By Winfield Myers*
Will Turkey’s current hostility toward the West be long-lived, as is post-revolutionary Iran’s, or will it fade with the inevitable demise of its mercurial president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? Is its twenty-first century embrace of nationalism and Islamism primarily cultural in nature, or does it spring from Erdoğan’s policies and personality? What, if anything, can Washington do to mitigate these dangerous developments?
An audience of about sixty gathered in the Rayburn Office Building to hear participants from the think tank and advocacy/education sectors discuss these fundamental questions during “Is Turkey Coming Back? Updating U.S. Policy,” a December 9 Capitol Hill briefing sponsored by the Middle East Forum (MEF) (video here and here).
The discussion exposed a rift among American opinion and policy makers regarding the depth and duration of Turkey’s antipathy toward the West. In his opening remarks, MEF’s president Daniel Pipes noted that Erdoğan’s reign initially sparked debate over Turkey’s trustworthiness as an ally. Its ceaseless belligerence toward former friends ended that dispute; today’s principal arguments surround the causes and likely duration of Turkey’s transformation from the pillar of NATO’s southeastern flank to a newfound “Thuringian bulge” into the soft underbelly of Europe.
Pipes, along with many members of Congress and non-governmental regional experts, sees these shifts as socio/cultural, and so unlikely to change in the near term. They are best reflected in the collapse of formerly widespread goodwill toward the U.S. among the Turkish people: where over half viewed America favorably before 2000, today that figure has plummeted to 18 percent.
This pessimism in the efficacy of short-term fixes is at odds with the policies of the last three presidential administrations, Western businesses, and the foreign policy bureaucracy at the State Department. From Bush to Obama to Trump, the executive branch is a font of optimism – some might say willful blindness – that Erdoğan’s instincts for self-preservation, if not his affection for his erstwhile allies, will keep him in the Western fold. Boeing, meanwhile, has recently inked a deal for a $1.2 billion deal with Antalya Airlines, dictatorship be damned.
Heads of three ethnic advocacy organizations representing the Kurdish, Hellenic, and Armenian communities – all historic victims of Turkish/Ottoman aggression – expressed similar frustrations with short-sighted Western opportunism and agreed that Turkey’s contemporary difficulties reflect systemic problems in Turkish culture, and not just Erdoğan’s policies. Endy Zemenides, executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, said such policies make him want “issue a bill of indictment against Washington.” Turkey’s current position was enabled because of decades of “appeasement.” “We kept coming up with new excuses” for not mentioning the Armenian genocide or other violence against Turkey’s religious and ethnic minorities, he complained.
Diliman Abdulkader, spokesperson and co-founder of American Friends of Kurdistan, noted that Kurdish issues with Turkey date to the founding of the modern Turkish state in 1923. Since then, Turkish aggression, whether in Syria in 1925, Northern Cyprus in 1974, or Syria again today, has been ignored by the West. Today’s neo-Ottoman policy, which seeks to expand Turkish territory and Islamize the region, has deep roots and isn’t going away, Abdulkader said, adding that it risks destabilizing the Eastern Mediterranean. In response to Erdoğan’s more recent hostility, countries in the area have changed their policies toward Turkey, he noted, but the U.S. has not. As a result, Kurdish peoples throughout the region remain threatened.
Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, charged the State Department with taking a “delusional approach” to Turkey and “living in the past.” Regarding the Armenian genocide, which most Western powers have until recently refused to address, a “truthful policy” should be possible, Hamparian said, since within any alliance, such as NATO, “there’s plenty of room . . . for the truth.”
Putting current regional struggles in historical perspective, Zemenides warned the consequences of ignoring inconvenient truths manifest themselves in unexpected ways. He described a recent scheme by Russian operatives to leverage internal Turkish politics in order to undermine the beleaguered Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Following the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan, a widely circulated article purportedly by the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen labeled the Patriarch a Gülenist, the better to facilitate his downfall, since Erdoğan blames his former ally Fethullah Gülen for the coup. The real source for the article was in fact Russia, which sought the permanent removal of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s office to allow the Russian Orthodox Church to proclaim supremacy in worldwide Orthodoxy.
Participants agreed that solutions to the Turkish problem illustrated by such international skullduggery should be long-term, since Erdoğan’s removal, though welcome, would not solve problems deeply ingrained in Turkish society. Pipes’s recommendations were the most direct and included expelling Turkey from NATO under the Geneva Conventions, closing the American air base at Incirlik and removing its nuclear weapons, sanctions for its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, and removing all American military forces from the country. Hamparian advocated moving ahead with Congressional condemnation of the Armenian genocide, as did Abdulkader. Zemenides argued that given Turkey’s economic stagnation, refusal to take advantage of this weakness would amount to “diplomatic and management malpractice on our part.”
Decades of such malpractice by America and the West won’t be remedied quickly, but the briefing demonstrated that diverse interest groups and policy experts recognize the nature of Turkey’s myriad threats. As MEF’s director Gregg Roman stated in his closing remarks, an umbrella organization capable of expanding the anti-Erdoğan lobby, including Turkish dissidents, is needed to coordinate actions and educate policymakers and politicians. American bases can be moved elsewhere, while U.S. financial support could go directly to Kurdish political parties in Turkey itself. And Erdoğan should be on watch that anyone who associates with him will be “turned into a pillar of salt,” i.e., ostracized by the international community. Determination, organization, and action will be necessary to accomplish these goals, but if MEF’s briefing is indicative of a changing mood toward Turkey, new possibilities for change abound.