The domestic face of Erdoğan’s fight with the West
One day after telling the U.S. that “we do not need you” on Oct. 12, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan gave the European Union the same message: “We do not need you.”
Erdoğan calls his firm stance against the West a “Second War of Independence,” in reference to the Turkish War of Independence between 1919 and 1922 against the invading Greek, British, French, Italian armies, as well as forces loyal to the Ottoman dynasty collaborating with the invaders against the national forces led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
It is interesting for Erdoğan to compare himself with Atatürk, who Turkey’s Islamist tradition has typically not been fond of because of his introduction of a secular order, shifting of the alphabet to Roman characters from Arabic, and imposition of gender equality (at least on paper).
For Erdoğan, the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption probe, the U.S. arrest of Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, the July 15, 2016 military coup attempt, and most recently the U.S.’s reaction to the arrest of two Turkish employees of the Istanbul Consulate by suspending visa processes, are all just stages of a wider war against Turkey. In this war, U.S.-based Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen – Erdoğan’s former ally-turned-enemy - has played a key role with his illegal network rooted in the Turkish state, mostly under AK Parti governments. (Erdoğan’s recalling of the Zarrab arrest, claiming that the U.S. is trying to turn him into a “confessor” and comparing this with the Turkish employee of the U.S. Consulates was interesting.)
For Erdoğan, U.S. cooperation with an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the arrest warrant against Erdoğan’s bodyguards over their brawl with pro-PKK demonstrators during Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, the independence vote of Iraqi Kurds, and the Syria civil war itself, are also just parts of that war to end the Erdoğan era. He believes that this war is being waged because Turkey has grown so much under his leadership, so Turkey itself is being targeted.
While promoting Turkey’s “foreign policy with a character” under his rule since 2002 Erdoğan once teased late Prime Minister Blent Ecevit because of his (old and) fragile stance photographed while speaking to a casual former U.S. President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Following negative reactions in the media and from politicians Erdoğan later corrected his words, saying he did not want to target Ecevit personally but simply criticize his policies.
Leaving aside Erdoğan’s comparison of the current political situation with the War of Independence, there are perhaps two thresholds for him regarding a real comparison with Atatürk and former Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, who he admires much.
Those two thresholds might be Ecevit and Süleyman Demirel, the late president and prime minister. Ecevit led the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Demirel led the center-right Justice Party (AP), so they were both political rivals. But both Ecevit and Demirel always stuck with the basic principles of Turkish foreign policy drawn by Atatürk himself at the very foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Neither Ecevit nor Demirel hesitated to take strong action when necessary, without making a fuss about it beforehand.
After all, it was Prime Minister Ecevit who took the tough decision to send Turkish troops to Cyprus in 1974 in order to protect the lives of Turkish Cypriots against a right-wing Greek junta-inspired coup on the island. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger later said Ecevit never gave any clue that a Turkish military intervention was imminent - perhaps other than a popular love song played by Turkish public broadcaster TRT, “I Could Suddenly Come One Night,” as a signal to the underground Turkish resistance in Cyprus to get prepared. Erdoğan has repeated the same song title in reference to Iraq and Syria for the past two years, and on Oct. 13 he pointed to Turkey’s Idlib monitoring operation agreed with Russia and Iran as justification of this phrase.
It was also Prime Minister Demirel who chose to close the strategic İncirlik air base in southern Turkey to all non-NATO U.S. flights in 1975, in retaliation to an arms embargo imposed by Washington. Demirel took this step despite the fact he is thought of as being the most pro-American Turkish politician ever (he was an Eisenhower Fellow and was mocked by his CHP opponents as “Morrison Süleyman” as he worked for an American engineering company before entering politics).
Clearly, both Ecevit and Demirel were walkers as well as talkers.
Today there is a domestic political dimension to all of Erdoğan’s foreign policy moves that must be considered. Despite having repeatedly pledged a house-cleaning within the AK Parti, starting with alleged Gülen-leaning elements and those who are not 100 percent loyal to himself (even if they are loyal to the party program), the process is apparently not going as smoothly as Erdoğan desired.
He has implicitly referred to the resignation of the AK Parti’s powerful Ankara Mayor Melih Gökçek a number of times in recent weeks, but Gökçek has not moved an inch yet and Erdoğan has still not removed him from office. Taking this situation as an example, other mayors and party officials in the crosshairs are pretending to be not getting the signals to leave their posts themselves, instead asking the party headquarters - meaning Erdoğan himself – to directly remove them from office. That is actually not a very easy step for him to take, considering the new constitution which effectively means that a presidential candidate has to get at least 50 percent-plus-one-vote to get elected from the 2019 elections onward.
President Erdoğan may be calculating that attacking the West in a populist style will boost his votes further among both nationalists and Islamists. But if this talking the talk is not followed through with walking the walk, this strategy may well fail.