May 6, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: Turkey’s Authoritarian Descent

• On May 5, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigned—the latest troubling indication of President Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate power

• A NATO member, Turkey’s recent moves toward one-man rule and away from constitutional secularism are putting pressure on the alliance

• Turkey is central to both the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and the management of the continent-wide refugee crisis, giving it leverage over the EU

• The trend lines in Turkey mirror trends across Europe; strong-man rule has increased appeal due to economic and demographic changes.


Over the span of several years, Turkey has moved closer to the reality of one-man rule than at any time since the era of Kemal Ataturk. The May 5 announcement that Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was resigning due to differences with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was as unsurprising as it was troubling. As it seeks closer ties to the EU, Turkey is struggling to meet the challenges of a truly democratic nation facing serious but manageable issues. How Turkey and the EU respond will in no small matter determine the nature of the besieged European concept.

The tension between Erdogan, the powerful former Prime Minister now seeking a more powerful presidential role, and his erstwhile ministerial replacement Davutoglu has been building for some time. Erdogan—the founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—has sought to consolidate power in the office of the president rather than that of prime minister ever since he was term-limited into seeking other offices. The timing of Erdogan's moves perfectly align with both the refugee crisis and the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

EU members are understandably preoccupied with the seemingly uncontrollable number of refugees flooding the continent from Syria as well as those from a number of other countries, ranging from Afghanistan to Eritrea. This concern has led EU policymakers to consider Turkish demands for visa-free travel for Turkish passport holders across the EU, and has sped up the conversation regarding Turkey’s formal accession into the EU. The concern over terrorist involvement among Turkish passport holders—which is low to begin with—is being balanced with concern over the refugee crisis, in which Turkey plays a huge role. As a gatekeeper of refugees flowing north, Turkey is able to drive a hard bargain with the EU, which is desperate to limit the number of asylum seekers reaching the relative safety of EU member states.

Though the refugee crisis is a critical issue for the EU, it is not the only one in which Turkey holds leverage. The fight to limit the foreign appeal of the Islamic State falls directly on the border between Turkey and Syria. For years, those border crossings were not controlled, resulting in over 40,000 foreign fighters and supporters traveling to join the group. The international coalition, led by the U.S., can act against those Islamic State members once they are in Syria; only Turkey can prevent those fighters and supporters from reaching Syria in the first place. Sealing borders—a challenge with which all countries struggle—is exceedingly difficult. However, concerted Turkish action at the border has been one of the most effective anti-Islamic State tactics of the entire campaign against the group.

What happens internally in Turkey matters not just to the EU, but also to NATO. Internal politics—within reason—are beyond the purview of both NATO and the EU, which are grounded in the concepts of common defense and markets. However, recent and continuing trends in Turkey are troubling to both constructs. Given the centrality of Turkey in continental affairs, the machinations of Erdogan extend far beyond the political halls of Ankara.


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