The U.S. Should Go Around Erdogan to Engage Turkey
Following recent clashes at the Gaza-Israel border, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has broken his tenuous two-year cease-fire with Israel and returned to spewing invective at the Jewish state. But Erdogan has growing problems of his own as Turkey’s economy and regional ambitions flounder. America and Israel should contain Erdogan’s dangerous behavior while engaging with the broad cross-section of Turkish society that opposes the president’s direction for their country.
Some may be surprised by Erdogan’s recent statement that Israel’s methods are “putting Nazis to shame.” But his tune is not new. While Turkey developed close relations with Israel in the 1990s, that changed after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, gained power in 2002. Gaza was a pet issue for Erdogan long before the Mavi Marmara flotilla in 2010. Even when his government was presenting itself as a moderate and democratic force, Hamas was the one issue that gave it away.
Indeed, when Hamas won Palestinian elections and then used force to assume total power over Gaza in 2006-07, Erdogan embraced the jihadist group, undermining international efforts to force it to renounce violence. Following the Arab upheavals of 2011, Ankara became a sponsor of violent extremist movements in Syria and Libya and the main supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power grab in Egypt. As with Hamas, radical Islamist ideology proved no hindrance for Turkish support – quite the contrary.
Erdogan’s support for these groups runs deep. His political movement shares close ideological kinship with the Muslim Brotherhood, of which Hamas is the Palestinian branch. It is this ideological connection that explains the current Turkish government’s affinity for Hamas.
Of course, if Erdogan is the world’s most successful Islamist leader, it is exactly because he is pragmatic. He knows how to moderate his rhetoric when needed and when to engage in a cease-fire with his enemies, foreign or domestic. But his antics should not be dismissed as politicking in advance of Turkey’s upcoming June 24 elections.
Erdogan’s love for Hamas and his intense anti-Semitism are part and parcel to his political identity. They help explain his growing anti-Americanism and his antagonism toward the West more generally.
In the Syria conflict, he increasingly is aligned with U.S. rivals Iran and Russia and seeks to purchase advanced S-400 air defenses from Moscow – an unprecedented move by a NATO member. He reserves his most heated criticism and threats for the U.S. military presence in northern Syria and peddles conspiracy theoriesof American and Jewish plots to overthrow him.
He also has embraced Qatar and effectively undermined efforts to rein in the emirate’s support for radical Islamists worldwide, including the Muslim Brotherhood. And only this month, Erdogan seized on a call by French intellectuals to omit hateful verses from the Quran’s by launching a wholesale attack on the West, saying“lowly West, we will tear you down.” Most recently, as he withdrew Turkey’s ambassadors from Israel and the United States in response to tensions on the Gaza border, Erdogan accused Israel of being a “terrorist state” and committing genocide.
What should be done? Neither appeasement of Erdogan nor wholesale condemnation of Turkey is an option. Too often, we equate Erdogan with Turkey. This is understandable, as he is by far Turkey’s most powerful ruler since the country’s founder Kemal Ataturk. But realities in Ankara are increasingly complicated, and Erdogan is much weaker than he appears. The economy is floundering under his watch, and he relies on shifting informal coalitions of interest groups to remain in control.
It is crucial for American policymakers to identify issues where Erdogan does not have support in the Turkish bureaucracy and in Turkish society. Much of the establishment is skeptical of Erdogan’s close ties to Russia, the purchase of S-400 missiles, and especially of the Islamist rhetoric that targets Israel, Jews, and the West at large. On these issues, American pushback -- to date, almost nonexistent -- could help weaken Erdogan’s domestic position and mitigate the damage he wreaks on the region.
Indeed, Turkey is not just Erdogan: there is another Turkey, the large and significant plurality -- and probably majority -- that disapprove of Erdogan’s excesses. While 15 years of Erdogan’s rule has made public opinion more aligned with Islamist ideas than in the past, Turkish society’s resilience against Erdogan’s social engineering is remarkable.
Both America and Israel should focus their energies on containing Erdogan while embracing Turkey. Above all, find ways to talk directly to those in the other Turkey. It may turn out that they hold the keys to the country’s future.
LTG (ret.) H. Steven Blum is former Deputy Commander of U.S. Northern Command and a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s (JINSA) 2015 Generals & Admirals Program; Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’s Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy with a focus on Turkey and the Caucasus. The views expressed are the authors' own.