Monday, 29 August 2016 16:48


Sohrab Ahmari, The Wall Street Journal, 28.08.2016   




Turkey is living through a 24/7 state of emergency. The latest alarm came Thursday with an assassination attempt on the leader of the secular opposition. Kemal Kilicdaroglu was traveling the country’s northeast when his convoy came under fire. A member of his security detail was killed in the shootout, but Mr. Kilicdaroglu was unharmed and evacuated by helicopter. The perpetrators escaped, though Mr. Kilicdaroglu’s aides say his bodyguards may have killed one of them.  


“Even though we are attacked, we will continue with determination in the path that we believe in,” Mr. Kilicdaroglu said in an interview Friday at the headquarters of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP. The separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, took credit but said government security forces, not Mr. Kilicdaroglu, were the intended target.  


In today’s Turkey such incidents capture headlines only to be overshadowed a few hours later by the next thing to go bang. Sure enough, hours after the Kilicdaroglu attempt, a truck bomb on Friday killed 11 Turkish police officers near the Syrian border. The PKK also claimed responsibility for that attack.  


Life goes on. Men and women still gather in outdoor bars to sip raki, watch soccer and shoot the breeze. The margin of personal freedom remains wider than in most of the region. Even so, the mood is dark. With July’s failed coup, nearly three million Syrian refugees, a fresh PKK insurgency in the southeast and the menace of Islamic State, the Turks feel they can’t catch a break.  


The Turkey emerging out of these manifold crises is more insular, paranoid and illiberal. This means Ankara may no longer be as solidly anchored in the West as it has been since the Cold War. Washington assigns the blame for this turn to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and rightly so in Turkey’s domestic sphere. But the president isn’t alone to blame for Ankara’s troubles abroad.  


Mr. Erdogan’s project to concentrate power in the presidency was well under way before the coup attempt on July 15. Most serious observers here believe followers of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen organized the ill-fated coup. Few have forgotten that the Gülenists were the authoritarian handmaidens to Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, before the two Islamist camps turned on each other in 2013. In the mid-2000s, when Messrs. Erdogan and Gülen were still allies, well-placed Gülenists in the judiciary persecuted and sidelined a common enemy: the old secular establishment.  


The failed coup has accelerated Mr. Erdogan’s will to power. But it has also rallied much of the country behind his grievance narrative. Turks, secular and pious, feel betrayed. The West lectures them about the post-coup purges, they complain, without acknowledging the deep trauma of the coup itself: the putschist pilots who buzzed their apartments, the tanks that rolled down their streets.  


Meanwhile, pro-government media feed the population a steady diet of ever-nuttier propaganda suggesting U.S. involvement in the coup attempt. Mr. Kilicdaroglu, the opposition leader, says the ruling party’s dominance over media leaves little doubt that it is “guiding the public.” A Western diplomat puts it nicely: “The government shapes public opinion and then claims to be constrained by that same opinion.”  


Then again, externalizing responsibility for one’s destiny is nothing new in this part of the world. The relevant question for the American national interest is how to prevent this strategically crucial country from drifting further toward Russia’s orbit and away from the U.S.-led security order — or what remains of it after eight years of President Barack Obama.  


Here the Turks ought to be listened to. Not all of Ankara’s lashing out at Washington derives from Mr. Erdogan’s cynicism and ideological hubris. Some of it is in reaction to the same sudden shift in U.S. policy under Mr. Obama that has jolted allies world-wide. Leaders from Kiev to Jerusalem to Tokyo are familiar with Ankara’s discontent.  


Turkey has felt the jolt most acutely in Syria. Mr. Erdogan took Mr. Obama at his word when the American said in 2011 that Bashar Assad “must go.” He also took seriously Mr. Obama’s red line on chemical weapons.  


Turkey’s much-maligned early policy in Syria included overt support for moderate rebels and a laissez-faire policy that enabled the movement of more hard-line jihadists into the country. Ankara expected that Washington would favor its traditional allies and disfavor others: namely the Iranian mullahs, Mr. Assad and their various Shiite proxies.  


Mr. Obama scrambled that friend-enemy pattern. He awkwardly ignored the red line, and the U.S. carried out secret talks that would culminate in a nuclear deal with Tehran and tie America’s hands against Mr. Assad. Then came a second shock to the Turks. America increasingly relied on Syrian-Kurdish factions with close ties to the Turkish PKK as its main ground forces in the country.  


Suddenly an internationally designated terrorist group came to be seen “as defenders of civilization,” a senior Turkish government official says. The Syrian Kurds did defend civilization against Islamic State barbarism, and valiantly. But the Turks believe, not without reason, that the PKK has also been emboldened by the legitimacy that flowed to their factional cousins in Syria.  


There is a lesson here about the destabilizing effects that follow when a superpower tires of its leadership role. For the White House, irritating the Turks was a price worth paying for a small American footprint in Syria. But it would behoove the next administration not to humiliate the Turks with the fiction that the PKK and the Syrian-Kurdish question are separate.  


Nor should anyone be shocked that Turkey aims with its recent Syrian incursion to check both Islamic State and the growth of a contiguous PKK-friendly Kurdish statelet on its doorstep. Any Turkish government would behave the same way.  


Washington should also be forthright with Mr. Erdogan about his own authoritarian drive at home. A Turkey that isn’t beholden to the whims of one man will be better equipped to cope with Syria’s furies.

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