Turkey’s Downward Spiral

It is becoming harder by the day to make sense of the strategy behind Ankara’s domestic and foreign policy choices — assuming there is one at all.

Source: Getty Images

by Marc Pierini | August 28, 2017

To Turkish analysts, Ankara’s policies may make sense. For Western politicians and analysts, including eternal hopefuls, summer 2017 will be remembered as a time when Turkey spiraled downward into more rule of the arbitrary, increased political inconsistencies, and aggressive postures on the international scene. It is becoming harder by the day to make sense of Ankara’s strategy — assuming there is one at all.

It is becoming harder by the day to make sense of Ankara’s strategy — assuming there is one at all.

A mere month ago, I wrote that policies since Turkey’s failed coup attempt in July 2016 were taking the country into bigger dangers due to unsafe domestic choices and foreign adventures. In retrospect, this was a mild assessment. In the span of one month, Turkey has passed several danger thresholds.

Domestically, the political leadership, after jailing a large number of democratically elected parliamentarians of the Kurdish-origin Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has set its sights on the top ranks of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has recently received increased visibility with the March for Justice, a long-distance protest march from Ankara to Istanbul.

The trials of journalists and administrators of the daily Cumhuriyet have shown the world how much an independent judiciary has been reduced to a political farce. When pressed to release journalists pending trial, judges obliged, but only for lesser-known writers, and kept in jail those who had voiced real dissent.

Internationally, Ankara’s policy of harassing EU institutions and selected EU member governments — and, occasionally, the United States — has gone wild, but with little consistency or understandable objectives.

Internationally, Ankara’s policy of harassing EU institutions and selected EU member governments — and, occasionally, the United States — has gone wild, but with little consistency or understandable objectives.

With Germany, Ankara tried to prevent members of the Bundestag from visiting German soldiers operating NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance aircraft, which inform Turkish authorities of dangers on the country’s southern borders, from Konya air force base. Meanwhile, Ankara sent Berlin an astounding request to investigate German companies operating in Turkey for suspected links with the movement of self-exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen.

On both issues, Ankara had to promptly backtrack amid convoluted and confused explanations that barely masked the magnitude of the blunder. Ankara also accused the German government of interfering in the EU’s policy on the customs union with Turkey, seemingly ignoring the right of each EU member state to voice its opinion on issues discussed in the EU Council of Ministers.

Much worse, amid already tense relations with the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Turkish president advised German citizens of Turkish origin to vote against the Christian Democrats (CDU), the Social Democrats (SPD), and the Greens in Germany’s September federal election because they were “enemies of Turkey.” Apart from the brazen interference, the advice is hard to understand, because the Turkish-Germans concerned would then have to choose between smaller parties, none of which would be favorable to Turkish interests, while one or several of the three main parties targeted by Ankara will almost certainly be in power this fall. A strange investment by Ankara.

With the United States, Germany, and France, Turkey is also pursuing what looks like a state hostage policy, whereby foreigners are jailed under the slimmest of pretexts as part of a tactic of tension and a possible future quid pro quo. For example, the freeing of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian citizen currently undergoing a sensitive trial in the United States for operating a scheme from Istanbul to evade UN sanctions on Iran, is a stated objective of Ankara’s authorities. Other actions, such as the state news agency Anadolu divulging geographic positions and other operational information on U.S. and French special forces operating in northern Syria, clearly put allied troops in life-threatening situations, an unprecedented move between NATO countries.

With the United States, Germany, and France, Turkey is also pursuing what looks like a state hostage policy.

Turkey watchers are used to heated political exchanges both within Turkey and between the country and its international partners. In the past spring and summer, however, all boundaries have been overstepped. The issue now is what the political fallout will be for Turkey’s relationships with the EU, the United States, and NATO. Four consequences stand out.

One is that European tolerance and leniency with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is over. From an image of an occasionally difficult partner, the Turkish president has now reached the position of the only elected leader in NATO or the Council of Europe who routinely verbally attacks his counterparts for domestic political purposes.

European tolerance and leniency with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is over.

The second consequence is that those EU governments under attack are now countering the Turkish president with tough rebukes, as a matter of principle and as a defense of their democracies. Doing nothing has become politically unsustainable.

The third effect is that the only component of the EU-Turkey relationship that may have made progress in the short term — the customs union — is now in jeopardy in several EU capitals. If no progress is made, EU business will potentially lose some advantages, but Turkish business will lose a lot more at the worst possible time for the country.

The fourth result may be that the Western military and intelligence community will alter its general assessment of Turkey. With unchecked authoritarianism growing by the day, the rule of law systematically dismantled, state hostages occurring here and there, blunt political interference taking place, and the military vastly disrupted, Turkey may increasingly appear to be a rogue partner. The implication for many of Ankara’s partners is an irreparable loss of confidence with the current leadership. Over time, and despite occasional appeasing words, that may even lead to a policy of containment.

This scenario would be a long way from that of only a few years ago, when a democratizing Turkey was reinforcing its strategic links with the European Union.

This article was originally published on Judy Dempsey’s Strategic Europe blog. Sign up to receive updates in your inbox!