Vicken Cheterian

Worried about Turkey

Looking from a distance, the situation in Turkey is worrying. Most observers fear that Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heading towards a dictatorial regime. Me, I fear worse than that.   

Dictatorship is not the only possible outcome of the current political course in Turkey. Nor is this the worst-case scenario. My fear is that the current political course will not be sustainable, and Turkey, like so many other states in the region, will become a failed state. President Erdogan has chosen to enter into too many battles I do not know how it is possible to end up victorious. If I add it up, this is the result I get. I might be mistaken. But let us count.

First, and since the failed coup in July, when the Turkish people clearly rejected the return of the military, which had repressed its democratic will so many times earlier, Turkish president does not trust the army. Over one hundred army generals, hundreds of officers, and thousands of soldiers have been arrested since. 

According to news reports from November 22, 15’000 additional government officials were purged, bringing the total number of soldiers, police officers, judges, and civil servants to more than 125’000 people. More than 40’000 are arrested, others are waiting trial. That means many people in the state bureaucracy and the security apparatus are angry.

Second, the Turkish president is at war against the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen and his brotherhood. This could be qualified as “civil war” not just because it is between former allies, but also because it is within two modernist wings of Turkish political Islam. The entire world was watching Turkey with enthusiasm to see possible emergence of an “Islamic-democracy” but the infighting between Erdogan and Gülen has put an end to such hopes. Being a “Gülenist” supporter in Turkey now means risking persecution. According to one report 36’000 “suspected Gülenists” have been jailed, the confiscation of 600 companies with an estimated worth of $10 billion. Is this yet another occasion of wealth redistribution in Turkey, similar to the confiscation of wealth from the Armenian and Greek bourgeoisie all during the 20th century?

Third, thousands of journalists and university professors have also suffered arrests or losing their jobs. There are increasing reports about Turkish intelligentsia seeking to leave the country at any price. This repression aims at curbing the autonomous capability of the society to reflect on its own condition. Curiously, there are more academics who lost their jobs than soldiers (over 5’000 for the first, over 3’000 for the second).

Now, a leader who is at war with its own army, is simultaneously using that army to win three wars. The first is partially internal, against the Kurds. Since mid-2015 Kurdish inhabited south-east has become once again scenes of battlegrounds. For sure the Kurdish guerillas did mistakes, but did the Turkish leadership behave in a wise way to avoid this internal war? But the war is not just against the PKK fighters, but against any autonomous political expression of the Kurds: the 75-year old mayor of Mardin, Mr Ahmed Turk, is in custody, and so is Salahattin Demirtas with 10 other parliamentarians from HDP. Gultan Kisanak and Firat Anli, co-mayors of Diyarbakir, are also under arrest. This is not just fighting guerillas; it is the elimination of the political autonomy of part of the population. 

Turkey, for the first time in modern history is also engaged in the slippery road of external wars. The Turkish army is already present in Iraq, where one of the fiercest wars is going on with treacherous alliances, and shifting frontlines. There, the Turkish army is near the Mosul battlefield threatening the political-military coalition in Baghdad, supported by no less than Washington, Tehran and Moscow. Turkish intervention is done in the name of defending the Turkmens, or the rights of Arab Sunnis. Moreover, and since August this year, that is few weeks after the failed military coup, Ankara sent its armed forces to northern Syria to fight Daesh, but their strategic goal there is to prevent the formation of territorial continuity under the control of Kurdish guerillas between Afrin and Manbij. Now, that area is the other major battlefield of our times, being the northern countryside of Aleppo, where several local militias, regional armies, and fleets of superpowers are battling for domination. Turkish army attempts to advance to al-Bab, currently under ISIS control, was made irrelevant by the sudden advance of pro-regime forces into several neighborhoods of east Aleppo.   

This is not all. Turkey is also in open conflict with its traditional allies including the US and the EU. Recently, Erdogan declared that his country might join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Russian-Chinese structure rivaling NATO. Since the end of the Second World War Turkish political stability has been conditioned by integration in Western institutions, and avoiding Middle Eastern problems. This foreign policy has been turned upside down, with unpredictable consequences. In a time when Turkey’s economy is weakened by over consumption, and in need of foreign investments, is picking a fight with the US-EU the right policy option?

Turkey is a post-Ottoman state, just like Iraq and Syria. In all three the army-security establishment was the backbone of the state. Social, economic and demographic developments make this model obsolete, and the transformation in Iraq and Syria took a chaotic, violent form. Turkey since 2002 had started a slower, evolutionary road to change. But the conflicts accumulated especially since July this year are simply too many for any system to absorb. 

I am worried about the future of Turkey, and establishing a dictatorship is not what alarms me the most.