beyond the reach of the West long ago.
Turkey’s moves to align more closely with China, Iran, and Russia are not a result of feckless covert American action against Erdogan’s government. They are the result of a rabidly Islamist regime rising to power in Turkey, and finding no common cause with their purported Western allies.
Turkey also assumes (as does much of the rest of the world) that the United States and the West are in decline and the East is rising. Erdogan believes he can make a better deal for both his political future and his country with the Chinese, Russians, and Iranians.
That means NATO no longer has a reliable partner in Ankara. Without a viable southern defensive flank, the United States will have trouble operating effectively in Europe and the Middle East. A new southern flank is needed, one that not only protects Europe from traditional threats but also prevents Turkey from becoming the tip of a Russia, Iranian, or jihadist spear pointed at Europe’s soft underbelly. That means Greece and Cyprus—two historical enemies of Turkey—should assume the role (at least until NATO disbands or fundamentally changes). The West should further limit Turkey’s influence in the Middle East by recognizing an independent Kurdistan.
Turkey isn’t an ally; it’s a strategic competitor. President Trump has praised Erdogan as “a friend.” But the administration would do well to acknowledge reality before America’s strategic position is hopelessly undermined in Europe and the Middle East.
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