Turkey’s leadership thrives on threats and crises - analysis

Turkey has stoked a wide range of crises seemingly against anyone and everyone, while accusing its critics of 'Islamophobia'.

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) wave party flags during a peace day rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey, September 1, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/SERTAC KAYAR/FILE PHOTO)
FILE PHOTO: Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) wave party flags during a peace day rally in Diyarbakir, Turkey, September 1, 2019
Almost every day, Turkey’s ruling party – and either its president, defense minister, foreign minister or communications officials – stoke a crisis somewhere around the country.
One day it might be threatening to send millions of refugees to Europe, threatening a new military operation in Syria, or threatening to close America’s Incirlik Air Base; the next it might be threatening Cyprus, or Greece – or bashing Israel or slamming the Nobel Prize, slandering France, or encouraging Islamic countries to distance themselves from some bogeyman in the West.
Turkey’s leading AKP Party used to talk about “zero problems with our neighbors,” positioning Turkey as a responsible country between the Middle East and Europe which would help mediate conflicts and host discussions. The foreign ministry in Ankara even keeps this policy on its website. But today Turkey’s leadership can’t go one day without another threatening speech; another attempt to encourage religious nationalism and talk about Turkey’s militarism; and problems with its neighbors.
Ankara got to this point because checks and balances on its leaders were gradually reduced internally. There was a time when Turkey, even under the AKP, wanted to join the European Union. Today, however, Turkey pushes for more trade with Iran, seeks Russian air defense systems and has no time for the EU, except as a foil for criticism.
Pushed aside are voices like Yasar Yakis, a founding member of the AKP, and Ahmet Davutoglu, a former prime minister. Former president Abdullah Gul has distanced himself from the authoritarian drift in the country, using Tunisia as an example to push for checks and balances. Meral Aksener, a former interior minister and politician, has compared Turkey’s internal politics to the Lord of the Rings.
Turkey is increasingly drifting towards more authoritarianism and nationalism. It’s free press has been gutted as journalists who critique the government are sent to prison on “terrorism” charges, making the country the largest jailer of journalists.
Thousands of members of the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been arrested, also accused of “terrorism.”
Opposition mayors are removed. More than 150,000 people have been pushed out of their jobs since an attempted coup in 2016; some 50,000 have been arrested. Hundreds of foreign ministry personnel, soldiers and educators have also been arrested, accused of links to a shadowy “Gulen terrorist group” that Turkey claims was behind the coup.
Without a free media; with large swaths of one opposition party behind bars; and with the judiciary, police, courts and army being targeted for alleged conspiracies, Turkey has been fundamentally transformed. Women’s rights or gay rights protests are suppressed with water cannons. Gone are the days of the Gezi Park protests; protests are always curtailed now. Without internal opposition, Turkey’s ruling party can focus almost entirely on foreign affairs.
NOW, TURKISH President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a speech on Wednesday, has claimed that the EU has not accepted Turkey because of anti-Muslim views. The day before, on TRT, he slammed France for interfering in Mali. Then Turkey said it might send troops to Libya.
Turkey hosted a large Hamas delegation this week, while demanding NATO label the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) as “terrorists.” On Monday, Erdogan also claimed that Western “imperialism continues to divide, dismember and conquer the Islamic world,” claiming that the West was harming Iran, Syria, Sudan, Somalia and Palestinians.
Turkey’s approach is to claim that the West is anti-Islamic while Turkey’s leaders carve out an increasingly Islamic agenda, slamming and bashing the “West” while claiming that it is “Islamophobic.” On December 8, Ankara’s leader called for Muslim “brothers and sisters” to unite worldwide against both Israel and Western policies. Ankara also slammed France for using the term “Islamic terror” and then claimed that France deserves the protests it is having. Turkey claims mosques are under attack throughout Europe, but also inaugurated a new mosque in the UK after the NATO summit.
The US is also constantly berated by Ankara: in the defense minister’s latest speech, he threatened that if Washington doesn’t sell F-35s to Turkey, then Ankara will search elsewhere. At an AKP Party event on December 7, Erdogan said he had also thwarted Israel, Cyprus, Greece and Egypt by laying claim to parts of the Mediterranean. On December 11, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu threatened the US, asserting that if it sanctions Turkey then Ankara might “re-evaluate” US bases there.
If tangling with the Mediterranean isn’t enough, Turkey also stokes crises in the Balkans, tracking down dissidents in Bosnia and Kosovo, and accusing them of links to “Gulen,” an exiled cleric. Ankara vows more clandestine attempts to bring dissidents back to Turkey.
In early December it was more threats against NATO, claiming Turkey will block NATO’s Baltic defense plan if the organization doesn’t label the YPG as terrorists. It his same December 3 speech, Erdogan threatened to take action against Greece over maritime disputes. On December 1, Turkey vowed to continue buying ships for drilling in disputed waters.
Tangling with the Greeks isn’t enough. Turkey says it wants to bring peace to the Middle East, but a peace on its own terms. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu slammed the US and Europe for sowing “chaos” in the Middle East, but Erdogan says Turkey needs to play a larger role in promoting its version of Islam through its Diyanet Foundation for religious affairs.
Turkey is also building a new mosque in Djibouti and saying that it will confront “imperialism.” The Diyanet now overseas some 2,000 mosques outside Turkey and uses them to promote its worldview and also drum up support for its policies.
SUCH IS the volume: It is becoming difficult to keep track of all the threats and crises that Ankara’s leadership seeks to highlight every day, but every once in a while Turkey backtracks on its threats.
For instance it didn’t block the NATO Baltics plan in the end. Communications director Fahrettin Altun walked back a speech where the president bashed the Nobel Prize committee for awarding prizes to “terrorists.” They didn’t mean Turkish prize winner Orhan Pamuk, Turkey clarified, they meant “others who have been nominated,” he explained.
In October, Ankara launched an offensive in Syria and signed a ceasefire with Russia; it is supposed to be guaranteeing a ceasefire also in Idlib, signed in September 2018. Over the summer it launched an offensive in Iraq against the PKK. But now, Turkey seems to want to justify a military adventure in Libya, hinting that it could send forces there to fight in the country’s civil war. At the same time, Turkey claimed on December 9 that it would settle one million Syrian refugees in areas of northern Syria it now occupies.
But wait: planning a military incursion into Libya, operating in Syria and Iraq, new bases in Qatar and a base in Somalia isn’t enough.
Challenging Egypt, Cyprus, Greece and Israel in the Mediterranean also isn’t enough. Leading the Islamic world, threatening the EU and NATO and US – all not enough for this crisis-hungry power.
Ankara is now trying to forcibly repatriate ISIS suspects, usually using their deportation as a tool against countries Turkey is in spats with, such as France and Greece. Unsurprisingly when Turkey got angry with them, it suddenly began trying to deport ISIS suspects there.
TURKEY’S LEADERSHIP clearly believes that constant crises are a ticket to success at home. This means fewer questions about domestic issues, such as the economy. Instead, every day brings breaking news about NATO, the EU, US, Libya, Greece, Iraq, Syria and Russia; more stories about Turkish drones, air defense, planes, bombing, potential military operations, clandestine raids, special forces operations, and proud Turkish meetings with foreign leaders; articles about new Turkish mosques, and initiatives.
Opening the pro-government newspaper Anadolu every day presents an endless list of these stories. On December 11, for instance, there is another “breaking news” story about Turkey telling Greece that any maritime activity in the Mediterranean’s continental shelf now needs Ankara’s permission, and a story about Erdogan claiming the Nobel Prize has become anti-Islamic because of an award to a controversial author. And Turkey says it arrested 17 terrorists on Wednesday.
Yet the crises are not without repercussions. Turkey has threatened to end EU talks over Cyprus and threatened to send refugees to Europe. Ankara increasingly faces sanctions, either from the US, the EU or others. It stokes problems with NATO and America that may cause long-term harm.
It is not clear how strategic and calculated the endless crisis policy is. It is pushed from the top down by Erdogan and then via Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, and sometimes to Interior Minister Soylu, but more often directly to the communications arm of the government and the major media such as TRT and Anadolu.
Ibrahim Kalin, a senior advisor to the president is leading the crises less often these days. His most recent tweets, for instance, were about the Nobel Prize and Turkey’s large NATO army.
Important also in the Turkish media ecosystem is Yasin Aktay, another key AKP party politician who articulates Ankara’s views on disparate issues from Ankara to Iran. Also involved is intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, whose views are less in the public eye but who is key to the leadership’s worldview.
So far this crisis-driven policy has served the leadership well and served Turkey well, bringing it more deals with Russia and more of a role in the region. It also gets respect from the EU and NATO for its strength, and may get support from the UN for its role in Syria. This was accomplished often by illustrating that threats and facts on the ground are a way to achieve things, instead of waiting for multi-lateral processes to take place.
Turkey is uniquely positioned to exploit these crises at the moment during the vacuum of US leadership and the rise of Russia and Iran.