This article was published in The Spectator USA.
Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigned for a new constitution that would change his country’s polity from a parliamentary to a presidential system. When German officials refused to allow his ministers to travel to Germany and woo its million-strong expatriate vote, he called them Nazis. He later also accused the German Chancellor of Nazism for saying that the European Union should reconsider its relations with Turkey – a veiled threat for suspending talks to bring it into the EU. Ankara and Amsterdam withdrew their ambassadors during a spat over the same campaign.
During a disastrous visit to Athens last December, Erdogan demanded the return of ten fugitive officers Erdogan considers plotted against him in a July 2016 army coup that nearly unseated him, even though Greece’s Supreme Court ruled against their extradition. And he called for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty, which has established peace between Greece and Turkey for the last century.
But the worst clash was with the US. Last summer, Congress discussed imposing sanctions on Turkey over its refusal to release an American pastor. Now released, Andrew Brunson had been imprisoned for two years for allegedly plotting against Erdogan. The US is also withholding delivery of F-35 stealth aircraft Turkey has bought because it is unhappy over Turkey’s increasingly close relationship with Russia. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor and Turkey plans to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles over the objections of NATO.
This turbulence in Turkey’s relations with the west, unprecedented since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974, has led many to ask, What does Erdogan want?
Firstly, he wants to stay in power. The fragility of parliamentary majorities was brought forcefully home to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the June 2015 election, which produced a hung parliament. AKP had ruled since 2002 but lost popularity after the Gezi Park uprisings two years earlier. Erdogan-backed plans to build a mall in the historic Istanbul park drew massive protests, cleared after days of rioting and heavy-handed police tactics.
Erdogan regained his parliamentary majority in a repeat election in November, but the experience cemented his resolve to ditch the parliamentary system in favour of a winner-take-all presidential one. As Presidents George W Bush and Donald Trump have shown, it’s possible to win office without a popular majority, because presidential systems are designed to produce a decisive result.
Second, Erdogan wants to avoid prosecution. Leaked telephone conversations in which he appears to be discussing illicit funds with his son could lead to a judicial investigation and indictment once he leaves office. As president, however, he has given himself the power to appoint top judges. Again, Erdogan appears to be taking a leaf from the Republican playbook. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell permanently altered Senate majority rules (and ethics) for Supreme Court appointments, specifically in order to give his party greater influence in the judiciary.
Third, Erdogan wants to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state along his southern border, in Iraq and Syria, which could threaten to pull away the Kurdish-majority region of southeast Turkey. The US has armed and trained Kurdish militias to fight against the Islamic State in Syria, and they have been devastatingly effective. In the process, it has made an enemy of the Turkish establishment, which considers all Kurds potential terrorists and separatists. The US rebuffed Turkey’s bid to participate in the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, thus preventing it from acquiring a role in the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan; but it was unable to prevent Erdogan from launching a military incursion in Syria this year, which resulted in the Turkish conquest of the Kurdish city of Afrin.
Turkey’s allegedly defensive designs are also potentially expansionist. When the Great Powers recognized the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and defined the borders of the Turkish state in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, Mosul and northeast Syria, where Afrin sits, were areas Turkish negotiators demanded be included within Turkish control. The Kurdish threat, both real and imaginary, appears to be a means of transforming Turkey from nation state, NATO member and US ally, to regional power. Turkey has shown other signs of such ambition. It is building an Adriatic naval base in Albania and has already built a military base in Mogadishu. In the next few years it will take possession of an aircraft carrier, which has no conceivable defensive use justifying its cost.
The United States eyes these ambitions warily, especially since Turkey has now straddled the east-west alliance system by befriending Russia; but since the Second Gulf War quenched appetites in Washington for Middle Eastern escapades, the US must be content to work through proxies, however problematic.
Erdogan’s position as Turkey’s pre-eminent statesman aside from the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, is assured. He has increased the country’s economy fourfold and broken the stranglehold of Turkey’s westernizing, secular elite over Turkish politics, becoming a force for the underserved Muslim constituency and the underprivileged. By bringing power and prosperity to that constituency, Erdogan also transformed his country’s view of itself in the region. What Erdogan wants is power, immunity and a fundamental revision of Turkey’s role in the Middle East. The question is whether he can override western objections to his authoritarian style of government and his dreams of projecting power beyond Turkish borders.