Turkey’s Death Spiral
BISHKEK – The series of terrorist attacks that have struck Turkey over the last year are sending the country – once viewed as a democratic, secular model for the Middle East – into a death spiral at the very moment when its people are to vote on a new constitution next month. Tourism – which previously accounted for more than 10% of Turkey’s GDP – is withering, and foreign direct investment is set to slow considerably. These outcomes will reinforce each other, producing a vicious cycle that will be difficult to halt.
Turkey’s government-controlled media and large swaths of the population see the nefarious hand of the West in the country’s unraveling. Observers often blame Turkey’s deepening plight on its inability to reconcile traditional Islam and modernizing Western tendencies, as well as on external events, such as the conflict in Syria. But decisions by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan have also contributed to Turkey’s vulnerability to terrorism.
Erdoğan’s first such decision, motivated by his desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime collapse, was to allow fighters, including recruits for the Islamic State, to cross Turkey’s southern border into Syria relatively freely. He failed to recognize fully the danger these fighters posed to Turkey’s own security, particularly as many of them joined Islamist-affiliated groups that are as hostile to Turkey as they are to Assad.
Erdoğan’s second fateful decision was to re-launch the on-again, off-again civil war with Turkey’s Kurdish population. In the early years of his presidency, Erdoğan reached out to the Kurds and managed, more or less, to halt active hostilities.
But, in June 2015, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority, prompting the president to resume open hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels. Erdoğan’s gambit allowed the AKP to retake a parliamentary majority in a snap election that November, but at the cost of reopening the Pandora’s box of civil war.
Despite these two decisions, it might have been possible for the Turkish security forces to continue protecting the country from both Islamist and Kurdish terrorism. But a third decision ruled that out: Erdoğan chose to break with Fethullah Gülen, the expatriate cleric whose influential followers – the so-called Hizmet movement – had for many years been among Erdoğan’s most important allies.
Over the course of roughly six years, the Gülenists had helped Erdoğan to oust military and police cadres (among many other public-sector employees) who were loyal to Turkish secular and nationalist ideals, rather than to his own soft Islamism. But, in 2013, Erdoğan, suspecting that the Gülenists had begun plotting against him, began turning on them.
The short-lived coup attempt last July spurred a vengeful Erdoğan to organize a massive purge of the military and security services. While it certainly makes sense for a government to prosecute those who have attempted to overthrow it, Erdoğan took matters significantly further, pursuing anyone with the slightest potential connection to Gülen. In the process, he severely weakened the capacity of Turkey’s police and military.
At a moment when threats from Islamist and Kurdish groups were intensifying, that was the last thing Turkey needed. Perhaps Erdoğan should have recalled Joseph Stalin’s purge of the Red Army’s officer corps in the late 1930s, which left the Soviet Union almost defenseless, opening the way for Adolf Hitler to attack in 1941.
Turkey is now fully under the political control of a single individual – and incapable of dealing with the multiple crises that it faces. Even in the best-case scenario, Turkey will be severely weakened, no longer capable of sustaining the regional leadership role that it played for nearly a century. In the worst-case scenario, Turkey’s economy will collapse, sending huge numbers of refugees – including Syrians and others currently in Turkey, as well as Turks themselves – to Western Europe.
Not everyone is distressed by Turkey’s misfortune. Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably more than pleased with the country’s transformation. In Putin’s worldview, the most dangerous countries are successful democracies allied with the West. Turkey used to be precisely that: a democratic and reasonably prosperous country and a longtime NATO member, moving swiftly to deepen its ties with the West.
Now, Turkey is becoming an economically weakened autocracy, wracked by terrorism and unable to defend itself, much less to help NATO project power. This is a dream come true for Putin. (It is also good news for Russia’s ally Iran, which can only welcome the destabilization of its main non-Arab Sunni rival in the region.) If Turkey’s downward spiral generates a new wave of refugees bound for Europe, further destabilizing the European Union, all the better.
This is not to say that Putin has planned Turkey’s downfall. He didn’t have to. Leaders like Erdoğan easily fall for Putin’s brand of modern dictatorship, which relies on disinformation and the trappings of democracy to bolster the ruler’s personal power. All Putin has to offer is inspiration, and perhaps some advice from time to time.
Beyond Turkey, US President Donald Trump seems equally enamored of Putin. We shall see whether the United States – with its economic strength, relative geographical isolation, and strong institutions – is better protected than Turkey against the influence of Putin’s malign example.