Insurgency At Home, Protests Abroad For Turkey’s Erdogan

Turkey's leader is in the U.S. for a nuclear summit, but won't be able to leave his domestic troubles at home

Unhappy with Erdogan in Washington as well as back home. — REUTERS
Mar 31, 2016 at 1:07 PM ET

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Washington D.C. this week has cast a spotlight over tense ties between Ankara and the White House. The relationship, however strained, is perhaps more desperately needed now than at any time in the past ten years. 

Among the events on Erdogan’s agenda while he’s in the U.S. will be a visit beyond the beltway to open the Diyanet Center of America, a sprawling suburban complex featuring an Ottoman-style mosque, cultural center, and even a Turkish bath. In many ways, the visit is not just about maintaining ties with President Barack Obama, but also assuring Erdogan’s domestic allies that he still has the global standing and respect he enjoyed just a few years ago, a task that is becoming more difficult by the day.

While he was appearing at a think tank event in the capital on Thursday, protesters outside were being arrested. And back home, an explosion killed at least four police officers.

There, Erdogan’s AK Party faces a renewed insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and international criticism of its policy in Syria. And he has embarked on an unprecedented campaign against critical media. More than 1,800 people face criminal cases for “insulting” President Erdogan, among them hundreds of journalists, a fact that regularly draws criticism from Washington, and, increasingly from Western media outlets.  The Washington Post, for instance, arguing Obama should snub Erdogan, called the cases against journalists “a misguided and destructive campaign against the press.”

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When a group of European consuls-general decided to visit the trial of two Turkish journalists last week, Erdogan responded with a suggestion they be confined to their consulates, saying: “What business do you have there? Diplomacy has a certain propriety and manners. This is not your country. This is Turkey.”

News that Obama would not be meeting Erdogan also triggered a campaign by the Turkish president’s supporters, with the hashtag #WeLoveErdogan briefly trending worldwide on Tuesday.

Under the rhetoric and posturing, though, there has been a real falling out between the two administrations. “In 2013, Erdogan was given the best reception available for a foreign head of state in Washington, and this year it could not be more different,” says Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute.

Differences between Erdogan and Obama first appeared in 2013, when the Egyptian military overthrew the democratically elected (and Ankara-backed) Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, who is also a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. While Washington may have moved on from the political shockwaves, Erdogan has not. 

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And now, with the Syrian war becoming even more challenging and complex, Turkey has found itself in what may be an existential crisis. The conflict with the PKK, which fought a three-decade insurgency inside Turkey that killed 40,000 people, seemed to be ending, but in July, 2015, it re-ignited, as separatist Kurds found international support in northern Syria. There, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with American weapons and training, gained victory after victory against the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS).

Now the PYD appears ready to seize control of almost all of the Turkish-Syrian border, cutting off supply lines for anti-regime rebel groups that Ankara sees as its allies in the region. American warplanes take off from Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to aid PYD forces, and Turkish warplanes use the same base to launch airstrikes against the PYD and PKK in Syria and Iraq. Turkey has said if the PYD moves west of the Euphrates river in Syria, it will consider invading. 

“It’s a detente that requires constant attention and triage,” says Cagaptay. “Turkey is OK if the U.S. is working with the PYD east of the euphrates, but not west of Euphrates.  At the same time, the U.S. is OK with working with Turkey killing the PYD from behind, while the U.S. works with the PYD up front.”

“What if the weapons given to the PYD by the U.S. end up in the hands of the PKK, and what if Turkey, while targeting the PYD, hits US soldiers?” Cagaptay posits. “The situation could easily spin out of control.”

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At some point, if the U.S. keeps supporting the PYD, Turkey will want to close access for American warplanes to Incirlik, but by doing so, it would lose its mort important ally, and at a time when Ankara faces a problematic and possibly dangerous confrontation with the Russian military.

Even if the military level cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. continues, the personal relationship between Obama and Erdogan is at an end. 

Cagaptay points out Obama chose to meet Erdogan for his first bilateral visit outside of North America in 2009, and in 2010, he spent more time talking on the phone with Erdogan than any other world leader. “Obama picked Erdogan for a reason, he saw him as the leader of a large Muslim country … he thought Erdogan could be a counterpart to bring in the Muslim view,” he said. “That relationship has really been suffering, and maybe damaged beyond repair.”