November 24, 2020 | Insight

Getting Erdogan’s Turkey Right: Reflections on Ambassador Jeffrey’s Exit Interview

November 24, 2020 | Insight

Getting Erdogan’s Turkey Right: Reflections on Ambassador Jeffrey’s Exit Interview

In a recent exit interview with Defense One, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, the outgoing special representative for Syria engagement, asserted that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey poses challenges to the United States not because of his iron-fisted rule, but because Turkey’s democratic system forces him to compromise with some unsavory partners. A closer look at Erdogan’s political career, however, proves Jeffrey wrong: Erdogan intensified his anti-Western policies following his unprecedented consolidation of power and his dismantling of any restraints on his arbitrary rule.

In the interview, part of which was posted in a Twitter thread by Defense One’s Senior National Security Correspondent Katie Bo Williams, Jeffrey rates Turkey as “the most difficult” of the “A-level” problems facing projected President-elect Joe Biden. The retiring U.S. envoy recognizes that Erdogan “is a particularly difficult diplomatic partner,” but then dissents from the widespread global skepticism of Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian and belligerent leader: “One of the arguments is, [Erdogan] can’t be an ally because [Turkey is] not a democracy. Frankly, he would be easier to deal with if he wasn’t the leader of a democratic country because he needs enough votes in parliament and that means has to collect some of them [from people] considerably more nationalistic and extreme than he is to stay in power.”

These contrarian arguments – coming from a senior career diplomat with in-depth experience in the Middle East and the Balkans, including ambassadorial posts in Turkey, Iraq, and Albania – merit close attention. What Jeffrey gets right is that Erdogan’s dwindling political fortunes – corruption probes into his family and cronies, splits with his tactical allies, and betrayal by his former-ally-turned-archnemesis Fethullah Gülen – have ultimately pushed the Turkish president into an alliance with Turkey’s far-right Nationalist Action Party as well as other ultranationalist figures in the country’s security establishment.

Jeffrey errs, however, in assuming that Erdogan would have remained a reasonably cooperative ally if he did not have to share power and thus compromise with others in Turkey’s political spectrum. Such an assumption would have been valid if Erdogan had a positive track record as an ally before cutting a deal with the far right.

Yet Erdogan’s actions between 2010 and 2014, at the height of his power, with a comfortable majority in parliament and full control over Turkey’s courts and media, disprove Jeffrey’s proposition. In May 2010, Erdogan signed 17 agreements with the Kremlin, awarding Turkey’s first nuclear reactor power plant project to Russia and furthering plans for a pipeline from Russia. In January 2012, there were reports that Turkey replaced Iran as the largest donor to Hamas. In September 2013, despite warnings from the United States and other NATO allies, Ankara agreed to a $4 billion deal to buy an air defense system from a sanctioned Chinese company. In December 2013, a graft probe exposed Erdogan and his ministers for helping Iran evade U.S. nuclear sanctions to the tune of $20 billion – the biggest sanctions-evasion scheme in recent history – by offering Halkbank, Turkey’s second-largest public lender, majority-owned by the Turkish government, to the service of Tehran’s ringleaders.

What explains Erdogan’s increasingly rogue behavior is not his need to share power with others in what Jeffrey considers to be a “democratic country,” but precisely Erdogan’s systematic dismantling of democratic institutions. Since his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002, Erdogan has consolidated his rule by sidelining any rivals who pose a threat within his party and eliminating all checks and balances in the country.

The more Erdogan has eroded Turkey’s separation of powers by amassing executive, legislative, and judicial powers in the office of the presidency, the more aggressive and reckless he has become. Erdogan’s tactical turn to the far right has resulted in a particularly toxic mix of Islamism and ultranationalism, but he was already on a crash course with the West long before that.

Jeffrey is not alone in misreading Erdogan’s core values and ambitions. As late as the mass protests that rocked the AKP government in 2013 and the brutal crackdown that followed, then-President Barack Obama regarded Erdogan as a moderate Muslim democrat and a potential role model for Muslim leaders. It is hard to judge Obama when millions of Turkish citizens, including liberals, Kurds, and religious minorities, as well as EU officials, also mistook Erdogan for a well-meaning reformer as late as 2013. What is more difficult to understand is that more than seven years after a global recognition of Erdogan’s dark trajectory, Jeffrey still predicates Erdogan’s rogue behavior on his need to share power as “the leader of a democratic country.”

It is important to remember that Erdogan has taken nearly two decades to monopolize power by eroding all the institutional restraints in one of the most democratic and secular Muslim-majority polities in the world. He has also been busy with his social engineering to craft a more radical public that would back his aggressive policies, putting Ankara on a crash course with its NATO allies. To assume that an unrestrained Erdogan would not have turned to China, Iran, and Russia or harbored Hamas and other jihadist organizations would be a misreading not only of Turkey’s recent history, but also of Erdogan’s ambitions, which he frequently lays out in the open.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from Aykan and the Turkey Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Aykan on Twitter at @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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