Friend or Foe? How Turkey’s Turn Toward Authoritarianism Threatens Syria and the World


“We’ll eradicate Twitter. I don’t care what the international community says. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish Republic.”
-Tayyip Erdogan, President of Turkey

There was a time, not so very long ago, when all seemed well with the Turkish Republic. Although the country’s long running efforts to join the EU had been stymied, through canny diplomacy Turkey had seen its influence grow steadily in the Middle East and North Africa. Its government’s promotion of a relatively moderate, pro-business form of political Islam seemed to offer an alternative to the extremism so often associated with the movement.

The AKP (the Turkish initials for Justice and Development Party), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, first came to power in 2002. Soon after, the new Prime Minister and his party successfully rooted out many of the country’s military and intelligence elites, shady figures who literally defined the term “deep state” during the Cold War. They also took on the entrenched “secularism” that was one of the main legacies of Turkey’s modern founder, Ataturk, and won

In terms of foreign policy, Erdogan’s stated aim was “no trouble with the neighbors”. This policy lasted for more than a decade, even as war and insurgency raged across Turkey’s southern border with Iraq. Even the long running conflict with the country’s large Kurdish minority seemed to be coming to an end, through negotiations rather than violence.

The Arab Spring, Civil Wars and the Reversal of Turkish Foreign Policy

A turning point came in 2011 with the Arab Spring and its aftermath. As the political winds began to favor the AKP’s ideological cousins in the Muslim Brotherhood, especially in Egypt,, it appeared that Erdogan’s brand of neo-liberal political Islam was ascendant in the region. The fall of Morsi soon after in Egypt, along with troubles for the movement in Algeria, Jordan and Sudan among other countries, quickly brought this temporary rise to an end.

Within the same time frame, civil wars in Libya and later Syria, along with the rise of ISIS in Iraq, made Turkey even more geo-strategically important to both NATO and its Sunni Gulf state allies, themselves trying to counter Iranian influence in the region (and failing miserably).

Although Erdogan is said to have advised Assad against cracking down on protesters early on, it’s my opinion that, almost from the start of the unrest, the Turkish government has worked to strengthen reactionary extremists across its eastern border, contrary to much of what is reported in the western press.

Whether through negligence or by design, Turkey has allowed its border to be used as a staging ground for a variety of groups, from the NATO approved FSA and Turkmen allies within Syria, to ISIS fighters and the rebranded Al Qaeda franchise, Al Nusra. If the AKP government is sincere in its claim that they only support moderate forces in their neighbor’s civil war and that the country has no links to extremists, why have, “numerous journalists… been able to interview Isil members in Turkey”?

Then there is the separate issue of Erdogan’s son, Bilal, the most high profile of three equal shareholders in BMZ Group Denizcilik, a large shipping company formed in 2006. Whether they are aware of the exact provenance of the oil they ship (and, in fairness, they’re probably not the only company involved in the trade), Bilal and his partners have to know it’s smuggled and most likely comes from either Iraq (where Turkey long ago developed a profitable arrangement with Kurdish authorities in the north, cutting the central government in Bagdad out of the revenues) or Syria.

Although there is no solid proof, its hard to believe that western countries, ostensibly bombing high value targets in Syria and Iraq, were unaware of the miles long convoys of tanker trucks filled with oil crossing the Turkish border and being loaded onto ships at the Ceyhan shipping port on the Mediterranean Sea. Since entering the war in support of its longtime client Bashar Al Assad, Russia has certainly noticed the trade and has been active in trying to put a stop to it.

In fact, Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made this clear when meeting with Turkey’s top diplomat, Mevlut Cavusoglu after a Russian airforce plane was shot down on the border between Syria and Turkey on November 24th of last year, “(He) reminded his counterpart about Turkey’s involvement in the ISIS’illegal trade in oil, which is transported via the area where the Russian plane was shot down, and about the terrorist infrastructure, arms and munitions depots and control centers also located there.”

In another embarrassing case, Erdogan’s son is being investigated for money laundering in Bologna. Italian authorities allege that the possible charges are probably related to a 2013 political corruption scandal in Turkey involving Bilal’s father and the AKP.

Attacks on the Free Press

Due to term limits, Erdogan left the office of Prime Minister in August 2014 and was easily elected President soon thereafter. Since then he’s been trying to transform the presidency, traditionally a largely ceremonial position, into an “executive presidential system” in which he would likely be even more powerful than he was in his former role.

Denied the majority needed to push through the changes after an election in June, 2015, the AKP refused to form a coalition with any of the other parties in Turkey’s parliament and forced a second election in November. Amid the chaos created by a suicide bombing at a peace march a few weeks before the vote, the AKP won the seats needed to move forward with President Erdogan’s plans.

While he’s always appeared thin skinned when it comes to his critics, the lengths to which Erdogan and his party are now going to to to protect themselves from even the mildest criticism should be a cause for concern among NATO allies and free speech advocates alike.

While many mainstream western commentators rightfully condemn Russian authorities for attacks on freedom of the press in that country, they ignore the abuses taking place in Turkey where one would assume they might be able to bring some actual pressure to bear. Reporters Without Borders has Turkey at 149 out of 180 countries in terms press freedom, a position likely to be adjusted downward considering the government’s recent actions.

In March alone the Turkish government has taken over the country’s largest circulation newspaper and its second biggest news agency. Both were owned by a long time friend of the President turned enemy: US based Fethullah Gulen, a powerful former cleric with many business interests in the country and the head of an organization “active in education with private schools and universities in 180 countries as well as many American charter schools”.

It isn’t just media being targeted by the crack down on freedom of speech. Under a rarely used statute allowing for the prosecution of ordinary citizens for insulting the President, charges have been brought against more than 1800 Turks in recent months. As reported by the New York Times, the targets have included a famous soccer player and even children, including a 13 old who “was charged after posting to Facebook”.

The Kurdish Question and the War in Syria

Central to Erdogan’s ability to manipulate the Turkish public is the continuing conflict with the country’s minority Kurds, whose existence as a distinct group with their own language and culture has been denied by successive governments in Ankara for decades. The strongest Kurdish faction, the PKK, was originally a Stalinist group that carried out attacks against the government in a long running insurgency that produced thousands of casualties on both sides throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

This group, whose leader Abdullah Ocalan, has been in prison since 1999 (where he helped craft an uneasy truce that held until recently), is affiliated with the Syrian Kurds who have used the chaos of the war to carve out a small territory they call Rojava in the east of the country along the Turkish border. Rojava’s YPG militias have been one of most effective forces fighting ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria.

No longer beholden to the Marxism of their forebears, the Syrian Kurds are fighting a war on multiple fronts while experimenting with a pro-feminist ideology called Municipal Confederalism that might offer an alternative to the despotic forms of government prevalent in most of the Middle East (and, indeed, the world).

Although NATO countries have worse, more despotic allies in the region, like the tyrannical monarchies of the Gulf, Turkey’s erratic, arrogant leader is arguably the most dangerous. The Turkish government’s tacit support for ISIS and other groups fighting the Syrian Kurds should trouble all those who see the potential of a new political radicalism that shakes off the authoritarian impulses that were all too prevalent on the left during the the Cold War. If nothing else, the citizens of NATO countries who are pledged to come to Turkey’s aid in any conflict should be aware that the country’s saber rattling could lead to a war with a nuclear armed Russia.


If you liked this article, please donate $5 to keep NationofChange online through November.