Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Clear and Present Danger: Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Threat to the Stability of the Middle East and the Global Economy

Vladimir Putin & Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Shanghai
Cooperation Organization Summit in November 2016
As Turkey’s relationship with the United States, NATO and the EU continues to deteriorate, the question on the back burner for the past several years is now front and center.  Is Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership a reliable Western ally?  Do his political values reflect those of NATO members, the Western alliance  and responsible members of the international community?   The answer to these questions is an unequivocal no.  As a result, it is time for the United States and the West to break definitively with Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian, unstable and untrustworthy regime.

As Erdogan’s rule has become more repressive, and his foreign policy more quixotic and anti-Western, American and European analysts continue to argue that, despite his utterances and behavior, the West should “exercise caution” and effectively “turn the other cheek.”* After all, doesn’t Turkey occupy a critical geo-political position between the MENA region, Eastern Europe and Russia?  With a population of 80 million people, one of the most powerful militaries in the MENA region, and an economy four times the size of neighboring Greece, shouldn’t the West do everything it can to maintain a close relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey?

The lack of a serious Western policy towards Erdogan
But does “avoidance behavior” really constitute a serious policy in any meaningful sense of the term?  Or is such thinking – namely, basing Western policy on “hope” with no idea of what the ultimate outcome will be – an ostrich-like approach which can only lead to indecision at best and failure at worst?

“Realists” in Western foreign policy making circles point to Turkey’s important geo-political position, its military and economic power, and, above all, the need to maintain its NATO membership.  This approach is very much like a therapist who tells a wife that she should ignore her husband’s infidelities, and then continues to advocate “not rocking the boat,” even when her husband returns home drunk and beats her, and in front of their children.  No serious therapist would counsel patience and relying on hope when a women’s physical safety is at stake.

“Realists” seem to think that “waiting” will lead Erdogan to change his current policies and fall in line behind Turkey’s earlier behavior when it was far more supportive of Western interests.  These analysts should be disabused of such notions after reading Erdogan’s New York Times Op-Ed, “Turkey’s Views of the Crisis With the US” (August 13, 2018).

Yet again, Erdogan offers a laundry list of complaints about US behavior which are linked to unsubstantiated accusations, accusing the US of disrespect for the Turkish nation-state, interference in its internal affairs, and indirect responsibility for the failed July 2016 coup d’état by allowing the coup’s purported mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, to remain in the United States.

Can Erdogan find new allies to replace NATO, the EU and the US?
Erdogan ends his Op-Ed with the ominous words: “Failure [of the US] to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.” This threat underscores yet again that Erdogan is not only unreliable and has little concern for Western strategic interests, let along human rights and democracy, but is not in touch with reality.  Under these circumstances, what benefit does the US and the West derive from Turkey’s geo-political position if Turkey’s leader won’t cooperate with NATO, the US or other Western democracies?

Erdogan’s threats are in fact vacuous.  When he suggests Turkey may find “other friends and allies,” Russia quickly comes to mind.  However, Erdogan has already developed close ties to the Putin regime.  Over NATO objections, he purchased Russian surface to air missiles and he has pushed closer political and economic ties between the two countries. Thus, Erdogan has already cozied up to Vladimir Putin’s equally dysfunctional regime.

Further, Erdogan pursues closer ties with Putin’s Russia at his own peril.  Clearly, Russia and Turkey differ on several key policy areas.  First, Turkey seeks to become the conduit for Europe’s natural gas needs by constructing a pipeline from Central Asia to deliver the gas. Its Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) and its Trans-Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) will by 2019  offer natural gas derived from Central Asia to Europe, which has seen a decline its own natural gas reserves.

This goal sits in direct competition with Putin’s Nord Stream 2 Pipeline which, developed by Gazprom, would provide gas to Europe through a pipeline running under the Baltic Sea.

Turkish policy in Syria also competes with Russian objectives.  Erdogan despises Bashar al-Asad and is committed to overthrowing his regime.  Russia’s goals are to assure that al-Asad remains in power. The Syrian dictator’s control of Syria ensures that Russia will retain access to Syrian air bases and the only port it has on the Mediterranean at Tartus.

Finally, Putin is very suspicious of Erdogan’s efforts to develop strong tie with the Turkish language speaking countries which were formally part of the Soviet Union.  The Russian leader views  recreating the Soviet state in all but name as one of his key foreign policy objectives. His efforts to tie the ex-Soviet republics to Russia through trade and other economic policies runs against Erdogan’s efforts to tie these republics to Turkey instead as part of his “neo-Ottomanism.”

In many of the Central Asian “Stans,” Islamist forces have been gaining strength.  With Chechnya (the Chechen Republic) still under threat from radical Islamists, and the violence which has occurred there still fresh in the mind of all Russians, any meddling by Erdogan, himself an Islamist, in Central Asia counters Russia’s strategic interests in that region.

How has Erdogan undermined the West and MENA countries’ ability to defeat the Islamic State?
If Erdogan’s ability to enhance ties to Russia are circumscribed, his policies have followed the opposite trajectory regarding the US and NATO. In Syria, Erdogan looked the other way for years as Dacish fighters coming from European countries crossed the Turkish border on their way to join the terrorist organization. Erdogan has attacked the strongest force in northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, which has been central in helping the US and coalition forces defeat the Dacish terrorist group.  Meanwhile, his own allies are themselves radical islamists.

Erdogan has also attacked the YPG (People’s Protection Units) which represents the Kurds of northern Syria who were brutally repressed by the Bashar al-Asad regime in Damascus. In the Kurdish majority city of Afrin, Erdogan’s allies in the so-called “Free Syrian Army” have been accused of kidnapping and raping local women.

Beyond Turkey’s negligible help in defeating the Dacish in Syria, Erdogan has diligently worked to destroy the Rojava Kurds’ egalitarian and ethnically diverse experiment in northern Syria under the YPG.  The Rojava Kurds have eliminated so-called “honor crimes,” dowries and have created a political structure in which all major institutions in the Rojava region are co-directed by a man and a woman.  Sustainable development benefitting all residents of the region has now been put at risk by Erdogan’s attack and designation of the YPG as “terrorists.” 

How has Erdogan’s domestic policy promoted political instability in Turkey?
Erdogan’s human right abuses distinguish him from other NATO member states. Selahattin Dermirtas, an ethnic Kurd and leader of one of Turkey’s main opposition parties, the HDP, sits in jail where he stands accused of “terrorism” due to criticism of Erdogan.  He ran for the office of president in this past July’s elections from his jail cell.

Demirtas’ People’s Democratic Party (HDP received 11% of the votes to win 67 seats in Turkey’s parliament.  His party, co-chaired with female MP Pervin Buldan, is the only cross-ethnic party with a substantial social base, precisely why Erdogan, who refuses to address the Turkish-Kurdish divide in Turkey finds the party so threatening.

Within Turkey, countless journalists, university academics and school teachers languish in jail and face trial for ill-defined offenses.  Those arrested are considered disloyal or for what the Turkish leader considers the slightest criticism.  The position of prime minister was eliminated in a faulty referendum which consolidated power in the position of the president.  In effect, Erdogan faces no checks and balances.

Colloquial wisdom has much to tell us regarding the West’s relationship with Erdogan; “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”  Put differently, how many decisions does Erdogan need to make until the US, NATO, the EU and other Western democracies realize that he has no desire to promote stability in the MENA region, treat the large population of Turkish Kurdish citizens with even a modicum of respect, much less attend to their social and economic needs, or deviate from his desire to emulate the sultan-caliphs of the defunct Ottoman Empire, a desire driven by ego and narcissism.

Why Turkey must have an independent  Central Bank before any IMF economic bailout
In light of Turkey’s current economic threat to the global policy, one brought on not only be reckless borrowing which has produced loans which can’t be replayed, but reflect the country’s excessive economic corruption, the West should focus less on Turkey as a NATO member and more on its deeply troubled economy.

European banks in particular have a large exposure to loans made to Turkey which it appears borrowers are having an increasingly difficult time repaying.  While a collapse of the lira would affect only %0.2 of the equity of European banks, these loans total €140 billion ($159 billion).  

Of greater danger is the threat a collapse of the lira would have on other emerging market countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.  With Turkey in a downward economic spiral, investors in the industrialized North would be loathe to commit investments to other countries in the emerging market category.

With the Trump administration having slapped sanctions on imported Turkish steel, Turkey’s economy has received a further blow.  It has been a major source of US rebar which is essential to the construction industry, especially in erecting tall buildings.

A strong stance towards Erdogan is also the best move by NATO and the West in light of the increasing instability of the Turkish economy.  The reasons for the Turkish lira’s recently slide, having lost 62% of its value in relation to the US dollar this year (trading at 6.4 to the dollar at this writing) is not because Donald Trump has slapped sanctions on Erdogan and members of his inner circle. 

For years, the Erdogan regime has underwritten myriad loans to support the Turkish business elite with close ties to his AKP (Justice and Development Party).  These loans, which built on a since dissipated international appetite for emerging markets, primarily targeted the  construction sector, resulting in the building of a large number of high-end apartment buildings in Turkish cities, especially Istanbul, to house the AKP elite.  

Now that international interest rates have been to rise as the global economy has finally been able to escape from the worst of the 2008 fiscal crisis, holders of these loans are finding it difficult to repay them as they are valued in dollars.  As the lire has declined, the cost of relying Turkey huge foreign debt has become even more onerous.

Adding to Turkey’s economic woes are the constant utterances of Erdogan which further erode international confidence in the Turkish economy.  With the recent consolidation of power in the office of the presidency, Turkey’s Central Bank has lost its independence.  As Erdogan rails against higher interest rates (one of his favorite sayings is: “interest is the mother of all evil”), the Central Bank’s ability to stabilize the lira has been compromised. Meanwhile, he appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak, to the post of finance minister.

Could Erdogan follow the path of the former Shah of Iran?
The current US and Western relationship with Erdogan remind us of the relationship the US had with the former Shah of Iran, Mohamed Reza Pahlavi. After the US restored the Shah to the Peacock Throne in 1953, in supporting the overthrow of the duly-elected prime minister of Iran, Mohamed Mossadegh, an aristocratic reformer whose sin was to seek higher royalty payments from the British owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

As is well known, the Shah was an extremely repressive leader. His policies were designed to marginalize the powerful bazaar merchant class and the Shi a clergy, dispossess the rural peasantry, a large sector of which migrated to urban slums in Iranian cities, and create a powerful Western economic compradorial elite which turned the Iranian economy into a satellite for international agrobusiness and assembling consumer durables for trans-national corporations.

The “tipping point” (or sufficient conditions) which pushed Iran to the brink of revolution in the late 1970s was the Sha’s decision to cut back on urban construction to reduce the inflation caused by the rise in inflation caused by dramatic oil price rises after the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.  This policy led to many rural migrants who depended on income from construction suddenly facing economic ruin.  Their participation in demonstrations against the Shah and the refusal of the army to attack demonstrators was key to bringing down the Shah’s regime

As the Shah’s regime increased its strategic importance with the implementation of the Nixon Doctrine, US policy-makers consistently ignored its human rights abuses and corruption.  The Nixon Doctrine, which was a response in large measure to the high casualties of the Vietnam War, designated regional allies in strategic areas, rather than US forces, to assume the major role in protecting American interests.  With the Persian Gulf assuming great importance due to its supplying oil to much of the world, the Shah’s regime became the local US “policeman.”

The sale of large amounts of US arms to Iran, e.g., Grumman Aircraft,  also incentivized policy-makers to look the other way at the increasingly repressive nature of the Shah’s regime. The US even agreed to curtail its intelligence gathering forces in Iran at the Shah’s request.  Thus, the US lacked the necessary “eyes and ears” as the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 loomed as an ever-larger possibility.

Together with North Korea, the US’ relationship with the so-called Islamic Republic of Iran is the worst of any country in the world.  In a misguided effort which allowed an abstract understanding of “geo-political position” to guide American policy, the result was that the US has suffered almost 30 years of foreign policy crisis with the current Teheran regime.

What needs to be placed at the forefront of any US and Western policy is political leadership and political institutions.  The “fish rots from the head down.”  A country can possess enormous strategic interest.  However, if a nation-state is ruled by an authoritarian, corrupt and erratic leader, and if there are no institutional checks and balances on that leader, strategic value as a concept possesses little if no value to those countries which seek to cooperate with the country in question.

At present, the US should worry less about Turkey’s standing in NATO, and whether Erdogan will try and strengthen ties with Russia and perhaps China, two of the West’s strongest adversaries.  Instead the US, NATO and the EU should:

1) prevent the IMF or other international lender from offering Erdogan relief from the economic crisis he created unless the Turkish Central Bank is independent and competent economists, rather than his relatives, administer the appropriate state ministries and agencies concerned with the economy;
2) stand firm against Erdogan in northern Syria and not allow Turkish forces, and especially their surrogate militia, the “Free Syrian Army” attack the Rojava Kurds and the Syrian Democratic Forces;
3) maintain a steady criticism of Erdogan’s policies of firing and imprisoning teachers, academics, journalists, professionals and members of opposition parties who criticize his authoritarian rule;
4) stop worrying about Turkey’s efforts to strengthen its ties with Russia, a policy it would follow no matter what the policy positions of the US and the West, because Erdogan will only create problems for Putin which will undermine, not enhance, Russia’s position in the MENA region.

An example of this "support Erdogan at all costs" mentality, see Ty Joplin's articles at 
al-Bawaba, e.g., "Turkey is cozying up to Russia, disavowing the US,"


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