Will Erdogan survive Turkey's time of troubles?
As the world awoke to the shocking news of a military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish leader who seems to possess the secret art of political survival, the consequences of a power vacuum occurring in this leading NATO member state were revealed in stark relief.
Despite a notorious reputation for cracking down on domestic dissenters, it appears that President Erdogan has won over the hearts and minds of his people, escaping an attempt by a faction inside of the Turkish military to overthrow his government. Following a night of sporadic fighting, which saw the parliament building in Ankara coming under bombardment, the organizers of the coup failed to bring the Turkish populace over to its side and pro-government forces now appear to have the upper hand in the crisis.
Yet the Erdogan government may not be out of the woods just yet. The figures released in the aftermath of the coup attempt paint a disturbing picture of Turkey’s internal situation: At last count, almost 3,000 soldiers and officers have been arrested for their participation in the attempted overthrow of the government. How many other military personnel harbor animosity for the government is anybody’s guess. These numbers point to a startling level of disloyalty in the second-largest standing army in NATO, the 28-member military bloc that may now be forced to reconsider its partnership with Turkey.
Although it is doubtful that NATO would take the radical step of ejecting Turkey from the group, it may have to consider other priorities, like what to do with the 50-90 nuclear bombs reportedly stored at the Incirlik Air Base. The consequences of those fearsome weapons falling into the wrong hands in the event of a power vacuum suddenly opening up in Turkey are almost too horrific to contemplate.
Russia is certainly no disinterested observer to the events unfolding on its southern border.
“The worsening political situation, as well as existing terror threats and regional armed conflict, pose increased danger to international and regional stability,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Saturday, adding that it is ready to cooperate with “Turkey’s elected leadership.”
Even with the army under control of the Turkish government, however, there have been some incredible blunders of late. In November, for example, Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian fighter jet carrying out anti-terrorist strikes along the Syrian border with Turkey. When Erdogan refused to apologize for the incident, which involved the death of a Russian pilot, President Vladimir Putin placed an immediate ban on travel to Turkey, depriving Moscow’s southern neighbor of millions of dollars from Russian tourists who annually flock to Turkey’s seaside resorts. Moscow lifted the ban late last month after Erdogan, under immense pressure from business groups, issued a formal apology for the unprovoked attack.
All that is a mere footnote, however, to the dramatic events unfolding in neighboring Syria, which is suffering a protracted civil war whose cast of characters include not only loathsome terrorist groups like Islamic State, but a host of superpowers eager to get in on the action as well. This has placed immense pressure on Turkey, which is struggling to deal not only with Kurdish insurgent groups that want to separate from Ankara’s rule and create a Kurdistan, but also with a surge in Syrian refugees flooding its territory.
But with Brussels (and Berlin) coming under intense pressure from EU member states to stem the tide of refugees entering the continent, Turkey has been forced to absorb the backflow. The EU has promised to pay Ankara some 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in aid to the Erdogan government, which may include more concessions, including the right of Turkish citizens to travel visa-free to the Schengen zone. That lavish gift-giving on the part of Brussels, however, will ultimately prove to be like sticking a finger into the hole of a crumbling dike. Although the new Iraqi and Syrian arrivals provided an initial boost to the Turkish economy, those gains are not being felt by average Turkish workers, who are now beginning to see the new arrivals as competitors for jobs that are in increasing demand.
According to a report by Kemal Kirisci, head of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution, there are increased demands “for them to leave and for new arrivals to be prevented from entering, particularly as competition for jobs, housing and public services increases.”
Meanwhile, not all of the refugees arriving in Turkey from the Middle East have the best of intentions. In fact, some of them are hardened terrorists who are using the goodwill of the host nations to perpetrate acts of terrorism. Turkey learned this lesson in June as gunmen opened fire and detonated bombs inside Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, killing 45 people, at least 13 of them foreigners, and wounding up to 300. This outrage occurred just two months after a bomb detonated in downtown Istanbul, killing five and injuring dozens. It goes without saying that attacks of this brutal nature, which go after soft targets, are beginning to have an immeasurable effect on the Turkish psyche.
But this is not to say that the Erdogan government has been innocent in the way it has been conducting business both at home and abroad. Perhaps the most disturbing allegation was that Turkey was - directly or indirectly - involved in Islamic State oil deliveries that passed through Turkish territory. These exports garnered about $500 million annually.
Last year, Russia presented satellite images showing that ISIS convoys carry oil shipments from Syria and Iraq into Turkey. The oil eventually ends up on the black market, providing additional funds to Islamic State’s global terrorist campaign. Although there is no absolute proof linking the Turkish government or Erdogan himself to the oil transfers, it seems impossible to believe that nobody in the higher echelons of the Turkish government knew what was happening on the Syrian-Turkish border. After all, as a major NATO ally, Turkey certainly has access to sophisticated satellite technology.
On the domestic front, Erdogan has demonstrated little patience for anybody who questions his rule. The New York Times reported that since August 2014, 1,845 criminal cases have been opened against Turks for insulting their leader, a crime that could land an offender up to four years in prison. Journalists are also under duress when it comes to reporting on their government.
Dozens of reporters have lost their jobs for daring to write articles critical of the government. In one high-profile incident, two journalists for Cumhuriyet, Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, are facing life in prison after they published the results of their investigation that showed Turkey had provided weapons to Syrian rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad. Although the men have since been released from jail by a court order, Erdogan said he would challenge the decision.
Such a tough approach to criticism may be a large part of the reason Erdogan awoke to news early Saturday that a military coup was out to overthrow him. The Turkish government, which will certainly be forced to carry out some level of purge in its military ranks, should also consider listening to the critics and implement measures to restore faith among large section of the Turkish population who are having serious doubts about Ankara’s moves at home and abroad.
Although Erdogan’s political star is still shining, it does so only at the behest of the Turkish people. Better to accept criticism today than a military coup tomorrow.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.