April 19, 2016 | Interviewed by The Cipher Brief

Turkey: An Unreliable Ally?

As Turkey continues to face a deteriorating security environment, The Cipher Brief sat down with Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, to discuss Turkey’s political direction. According to Erdemir, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken Turkey down a path toward authoritarianism, and Erdogan’s flip-flopping policies have earned Turkey a reputation as an “unreliable ally.”

The Cipher Brief: With Turkey facing an increasingly tense security situation and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gaining strength, where do you see Turkey headed in the short-term?

Aykan Erdemir: The greatest risk Turkey faces today is its descent into authoritarianism. If the Turkish government continues undermining the rule of law, destroying checks and balances, and centralizing power in the hands of a single ruler, that is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not only will Turkey’s democracy suffer, but also its economy and position within the transatlantic alliance. Turkey’s authoritarianism will lead to a host of other problems, the escalation of the Kurdish conflict being the biggest.

Until recently, Turkey had implemented a Kurdish peace process. The process has not only failed, but it has now been replaced by fierce fighting between state forces and Kurdish insurgents. It is not only disrupting everyday life in the Kurdish majority cities in Turkey’s southeast, but it has also led to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacks in the western part of Turkey, which is contributing to an overall decline in the country’s security situation.

On top of that, there is the ISIS threat. Until quite recently, Turkey had either turned a blind eye to the jihadist threat, or was to some extent, complicit in it. Turkey thought that what it considered moderate jihadists could lead to swift regime change in Syria. Now Turkey knows that this is no longer an option. ISIS and other radicals seem to have turned on Turkey. If you take a look at the last year, Turkey has had three major suicide attacks in its capital Ankara, two in the vicinity of the parliament, and also three suicide attacks in Istanbul, the country’s tourism and financial capital.

While some of these attacks were carried out by jihadists, others were carried out by a PKK-offshoot. Turkey now seems to be part of the Middle East ecosystem of terrorism, as various brands of terrorism intersect and feed off of one another.

But overall, my main concern is that Turkey seems to be drifting away from its traditional position in the transatlantic alliance. Turkey became a NATO member in 1952, three years before western Germany. Turkey has been a member of the Council of Europe from the very beginning. Turkey has signed an association agreement with the European Union’s precursor European Economic Community in 1963. But Turkey, under President Erdogan’s rule, is gradually turning away from western institutions and transatlantic norms and values, and in fact becoming a challenger to the transatlantic world.  That’s why some in the Washington policy scene call Turkey a “rogue ally” or an “unreliable ally,” because Turkey seems to be increasingly ambivalent vis-à-vis where it stands.

Now there is a caveat of course. Since the downing of the Russian plane last November, Turkey seems to have come to a grim realization that its foreign policy has failed miserably on all fronts – Syria, Russia, Egypt, and also with respect to the rising Iranian hegemony. So what we see today is Ankara trying to take a pragmatic U-turn. Turkey is trying to revive the EU membership process, receive new reassurances from NATO against Russia, and strive for rapprochement with Israel.

Most independent observers are aware that these are tactical, short-term moves, so there is not much trust in Erdogan and his policies. Nevertheless, most would agree that this is a step in the right direction.

TCB: Some have linked the results of Turkey’s November election, in which President Erdogan’s AKP party regained a parliamentary majority, to the ongoing violence. In your view, is there a correlation between the violence and the electoral results?

AE: From the June 2015 elections until the snap elections of November 2015, Erdogan enjoyed a huge surge in support. That’s how he managed to regain a parliamentary majority in November. Most polls show that the greater the violence, the greater the support. In fact, right after the October 10 suicide bombing in Ankara, which killed over 100 people, many observers expected Erdogan to lose votes, but polls showed that that’s actually when his numbers began picking up rapidly. I think the logic is that the more the average Turkish citizen feels insecure and worried about violence, resulting either from ISIS or the PKK, they have a tendency to look for a strong leader who promises them an iron fisted and disciplined rule.

Since November, has Erdogan delivered on security? No. Violence has escalated both on the PKK front and the ISIS front. Turkey has lost many civilians, police officers and soldiers to terror and violence. So, from the citizen’s point of view, Erdogan failed to deliver. He did ride on the wave of violence with promises of bringing it to an end, but so far it seems that he is doing the very opposite – it’s as if he is fueling the fires.

TCB: Two and a half years ago, the Turkish government and the PKK agreed to a ceasefire, which held until the recent wave of violence. What would it take for the Turkish government and the PKK to reach a ceasefire and end hostilities?

AK: The problem with peace processes is that every time you fail, you lose part of the trust and confidence you need to make it work. Reconciliation is not a process you can start from scratch every time you fail. For example, we have seen the same with Erdogan’s Alevi reform package. This was an attempt to incorporate Turkey’s Alevi religious minority, and there were wave after wave after wave of attempts to reform Turkey’s exclusive and discriminatory Alevi policy. Each time it was a miserable failure because Erdogan comes from a sectarian political background and it’s not likely that he will fix Turkey’s sectarian and discriminatory system. With each failed round of Alevi reform talks, Turkey’s Alevi minority felt more excluded, became more hopeless, and ultimately Erdogan lost them for good.

I am now afraid that Erdogan is doing the same with the Kurdish peace process. Kurds are becoming increasingly skeptical, and if he attempts another Kurdish peace initiative, most people will view it as a tactical move. This is exactly what we are witnessing with the Israeli rapprochement as well.

After years and years of anti-Semitic vitriol and attacks on Israel and Jews by Turkey’s top officials, now Erdogan says, let’s work toward rapprochement and cooperation. And understandably, there are many skeptics on the Israeli side, because it is difficult for them to forget Erdogan’s anti-Semitic and bigoted past. Everyone is aware that Erdogan is simply pushed in that direction because of the recent Russian threats and a need to access new energy markets and develop security cooperation with Israel.

What Erdogan fails to see both in domestic politics and foreign policy is that you need to build mid- to long-term relationships based on trust. Sure, politics is also about pragmatism, quick fixes, and short-term tactics, but you can’t build an entire strategy on disingenuous and momentary U-turns. You need to also convey who you are, where you stand, and what your core values are, and Erdogan and Turkey need to build a trusting relationship, beginning with Kurds and Alevis, and also with Turkey’s neighbors.

Dr. Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011-2015). He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.  Erdemir holds a PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, and is co-author of the 2016 book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge).