Turkey’s elections last Sunday did not produce any surprise results. The vote saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reelected with an outright 52 percent majority, as expected.
Erdogan’s AKP Justice and Development Party retained control over the Turkish parliament (albeit in conjunction with the ultranationalist, anti-Kurdish MHP party).
The results will not change the trajectory that Erdogan launched Turkey upon some 15 years ago when he first rose to power. But what the election does mean is that the obvious trends in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies will be reinforced and expanded in an unimpeded manner.
From the America’s perspective, all of these trends are uniformly negative. As a result, it is time for a serious reconsideration of U.S. strategic ties with its erstwhile, and increasingly antagonistic, fellow NATO member.
Sunday’s election served as an endorsement of the constitutional changes that Erdogan forced through the Turkish parliament last year. Those reforms, which transform Turkey into a presidential system and cancel the office of the prime minister, provide Erdogan with unfettered power to govern by fiat. He can pass law by decree, call for elections at any time, appoint anyone he likes to any position he wishes, and declare a state of emergency whenever he wants for however long he likes.
Under the circumstances, whether or not the AKP controls parliament or not has become far less important than it was before the constitutional amendments were passed. Under the reformed constitutional system, the parliament is powerless to check Erdogan’s power.
Erdogan’s emasculation of the parliament is the final stage of his seizure of absolute power. Over his 15 years in office, Erdogan has assumed control of the Turkish media; banking system; judiciary; civil service education system; major industries;, and, most recentlt, the military. There is literally no independent power source capable of challenging his will.
So the question for foreign governments is: What is Erdogan’s will?
Erdogan has made no attempt to hide his goals. He has already transformed Turkey. When he rose to power in 2003, Turkey was the secular republic republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman empire at the end of World War I.
That secular republic no longer exists. Turkey is on the fast track to become an Islamist state.
Erdogan’s new Turkish Islamist state harbors active ambitions to reestablish the Ottoman empire. To that end, Erdogan, a vituperative antisemite, has become a major sponsor of Hamas, the Palestinian terror group and Muslim Brotherhood branch that controls the Gaza Strip.
During the Muslim Brotherhood’s year in power in Egypt, Erdogan cultivated close ties with then-president Muhammed Morsi.
For several years, Erdogan enabled the so-called “Islamic State terror group to use Turkey as its recruitment and logistical base. He also permitted Turkey to serve as Islamic State’s economic hub. Most of its oil sales were to Turkey. Arms and personnel en route to Syria travelled through Turkey.
As for illicit oil sales, Turkey served as a major purchaser of Iranian oil and gas in defiance of UN Security Council sanctions barring purchase of Iranian oil and gas exports.
Then there is Qatar. When last year the moderate Sunni regimes, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt, cut off diplomatic relations with Doha and blockaded its borders, demanding that it shut down its often-radical Al Jazeera satellite network, end its alliance with Iran, and stop sponsoring Sunni jihadist groups (including Hamas, al Qaeda and Islamic State), Erdogan rushed to Qatar’s defense. Turkish forces deployed to Qatar to protect the regime. Erdogan expects that in return for his protection, Qatar will behave as a Turkish vassal state.
As Turkey has cultivated jihadists as allies, Erdogan has spurned Turkey’s traditional allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.
As for Europe, Erdogan has taken an active role in undermining European societies through migration. Ahead of last year’s Turkish vote to approve or reject his constitutional changes, Erdogan sent representatives to Turkish communities in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands to campaign among expatriates to vote for the amendments giving him absolute power. When the Europeans objected and Holland and Austria barred Turkish officials from entering their territory ahead of the poll, Erdogan condemned and threatened them. Ahead of Sunday’s vote, Germany, Holland, and Austria all banned Turkish politicians from campaigning in their territory. Erdogan against condemned them.
The mass migration of Syrians and others to Europe was largely a result of Erdogan’s will. He chose to push them into Europe. Since he did so, he has been effectively extorting European leaders, especially Germany, to finance his economy lest he open the floodgatesof migration from the Middle East to Europe once again.
As for great power politics, under Erdogan, Turkey’s relations with the U.S. have become frosty. As he cultivates mass hatred of Jews in Turkey, so he has cultivated anti-Americanism. Television shows, bestselling books, and other cultural outlets are geared towards instilling deep-seated hatred for America among the Turks. And it is working.
When Erdogan indirectly accused the Obama administration — which went out of its way to embrace and support him – of sponsoring the failed coup of July 2016, Turkish public opinion was already primed to believe him. Since the coup — which was defeated by Erdogan’s shock troops — U.S.-Turkish relations have gone from bad to worse.
As he has cultivated hatred for America at home, Erdogan has gone to great lengths to cultivate closer ties to Russia. Russia has supported Turkey’s assaults on the Kurds in northern Syria. And Turkey has signed a deal to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface to air missile system. The latter deal lit every possible red light in Washington. As a NATO ally, Turkey is required to purchase systems that are interoperable with NATO platforms. The S-400 is not interoperable. Moreover, if Erdogan chooses to, once he receives his order of 100 F-35 combat fighters, he will be able to share the stealth technology with Russia and China and thus endanger the viability of the U.S.’s fourth-generation jetfighter.
Moreover, given his strategic ambitions, there is every reason to be concerned that Erdogan will deploy his F-35s against U.S. allies.
Cognizant of Erdogan’s anti-Americanism — which, among other things, is manifested in the imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson on trumped up charges of involvement with the coup attempt — earlier this month the Senate overwhelmingly passed an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill for 2019 that bars the Pentagon from carrying out its deal with Turkey to sell Erdogan’s regime the F-35s.
Last week, the U.S. officially transferred the first two aircraft to Turkey. To a certain extent, the plane delivery was more apparent than real. The planes were transferred from a base in Texas to a base in Arizona, where Turkish flight crews and ground operators are being trained to use them. The training could last for as long as the U.S. wishes. And until it is completed, the F-35s will not be transferred to Turkey.
But the fact that they were formally transferred the week before Erdogan was elected the all-powerful neo-Ottoman leader of Turkey makes clear that the U.S. government has either not come to terms with the reality of Erdogan’s Turkey, or that it has come to terms with reality, but hasn’t figured out how to deal with it.
Some defense experts believe that Erdogan is not seeking an alliance with Russia through the S-400 purchase. They argue that Erdogan’s motivation is political, not strategic. He wants good relations with Russia, they say, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to remain in NATO, or that he shouldn’t be viewed as a long-term ally.
The problem with this view is not that it is wrong. Maybe it’s wrong. Maybe it’s right.
But assuming that is true, it doesn’t outweigh two other facts. First, Erdogan is using the S-400 system purchase to extract concessions from the U.S. just as he is using the hostage Brunson as a means of cutting a deal with Washington on things he wants.
Presently, Turkey risks penalties for violating renewed U.S. sanctions against buying Iranian oil. Erdogan may try to trade Brunson or the S-400 for an end to sanctions talk.
Then there are the Kurds. Turkey is demanding that the U.S. abandon its Kurdish allies in Syria and transfer control over the Kurdish enclaves in eastern Syria — including the town of Manbij, where U.S. Special Forces operate jointly with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces — to Turkish control. He could be trying to trade the S-400 for the Kurds.
These prospects would amount to little more than extortion. Why would the U.S. sell its top warplane to a regime that seizes U.S. hostages, busts UN sanctions, and demands that the U.S. abandon its closest allies in Syria?
The second problem with the lenient view of Erdogan’s relations with Russia is that it ignores the wider context in which Erdogan is acting. He cares much less about superpower rivalries, and even his future in NATO, than he does about rebuilding the Ottoman empire in the Middle East. And every action the U.S. takes to empower him, whether by betraying the Kurds to appease him, or by taking his suggested “compromise” deals over the S-400 purchase seriously, fuel his ambitions and his capacity to advance them.
Turkey’s Middle East goals, in and of themselves, are deeply hostile to U.S. interests. All of Erdogan’s plans and beliefs align him with jihadists against moderate regimes that are actively fighting jihadists.
While it is important to be deeply concerned about the S-400 purchase in and of itself, when it is understood as part and parcel of Erdogan’s regional ambitions, it becomes an even greater cause for alarm. Because even in the unlikely scenario that Erdogan cancels the deal, the basic trajectory of Turkish strategic policy will continue to be diametrically opposed to America’s most basic regional interest of fighting and defeating the forces of radical Islam. This will not change, because Erdogan himself is a radical Islamist who supports jihad.
Some senior Pentagon officials continue to hope that the Turkish military will save the day. But that is a false hope. The generals who would have checked Erdogan’s ambitions are all in jail or dead.
After Sunday’s elections, Erdogan is Turkey. His positions are Turkey’s positions. And Erdogan’s position is that he should be an Ottoman emperor at war with America’s allies and directing America’s enemies.
It would be a mistake to let him lead the charge with a hundred F-35s.