How Turkish President Erdogan went Wrong: Dividing and Not Ruling

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Receb Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, was once seen as a political breath of fresh air and a beacon of change in the Middle East.

Turkey, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Algeria, Tunisia and other countries in the region were locked into an unhealthy political gridlock. The larger cities with their educated elites tended to favor secular nationalism in their politics. The rural population and small town folk were divided between religious traditionalists and modern fundamentalists. The traditionalists were often apolitical or found enough meaning in the secular nationalist narrative to support it even if they were not secular-minded. Sometimes they even supported Leftist parties inflected by Marxism. Others were mobilized into being allies of the modernist religious fundamentalists.

The modern fundamentalists not only had popularity in the smaller towns and cities away from the metropolises, but among the lower middle classes in the big cities, as well. They increasingly wanted to inject their fundamentalism into politics, to reshape law and society in accordance with their vision of Muslim society in the time of the Prophet Muhammad. (Since that society was largely non-Muslim and pluralist, and Muslim law was fluid and mostly unformed, their notion of a sharia-ruled golden age is a figment of their imagination.)

But the secular urban elites blocked the fundamentalists. They did not want rural or small town religious utopianism injected into politics. Egypt made a law against parties with a religious basis. Turkey’s elites adopted the Swiss constitution and put secularism into it, forbidding practicing Muslims form entering the officer corps.

The Islamic Revolution in Iran of 1979, when the urban lower middle classes overthrew the regime of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, made the secular urban elites even more determined to yield no ground to their foes. The fundamentalists in Iran took high generals and members of the secular Pahlavi elite out and shot them. When the Sunni Iranian Kurds chafed under the rule of Persian Shiite ayatollahs, they were taken out and shot too.

In the Arab world, the fundamentalists refused to back down. They were often jailed and tortured. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein put members of the Shiite Dawa Party into mass graves. In Algeria civil war broke out in the 1990s between the secular elite in Algiers and the fundamentalists in the medina or old parts of the cities or the small towns in the countryside. 150,000 died.

You couldn’t have democracy with this stark polarization. The secular urban elites had to exclude the modern fundamentalists from power, they thought, to avoid being taken out and shot as the Pahlavi generals were. They didn’t trust the lower middle classes or the peasants to vote rationally. They felt they had to deny them the vote.

Erdogan himself was jailed in the 1990s by the secular generals in Turkey. But then in 2002 something remarkable happened. His Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the parliamentary elections. The AKP had a Muslim constituency, but it wasn’t a Muslim Brotherhood-style party. It stood for family values. It was center-right. It did not seek to impose a medieval version of Islamic law on Turkish secularists, but did want to make a place for believers in public life. Women who wore headscarfs were then excluded from university campuses. Erdogan and the AKP leveraged Turkey’s aspirations to join the European toward loosening the grip of Turkey’s French-style authoritarian secularism.

The AKP presided over an impressive expansion of the Turkish economy, though as with all Neoliberalism the proceeds were unevenly distributed and there were bubbles.

Even some liberal, secular-minded young Turks gave Erdogan the benefit of the doubt. His model, of a religious-right party that respected secular boundaries and avoided imposing religion on the urban elites, was cited by the Tunisian religious right as it reconstituted itself after the overthrow of the dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. This model might help end the gridlock and permit a move to greater democracy.

In essence, by having a center-right policy with a religious constituency champion pluralism and European Union-style human rights, Erdogan divided the secular urban elite and was able to get reliable majorities in parliament. This tactic might be called an inclusive, positive divide-and-rule.

But in summer of 2013, Erdogan revealed that he was abandoning appeals to pluralism. The AKP Istanbul and Ankara provincial branches cracked down hard on the youth protests over plans to turn Gezi Park into a Muslim mall. The government clearly intimidated the Turkish press into not covering the protests or only covering them negatively. The “democracy” being built by the AKP was revealed to be an elective dictatorship. The party still went to the polls regularly and Erdogan was not a president for life, but it was behaving like Vladimir Putin’s United Russia political party.

Then in June, 2015, the AKP lost the parliamentary elections, gaining only 42 percent of the seats. This development blocked Erdogan from his hopes of rewriting the Turkish constitution to make the system more like the French one, with a powerful presidency, instead of a British-style parliamentary system.

One reason AKP did not get a majority was that a new party, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), got 13 percent of the vote.

Erdogan responded to this relative defeat with his old divide and rule policy. But this time he did not engage in a positive, inclusive divide and rule strategy. He went negative. He started back up a hot conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a guerrilla group with separatist leanings that had established safe havens on the Iraq side of the border.

His aim was to make the Kurds (20% of the Turkish population) choose between his conservative, Muslim-inflected Turkish nationalism and the leftist Kurdish nationalism of the HDP. He tried to get back the conservative, rural Kurdish vote by associating the moderate HDP with the radical PKK. And he tried to scare the Turks who might have voted HDP in June with Kurdish separatism and the violence launched by the PKK that summer after the peace process was abrogated.

It worked. On November 1, in a snap election called because of the previous hung parliament, Erdogan’s party got almost 50% of the vote, allowing them to rule without forming a coalition with any other party.

In the meantime, Erdogan was involved in the Syrian civil war, backing Muslim fundamentalist groups against the secular authoritarian Baath Party. He backed Salafi groups in the northwest of Syria but not Daesh (ISIL, ISIS), which he occasionally bombed. He had the backing of the US and NATO in this policy of supporting the fundamentalist groups in the Northwest Theater and trying to overthrow the Baath. One embarrassment was that the best fighters on the fundamentalist side were al-Qaeda in Syria (the Nusra Front), with which many Salafi groups were actively allied but with which most of the fundamentalists at least occasionally tactically allied. The Turkmen fundamentalists in northern Syria supported by Turkey in some instances fought alongside al-Qaeda.

But Russia was not on board with this policy, and intervened from late summer to try to prop up the Baath. Russia was not so interested in fighting Daesh, which was out in the eastern desert and not a direct threat to the regime. The direct threat to the regime was the fundamentalists besieging western Aleppo, a regime hold-out, and the province of Latakia, with its key ports and Alawite population. Aleppo and Latakia were being targeted fundamentalist groups backed by Turkey, which set Turkey and Russia against one another.

Then on November 13, Daesh hit Paris. This brought the French into the Syrian struggle for the first time, determined to crush Daesh. And it provoked a French rethinking of the policy of supporting the fundamentalists in the Northwest Theater. The French foreign minister began talking about allying even with Bashar al-Assad’s forces against Daesh. And French president Francois Hollande began talking of a grand and unique anti-Daesh coalition that would include Russia, the very Russia propping up the Baath.

Erdogan was extremely threatened by these developments. It is possible that he again resorted to his old divide and rule tactics, but the divisive, negative sort he had deployed against the Turkish Kurds in the summer. He had a Russian fighter jet shot down, in hopes of driving Russia away from NATO and of making Hollande and NATO choose him and his fundamentalist guerrillas over Russia and the al-Assad government, putting Daesh and the Northeast Front back on the back burner.

This second attempt at divide a rule likely backfired on Erdogan. NATO was dismayed at the shootdown. Hollande flew off to see Putin anyway, and the French foreign ministry went on talking of allying with al-Assad forces against Daesh.

Erdogan’s negative divide and rule has brought Turkey to the brink of chaos. A hot war with the PKK is ongoing. HDP offices have been bombed. The Syria proxy war, supporting hard line fundamentalists allied with al-Qaeda versus Russian-backed forces, is ongoing. Press freedom, always precarious, has evaporated. A Russian economic boycott is being imposed.

Whether Erdogan can still manage to become president for life is unclear. But his negative, violent divide-and-rule tactics are producing a bigger question, of what kind of Turkey he will be president of.

One thing is clear. The so-called Turkish model is dead. The AKP’s behavior has suggested again to urban secular elites that the Muslim religious right can never be trusted. The political distrust and gridlock of the 1990s is back, even if it is now the secularists who are feeling put-upon. Turkey’s downward spiral has regional implications.


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30 Responses

  1. The “west” has been destabilizing, to put it mildly, secular countries in the ME, lawlessly, for the last 20 years or so. Turkey and Russia are next on the list. May be the people are returning to the laws of God to save themselves from the savagery of secularism. That has worked fairly well for Iran.

    • The savagery of secularism? That sounds like bull**** coming from Ted Cruz and Ben Carson and the abortion clinic bombers and homophobes whining and terrorizing their way to power in America.

    • @Nel, this time Russia and Turkey need little “help” in pulling them down. Their governments do this just fine by themselves.

      Frankly, I am getting pretty tired of this proclivity of some circles on the left to always suspect US secret intervention everywhere, and to blame all the woes of the world on it.

      It’s just another flavour of American exceptionalism, thinking that it is the all-powerful imperial US that causes all this evil. It is also intellectually lazy, it provides a one-fit-all explanation for everything – no further details required.

      The US made plenty of mistakes, including bad shady covert actions to destabilize countries, but the US is just one of many state actors, and beset by many incompetencies. Frankly, your country is not as powerful as you imagine it to be, and plenty of contemporary history does not involve it.

  2. A very informative analysis. I kept wondering what was in Erdogan’s mind when they shot that plane down and your post makes some sense of it. But I agree he surely miscalculated this one. That seems to often happen to a leader when he gets his way or succeeds well in his own country, then tries to replicate that success outside of that country by forcing their will on others. Seldom works.

  3. Thankyou once again for an enlightening article that provides sorely needed insight in to these bafflingly complex events

  4. What is America’s goal here? Are we supporting another tin horn, expending huge portions of American’s tax dollars just to support a beach head to southern Russia?
    Putin’s idea of a diplomatic solution might not be such a bad idea because this war will be a never ending caper we just don’t need.
    This strict Ideology stuff, political, and or religious has become the world’s stagnation. Talk may move us forward.

    • The US has stated that they want a diplomatic solution. The sticking point is that Russia wants a diplomatic solution that ensures Assad stays in power, while the US wants a diplomatic solution that has Assad leaving, to be replaced through democratic elections. Hopefully, they can compromise on some solution that involves a post Assad government that is relatively reflective of the popular will while being friendly to Russia. Quite frankly, if Russia wants a naval base in Syria, it makes no real difference in the balance of power in the Mediterranean so the US shouldn’t let that be an obstacle.

      • Russia has indicated several times it is not tied to Assad per se. Russia wants stability more than anything else, so it can focus on ISIS, etc. It seems the US is hamstrung by the recurring chant: “Addad must go!”

        • From the article, Does Putin Have A Plan For
          Syria in Foreign Policy, 9/16/15, you will see the following: “The Assad regime has been Moscow’s closest ally in the Arab world for over 40 years because Syria had been key to the Soviet Union’s influence in the Middle East. During the Cold War, tens of thousands of Russians moved to Syria while Syrian elites studied at top Russian schools. Intermarriage was common, and, at the time of the Syrian uprising, an estimated 100,000 Russian citizens were living there. Moscow had also emerged as Syria’s primary weapon supplier in the years before the Syrian uprising broke out in March 2011. Russian companies have reportedly invested approximately $20 billion; giving up Assad would also entail giving up these investments. It’s hard to imagine any new government that might come in Syria being as friendly to Russia.”

        • @Gary Page: The Russian position is the same as that of the UN Secretary General and most other nations, that the future President of Syria should be chosen by the people of Syria alone, without preconditions imposed by outsiders. If, for the reasons you outline, the Syrian people may prove to have a preference for al-Assad then that is a US concern, not a Russian one.

  5. Your assumption here is that Turkey, a NATO member, decided to go it alone in shooting down the Russian plane. I doubt it didn’t inform the other NATO members of what it planned to do. This was a calculated move carried out with NATO’s knowledge to see how Russia would react or it was a deliberate provocation of Russia. Putin has kept his cool so NATO members have had to reassess. Probably not all members were solidly behind the attack, but they were all informed of Turkey’s intention and now have to plan their next move with France already breaking ranks after it was attacked and Hollande talking to Putin about a coalition against ISIL which the US rejects because it doesn’t want Russia to be a player in its grand design. Turkey gets oil from ISIL and wants to protect that, and the US is OK with it so the US is allowing Turkey to do its thing, including shooting down a Russian plane. The US is now focused on Russia, and it’s the return of big-power politics and rivalry. The US had a free hand in Iraq but Syria is a client state of Russia so the picture is different. The US keeps needling Russia, the latest attempt being the invitation to Montenegro to join NATO.

    • In 1956, Britain, France, and Israel, perhaps our 3 closest allies, attacked Egypt in order to take over the Suez Canal. Not only did they not inform NATO, they kept it a secret from the US. Eisenhower was taken by surprise and totally shocked. Through financial measures and other threats he forced them to withdraw. So, your assumption that Turkey must have informed NATO is only an assumption and not something which has been shown to be true all the time in the past.

      • You are spot-on Gary. The working assumption should be that Turkey made its decision alone without informing the U.S. or NATO. The U.S. and NATO have nothing to gain by shooting down a Russian plane and further muddying the waters.

    • NATO didn’t have Erdogan’s back when Israel shot up Turkey’s Gaza convoy, so I don’t see why he’d be its lackey when he’s fighting for his political survival. Dig it, America is not the only country whose voters reward warmongering politicians.

      • And by the way, how can you possibly explain Obama intentionally re-starting the Cold War when his Republican mortal enemies (as in doing nothing for 8 years but trying to ruin him and take away the rights of blacks to vote) are the obvious beneficiaries?

        • There’s not much daylight between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to making war. And Obama has done nothing as president but try to please Republicans and make deals with them. Obamacare was Romneycare before it became Obamacare. It’s a Republican plan in which the insurance and pharmaceutical companies got sweet backroom deals to continue to rip Americans off.

    • @Glez, you are completely mistaken. There’s not a chance in hell that NATO had a heads-up on this. A NATO country like Germany would have never gone along with this.

      • This wasn’t some impulsive decision by Erdogan to pull the trigger. It was a warning shot to the Russians, and I would be surprised if NATO wasn’t in on it. NATO can hide behind Turkey and pretend Turkey acted on its own. The US wants to just keep poking Russia in the eye every chance it gets because it is angry at Russia for defending its sphere of influence in Ukraine.

  6. An interesting take from the chessboard perspective, although things here may be a bit more nuanced yet (this is Byzantium, after all). Still, methinks there’s a lot of truth in the picture you sketch: Recep Bey is nothing if not a shrewd and opportunist guy. And, most importantly, he is also arrogant enough at this point to have had that plane shot down. But arrogance unleashes comeuppances, and he can only hide behind NATO’s skirt tactically.

    What’s interesting is how this gambit stands to backfire on him, and massively. Putin’s own situation requires him to be tough, as a reflection of the Russian peoples growing pride. To have Turkey do something like this on the heels of the Sinai shutdown is intolerable, and Russia will have satisfaction. But, having mulled the matter over, and factored in its critical geopolitical interests here—which are massive—Russia may have must decided to have that dish served cold.

    MAYBE Putin intends to get even with Erdoğan, and address Russia’s longer-term best interests, by working actively and aggressively to see him disposed. Turkey’s current politics are not what Russia would prefer, and enfranchising the Kurds certainly would be.

    Turkey is a country whose importance to Russia cannot be taken lightly, and I don’t think the current moves from Russia against Turkey will be their last.

    • I think many people misread Putin and give him too much credit. He has blundered many times in the past few years and having Erdogan disposed is not necessarily in Russia’s best interest. In case you have forgotten, in the past the Turkish military has been quick to intervene with a coup when they thought civilian leadership was going astray. If Erdogan puts Turkey at great risk, does anyone think the Turkish military will not step in if they think the national security is at stake? A military Turkish government is likely to be much more pro-West and more integrated into NATO than the Erdogan government. This would not be in Russia’s interest.

      • Erdogan has the Turkish military neutered. All the generals that would have had the intestinal fortitude to try to dispose him have been arrested long time ago.

        The days of military coups in Turkey are over. The Turkish military has been house broken by Erdogan.

  7. This article suggests that Erdogan probably wasn’t as smart as he believed himself to be. Our national leadership and their neocon instigators would do well to, but probably won’t, consider a similar defect in their overcharged hubris. Hamlet was only half-right when he said, “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Frailty, thy name is humankind.

    • Thinking this over, it seems increasingly clear that when you’re a country like Turkey, in proximity to the vital interests of a country like Russia, you need to move very, very carefully. They may no longer be a Superpower, but Russia as a country isn’t about to let some punk do something like this to them.

      Speaking of hubris and his old friend nemesis, Erdoğan seems to have been too big for his britches for a while now. Not necessarily internally, but in terms of his overall ambition and arrogance. There are others like Franco who have managed to keep such a game going, but their actions with stronger powers showed appropriate humility.

      • Counting the Ottoman Empire as the same as Turkey, there have been 9 wars between Russia and Turkey, the most famous perhaps being the Crimean War. During the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire was called the “sick man of Europe” and Russia and others couldn’t wait for it to collapse so that they could pick up the pieces. This history highlights how foolish it was for Erdogan to tweak the nose of the Russian bear.

  8. Erdogan and Putin are similar in that they are both strong men with little domestic opposition to check them. They have both over reached–Putin in Ukraine and now Erdogan with the plane shoot down. They are like two bulls in a china shop, blundering about and putting a lot of others at risk. The fact that Turkey is a NATO member and NATO was and still mostly is an anti-Russian alliance, increases the danger of the clash between these two. NATO should distance itself and let Erdogan suffer the consequences for his rashness.

    • NATO should distance itself and let Erdogan suffer the consequences for his rashness.

      Indeed, let’s hope those in power will follow this course of action.

  9. NATO is one of the most serious causes of instability in the world, and NATO’s belligerence against Russia has no benefits to any of us except the NATO officials and “defence” contractors.

    • NATO is a good deal for a country like Germany that can keep its defense spending low, knowing that NATO has its back.

  10. really, Professor, you need to leave to the Turkey beat to someone able to see what’s going on. Yes, as long as AKP stayed with the Kemal Dervis-written plan (he’s CHP, you know) approved by The IMF, yes, Turkey expanded. And as long as it was a matter of replacing the operatives of the old state with his own (and his once-BFF Feto), democracy was all to the good.

    Funny, isn’t it, how once he has his appointees in place, say 2007/2008, democracy stopped being a value. It just took you a while to notice that he’d wrecked the “Muslim Democrat” narrative.

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