At the Crossroads Between East and West: Turkey and the World in 2016

Photo: AP

Editor’s Note: Over the coming days, The Cipher Brief presents some of our most incisive coverage on key issues of 2016 and a look ahead at what is yet to come in 2017.

2016 has been a year of fundamental change for Turkey. In Syria, the threat of ISIS and the expansion of Kurdish groups along the Turkish-Syrian border has prompted Ankara to commit forces to the country in support of friendly rebels. In Iraq, the Turkish base at Bashiqa just north of Mosul has pushed ties with Baghdad to a historic low over Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s protests at Turkey’s military presence in Iraq. Meanwhile, to the north, relations with Russia have slowly recovered from the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Turkish airspace in November 2015, but the assassination of Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey in Ankara this Monday risked derailing that rapprochement.

Finally, the attempted military coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on July 16th of this year transformed the political landscape in Turkey. The purge of “coup plotters” from Turkish institutions and civil society has led to the suspension, detention, or arrest of over 110,000 officials, and accelerated a deep polarization in Turkish society. According Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute and Cipher Brief expert, Soner Cagaptay, this polarization is so severe that “Turks now live in two different realities” – those who stand with Erdogan, and those who hate him.

As we enter the new year, what lessons can be learned from 2016, and what might the future hold for this vitally important country at the crossroads between east and west?

The striking evolution in President Erdogan’s foreign policy over the past year provides a useful starting point. That foreign policy used to be defined by the catchphrase “Zero Problems with Neighbors.” But Turkish relations with nearly every close neighbor gradually soured in the period between 2009 and 2015, especially following Erdogan’s attempt to play a more prominent role in Middle Eastern geopolitics after the Arab Spring in 2011. Moreover, the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Turkish airspace in November 2015, and the resulting split between Ankara and Moscow, marked a low point in this general deterioration of Turkish foreign relations.

However, 2016 saw a marked reversal in this trend. In June, Erdogan reached a deal with Israel to normalize ties after six years of broken relations; in July, Turkey finally received a new ambassador from the United Arab Emirates after three years. Russian-Turkish relations swiftly thawed after Erdogan sent a letter of “regret” to Vladimir Putin over the incident with the Russian plane. Even the assassination of the Russian Ambassador, Andrey Karlov, by a Turkish off-duty policeman in Ankara has not broken this thaw. According to Cagaptay, “neither side wants normalization to be derailed,” a fact demonstrated by Ankara’s extraordinary step of establishing a bi-national commission with Russia to investigate the killing.

To Aykan Erdemir, Former Member of Turkish Parliament and a Cipher Brief expert, the calm response to Karlov’s assassination and “the subsequent signing of the ‘Moscow Declaration’ between Russia, Iran, and Turkey” – only one day after the assassination – are both representative of the death of President Erdogan’s expansive foreign policy vision. That vision once imagined Erdogan as a new icon of Pan-Islamist ideology, patron and leader of revolutionary governments from Egypt to Syria. Now, in compromises like the Moscow Declaration, which sets out a roadmap for Syrian peace negotiations with Russia and Iran, the Turkish president is accepting a more modest and practical role. This new vision is one of survival in a dangerous world, in which Turkey will abandon lofty goals like the fall of the Assad regime in exchange for securing the Syrian border against ISIS and Kurdish militants.

In Iraq, competition between Turkey and Iran over influence in Mosul and its surrounding areas will likely continue as Ankara attempts to bolster local allies like the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and build a security buffer along the Turkish border. Erdogan has built a strong relationship with the KRG and its leader, Massoud Barzani, in northern Iraq. However, Syrian Kurds led by the PYD (Democratic Union Party) are closely tied to the insurgent PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party) in Turkey, and Ankara regards their presence along the border with Syria as an existential threat.

Russia is well-positioned to help Turkey address this threat – as the Moscow Declaration demonstrates – and Erdogan is likely drift further from the U.S., EU, and NATO orbit to support his budding relationship with Russia. This will probably manifest in continued Syria talks, combined with more open support for Russian priorities in the Black Sea and Ukraine, driving an even deeper wedge between Turkey and the EU.

Turkey’s migrant deal with the EU, which has stemmed the flow of migrants into Europe in exchange for aid and preferential visa treatment, is the last foundation upon which frayed Turkey-EU relations stand. But full-throated Turkish support for Russian actions in Ukraine could undercut this foundation and finally put an end to Turkey’s decades-long quest to join the Union.

External factors have contributed to this strategic change of heart, but the attempted military coup against President Erdogan on July 15 was by far the most transformative event in 2016. Writing for The Cipher Brief on July 19, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, James Jeffrey, called this abortive coup “the most important strategic event since the beginning of Erdogan’s rule 16 years ago” and, so far, he has been proven right.

Despite conspiracy theories that Erdogan planned the coup himself to bolster popular support ahead of a bid to revise the country’s constitution, the coup appears to have frightened the Turkish president and instilled a deep paranoia in his government. Since the coup’s failure, Erdogan has purged a vast swathe of Turkish society. Over 125,000 teachers, academics, journalists, and civil servants have lost their jobs, 80,000 more have been detained, and 40,000 arrested; some 2,000 schools and nearly 180 media outlets have been shuttered in the course of the purge. Even more striking, the Council of Europe estimates that roughly one third of all Turkish military personnel have been dismissed.

The Turkish government has largely blamed the coup conspiracy on a Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania’s Pocono mountains. Gulen, a former political ally of Erdogan’s, does enjoy a wide following in Turkey, and Erdogan has used the imagined size of this network to justify the breadth of his crackdown on so-called “Gulenists.” He has also used the specter of this shadowy organization – and its supposed U.S. backing – to fire up his Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) supporters and lay the political groundwork to revise the constitution and create a powerful executive-style presidency.

However, Cagaptay worries that this has created a Turkey which is “deeply polarized between his [Erdogan’s] supporters, who love him, and his opponents, who loathe him.” Combined with the internal threat of terrorism – more than 380 people have been killed in major terror attacks since 2015 – the accelerating war against a Kurdish PKK insurgency, the deterioration of political and security institutions following coup purges, and myriad external threats, this polarization has “left Turkey extremely vulnerable.”

According to Erdemir, the only way to truly prevent this vulnerability from precipitating a political crisis or strategic shift away from the U.S. and the EU is for the country to get “back on track for convergence with Western standards of secular and democratic governance” and rebuild inclusive institutions.

However, this kind of convergence does not support Erdogan’s core interest, which is to solidify his political support, silence opponents, and build a powerful executive presidency for himself.  Beset by Jihadist terrorism, a PKK insurgency, and deep political polarization at home, Erdogan looks ready to gather friends – preferably ones who don’t ask too many questions – wherever he can find them abroad. If this means abandoning lofty foreign policy goals in Syria and cozying up to Russia and Iran in 2017, then so be it. 

Fritz Lodge is an international producer at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.