The US, Europe and Israel can force a modification in Erdoğan’s conduct on a wide range of issues, including his duplicity on Iran, support for Hamas in Gaza, subversion in Jerusalem, intervention in Libya, aggression towards Cypriot gas explorations, threats to Kurds of Rojava, and repression at home.
The full consequences of result of the mayoral race in Istanbul are yet to be determined. It was won by the opposition CHP (Secularist Republican People’s Party) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu, even after president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arranged for the previous result to be annulled. True, the ruling party, AKP, is still in full control of the state machinery at the national level, and the president is a resourceful politician with a firm hold on key levers of power. Yet the result may be a sign, at a critical moment, that he is not invincible. Last year, the Brunson affair indicated that he is sufficiently pragmatic to be susceptible to economic pressure. This year, the hold put by the US on the F-35 deal proves that the Trump Administration, and Congress, are willing to punish Erdoğan for his strategic provocations. The lessons of all this is that pressure should be used by the US, Europe and Israel to modify Erdoğan’s conduct on a wide range of issues – above all, his duplicity on Iran – but also his support for Hamas in Gaza, subversion in Jerusalem, intervention in Libya, aggression towards Cypriot gas explorations, threats to Kurds of Rojava (which might push them into Iran’s arms), the future of Syrian migration, and repression at home.
What did the drama in Istanbul, and other events in the last twelve months, teach us about Turkey’s vulnerabilities to external pressure? This was a resounding victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu, a CHP candidate, over former AKP Prime Minister and Minister of Transportation Binali Yıldırım in the mayoral race in Istanbul. This time he won by a margin of 777,000, not 14,000 votes, as in the previous run in March, which the AKP disputed and annulled through the courts. By all accounts, this is much more than a municipal event – although some of the cheering may be premature. The ruling party has now lost control of Turkey’s three largest cities – Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir – raising questions about the political future of the Turkish president It was Erdoğan himself who underlined the so far immutable law of Turkish politics. He who controls Istanbul controls all of Turkey. This is how he himself began his rise to power.
Not too long ago the President seemed to be tightening his firm and increasingly brutal command of the political scene in Turkey. He offered a mix of his unique style of freewheeling international diplomacy, regular threats of force (and the record of the assault on ‘Afrin in 2018), and an impetuous and imperious style. He was thus presumed to be essentially impervious to both sticks and carrots. With a “neo-Ottoman” vision of regional hegemony in mind, he has been consistent in his pursuit of ever-broader authority at home and of overbearing influence well beyond Turkey’s modern borders. In addition to from the Turkish Armed Forces’ presence in northern Iraq and its “creeping permanent occupation” in northern Syria, Ankara’s new military bases in Qatar and Somalia and its desire to complete the construction of the third one in Sudan can be seen as concrete indicators of this aim.
The outcome in Istanbul – where the AKP lost its majority even in distinctly religious districts – signals that these assumptions may now be open to doubt – although Erdogan is still in firm control of the state apparatus and enjoys a solid base in the Anatolian countryside. It may leave him, in any case, more open to pressures, and particularly to economic considerations: after all, over the years, he deftly avoided damage to Turkish-Chinese trade (despite his sympathy towards the Uighurs) or even to business with Israel, despite the chill in diplomatic relations. A trading country, with a thriving service and transportation industry and a significant tourist sector, Turkey cannot afford – beyond a certain threshold – to act according to Islamist imperative.
There have been previous indications of Erdoğan’s vulnerability, and of way certain leverages can be brought to bear to modify his conduct at home and abroad. In the case of the pastor Andrew Brunson, last year, he came up against an American Administration dominated by an equally impetuous individual. Trump was all along less likely than his predecessor in the White House to look with favor upon Erdoğan’s political posture, and his alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood across the region. The blunt threat of disrupting the Turkish economy – whose rise has been the real source of AKP’s grip on power – led to a sharp drop in the value of the Turkish Lira, coming against the background of a steep rose in the national debt. The results proved, rather quickly, that Erdoğan can be constrained, to some degree, by factors beyond his control. He folded on Brunson: but that did not in itself put an end to the growing tension with Washington.
The crisis over the F-35 deal indicates the depth of the problem for Erdoğan. The Trump Administration, despite some friendly words in Osaka, is now committed to put the deal on hold, stop training Turkish air and ground crews and essentially pull out of the arrangement to produce parts of the aircraft in Turkey. The direct reason is Erdoğan’s decision to buy the advanced Russian S-400 Surface to Air missiles (serious local and international observers assert, not quite in jest, that Erdoğan is seeking a sophisticated defense against his own Air Force, given what happened during the coup attempt in 2016). The Department of Defense has made it clear that the deal will indeed be taken off the table unless the acquisition of the S-400 is reversed by the end of July 2019 (it is less clear what will happen if Turkey does not cancel the Russian order but does agree to delay delivery).
This is a logical American stance. A prolonged and intense exposure to “state of the art” Russian systems may put at risk key US technological advantages. But at the root of the crisis lies not only a technological concern but an increasingly bitter sense of distrust and dismay on both sides. Turkey looks with extreme disfavor upon American support for the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), the largely Kurdish de-facto rulers in north-eastern Syria: from Ankara’s perspective, they are a dressed-up version of the PKK.
On the other hand, Americans of all political stripes, meanwhile, feel morally obliged to those who bore the main burden in the fight to destroy the “Islamic State”; and many see the benefit of sustaining a US supported presence in North-Eastern Syria. The brutal conquest of ‘Afrin early last year adds to the tensions. The US is not alone: for several Western European countries, Erdoğan’s vocal meddling in the affairs of local communities of Turkish origin was another source of friction.
Moreover, this is not just a matter of a short-tempered US president venting his anger: both Houses of Congress took a firm line in support of greater pressure on Ankara, and the requirement to suspend the F-35 deal if the S-400 deal went through was written into law. True, Turkey remains a member of NATO: there are no procedure in the Alliance’s 1949 statutes for throwing a member out. But as the present crisis indicates, there are clearly measures which can make the membership less meaningful for both sides – although through Turkish eyes, the alliance still vital for the balance of power vis-a-vis Russia.
Erdoğan remains a dangerous player, however, and may find his way to lash back, possibly by forging even closer links with Russia and China and most likely – also with Iran. But in conjunction with the public mood in Istanbul, a slowing economy, and the damage done to his aura of invincibility, his willingness and his ability to take risks is no longer quite what it used to be.
This generates an opportunity for the US, for the key European players, and for Israel to engage with Turkey – some channels remain open, after all – and boldly place on the agenda a wide range of problematic issues. Modification of Erdoğan’s policies and conduct can thus be directly linked to the prospects of reduced pressures on Turkey, and greater acceptance of its role as a legitimate player in regional and global affairs.
In terms of Turkey’s regional policies, the most important question for Israel and the US has to do with its role in subverting the sanctions system on Iran. If an appropriate mix of incentives and pressures can be applied, Ankara can be persuaded to forego the Iranian option and gain access to energy markets elsewhere. In this framework the court case against Reza Zarrab and Turkey’s Halkbank, accused of circumventing American sanctions to Iran, can be used as an important leverage against Erdoğan, since the penalty is likely to be so high that might shake the Turkish economy.
Turkish support for the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip came into focus already in 2008-2009 during operation “Cast Lead”. Tensions exacerbated after the Mavi Marmara crisis, which left scars on both sides that the “reconciliation” process could not and did not heal. Turkish attempts, alongside Qatar, to mediate during the fighting in 2012 and 2014 were rejected, and Erdoğan has repeatedly taken extremely hostile attitudes towards Israeli policy in Gaza. Israel cannot, therefore, accept a leading Turkish role in Gaza: for a variety of reasons that have been detailed elsewhere, the leading role must be retained by Israel’s peace partner, Egypt. This should not preclude, however – as the Qatari example proves – the prospect of a more constructive role in alleviating living conditions in Gaza, within the context of agreed limits on Turkey’s political agenda.
In much the same way, subversion in Jerusalem cannot be tolerated. Its present patterns are aimed at undermining Israel’s rule in the city and Jordan’s role in the holy places. A more modest set of practices, such as genuine rather than ideologically driven pilgrimages, can nevertheless be agreed upon if the overall pattern of hostility subsides. The rising Turkish penetration in Jerusalem through the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), TIKA, “Mirasımız” and other NGOs should be confined by the new laws that should be enacted in the Knesset and implemented strictly by the Israeli security institutions.
Elsewhere in the region, Turkish intervention in the ongoing conflict in Libya is one of the reasons for the failure of past mediation attempts. In what became essentially a war by proxy between Turkey and Egypt (more accurately, between Erdoğan and Sisi, who despise each other; and with a French-Italian quarrel on the sidelines) a way must be found to transcend the rivalry and restore a level of stability and normal life to a torn country.
Turkish harassment of Cypriot prospecting in the Island’s EEZ is not only a brutal case of the neighborhood bully trying to frighten the weak. It is also a threat to the stability of the entire Eastern Mediterranean region, which is in turn vital – also for Israel – if investors of high caliber can be drawn to take such risks. It is therefore imperative, if possible, to find common ground, which among other things will offer a fair share to the so-called “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus”. This could well be the beginning of an effort to established rules of the road for the full range of issues influencing exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In another aspect of Turkey’s Mediterranean policy, the use of Syrian refugees as a tool for extortion – demanding European funds and other benefits, or else more poor souls will pour into the Aegean – must also be replaced by a more rational way of managing this highly sensitive complex: Turkish legitimate concerns about handling a huge influx of displaced persons can only be taken at face value if there will be a sense of common interest, not of manipulative power games, at work between Turkey and the relevant European nations.
Another significant issue has to do with the future of what the Kurds call Rojava, the “sunset lands” (western parts) of Kurdistan in northeastern Syria. Should the Turkish military launch a major assault on the SDF, the result will certainly involve immense bloodshed and civilian suffering: in strategic terms, it would push a brave ally of the US and the West directly into the arms of Iran and of the Syrian regime. It is very much in the interest of Israel, which cannot possibly intervene directly, to prevent this from happening. Ideally, some “rules of the road” can be mediated under which the present political realities in Rojava can be sustained, more or less, in return for an undertaking not to lend support for PKK operations over into Turkish territory. A firm US stand, paradoxically backed both by Israel and by Russian policies which reflect support for the Kurds for other reasons, could help make this happen.
Finally, the events in Istanbul can be leveraged to support from outside the revival of democratic institutes and basic freedoms. In this regard the international community must demand the immediate release of the journalists, and of Osman Kavala the organizer of the Gezi Park protests in 2013. These are important not only in terms of universal values: the likelihood of Turkey responding to international pressure will to some extent depend on whether Erdoğan feels obliged to be attentive to the ebb and flow of public opinion.
This is an ambitious but not yet exhaustive – which is an indication, in a way, of how far Erdoğan has strayed from the straight and narrow in recent years. Still, if only some of these goals can be advanced, this will already add to stability in the region, and open the gates for future discussions on fuller integration in a broader Eastern Mediterranean framework. The pragmatic streak the AKP has shown at times of crisis may help lead Turkey – under pressure – back to more cooperative ways.
JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.