Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan 311 (R).
(photo credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas)
There are episodes of history that, in addition to having played a pivotal role in shaping their own epoch, can shed light on contemporary events. One such defining moment relates to the execution in 1804, under the infamous French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s instructions, of the duke of Enghien, a 31-year-old member of the Bourbon family who could have aspired to the throne of France in the case of an eventual restoration of the monarchy in that country.
Exiled in Germany, the duke was abducted by Napoleon’s agents, smuggled into France and finally executed.
Europe’s monarchies reached the conclusion that they weren’t safe anywhere as long as Napoleon held the reins of power in France. They gave up any hope of striking a deal with Bonaparte and decided to coalesce against him.
It has thus been argued that the fate of Napoleon, his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, was sealed as far back as the day the duke of Enghien was murdered. Hence the phrase, attributed to the late French statesman Joseph Fouché – the shrewd and cynical head of Napoleon’s police – regarding that assassination: “It was worse than a crime; it was a blunder.”
A miscalculation of a similar nature may have been made recently by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Already at odds with the army – around 250 officers are or have been in prison – Erdogan’s regime has sent to jail the former chief of staff, General Ilker Basbug, under ill-documented and hard-to-believe charges of heading a terrorist organization.
Erdogan had, for sure, every reason not to be at ease with his army. Trained in a secularist tradition, with longtime ties with the United States and Israel, and having in the past struggled against pro-Islamic militants including Erdogan’s himself, it is not in the Turkish army’s DNA to cast its full weight in support of a government controlled by an Islamic party such as Erdogan’s AKP.
At the same time, however, Turkey’s former military leadership realizes that it no longer calls the shots, that in today’s Turkey it has two options, and two options only: Submit to the government instructions, or resign. Last July, scores of senior officers, including the top commanders, chose the latter.
The trouble is that now, with imprisonments hitting their ranks, the latest being that of General Basbug, the members of Turkey’s military are concerned with something still more vital to them than power. It is their individual freedom which is currently at stake. And confronted with that type of danger, it is a safe bet to predict that they and their networks will not sit idly but, instead, may resort to obstructionary tactics such as transferring sensitive information abroad and, for those who are still active in service, applying work-to-rule tactics.
The botched killing by Turkish warplanes of 34 Kurdish civilians, who were mistakenly thought to be militant separatists operating at the Iraqi border, is likely to be the consequence of the disarray that prevails in a Turkish army weakened by the resignation and/or imprisonment of a good number of its officers.
Simultaneously in conflict with several neighbors, engaged with Saudi Arabia and Qatar in a race for the leadership of the Sunni world, and facing an unrelenting Kurdish rebellion that could be exploited by Turkey’s adversaries, it was definitely not the moment for Erdogan to exacerbate tensions between his regime and the army.
Erdogan can eventually reshape Turkey’s army to his advantage and, as a matter of fact, is trying to do so. It will take time, however, for his efforts to bear fruit. Meanwhile, he will lack military means commensurate with his geopolitical ambitions in the emerging Middle East.
Erdogan is not a novice in the art of making erratic moves. He has torn to shreds years of mutually-beneficial relations between Israel and his country. By trying to engage with Iran, he is putting in peril Turkey’s long-standing partnership with the United States. He opposed the intervention of NATO forces in Libya, but once former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, he hastened to travel to that country so as to advertise himself as a staunch supporter of the pro-democracy movement. He gratuitously has entered into a feud with France over a memorial law on the Armenian genocide. And on top and above, he is alienating the sympathy of the Council of Europe because of his ever worsening record in the realm of human rights (as a token, there are more journalists under lock and key in Turkey than in China).
One could argue, therefore, that Erdogan’s latest row with his country’s army is merely one more link in a long chain of strategic incongruities. Except that this last blunder may fatally pin his geopolitical dreams to the ground.
The writer is an economist and a former UN official. The author of four books, he writes on issues related to international politics and the world economy.