Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish Presidential Palace via Reuters/Cem Oksuz
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long sought to broaden Turkey's global influence. Photo: Turkish Presidential Palace via Reuters/Cem Oksuz

Turkey’s recent local elections were a repudiation of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) stewardship of the economy. Voters also rejected “Erdoganism” – President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman expansionist agenda that spawned foreign adventurism and alienated Turkey from the United States.

Instead of making hard decisions to fix the economy, Erdogan blamed the United States and Jewish bankers for Turkey’s financial collapse. Its economy is officially in recession. The Turkish lira lost 28% of its value in 2018 and recently dropped another 5% against the US dollar on news that the Turkish Central Bank used a third of its foreign reserves to prop up the currency during the three-week period leading to local elections. The purchasing power of consumers has dropped dramatically. Turkish businesses with debts denominated in foreign currencies are especially hard-hit.

Other economic indicators underscore Turkey’s economic crisis. The official unemployment rate is 13%, the highest in a decade. Youth unemployment is even higher at 30%. Inflation hovers at about 20%.

The economic malaise of voters is compounded by their concern over Turkey’s role in the world. Deluded with hubris, Erdogan wants to lead the Sunni community worldwide. He wants a caliphate with himself as the de facto caliph.

Syria tops the list of concerns over Turkey’s adventurism regionally and internationally. Erdogan pledged to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after chemical weapons were  allegedly used to attack Ghouta in August 2013. Ghouta is a Damascus suburb and was a stronghold of the Syrian Sunni opposition at the time. Working through Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT), Erdogan established the jihadi highway from Sanliurfa in Turkey to Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria. Foreign fighters, weapons, and financing went from Turkey to Syria. Wounded ISIS fighters ended up in Turkish hospitals with no paperwork or payment.

Deluded with hubris, Erdogan wants to lead the Sunni community worldwide. He wants a caliphate with himself as the de facto caliph

Years later, Syria’s grinding civil war continues. Three million Syrian refugees have sought sanctuary in Turkey. Despite promises of aid by the European Union, Turkey bears most costs on its own.

Instead of a principled position on regime change, Erdogan joined diplomatic efforts of Russia and Iran to preserve Assad in power. Many Turks are uneasy about an alliance with Vladimir Putin. In November 2015, a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi-24, leading to a year-long embargo by Russia of Turkish goods, services, and tourism. Today, both countries pursue a transactional relationship to normalize relations.

Turkey bought S-400 missiles from Russia for US$2.5 billion. US officials tried to dissuade Erdogan from taking delivery. The Pentagon offered Patriot missiles, a better technology at a lower cost. Erdogan ignored the March 31 deadline to purchase the Patriots. In response, the Pentagon canceled Turkey’s participation in the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Program. It will not allow its state-of-the-art stealth technology to fall into the hands of Russian military attachés working in Turkey alongside the S-400s.

Beyond suspending the F-35 program, the Pentagon is reconsidering its deployment at Incirlik Air Base in Antalya, the symbolic and logistical hub of US military operations in Turkey. Erdogan behaves like a carpet salesman. To coerce concessions from Washington, he regularly threatens to cancel the six-month lease agreement, while reserving the right to expel US forces with 72 hours’ notice. Incirlik is not indispensable. The United States is looking at alternative base-leasing arrangements in Jordan, Cyprus and Romania.

Erdogan’s personal security detail is an embarrassment. When the security detail beat US citizens in Washington’s Sheridan Circle, Congress prohibited arms sales to Erdogan’s security officers. The United States may also ask Interpol to issue red bulletins for 19 people who were indicted by a District of Columbia grand jury for their role in the incident.

Despite the rise of Islamism in Turkey, a deep bond exists between Americans and the majority of Turks, including Kurds and secularists. They are not comfortable with Turkey’s estrangement from the West.

Nor do they approve of Erdogan’s mercurial relations with the European Union. The European Parliament voted to suspend Turkey’s candidacy for EU membership based on concerns about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Protesters in Istanbul’s Gezi Park were beaten in 2015. Despite police brutality and mass arrests, demonstrations spread across the country.

Turkey’s democracy suffered even more after the “coup” in July 2016. Erdogan labeled the opposition as “terrorists.” More than 100,000 civil servants were discharged from their jobs and about 60,000 were arrested for purported ties to Fethullah Gulen, a geriatric preacher living in the US.

Senior officials from Halkbank, a state-owned bank, were convicted of money-laundering to help Iran evade US sanctions. Erdogan tried to suppress news of the trials in New York, but information about Turkey’s criminal conspiracy leaked on social media.

Erdogan’s relations with Iran’s mullahs also draws an uneven response from many Turks. The United States issued a waiver so Turkey could buy oil from Iran. However, the waiver will expire soon.

Turkey is expanding trade with China, flirting with its Belt and Road Initiative, despite sovereignty and debt concerns.

Erdogan identifies with a cadre of rogue despots around the world. He recently affirmed solidarity with Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

There are alarming parallels between the two leaders. Erdogan and Maduro have shepherded the economic collapse of their countries, as well as the systematic denial of democracy and human rights.

Pocketbook issues always dominate local elections. In addition to repudiating the AKP’s economic policies, Turks reject estrangement from the United States. They are also uneasy with Erdogan’s fraternity with despots. Unless Erdogan can fix Turkey’s economy and rebalance its international relations, the rage of the Turkish electorate may spill into the streets and result in his violent demise.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

David L Phillips

David L Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He was a senior adviser to the US State Department working on US-Turkey relations in the 1990s and 2000s. He authored An Uncertain Ally: Turkey under Erdogan’s Dictatorship. His most recent book is The Great Betrayal: How America Abandoned the Kurds and Lost the Middle East.

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