Is Turkey really the ally the West thinks it is?
When looking at the current state of the Middle East, there really isn’t one specific action or country for that matter that has caused the turmoil the region finds itself in. A common belief is that the region is overwhelmed with weak states that need foreign intervention to keep the region afloat. Typically this theory includes working with regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Iran to assist in propping up the weaker countries. For the West, perhaps it is time to reassess the uneasy relationship it holds with Turkey that could very well determine the near future of the region.
Much has been made of the recent moves by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan against people who have ‘insulted’ him. For instance there were the criminal charges against Bilgin Ciftci for posting pictures to Facebook comparing Erdogan to the Lord of the Rings character Gollum. More recently, Turkey formally requested prosecution for a poem written by Jan Boehmermann and a satirist who created the montage “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan” (the video at the top of this column). Even though the West has been somewhat vocal about its displeasure in Erdogan’s crackdown, it has largely washed its hands on the ordeal. This is primarily because Turkey is viewed as a vital ally in the fight against the Islamic State and just as importantly, its NATO membership.
It can be easy to fall into the line of thinking that since Turkey is a member of NATO, it also has an ideology similar to its fellow members. However, Turkey did not join NATO solely because of a desire to become a part of the West, nor did the U.S. welcome Turkey into the alliance due to a commitment to its democracy building project. Rather it was because of a shared interest to push back against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Thus, the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. was based on shared goals, not shared ideals, and this is important because little has changed over the years.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. and Turkey lost the anti-communist cause that united them, and this is unfortunate because the need for both to work together hasn’t been this high since the Cold War years. Lately, Turkey has spent more time fearing a heightened Kurdish rebellion or a potential civil society uprising rather than working with its ‘allies’ from the West.
This culture of fear has had a dramatic impact inside Turkey. Recently Erdogan has stated that those supporting terrorism, whether journalists or aid workers are no different than the terrorists themselves. In fact, the country’s justice minister has announced a new rule that would strip citizenship from Turks found to be supporting terrorism. The problem with all of this is Turkey seems to have a different definition of terrorism than the West. While both the U.S. and Turkey view the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization, Turkey views the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds that the U.S. considers allies as a threat on par with the PKK.
To be fair, Turkey has a good reason to be wary. Over the past six months, an estimated 500 civilians have been killed between Turkish security forces and Kurdish groups such as the PKK. Furthermore, in the past two months, PKK suicide bombers have killed 67 people in Ankara, the country’s capital city. The results of this have been that Turkey is now providing active support to Sunni groups but next to nothing for Shiite and Kurdish groups. While this pro-Sunni policy isn’t necessarily a bad thing for Turkey, it fails to fit in with the U.S. goal of an inclusive Middle East, and herein lies the problem.
Under the agreement with the European Union (EU), Turkey will take back all migrants and refugees who enter Greece illegally. The EU has agreed then to take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey, and in return Turkey will receive money, visa-free travel and renewed talks on EU membership. Seems like a win-win for both parties right? Unfortunately that is not the case. Turkey did not agree to these terms because it wanted to become more like the West. What is more likely is that Turkey will remain on its path of cracking down on all who oppose Erdogan, while also now having an international image of European support. Until the U.S. and Europe accept that Turkey’s regional ambitions do not necessarily coincide with theirs, regardless of Turkey’s NATO membership, the region is likely to see little change.