President Donald Trump wasn’t wrong in May when he lauded Turkey as a “pillar in the Cold War against Communism” and “a bastion against Soviet expansion.” In a previous era, when land invasions were the great strategic worry, Turkey’s location — right between Eastern Europe and the Middle East — made its Incirlik Air Base an indispensable asset for the U.S. military. The nation also had a strong military of its own and an ideological willingness to stand up for Western liberal values, virtually forcing the U.S. to rely on it as a security partner despite periodic questions about democracy, human rights, and good governance.
But on all fronts, those days are over. In the age of cruise missiles and long-range air assets, the U.S. can accomplish from Romania, Jordan, or even the Kurdish regions of Iraq or Syria the objectives that once demanded the use of Incirlik. And questions about Turkey’s commitment to democracy and possible accession to the European Union have been replaced by a much more urgent query: Is Turkey on the path to chaos, collapse, or state failure?
Unfortunately, the answer could be yes. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has driven Turkey off a precipice, and it may not land in one piece.
First, consider Turkey’s political order. Erdogan sees himself as a strongman, and on the surface he is at the apex of his power. He has guided the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the political creation over which he wields absolute control, to seven straight victories in local, parliamentary, and presidential elections, and he has now ruled Turkey for nearly as long as did Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s iconic founder. In the wake of a constitutional referendum on April 16, Erdogan claimed a tremendous victory. “We are enacting the most important governmental reform of our history,” he declared to thousands of cheering supporters. The narrow victory — in a vote marred by fraud and deemed by independent observers, such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to be neither free nor fair — eroded what little separation of power remained in Turkey and solidified Erdogan’s grip on the judiciary and bureaucracy. As if that weren’t enough, Erdogan has now extended indefinitely a state of emergency enabling him to rule by decree and imprison opponents with impunity.
But is Erdogan as strong as he seems? Looks can be deceiving. Despite Erdogan’s electoral streak, he has won a majority of votes only twice — first in the 2014 presidential election and then in the recent referendum — and both times just barely (and not fairly). So even if Erdogan projects an image of strength, controls the media, and represses dissent, in reality approximately as many Turks oppose Erdogan as support him. The society he presides over is dangerously polarized.
Divisions do not necessarily mean chaos, but here history informs. The polarization today is reminiscent of that experienced by Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s. Those tumultuous decades, marked by strikes, street battles between leftist and right-wing gangs, and political assassinations, incubated the terrorist and insurgent groups still active today, including what now are the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front and the Kurdistan Workers Party. The fight against those groups has claimed upward of 40,000 lives, and counting.
The same schisms culminated in the coups against which Erdogan now rails. Each time Turkey’s generals seized power, they cracked down on radical movements on both the right and the left. They moved to crush Islamist organizations. Such intervention might have curtailed chaos, restored order, and recalibrated democracy (because the Turkish generals never sought to retain power); but each coup was a pyrrhic victory, for the military interventions gave both Islamists and Kurdish separatists a perfect foil against which to recruit a new generation. Coup-era grievances burn on a slow fuse. Erdogan himself is the perfect example of this: When he used all the mechanisms of his power to prosecute and imprison those who had once targeted his allies in post-coup crackdowns — even Kenan Evren, a 95-year-old retired general and former president responsible for a 1980 coup, was sentenced to life in prison — he justified his actions and animus by saying he was merely correcting the sins of decades past.
Erdogan may have nurtured his vendettas for decades before acting on his schemes for revenge, but act he did: In 2007, the Turkish government launched an investigation into the so-called Ergenekon affair, a fantastical case purporting to expose a secret network of secular Turks across the military, academe, and civil society who sought to overthrow the government. The allegations were farcical on their face, but Erdogan used his allies in the security forces and his control over the Turkish media to pursue his ideological opponents relentlessly. Turkish security forces arrested hundreds of men and ended the careers of many rising military officers, none of whom received any recompense when, almost a decade later, forensic experts proved documents at the center of the state’s case to be fake. The subsequent Balyoz (“Sledgehammer”) affair was take two: Beginning in 2010, alleging an elaborate plot to sow chaos across society in order to justify a military coup, security forces arrested several hundred liberals and secularists. These victims, too, had their lives ruined before experts showed the digital documents at the heart of the case to be fraudulent.
The grievances created by these cases are nothing, however, compared with the aftermath of last summer’s abortive coup, which Erdogan called a “gift from God” because it provided an excuse to crack down on political opponents. To date, Erdogan has fired almost 140,000 officials and formally arrested 50,000 more, a number growing each day. The evidence backing this purge appears no more solid than that backing his previous crackdowns on dissent; the difference is that Erdogan ended the last vestiges of judicial independence in the meantime and so those imprisoned can no longer expect any reprieve from the system.
Families left destitute and children forced from schools and universities could motivate hundreds of revenge plots. With grievances at a fever pitch and no recourse for their resolution through law or even normal elections, Turkey may be one bullet away from chaos.
The possibility of political instability is not Turkey’s only challenge; the country also faces a renewed terrorist threat at a time when its defenses are in shambles. Pakistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia may each have suffered terrorist blowback after sponsoring radical Islamist groups, but Erdogan seems to have believed Turkey immune to that phenomenon when he began actively supporting al-Qaeda-affiliated groups and passively facilitating the transit of foreign fighters through Turkey to the Islamic State in Syria. Now the same radicals who once accepted Turkish support have turned their sights on Turkey.
Once upon a time, the Turkish security services might have been able to stop such attacks, but no longer. The problem is one of both will and competence. For more than three decades, terrorists have targeted Turkey, but Turkish intelligence has stopped them at the border, if not before. Now, as some bold Turkish journalists documented only to be thrown in prison, Turkey’s own intelligence service has helped Islamist radicals cross the border.
But even if Turkey’s intelligence service is playing a double game, what about Turkey’s professional military and police? Erdogan has hobbled them as well, using Western naïveté to advance his aims. European and U.S. diplomats long equated an end to military influence in Turkish politics with advancing democracy, never recognizing that to eliminate the military’s role as guarantor of the constitution without first creating an alternative check-and-balance could be dangerous. Erdogan encouraged such views. He spoke repeatedly of his own commitment to democracy, and used reforms demanded as part of the European Union–accession process to weaken the domestic influence of Turkey’s generals. He may even have blackmailed top officials (such as former top general Yasar Buyukanit) to keep them from speaking out. Turkish military morale plummeted. Even if the Turkish military and police wanted to protect their homeland, they no longer can. The post-coup purge claimed the careers of thousands of Turkey’s most experienced soldiers and counterterror police. To replace them, Erdogan elevated loyalty over competence. Even counterterror police and military officers who retained their jobs found themselves rotated out of areas in which they knew the human terrain.
In effect, faced with a challenge from both Kurdish insurgents and the Islamic State, Turkey’s military and its counterterrorism officials are operating blind. With the Kurds, the Turkish military has substituted brutality for precision, transforming cities such as Cizre, Sirnak, Nusaybin, and Sur into scenes reminiscent of Aleppo in Syria. Meanwhile, portions of southeastern Turkey have fallen outside of government control. Turkish Kurds now debate whether only Turkey’s internal borders should change or its external boundaries as well; what they agree on is that Erdogan’s actions make a return to the peace process of years past impossible.
Meanwhile, by sending his forces into Syria — largely to fight not the Islamic State but rather Syrian Kurds — Erdogan has thrown gasoline onto the fire. During its counterterror operations of the 1980s and 1990s, the Turkish army razed hundreds of Kurdish towns and villages in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish southeast. Displaced Kurds fled to the large cities of central and western Turkey, such as Ankara, Istanbul, and Izmir. In consequence, when ethnic violence erupts today, it affects Turkey’s economic, cultural, and tourist hubs directly. Throw into the mix the lack of a Turkish exit strategy in Syria, and Turkey could be facing a long-term security and economic morass.
In fact, even apart from the cost of Turkey’s counterinsurgency campaign and military engagement, Erdogan has guided Turkey’s economy to the breaking point. This is ironic, because it was corruption among the established political elite, inflation, and economic weakness that propelled Erdogan and his party to power in the first place.
On the surface, Turkey’s economy looks solid. It is the world’s 17th largest. Turkey’s debt-to-GDP ratio is around 35 percent, far better than that of the United States. Erdogan deserves some credit for these successes, although not to the extent he claims: He benefited both from what Turks call “yesil sermaye” (green money) — off-the-books donations and slush funds provided by donors in Qatar and Saudi Arabia — and from a demographic dividend, an increase in working-age population as both birth and death rates declined. (The same phenomenon drove East Asia’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s.)
None of this, however, can mask the warning signs that Turkey’s economy has peaked and faces broad decline. Over the past five years, Turkey’s currency has lost half of its value relative to the dollar. Inflation is at a nine-year high. Private debt has skyrocketed, putting banks at risk. Indeed, international lenders now avoid Turkish banks. Rather than address these problems, Erdogan has simply denied them. When first Standard & Poor’s, then Fitch, and finally Moody’s reduced Turkey’s bond ratings to junk status, Erdogan accused them of conspiracy. AKP trolls began campaigns against international analysts and banks that questioned Turkey’s finances.
Making matters worse is Erdogan’s prioritization of vendetta over the rule of law. He purged more than 1,500 finance-ministry officials and has seized banks and businesses owned by political opponents, transferring them at fire-sale prices to friends and family. In effect, Erdogan has become the Islamist version of Hugo Chávez, the late Venezuelan leader who took the richest economy in South America and ran it into the ground. If Turks believe their economy is too strong for one man to ruin, they should remember that Venezuelans too once took comfort in such a falsehood.
Turkey today may have a veneer of stability, but it is rotten beneath. Erdogan’s legacy after nearly 15 years in power is to have destroyed the foundation upon which Turkey’s stability was built. And his consolidation of power leaves no one prepared to replace him should he die or be removed.
Erdogan’s bluster is in inverse proportion to his strength. He embraces anti-Americanism to solidify his base, and may honestly believe he can play Russia against the United States to Turkey’s advantage. He does not understand that Russian leader Vladimir Putin is far more skilled at playing him than the reverse. Either way, such a strategy leads to an inevitable loss for Turkey. The question the White House and the Pentagon should consider is not how best to partner with Turkey, but rather how to manage Turkey’s decline.