Photo: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first President of the Turkish Republic, visiting Istanbul University after its reorganization in 1933 as a mixed-gender institution of higher education with multiple faculties. Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain - Photo: 2018

Reflections on Turkey: From Mustafa Kemal To Recep Erdoğan

Viewpoint by Pier Francesco Zarcone*

ROME (IDN) – Has Turkey changed under Erdoğan? The question may seem absurd due to the habit of considering Turkey a secular and Westernised country before Recep Erdoğan came to power.

However, this consolidated image turns out to be false. There has been a change, but not in substance: what has changed is its exteriority. In fact, albeit with periodic recourse to elections, the country has always been governed in an authoritarian way, and today this feature is only more evident and its quality is more pronounced.

Mustafa Kemal and his successors made immense efforts to westernise Turkey quickly – too quickly – and they were apparently successful. Kemalist secularism never appropriated, for example, the French model, but limited itself to putting the Turkish religious world under political and state control and banning its public manifestations.

In the end, a centuries-old national history which had too hastily been sent to the museum of past things has re-emerged with cultural, spiritual and political strength.

On the other hand, the whole history of the Turks from their departure from the steppes of Central Asia has developed under the sign of Islam, and the Kemalist revolution – also imposed bloodily – had in many respects raped the identity of what we could call the “Turkish soul”.

If we want, Atatürk himself, without moustache and Western dress, gave a certain sense of artificiality. This does not mean that there is no longer a Westernised and secular sector in Turkish society, but only that it has lost political and cultural hegemony, and it has proved to be in a minority.

In 2002, the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections and in a few years managed to penetrate the secular strongholds of public administration and justice that previously seemed impossible to conquer. Their power was neutralised and the same fate fell on the armed forces, in theory also a solid pillar and guardians of the Kemalist turnaround.

Ultimately, Erdoğan and the AKP have freed the profound sentiment of popular and Islamic Turkey, the Islamism of which – previously confined to the private sphere – has become free and of public significance.

The success is such that the portrait of Atatürk, still hanging on the walls of public offices, now no longer does damage and can remain where it is – after all it represents a moment of national victory for the Turks.

The victory of the AKP has not led to a new course of democracy, it has simply established a new cult of personality: that of Erdoğan instead of that of Mustafa Kemal. Some say that ultimately the Islamic turnaround was not an end in itself, but the instrument for the affirmation of Erdoğanism.

Now elected directly by the people, Erdoğan behaves as if he were the incarnation of the ‘general will’ of the Turkish nation. His power is fully consolidated: the AKP has the majority in Parliament, the armed forces have been tamed, the judiciary and the Constitutional Court are obedient, the mass media are mostly controlled and finally (and not least) the new masters of the country can distribute public procurement – both large and small – among their clients in peace.

One instrument in particular has shown singular effectiveness: the wide use of a rhetoric that blends victimism, neo-Ottoman arrogance, an internal-external conspiracy syndrome and the hunting of traitors.

This is an effective instrument, because it corresponds to a widespread attitude especially among the most working class, especially Anatolian, sectors and considered by many external observers as a psychological remnant of the troubled history of Ottoman imperial decline.

Treason is now perceived as present in anyone and in any sector that does not go along with the AKP. This is a very heterogeneous basin: Turkish left, Kemalists, liberals, Kurds and pro-Kurds, religious minorities such as the Alevites, the few Shiites in existence, and some Armenian and/or Greek Orthodox survivors.

Traitors now include personalities who were once authoritative exponents of the AKP, but then fell into the unforgivable sin of political dissidence – albeit minimal: Abdullah Gül, one of the founders of the AKP and former president of the Republic; Bülent Arınç, also co-founder and former speaker of the Parliament; and finally Ahmet Davutoğlu, former foreign minister and president of the Council.

Fethullah Gülen is a well-known enemy, but it is worth recalling that without his support (due to the vast network of connections he had at his disposal) Erdoğan might not have succeeded in winning over the secular bureaucracy and the armed forces during the crucial period of 2011-12.

In addition there is the growing nostalgia for the Ottoman – that is Islamic imperial – period, a source of inspiration for Erdoğan’s variable and contradictory foreign policy, thanks to which Turkey remains in NATO but performs nonchalant “waltzes” with Russia.

Finally, there are the expansionist ambitions, which today are aimed at Syria, using the Kurdish obsession of Erdoğan as a pretext.

Seesawing between Moscow and Washington

On the Kurdish problem, the initial “opening” of the Turkish president did not last long, and he returned to the most obtuse Turkish nationalism and its basic lie: the Kurds do not exist, they are simply “Mountain Turks”.

Thanks also to the previous complicity of Erdoğan with the jihadists in Syria, a situation has now arisen in which the Syrian Kurds – connected with the PKK of Turkey – are not seen as enemies either by Moscow or by Washington; hence Erdoğan’s swinging between Russia and the United States, welcomed by his interlocutors in an opportunistic way when convenient, but always with suspicion.

Incidentally, the Kurdish-Syrian problem is not the only one to pollute relations between Ankara and Washington: it seems that the FBI, whose investigators are working on a dossier on Erdoğan, his family and related entourage for a fraud involving the Turkish State Bank regarding trade with Iran, subject to the accusation of violating US sanctions and banking laws.

The problem will become tangible if there are indictments against the suspects, with the risk of US sanctions against Turkey. In this case, the question could also – in theory – be reflected on Turkish membership of NATO. If this were to happen, a further Turkish rapprochement with Russia should not be surprising, notwithstanding the unknown quantity of Russian willingness (and possibility) to accept Turkish claims on the Kurds of Syria.

The Afrin issue

Meanwhile, in Afrin things are not going very well for the troops of Ankara, struggling with a fierce resistance and technical difficulties in protecting their armoured vehicles, which in fact have suffered substantial losses. If the final battle were to arrive, the Turks would most likely win it, but at the price of very strong losses not only in terms of material resources but also of human lives.

On the possibility or not of Russian acceptance of Turkish claims in Syria, a reflection is necessary. In Syria, Moscow has entered into agreements with the Damascus government for its geostrategic interests. The military presence of Russia requires that the country be stabilised and remain a friend; to this end there are no serious alternatives to Assad, whose government must be definitively strengthened and regain control of all Syrian territory. Not easy, but not impossible.

In light of this, Russia has no interest in supporting the Turkish claims, since it would clash with the government of Damascus leaving only a rather uncertain eventuality: that is to say that Ankara, pushing to the extreme, ends up breaking with NATO. As things stand, a prudent strategist can only wait for the fruit, in the case of maturation, to fall by itself into the metaphorical basket.

It is clear that the Afrin operation has a dual function: annihilate the Kurds in the border areas and establish a Turkish control zone in northern Syria, to be used as a basis for the anti-Assad jihadists supported by Ankara – perhaps giving Turkey the hegemony over what remains of jihadism in Syria.

This would mean prolonging the Syrian conflict and nullifying government victories supported by the Russians. It follows that the Afrin operation goes against the interests of Russia: this is enough to disprove certain rumours about a prior agreement between Erdoğan and Putin.

It seems that the Assad regime has facilitated the transfer of Kurdish fighters in the Afrin area, and the logic of this initiative is clear: for now Kurdish ambitions do not threaten Damascus, but the same cannot be said in the case of a Turkish victory.

It seems that in the meantime the Kurds have ceded some territories in the Aleppo area to government control. And if, as the al-Masdar agency claims, the Kurds will hand over the city of Manbij – a clear Turkish target –to the government in the near future, then it would mean that in order to continue Turkey would also go against Russia.

The dilemma for Russia

Here things become complicated for Russian policy, which is moving on a kind of tightrope. On the one hand, without Turkish cooperation, the stability of Syria remains at risk; on the other hand, Ankara’s initiatives are at odds with this cooperation.

In addition, Moscow will have to avoid direct confrontation between Syrian and Turkish troops, and not only because the Syrians would have the worst of it: besides the serious deterioration of relations between Russia and Turkey (and so much for Syrian stabilisation), Moscow would receive not resistible pressure from Damascus and Tehran for its intervention, with potentially dangerous US countermoves.

But Turkey also has an interest in non-deterioration of its relations with Russia. The situation appears to be one of stalemate, but Moscow would have at least one chance to negotiate – especially if Kurdish resistance caused the Turks very heavy losses.

It would be a question of leveraging two factors: the fact that Ankara would still have achieved the objective of securing the Syrian border by blocking supplies between the Kurds of Syria and the PKK, as well as the costs – and dangers – that going beyond would imply.

At the same time, Moscow could act on the Kurds of Syria underlining the convenience of abandoning risky initiatives solicited by the United States – which would then leave them to their destiny – and convincing them, moreover, to soften their attitude towards the government of Damascus, because an agreement with it could have calming effects on Turkey.

A corollary would be to persuade Damascus to accept for the moment (and under Russian protection) both a Turkish presence in the north and the concession to the Kurds of some autonomy that would not be dangerous for the interests of Ankara.

The unknowns of the equation concern the interlocutors: Erdoğan and the Kurds. The former has to be convinced and then trusted, but to Putin’s advantage is the current situation of the Turkish economy, which shows signs of crisis and with a degree of dependence on the Russian economy that has greatly increased in recent years – with reciprocal convenience – at least since 2010.

In that year, the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council was established, a well-structured body comprising a strategic planning group to monitor economic cooperation and an intergovernmental commission for trade and development.

Since then, Russia has started construction of the Turkish nuclear power plant of Akkuyu – with mixed control – to be completed in 2023; Russia and Turkey are partners in the TurkStream pipeline project (which replaces the failed South Stream); and the Turkish purchase of the brand-new Russian S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft defence system should also be taken into account.

Beyond that, as already mentioned, there are the obvious political-military risks and the economic burdens that would result from going too far.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, it is now quite clear that – regardless of the boasting – they do not constitute an invincible force: it is convenient for them to draw the necessary conclusions while still possible. All that remains is to wait.

* Pier Francesco Zarcone, with a degree in canonical law, is a historian of the labour movement and a scholar of Islam, among others. He is a member of Utopia Red (Red Utopia), an international association working for the unity of revolutionary movements around the world in a new International: La Quinta (The Fifth). This article was originally published in Italian under the title Riflessioni sulla Politica Turca in Red Utopia. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 14 March 2018]

Photo: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first President of the Turkish Republic, visiting Istanbul University after its reorganization in 1933 as a mixed-gender institution of higher education with multiple faculties. Wikimedia Commons | Public Domain

IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate –

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