Erdogan takes a risk fighting on three fronts
As Biden visits Ankara, Turkey remains on a collision course with the west
Joe Biden, US vice-president, glad-handed his way through Ankara this week, an exercise to patch up relations with Turkey’s pugnacious president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, frayed ragged after July’s abortive coup. As if on cue, the Turkish army launched its first real incursion into Syria, seizing the Isis-held gateway town of Jarabulus on the border, and reminding Washington of Ankara’s value as a Nato ally.
Yet, this ostensibly satisfactory outcome is misleading. Turkey is still on a collision course with the west. It is also fighting on too many fronts at once.
Mr Erdogan, stony-faced at his press conference with Mr Biden on Wednesday, will keep demanding that the US extradites Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based Islamist imam Ankara says masterminded last month’s bloody putsch. The US must choose, Mr Erdogan said last week, “either Turkey or Feto” — the “Fethullah Terrorist organisation”, as he has designated the tentacular Gulen movement.
As for the EU, seen as having long ago turned its back on Muslim Turkey as a viable candidate member, not just the neo-Islamist ruling party but also Turkish liberals are indignant that Europeans seem more outraged about the scale of the government’s post-putsch crackdown than about the coup itself.
After his recent trip to Russia to mend a breach with his fellow strongman Vladimir Putin, Mr Erdogan is now off to Iran. These are the two patrons of the Assad regime in Syria that Turkey has struggled ineffectually to bring down for five years. Is there any clarity to be had from such confusion and convulsion?
One starting point, which the US and EU arrived at hesitantly late, is to recognise that the failed coup was a brutal assault on a democratic republic. The mutineers bombed parliament. Civilians confronted their tanks in the streets. At least 240 people died. Unlike past coups, in which the army and Turkey’s fabled “deep state” shunted aside political parties, this was a factional revolt.
The evidence indicates that Gulenist officers were behind it. Whether or not Mr Gulen was the directing hand — and the US says Ankara has yet to provide facts linking the cleric to the coup — it is indisputable that the Turkish state was massively infiltrated by his followers. That is an equally essential starting point as the coup — and it is not a comfortable one for Mr Erdogan and his Justice and Development party (AKP).
Mr Gulen, until 2012 an indispensable AKP ally, is a unique phenomenon. The AKP swept into power in 2002 with barely a toehold in the officially secular state built by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from the rubble of the Ottoman Empire. The Gulen movement, which ran an admired and visible franchise of schools worldwide, had spent decades building clusters of invisible power in Turkey, inserting its cadres into the police, judiciary, spy services, military, foreign service, business, media and academia.
As Hakan Altinay, former head of the Open Society Foundation in Turkey, once remarked, “the Gulenists have a Jesuit approach to education but their taste in transparency is more Opus Dei”.
Gulenist networks had their leader accepted as a Muslim moderniser and interfaith champion, lauded by western magazines as one of the world’s great thinkers. All this was useful to Mr Erdogan as he deployed what he rightly now calls the Gulenist parallel state against the Kemalist deep state, in particular to defang the generals. Now, he professes to be shocked at the sheer scale of Gulenist infiltration. Although this Islamist cult uses structures even less detectable than a classic cell model, that looks disingenuous.
Turkey is also trying to tick the bogeyman box by likening Mr Gulen to Osama bin Laden and Ayatollah Khomeini. Paradoxically, with their emphasis on the colonisation of state institutions, the Gulenists are more like the Muslim Brotherhood, the pan-Islamic movement the AKP aspired to lead.
If they succeeded to the extent that Mr Erdogan’s purges suggest, then he and Turkey are in real trouble.
Either way, it is hard to see how he can keep fighting simultaneously against the Gulenists, Isis and the Kurdish insurgency that reignited last year, especially if Ankara keeps colliding with its traditional western allies.
The Jarabulus operation, for example, may look like a response to last week’s gut-wrenching Isis bombing of a Kurdish wedding party in Gaziantep. But it was really about preventing Syrian Kurdish militia, backed by the US but linked to insurgents of Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers' party (PKK), from taking Jarabulus first and linking up their territory east and west of the Euphrates.
It is hard to change the way Ankara ranks risk: the Gulen cult can be destroyed and Isis will disappear but Kurdish advances either side of the border with Syria will be a permanent existential threat to Turkish territorial integrity.
But the coup, against which all the AKP’s opponents rallied, including the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic party (HDP), offers the president an opportunity — especially if the US uses its new influence with the Kurds, who were talking peace with Ankara until last summer.
Mr Erdogan might even choose to blame Gulenist provocateurs for rekindling the PKK insurgency, just as he recently decided they were to blame for shooting down the Russian jet that caused last November’s breach with his friend Mr Putin.