The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
To listen to officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and read Turkey’s pro-government press is to dive into a happy place in which Turkey has never been better. It is a democratic beacon shining its light on the rest of the Middle East, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is leading the charge to consolidate Turkish democracy and create a new regional order, the Turkish economy is humming along despite villainous credit rating agencies’ efforts to destroy it, and Turks of all stripes are united behind their government’s various initiatives. The official view from Ankara is sunny indeed -- yet the clouds massing on the country’s border presage a hurricane.
AKP rule has brought a measure of stability previously unknown to Turkey. Here, a growing economy and concerted efforts to address Kurdish grievances have contributed. On a more disturbing note, so have the gradual reining in of the free press and open dissent. For better or worse, the country has become safely predictable and the AKP has been able to govern without seriously being challenged. Even those not in the AKP camp acknowledge that today’s Turkey seems eons removed from the days of terrorism and assassinations in the streets, military coups, and runaway inflation.
But the chaos on Turkey’s border with Syria threatens to upend all of this. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has threatened Turkey’s internal balance in a number of ways. But the danger does not come from ISIS itself. Although the group has proved its military bona fides during its rampage through Iraq and Syria, it does not present a serious territorial challenge to Turkey, which has a large NATO-backed army, a modern air force, and the resources to hit back at ISIS should it choose. Rather, it is the follow-on effects of ISIS’ march through the region that may herald a return to the bad old days.
The primary driver of AKP success and Turkish political stability has been the economy. The AKP’s economic strategy has rested on easy access to cheap foreign loans that financed construction and infrastructure projects rather than on investing in industry or exportable goods. Those loans are becoming harder to secure due to tighter U.S. Federal Reserve monetary policies and a perception -- fueled by the Gezi Park protests; the government’s battle against the Gulen movement, which included purposely sabotaging Bank Asya; and Turkey’s border policy of allowing a free flow of jihadi fighters into Syria -- that Turkey has become too chaotic to remain a source for reliable investment. As cash dries up, Turkey’s economic expansion will go with it.
On top of that, the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS have caused a mass exodus of refugees into Turkey that shows no signs of slowing. To the government’s great credit, it has worked hard to absorb refugees running for their lives from Syria. It has built what are perhaps the best refugee camps the world has ever seen. Housing and caring for between 1.3 and 1.5 million refugees is not a cheap proposition, however. And as those refugees make their way to Turkey’s cities, the strain on Turkey’s economy will only going to grow. And any wobble in the economy is going to reflect in popular support for the AKP and expose political problems that have, until now, been papered over by a stream of Turkish lira. That will create an opening for opposition parties to pound the AKP over what was once an area of strength.
Another reason for Turkey’s recent internal stability is the relative quiet on the Kurdish front. To be sure, Turkey’s Kurds still harbor many grievances over the suppression of Kurdish culture and tradition, and the Turkish military has frequently clashed with PKK fighters, even blockading the district of Semdinli as recently as summer of 2012 in order to more effectively battle the PKK. One of the AKP’s biggest successes, however, has been cooling the temperature significantly on Kurdish issues through the government’s “Democratic Opening” of 2009-2011 and the more recent Imrali peace process involving talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Although there is a long way to go until Turkey’s Kurds feel like they are fully accepted by the Turkish state, the relative quiet has contributed to Turkey’s overall sense of stability.
But Turkey’s policy toward ISIS could squander all that goodwill. Many Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even for empowering the group through its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy. The more half-hearted the Turkish government has been about getting rid of ISIS, the harder it is to successfully conclude the Kurdish peace process. In southeastern Turkey, funerals for Kurdish fighters who have been killed fighting ISIS across the border are a regular occurrence, and they contribute to growing discord between a naturally restive population and the Turkish government. The ongoing battle between ISIS and Kurdish fighters for the town of Kobane on the Syria-Turkey border -- and Turkey’s apparent reluctance to get involved for fear of empowering Kurdish militants in Turkey -- is inflaming passions and contributing to antigovernment rhetoric in ways that will reverberate well beyond this particular fight. In elections, the AKP has historically performed well in the Kurdish areas in the southeast, but now there is space among Kurdish voters for any party savvy enough to capitalize on Ankara’s perceived missteps.
Finally, the ugliness on the border and the Syrian refugees who are becoming part of the landscape are going to exacerbate a problem that the AKP has stoked -- a nationalism that is naturally suspicious of outsiders and sees foreign plots lurking behind every corner. In the past, such a nationalistic atmosphere and fighting on the border would have empowered the Turkish military. But this time, it is going to speed along the creation of an alternate deep state, which is ironic given the AKP’s obsession with rooting out the old Kemalist deep state infrastructure. Under then Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s intelligence agency, called MIT, has become extremely powerful. In many ways, MIT has controlled and administered the government’s Syria policy since 2011. MIT has been accused of letting all sorts of shadowy groups use Turkey as a way station to the fighting in Syria and of funneling aid to a wide range of radical groups. Unlike the military, MIT is not a power center separate from the prime minister’s office. Its chief reports to the prime minister directly and, since 2012, has been legislatively shielded from judicial investigation. The crisis on the Syrian border strengthens MIT’s hand, and helps the executive shift the balance of power even more in his favor while empowering a secretive intelligence agency that operates outside the bounds of any real oversight.
An economy burdened by refugees, renewed unrest among Turkish Kurds, resurgent nationalism, and policy run by unaccountable intelligence services makes for an unstable brew. ISIS has presented the United States and the entire Middle East with a new set of problems, but its immediate legacy may be an end to what has been a remarkable period of Turkish domestic stability.