“The country is going through a tense period marked partly by the government’s determination to replace Turkey’s long-standing parliamentary system with a heavily centralized presidential one via a referendum in early 2017…”
Since the end of World War II, as a long-standing ally and vital partner for the United States, Turkey has had a unique and influential role in international relations. Turkish-US relations have remained critical to regional security and the management of regional crises. While in Europe, many of the operators I worked with were involved in Turkish-US relations, giving me unique insights into the inner workings of this strategic partner.
As a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey is distinctive for several reasons for US policymakers. Turkey is a country where peaceful coexistence with the West was developed between Islamics, Christians, and Jews. It is the only NATO ally that borders Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and it provides unique and crucial logistical support for NATO and the US. It has been regarded as a pro-western, secular state with a thriving free-market economy that embraces democracy.
Strategically, Turkey’s location served as a barrier to block the path of Soviet expansions into the Middle East, thwarting the spread of communism. It was because of the existence and effectiveness of the Turkish barrier that Soviet successes in the Arab countries were always precarious.
Perhaps most importantly, Turkey represents an essential component of the US strategy to deal with the Islamic State threat, the chaos in Syria, and the wider region. Turkey is a vital ally in the war against ISIS. It controls the south-eastern approaches to Europe, and therefore the flow of everything from supplies to Russian natural gas.
So what has happened that should be of concern to the United States?
History of Military Coups
The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923. Led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country’s first president, leaders began changes to promote a secular government and society. From the republic’s beginning, military leaders saw their role as protecting Turkey from threats from both outside and within the country.
That view, combined with civil unrest, an economic crisis, and the rise of Islamist politics caused a series of coups (1960, 1971, 1980, 1997) that culminated with the latest in July 2016, where rogue officers of Turkey’s military declared martial law and attempted to overthrow the government. The Turkish government successfully suppressed the attempted coup.
President Erdogan’s arrest or dismissal of individuals that he claims were supporters of the failed coup now exceeds 110,000 Turkish citizens. He has used the coup attempt to purge the government, courts, and military of any potential opposition and to close the media outlets that criticized him.
The coup attempt has further destabilized Turkey, a member of NATO and one of the few US allies in the Middle East. Additionally, the country is at war with the Kurdish militants who are part of the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. This causes tension between the US and Turkey. Nevertheless, Turkey allows US forces to use Incirlik Air Base to stage bombing raids in Syria.
There are several issues, in addition to the coups, that the United States should take into consideration as it continues to cooperate with Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly been behaving like a rogue actor in the region. Turkey actually applied for EU membership for the first time in 1987, but President Erdoğan’s increasing moves toward authoritarianism have made the negotiations tense.
Democracy in Turkey is headed for hard times. The country is going through a tense period marked partly by the government’s determination to replace Turkey’s long-standing parliamentary system with a heavily centralized presidential one via a referendum in early 2017.
Ankara, Turkey’s capital, is seeking to harness the votes of Turkish nationals living abroad ahead of the April 16 referendum on creating an executive presidency. Erdoğan says the changes would make governance more efficient, but opponents are concerned they would lead to a one-man rule, analogous to dictatorship.
Turkey’s relations with the EU are going from bad to worse, following a diplomatic tussle with the Netherlands that has led to recriminations and public protests. The incident has seen relations between the two NATO-allies plunge to a new low.
Dutch police forcibly expelled a Turkish minister from the country after she was barred from addressing a rally in Rotterdam. Turkish Family Affairs Minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya was escorted to the German border following a tense confrontation outside her country’s consulate in Rotterdam.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was denied permission to land in the Netherlands and has said these actions “will not go unanswered.” His address to the Turkish diaspora over Turkey’s upcoming referendum was blocked. Dutch officials said they withdrew his plane’s permission to land because of “risks to public order and security.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte added that it was not right “for Turkish ministers to campaign in the Netherlands among Dutch people.” Upon his return to Turkey, Cavusoglu accused the Dutch of trying to prevent Turkish officials from meeting voters, before adding: “We will give them the response they deserve.”
Austria and Germany have voiced displeasure that the Turkish referendum over constitutional amendments designed to consolidate Erdoğan’s already formidable powers, was being debated within their borders.
Several German municipalities canceled similar Turkish political events last week, barring Turkish officials from rallying support among the country’s Turkish population, some 1.4 million of whom are eligible to vote in the upcoming referendum. The decision drew ire from Erdoğan, who accused the country of “Nazi practices.”
Horst Seehofer, the Bavarian state premier, declared that Turkish lawmakers had no right to campaign for a constitutional change that, many fear, would speed up Ankara’s slide into authoritarianism. “When Turkish politicians want to use our liberal laws to promote an anti-democratic restructuring in their country, then they are abusing their rights as a guest,” he told the Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel in an appeasing statement cautioned that, while the comments were “sad” and “misplaced,” Europe could not afford to alienate Turkey. “As unacceptable as some things are, it can’t be in our foreign and geopolitical interest to distance ourselves from Turkey,” Merkel told the Bundestag.
All these things added up are a cause for concern as far as Turkey is concerned. The question to ask is where will Turkey go from here and how does the rest of the world respond?
Dr. Katherine (Kat) Harris is an OpsLens contributor, a veteran spouse, expat, and former military contractor with over 20 years of expertise in military/family transition, career counseling, higher education, organizational strategic planning, and international relations. She has conducted seminars and workshops for many Department of Army commands, plus many non-profit and community associations. She served as a translator and liaison for American, British, French, and German civilian/military communities in Berlin and Helmstedt, Germany.
Academically, Dr. Harris holds a Bachelor of Science in Management Studies from The University of Maryland European Division, a Master of Arts in International Relations from Boston University, and a Doctorate in Education from Rowan University with an emphasis in leadership and higher education in a global context.