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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using a three-month state of emergency to expel from power and civil life all Turks whom he or the apparatus of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, deem an enemy of the state. As of this writing, more than 50,000 people have been arrested, fired, suspended, or told to resign. The ranks of the expelled include judges, university deans, teachers, police, and military officers. Members of the Alevi religious community -- a Shiite Muslim group separate from the country’s predominant Sunni sect -- are rumored to be among the new targets. Read more will be added to this list. Following the attempted coup, Russian President Vladimir Putin called and praised Erdogan, in the process including Russia among the “democratic” states that stand in unity against such “anti-constitutional actions and violence.”
Erdogan knows that almost all of these people had nothing to do with the failed coup of July 15. In fact, at first, his government dismissed the attempt as confined to a small segment of the armed forces. Read moreover, every political party, every institution, every national political figure in or out of government supported the government’s suppression of the coup. Across the whole of Turkish society, Turks made clear their rejection of a military takeover of the country.
That unity is being subverted through the current campaign. Daily now the Erdogan regime gives life to a broader and more ambiguous crackdown, and the government has set no limit on the extent of the purges. The 90-day time limit to the state of emergency is not relevant, because that deadline can be extended again and again until it is indefinite. For those who see threats everywhere, there will never be a time when life or political vision is safe, and the country free of danger. Fear-mongering frightens and intimidates citizens into compliance.
Authoritarian and dictatorial leaders often refer to their states as democratic, as this evokes the image of the longed-for adulation and public enthusiasm that justifies their rule. Without checks, power always expands. Democracy without its guarantees is just a populist sham. Worse is the combination of populist rule with claims of God’s favor.
It may be true that there is little the United States can do to control or influence current events in Turkey, but it is also true that it must pursue its values and Interests. Our voice joins with and encourages others. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union have also called on Turkey to account for the extreme measures it has undertaken. During the Cold War, the United States never did much to foster genuine democracy in Turkey; history may now be offering us an opportunity to correct that. It is right that we seek a genuine democracy in Turkey -- not one imposed through military force, or authoritarian dominance, but through popular will founded on individual rights and protections.
Extradition and diplomatic distraction
Meanwhile, U.S.-Turkey relations will likely become even more difficult than they were before the coup attempt. The most prominent issue will be the question of the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, the Islamist cleric living in self-exile in rural Pennsylvania, and arguably Erdogan’s chief ideological antagonist. There is a treaty governing matters on extradition, and that treaty requires that credible evidence be presented and examined in a judicial process. Turkey is trying to logroll this process with inflammatory demands aimed at bypassing the treaty with the intent of delivering Gulen as a political concession to Ankara. Turkish authorities are pressuring the Obama administration to extradite the controversial cleric. The legal process will take months to resolve, however, if the normal process is followed. Meanwhile, the Turkish government will continue to direct attention to the extradition of Gulen instead of examining the root causes for the deep divisions at home. Sharp anti-American attacks in the press and speeches from Turkey will continue. The Turks will repeat the canard that the United States was behind the attacks. Turkey’s standard response in many crises is to blame someone else for its problems -- this scenario is being repeated today in wraparound stereo and full Technicolor.
The most important issue, however, will be whether Turkey and the United States can continue to cooperate in the military campaign against the Islamic State. At the moment, operations by U.S.-led forces from Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base continue seemingly uninterrupted. The fear is that the U.S. presence on the base, in addition to American efforts against ISIS in Syria, are going to be held hostage by Turkey to concessions elsewhere, including the Gulen extradition question. Even if that is not the case, the extensive dismissals of field-grade and general-grade officers in Turkey will degrade the military’s ability to effectively work with its American partner.
There may be Americans in the U.S. government who are willing to look past whatever happens politically within Turkey in order to maintain an effective campaign in Syria. That’s understandable, given the amount of effort the United States has expended to reach even this level of success. By failing repeatedly to give positive support to U.S. operations in Syria, Turkey has in a sense already taken itself out of the game.
Prior to the coup attempt, Washington’s careful diplomacy had papered over tensions enough to allow operations in Syria to continue, but if Turkey really resists the U.S. campaign now, there might be a showdown. President Obama wants to show real success by his term’s end, and Secretary of State John Kerry is relentlessly pursuing a deal with Russia. However, without full Turkish support, it will only prove more difficult for the United States to isolate al-Qaeda factions operating in Syria and reach a cease-fire that allows for humanitarian and political solutions in the wartorn country. These are not goals that Washington is likely to easily forego because of increased Turkish opposition.
The view from the edge
Turkey has a tradition of reaching the edge and then pulling back. The next few months will test that time-honored tradition.
There are looming issues for Turkey domestically, and the purges will probably affect all of them negatively:
- There have been several attacks over the last year attributed to ISIS, the June 28 attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport being the most recent and horrific. There have been multiple attacks by Kurdistan Workers’ Party terrorists as well. There is still an open border gate with Syria near the ISIS-controlled city of Jarabulus, and through it flow people and funds to ISIS every month. Despite regular requests to Ankara, Turkey has not closed Jarabulus.
- Tensions within Turkey were at a fever pitch even prior to the coup; they can only be higher now. In the absence of any reconciliation, the political divisions among the population are only likely to deepen. Suppression doesn’t change people’s minds; it hardens them.
- The economy is under greater pressure. Devaluing the currency helps exports but makes repaying the huge dollar debt of Turkish companies more costly. Turkey has a fundamental need for capital to help further modernize its economy. Yet the share of global foreign direct investment (FDI) that comes to Turkey has crawled back to 1994 levels. FDI fell from $22 billion in 2007 to $12 billion in 2014 and is . Turkey’s growth rate in recent years is about half what it was in the first years of AKP governance. Unemployment has ticked up recently, and wages have stagnated. High-tech exports are stuck at the same level of total exports -- 2 percent -- that existed in 2002. Losses due to the crisis with Russia and the prolonged standoff with Israel -- $25 billion for Russia alone -- have to be absorbed. The Egyptian market still remains closed to Turkey. For outside investors, especially Europeans and Americans, worries about judicial independence and integrity and control over the central bank raise barriers to investment decisions.
- Turkey’s military, once the pride of its people, succumbed to sham trials from 2010 to 2013. A final reversal of all convictions -- on the basis of fraudulent information used to secure the guilty verdicts -- did little to salvage morale. For nearly a year, the military has waged a bloody urban war against Kurds in southeast Turkey, with many civilian deaths and the devastation of villages. Many Turks believe the war was escalated to force the loss of parliamentary support for a key Kurdish party that set back the Erdogan government in June 2015 elections. A weakened officer corps, now to be composed only of verified government loyalists, means a weakened military, rendering Turkey a weaker NATO ally less able to deal with threats on its borders.
There are no positives coming out of the post-coup process in Turkey, and Mr. Erdogan has shown little desire in the past to use restraint toward his enemies, be they real or imagined. While he continues with the wholesale dismantling of the current state and social structure, all the feelings that pre-existed the coup among his opponents are still there. Strongmen like to blame conspiracies from within -- and meddling from without -- for their troubles. The fact that, outside the reach of their influence, no one believes their charges is of little importance. They have what they want, and they intend to do what is necessary to keep it.