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A Stable Policy for an Unstable Turkey

For all that has changed in Turkey since last summer’s July 15 coup attempt, and for all that the attempt itself revealed about how little American observers understood Turkey’s internal dynamics, U.S. policy toward Turkey has remained surprisingly consistent.

This consistency is all the more striking given that it has spanned two very different U.S. presidential administrations. Yet since the threat of ISIS captured Washington’s attention in dramatic fashion during the summer of 2014, U.S. policy has been focused on cajoling Turkish cooperation for the fight against ISIS while making the survival of Turkish democracy a secondary priority at best. The risk, however, is that to the extent this approach undermines Turkey’s long-term stability, any short-term victories against ISIS could easily prove pyrrhic. While the coup attempt itself should have provided a dramatic warning of how fragile Turkey’s society and institutions might prove, U.S. policy is unlikely to adapt until this fragility becomes even more apparent. The worst case scenario is that by this point it will be too late to reverse.  

Fears over the fate of Turkish democracy were widespread even before last summer, but, as was widely predicted, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on opposition rapidly picked up pace after the failed coup. In the aftermath, Turkey condemned Washington for being insufficiently supportive of Erdogan and, by extension, Turkish democracy.

In reality, though, President Barack Obama’s administration proved hesitant to publicly criticize Erdogan, even as international alarm over the scope of Turkey’s post-coup purges spread. Vice President Joe Biden had earlier raised the issue of imprisoned journalists, even meeting with the wife of Can Dundar in the winter of 2016, but on his final visit to Turkey in August after the coup he kept quiet about the widespread abuses of basic freedoms and the rule of law occurring at the time. With tensions over the U.S. plan to take Raqqa in cooperation with Syrian Kurdish fighters from the YPG mounting, Obama met with Erdogan one final time in September, providing him with the most important measure of international legitimacy he sought from the U.S. president.

If Turkey’s democratic decline has not sufficiently captured the attention of U.S. policymakers, the anniversary of Turkey’s coup attempt offers another reminder that the growing fragility of Turkey’s state and society should.

Under President Donald Trump, Washington doubled down on its strategy of downplaying democracy to facilitate Turkey’s tacit acceptance of the Kurdish campaign against ISIS. Most dramatically, following Erdogan’s victory in a dubious referendum to expand his powers as president, Trump dismissed State Department reservations and quickly called to congratulate him. Then, to soften the official announcement of the final stage of the joint attack on Raqqa, Trump invited Erdogan to Washington. The visit was dominated by the story of Erdogan’s bodyguards attacking protestors outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence, an embarrassing but hardly surprising development.

Moving forward, it is clear that the situation in northern Syria will remain tense even after Raqqa’s fall. As it stands, the Turkish army is already threatening an attack against YPG held territory of Afrin, which could have explosive results in other YPG territories where U.S. special forces are active. Moreover, the question of who will govern Raqqa after ISIS has not yet been resolved. It appears the task will be left to a predominantly Arab council with political ties to the YPG, which will not sit well with Ankara.

At the same time, the United States has also promised that it will collect the weapons it has delivered to the YPG after ISIS is defeated – a promise that it will almost certainly fail to make good one. And hanging over all of this is the risk that the YPG’s ideological affiliates in Turkey could launch a renewed campaign of suicide attacks in Turkey’s biggest cities, thereby driving a new wave of popular anger over U.S.-YPG cooperation. In short, so long as U.S. policy toward ISIS in Syria remains constant, Washington will remain sorely tempted to keep quiet about democracy.  

Since last summer’s July 15 coup attempt, U.S. policy toward Turkey has remained surprisingly consistent. 

Yet as Turkey’s democratic decline continues, the threats to the countries stability will mount. Not all of these threats are of Erdogan’s own making, certainly, but his heavy-handed response could easily inflame them – especially at a point when Turkey’s parliamentary system and security services are already poorly prepared to confront any future crisis. In addition to the threat posed by the PKK, Turkey faces the risk of a renewed terror campaign from ISIS, and possible conflict with extremist groups like Al Nusra if they are pushed out of their territory in Idlib. And terrorism would only compound the precarious situation of Turkey’s economy, which, according to many analysts, is overdue for a downturn amidst flagging investor confidence and growing concerns about the rule of law.

The government has already jailed the leadership of Turkey’s main Kurdish opposition party, and repeatedly threatened to arrest the leadership of another, the CHP. Erdogan has also used the threat of arrest to contain dissent within his own party, as well as within the now largely pro-government MHP. The more politicians Erdogan is forced to arrest, the more quickly his veneer of democratic legitimacy will crumble, increasing the chance that politics will spill out onto the street. What makes the situation more explosive is that the cohesion that once appeared to existed within Turkey’s security services has been rapidly eroded. The coup attempt itself revealed the divisions which existed within the Turkish army, and post-coup purges have introduced a new level of distrust. This, coupled with the government’s concerted effort to arm the police, intelligence service and even civilian loyalists, creates a fractured landscape in which street violence could be compounded rather than contained by government intervention.

If, up to today, Turkey’s democratic decline has not sufficiently captured the attention of U.S. policymakers, the anniversary of Turkey’s coup attempt offers another reminder that the growing fragility of Turkey’s state and society should. 


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