The longest running joke on the leftist humor podcast Chapo Trap House is that its hosts are fervent devotees of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Edogan. Chapo’s American hosts frequently make in-jokes about the Turkish deep state, “the traitor” Fethullah Gulen, and endlessly praise Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). But even Chapo Trap House would be hard-pressed to laugh at Erdogan’s recent authoritarian and repressive behavior. Modern Turkey was never really a democracy, as its state apparatus was run mostly by its military, which has repeatedly overthrown civilian governments with impunity. Still, Turkey’s slow descent into nationalism and Islamism has been one of the tragedies of the early years of our century. There is little evidence to indicate that this fall will stop anytime soon: April 16th’s referendum on presidential power could centralize Erdogan’s control of the Turkish state even further.
There are multiple reasons for the increasingly authoritarian nature of AKP. One is the continuing war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a far-left insurgency dedicated to establishing a socialist enclave within Turkey. This low-intensity struggle has been waged on and off since 1984. Since the most recent truce in 2015, the conflict has taken the lives of over 2,000 people, most of them murdered by the Turkish state.
These clashes with the PKK allude to another cause for Turkey’s movement towards authoritarianism: its involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Since 2012 or earlier, Turkey has sponsored the Free Syrian Army, an opposition group as hostile to democracy as it is to Bashar al-Assad. More recently Turkey has elbowed its way into the fight against ISIS in Iraq. This increased intervention seems to be aimed more at defeating Kurdish rebels than subduing ISIS. These actions indicate that Erdogan views Syria as an opportunity for more regional power and, via a crushing of Kurdish movements, a key to consolidating AKP’s authority at home.
These internal and external security threats, in addition to the recent enigmatic, failed coup, have led Turkey away from the secularism (and limited pluralism) that the West has admired for so long. Erdogan’s most recent diplomatic misadventure with the Netherlands reeks of the bizarre populism of a Trump or Gaddafi more than it does an intelligent statesman.
Which brings us to Trump’s unfolding relationship with Erdogan and Ankara. For the moment, the United States is supporting the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, a Syrian analogue to the PKK in Turkey. The YPG fights against ISIS for socialism and local governance in northern Syria, which they are calling Rojava, or Western Kurdistan. There thus has developed an awkward situation in which the US and Turkey are supporting two anti-ISIS groups that are in turn at war with one another: the FSA and the YPG. This situation will likely endure until ISIS is ousted from Raqqa. Then Turkey will have the ability to bring its entire military might to bear against YPG.
It would be easy to close this op-ed by recommending the United States apply soft power to the situation, using diplomatic channels to guide Turkey back towards secular democracy. But are America, and the Western bloc, even willing to promote democracy abroad? Even under the best circumstances, it would be foolish to believe Western governments are inherently democratic, or want the same for the rest of the planet. With Donald Trump as president and the far-right ascendant in Europe, however, it is difficult to imagine a United States that pays even lip service to democratic values globally. Trump’s admiration of Bashar al-Assad for “killing terrorists” most likely extends to Erdogan as well, despite his Islamism; and it is difficult to see Trump’s administration supporting YPG any longer than it needs to; we can safely assume Trump and company are not in this war because of their love of Kurdish socialism. And it remains unknown if and how Trump’s recent missile strike against a Syrian airstrip will change the Middle East’s complicated playing field.
There is a remote possibility that the US, EU, or Russia (which supports YPG and Assad, making them a potential mediator) could intervene diplomatically on behalf of the Kurds and Turkey’s pluralist tradition. But barring that possibility, the future of Erdogan’s Turkey appears to be that of an authoritarian backwater.