Five Reasons Why the West Will Lose Turkey – by Emmanuel Karagiannis

Five Reasons Why the West Will Lose Turkey
by Emmanuel Karagiannis

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,647, July 16, 2020

www.besacenter.org

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The Turkey we once knew no longer exists. Despite
NATO objections and US warnings, Ankara acquired the advanced S-400 antiaircraft system from Russia. In response, Washington canceled Turkish
participation in the F-35 program. In the latest episode of this saga, a Turkish
court sentenced a US Consulate employee to almost nine years in prison for
aiding the Gülen movement. President Erdoğan has behaved like a bully toward
the EU, weaponizing Muslim refugees and migrants. He has also issued direct
threats to Greece and regularly antagonizes Israel.

The US political elite has long suffered from “Who lost that country?” syndrome. It
started with the Truman administration, which failed to prevent the communist
takeover of China in 1949. Then President Kennedy was blamed for the victory of
Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1959. The Nixon administration saw the collapse of South
Vietnam in 1975, and President Carter could not save the Shah from the Iranian
revolution. Despite this historical background, many American policymakers—
Republicans and Democrats alike—refuse to accept the obvious: Turkey is swinging
away from the West. Here are five reasons why.

First, Turkey is changing fast. The Islamization of the country is a bottom-up rather
than a top-down process. Anatolian Turks, who tend to be more conservative and
religious, have higher birth rates than the westernized Turks of Istanbul and the
Aegean coast. Many now view Kemalist secularism as an imposed political and
cultural order that ignores the country’s rich Islamic heritage.

Like other populist leaders, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is keenly attuned to
public sentiment. His anti-American, anti-European, and sometimes antisemitic
rhetoric has made him popular among many religious Turks. After all, the country
views itself as the successor of the Ottoman Empire. For five centuries, Istanbul was
the seat of the Caliphate and the Ottoman Sultan was viewed as the leader of the
Muslim world. Erdoğan’s Turkey wants to play the same role, as can be seen in its
support for the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and other Islamist groups.

Second, the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War has led to the dramatic revitalization of
the Kurdish Question. In November 2013, the establishment of the Kurdish
autonomous region of Rojava sent shock waves through Ankara. Turkey still suffers
traumatic memories of the Treaty of Sèvres, which called for the formation of an
independent Kurdistan. The new state would have been carved from the defeated
Ottoman Empire.

Erdoğan has often accused the US of supporting Kurdish nationalism and ignoring
Turkish sensitivities on the issue, and the country’s media portray the US as a
backstabbing and arrogant ally. Ankara also suspects Israel of encouraging the Iraqi
Kurds toward statehood. Turkish suspicions will only increase, as the West cannot
abandon the Kurds. Being part of the West does not serve Turkish interests in Syria
very well.

Third, the gradual withdrawal of the US from the Middle East and the subsequent
return of Russia have changed regional security dynamics. The Turkish leadership
feels less obliged to follow a pro-Western course in the Trumpist world of tactical
alignment and strategic uncertainty. Turkey now perceives itself as a rising power
with a big economy (one of the top 20 in the world) and a strong military (the
second-largest in NATO), one that is capable of fighting and winning wars. Indeed,
Turkish armed forces have conducted successful combat operations in Iraq, Syria,
and Libya without American backing. Turkey’s growing confidence is also evident
in its establishment of military bases in Qatar and Somalia, countries located far
away. More importantly, its defense industry has grown considerably over the past
five years and is now a multibillion-dollar high-tech sector of the economy.
Erdoğan’s Turkey has confidence—perhaps too much—in its ability to deal with
external challenges.

Fourth, Turkey’s growing ties with Russia are neither tactical nor coincidental.
Geopolitical considerations partly explain Turkey’s departure from its pro-Western
orientation. Despite its spectacular return to the Middle East, Russia is destined to
focus on the Arctic region. Due to climate change, Moscow does not need to have
access to the warm sea of the Mediterranean. In fact, Putin has called the Arctic “the
most important region that will provide for the future of Russia”. Nicholas
Spykman’s Rimland (1942) and George Kennan’s Containment (1947) theories will
become obsolete once the Arctic Ocean becomes navigable. Consequently, Ankara
will have less to fear from Russia’s military might. Turkey’s membership in NATO
could become irrelevant if not an obstacle to an even more revisionist foreign policy.
Fifth, Turkey is becoming an authoritarian country. Turkey has a long tradition of
westernization, but it is on a slippery slope where the rule of law is becoming
increasingly problematic and the division of powers has grown blurry. After the
failed coup of 2016, tens of thousands were imprisoned and even more lost their jobs
in an endless political witch hunt. Moreover, Turkey is one of the world’s leading
jailers of journalists, second only to China. Achieving membership in the EU is next
to impossible. In an era when information flows online, NATO cannot long afford to
ignore the human rights violations of its own members.

There should be no illusions. The West has diminishing influence over Turkey and
must prepare for a worst-case scenario in which Turkey joins an anti-West alliance in
the not-so-distant future. Fortunately, there are three countries in the Eastern
Mediterranean that can function as a bastion of democracy and Western ideals.
Greece, Israel, and the Republic of Cyprus are America’s best chance to maintain
influence in the region.

Emmanuel Karagiannis is an Associate Professor in King’s College London’s Department of
Defence Studies. He is author of The New Political Islam: Human Rights, Democracy
and Justice (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018).

 

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