November 1, 2023
IntelBrief: One Hundred Years After its Founding, Türkiye is Both Pivotal and Problematic
Founded in 1923 following the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the Turkish Republic was founded on secular, democratic, and European norms. It abolished the caliphate, replaced the Arabic script with the Roman alphabet, gave women the right to vote, and adopted European laws and codes. After its first attempt at developing a multi-party political system failed, Türkiye officially became a multi-party democracy in 1946 and held its first competitive general election in 1950. However, Türkiye’s membership in NATO empowered the country’s military, which, until recently, periodically intervened in politics, launching coups d’etat in both 1960 and 1980 against elected civilian leaders. Erdogan sidelined the military from politics since defeating a coup launched against him in 2016, but his Islamist-oriented Justice and Development Party (AKP) has taken the republic away from its secularist roots. Erdogan also has incurred criticism from Western leaders and much of the Turkish public for engineering the passage of legislation shifting significant powers from the legislature to his presidential office. Critics maintain that he used his control over the state to improve his 2023 re-election prospects, including showering potential voters with state benefits and denying the opposition access to media coverage. The AKP’s Islamist orientation, Erdogan’s authoritarianism, and Türkiye’s longstanding disputes with neighboring Greece have caused several members of the European Union, particularly France, to oppose Türkiye’s entry into the body.
Yet the country has emerged as a pivotal player both in the region and globally, with Erdogan most recently weighing in on the conflict in Gaza. Erdogan’s position on the Hamas-Israel war that began earlier this month threatens to widen his rift with Washington further. His criticism of the civilian casualties resulting from Israel’s retaliatory offensive does not differ much from that of many other world leaders, but he has gone further in his apparent willingness to support Hamas and its rejectionist objectives. The U.S. has designated Hamas as a foreign terrorist organization, so Erdogan’s seeming support for the group is certain to draw the ire of members of the U.S. Congress. In late October, Erdogan placed advocates of closer U.S.-Turkish relations on the defensive by attending a pro-Hamas rally in Istanbul, in which he denied that Hamas is a terrorist organization and accused Tel Aviv of war crimes. In other comments, he referred to Hamas fighters as “mujahideen defending their lands.” The comments not only derailed Erdogan’s more than year-long effort to rebuild relations with Israel but also seemed certain to cause experts and some U.S. officials to call for a review of U.S. policy toward Türkiye. Yet, most experts expect that Washington will do little more than criticize Erdogan for his comments without imposing any meaningful penalties on Ankara. Some observers see Erdogan’s rhetoric as an easy way for him to burnish his reputation in the Middle East without having actually to commit to anything concrete.
Erdogan has fashioned himself as a global mediator, engaging both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to try – with periodic success – to keep Ukrainian grain flowing across the Black Sea to world markets, particularly those in the Global South. He has balanced engagement with Putin by supplying Ukraine with Türkiye’s highly-capable Bayraktar (TB-2) armed drone, thereby demonstrating his loyalty to his NATO allies. This military aid might also have been intended to soften unrest within the alliance over Erdogan’s initial threat to veto the NATO membership applications of Finland and Sweden in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Erdogan made his support for their accession contingent on expelling Turkish Kurdish activists linked to violent separatist movements that Ankara considers terrorist groups. Erdogan ultimately relented, first with regard to Finland in exchange for modest concessions. Last week, he submitted Sweden’s application to the Turkish parliament for approval. Erdogan has also sought to mediate an end to the fighting between Sudan’s military and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces that have inflicted substantial harm on the civilian population since the two forces went to war in April.
Elsewhere in the region, Türkiye has enhanced its regional and global leverage by projecting military power. In 2019, Türkiye’s weaponry and military advice to the UN-backed Libyan government based in Tripoli was key to beating back a military challenge from eastern Libya strongman Khalifa Haftar, who was supported by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Turkish weaponry and other support to its Turkic-speaking, Muslim-majority ally, Azerbaijan, was crucial to Azerbaijani victories in 2020 and 2023 over Armenian forces that enabled Baku to assume full control of the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, Baku’s offensive caused an estimated 80 percent of the approximately 120 thousand Armenian inhabitants of Nagorno-Karabakh to flee rather than be subject to Azerbaijani rule, causing a humanitarian crisis and reviving memories of the Armenian genocide at the turn of the twentieth century.
In recognition of Türkiye’s regional influence, U.S. and other Western officials have tended to downplay differences with Erdogan on Russia, Libya, the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute, and even his objections to Sweden and Finland's accession to NATO. However, Erdogan’s policies on Syria and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have brought the Turkish president closer to confrontation with U.S. and Western policy, leading some Washington experts to accuse Türkiye of disloyalty to its NATO obligations and calling for Erdogan’s ostracism. Erdogan also has acquiesced to pressure from Moscow to reconcile with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, which Washington insists should continue to be isolated. Erdogan’s stance on Assad aligns him more closely with Gulf states such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia, who welcomed Assad back into the Arab League in May and with which Erdogan has sought to improve relations over the past two years. Türkiye had been at odds with the Kingdom and the Emirates over Ankara’s open support for Qatar while Saudi Arabia and the UAE attempted to diplomatically isolate Doha from 2017-2021, with Saudi Arabia going so far as to set up a de-facto blockade of Qatar’s only land crossing.
In northern Syria, Türkiye objects to the U.S. partnership with Syrian Kurds in the campaign against remnants of Islamic State, accusing the Syrian Kurds of allying with the Turkish Kurdish separatist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since Turkish officials first set up a security zone along the Syrian-Turkish border from which all members of the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces had to withdraw, Turkish officials have repeatedly threatened to launch military operations to expand the buffer zone in order to protect Türkiye against Syrian Kurdish fighters. U.S. officials have designated the PKK, which has waged a violent campaign against the Turkish government since 1984, as a terrorist organization, but deny that the Syrian Kurds are linked to the PKK. On October 5, a few days after a PKK suicide attack on government buildings in Ankara, U.S. forces in Syria shot down a Turkish armed drone that was striking Kurdish militia positions near a declared U.S. military “restricted operating zone.” While adding that the Turkish drone did not appear to intend to strike any U.S. forces, U.S. officials stated that its proximity to U.S. forces caused them to relocate to bunkers. Washington and Ankara sought to downplay the U.S. shootdown with an exchange of high-level official phone calls to discuss how to avoid such incidents in the future.