Turkey, once one of two (along with Israel) most powerful and reliable NATO allies in the Middle East has become, since 2002 unstable, less reliable and turning itself into an Islamic dictatorship seeking to form a Moslem coalition to destroy Israel. This is largely the work of one politician Recep Erdogan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party). Before 2002 Erdogan was known as a proponent of clean government and using Islam (which was one thing nearly all Turks had in common) to justify his views. While earlier reformer Kemal Ataturk had dismantled the Ottoman Empire and the use of Islamic law in the government, Ataturk had not tried to ban Islam. What he did do was unique; he separated state and religion and created a functioning democracy in a major Islamic state. That had never been done before, in part because the word “Islam” means, literally, “submission” and Islamic scripture makes it clear that pure Islam means rule by Islamic law and Islamic clerics (or non-clerics selected by senior Islamic clerics and scholars). That was the theory but it was rarely achieved and never worked.
Ataturk recognized and accepted this history and practiced what he preached when he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He proceeded to go after the corruption that was endemic (and ancient) in Turkey and the Middle East in general. Even the ancient Romans, who were rather more into the rule of law than their contemporaries, were appalled at the extent corruption influenced the cultures and governments of the region. That never changed and when the Turks showed up in the Middle East after 900AD they proved unbeatable in combat and began to settle down. By 1300 the many Turk factions had consolidated into the Ottoman Empire and proceeded to conquer most of the Moslem states in existence. The Turks were very practical and innovative and to deal with the problem of Islamic radicalism (already a problem in the Islamic world) the Ottoman Sultan (emperor) declared himself the Caliph (secular and religious leader of all Moslems) and killed or co-opted (bribed) those who organized any serious opposition to that claim. Most of the opponents were Arabs. Because Islam had been created and initially spread by Arabs many Arabs believe they are more Islamic than other Moslems. Being ruled by Turks was never popular. Even though the Ottoman Empire was dissolved in the early 1920s many Arabs have bitter memories of centuries of domination by the Ottoman Turks, whose empire once stretched into North Africa and the Balkans and included Iraq and Arabia.
If you ignore the Islamic integration of church and state, Islam has a lot to recommend it. Turks largely practiced the Sufi form of Islam which concentrated on the spiritual and ethnic aspects of Islam and not those elements that encouraged violence and conquest. Ataturk took that attitude further than the Ottoman government had in a new constitution where church and state were very much separated. Ataturk and his followers made it work and by World War II secular Turkey remained neutral during the war and prospered while the rest of world around them was in chaos. After World War II Turkey joined NATO and sought to establish more cultural and economic links with the West and generally ignored its former subjects (most of them Arab). The Arabs were fine with this. But one thing Turks and Arabs still shared (besides Islam) was tolerance of corruption. This crippled economic growth but because the Turkish armed forces were (as they had always been) more efficient and well run than the rest of the Ottoman government, the West overlooked the corruption. A growing number of Turks did not and this led to several political parties and religious movements aimed at reducing the corruption in order to improve the economic and spiritual lives of Turks. One of the more successful of these movements was led by Fethullah Gulen, a former Islamic cleric turned social reformer who was two decades older than Erdogan but the two shared a desire for a less corrupt and more just Turkey. In the 1990s Erdogan and Gulen joined forces. By that time Gulen had an international movement because with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 the Gulen movement could spread to the many Turkic peoples in Central Asia as well as Western countries where there were hardly any Turks. Gulen saw his ideas as basically about honest government and secular education for all. Gulen was about creating a civil society (one that encouraged and respected honest government). Erdogan was a politician who meant to get elected to high office and help eliminate corruption and create the civil society that would get Turkey into the European Union.
With the help of Gulen, the AKP coalition won the national elections in 2002 and Erdogan became a reform minded leader of Turkey who stressed the need for Turkish Moslems to use their religious faith to reduce corruption and prosper because of that. Initially, that’s what happened. Suddenly the many (hundreds of thousands) Gulen followers in the police, military and civil service could reveal themselves and help implement the new civil society. Gradually Erdogan came to see these many Gulen followers as political rivals who were plotting against him. In addition, he felt many of the non-Gulen officers and officials, especially the corrupt ones, were actually planning a coup.
Erdogan seems to have misread the situation early on and increasingly believed that senior officers, in general, were planning another coup. These military takeovers were not a threat for many decades after Ataturk installed a democratic government in the 1920s. But in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997 there were coups. The first one was partially triggered by a newly elected government that was going to lift Ataturk era restrictions on Islam (more mosques and Arab influences). All these coups were done in the name of Ataturk and “restoring order” to a government and economy increasingly crippled by the corruption.
Meanwhile, one popular solution to the corruption was religion and the Gulen movement was prominent in that area. Thus the 1997 coup was in response to the growing popularity of Islamic reformist political parties. Erdogan was banned from politics for five years and Gulen moved to the United States. But the Islamic political reform movement survived and Erdogan formed the AKP and joined forces with Gulenites and other Islamic parties to form a coalition that won power in 2002.
By 2008 Erdogan's suspicions led to the five year long Ergenekon conspiracy trials which many Turks saw as a government vendetta against the military. Most of the 275 “conspirators” put on trial were retired and current military officers. In addition, there were some journalists and politicians opposed to the AKP. All were accused of belonging to a secret group, dominated by the military that had long been the real ruler of Turkey. This “secret state” had been displaced by the Islamic AKP and now sought to launch a coup against the AKP government. In addition to those accused and indicted the government also arrested hundreds of journalists, businessmen and politicians (especially Kurds) for providing favorable publicity, money or political support for the conspirators. All but 21 of the 275 people put on trial were convicted. Not surprisingly in early 2016, all these convictions were annulled because an appeals court had carefully examined the evidence determined the obvious, that the government had not proved a conspiracy actually existed. The government said it would retry the accused but so far has only made an effort to try 14 of the conspirators on other charges.
Meanwhile, Erdogan continued going after the Gulenites, who were also accused of plotting to overthrow the government. This came to a head in July 2016 when a rather insipid military coup failed quickly. One motive of the officers behind the coup was fear that Erdogan's growing paranoia, false accusations and support for Islamic radicalism was going to rip Turkey apart. The failed coup sort of did that because Erdogan used the coup as an excuse to grab more power and carry out a mass purge of the military, civil service and media. Over 100,000 people lost their jobs and many were jailed. In most cases, the victims were accused of being Gulen followers. After the failure of the Ergenekon case, Erdogan became even more hostile to the West and friendly with Russia and Iran.
The Erdogan meltdown has also resulted in a return of corruption, especially in Erdogan’s own family and those of senior officials who have always been close of Erdogan. As a result, the corruption reduction efforts are being reversed, which domestic and foreign buyers of Turkish goods can attest is having a negative effect on Turkish productivity and product quality. This can be seen in the efforts to create more Turkish defense industries and expand the range of products developed and produced in Turkey. When Erdogan came to power Israel, which had long been an ally of Turkey, was looking forward to the new government reducing the corruption in defense procurement which made it difficult for allies to sell Turkey weapons that would use Turkish accessories. Turkish suppliers knew they could make false claims to get a contract and then bribe their way out of trouble. This drove Israeli, and other Western defense firms mad because the Turkish government would then blame the foreign supplier and it would become a diplomatic issue. Erdogan ultimately made this situation worse. Now Israel has gone from best friend to worst enemy.
One example of how this works was the United States refusing a Turkish request to provide (or allow Turkey to recruit) pilot instructors to help rebuild the depleted ranks of Turkish F-16 pilots after 2016. Pakistan was the only major F-16 user that agreed to provide some pilot instructors but the Americans blocked that as well.
This is a serious problem for the Turkish Air Force because the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey had many victims and one of the lesser known ones was the effectiveness of Turkish fighter fleet. While few F-16 pilots took part in the coup, the government lost (through dismissal or resignation) 274 combat pilots. This reduced the ratio of pilots per F-16 from 1.25 to .8. Suddenly the combat capabilities of the Turkish air force were greatly reduced, especially if the F-16s were called on to engage in large scale and intensive operations.
The loss of so many officers throughout the military has seriously reduced the effectiveness of Turkish forces. Moreover, the Erdogan government is seen as a security risk by NATO allies and that means the United States is reconsidering the sale of the new F-35 stealth fighter to Turkey. Israel was the first export customer to get a squadron of F-35s organized and the Israeli F-35s have already been spotted over Lebanon and Syria. The Americans don’t want F-35s fighting each other if Turkey gets its F-35s and Erdogan continues being Erdogan.
All this paranoia extended to another of Erdogan's early allies; the Kurds. Despite being a formidable military force, or perhaps because of it, the Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Iran Turkey and Syria are again under pressure to back off from efforts to create an independent Kurdish state. The last few decades have given Kurds hope that their time may have finally arrived. Since the early 1990s, the Iraqi Kurds have been autonomous (with British and American help) and they had always been more effective soldiers than the Iraqi Arabs. Somethings, however, do not change. The Kurds still suffer from tribal and clan divisions as well as corruption, but to a much lesser extent than the Arabs. Thus after 2014, a disproportionate number of Western trainers were sent to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The Kurds are considered reliable enough to work with Western commandos and protect ground control teams (that can call in air strikes). Kurds regularly assisted the American and British commandos in carrying out their most dangerous tasks; reconnaissance inside ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) territory. But the Kurds did not have the manpower for large scale operations. And that’s why they were pushed out of Kirkuk province in late 2017 by more numerous Iraqi Arab soldiers and militiamen. Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran are also under attack and the Kurds have not got the numbers, or cash, to deal with all their hostile hosts.
The Kurds have had more than their share of bad breaks. Like many mid-size ethnic groups the Kurds were never able to establish their own nation and for thousands of years have been subjects of one empire (Iranian, Roman, Turkish and so on) or another. A century ago they were part of the Turkish homeland because the Turks recognized the Kurds as worthy allies (but still part of the empire). Turks even like to call the Kurds “mountain Turks”, a name the Kurds do not like at all. After World War I the Kurds living near the Turkish city of Mosul found that they were no longer Turkish subjects but now part of the largely Arab nation of Iraq. This was done by the victorious allies (mainly Britain and France) to deny the Turks (now a country, not an empire and reduced to its present borders) oil, which had recently been discovered in the areas around Mosul and Kirkuk. Needless to say, the Arabs, long unwilling subjects of the Turkish Empire, did not welcome the Kurds (who were often the Turkish enforcers when the Arabs got out of line). The Turks recognized and used Kurdish military skills and Arabs feared the Kurds because of that. Meanwhile, the Kurds, in general, were angry that the allied promise of a Kurdish state (once the Turks were defeated) was not kept. That was mainly because the Turks, now pushed back to their homeland, made it clear that there would be a major fight if the allies tried to keep all the promises made at the expense of the Turks. The war weary allies backed off after a brief war and the Kurds were screwed again. That was the 1920s and the basic situation has not changed much. Yet the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds feel they have a chance of holding on to their autonomous enclaves which are adjacent to each other. ISIL is gone now and the Arabs see the Kurds, who were recently vital allies in defeating ISIL, as a threat.
In Turkey, the majority of Kurds were willing to live peaceably as Turkish citizens as long as they could freely speak Kurdish and publish material written in Kurdish. At one point Erdogan was willing to do that but the growing paranoia destroyed that as well.
Meanwhile, Erdogan has modified the constitution (legally, via a 2017 vote) to change government from a parliamentary democracy (like Britain) to one with a strong presidency (like the United States). To complete this process there will be national elections June 24 in Turkey to elect the first newly empowered president.
Meanwhile, two things have happened. National polls indicate a minority of voters now approve of Erdogan and AKP. Second, the major opposition parties have formed a coalition to put forth candidates that pose a major threat to Erdogan and the AKP. The question is, will the election be honest? Will Erdogan feel compelled to stage his own coup (rigging the election) “for the good of the country”? If he does will that lead to another civil war?
Erdogan wants to avoid another repeat of the 2013 unrest when Turkey underwent months of riots and demonstrations against the government. Known as the Taksim Square/Gezi Park movement protests they started out peaceful. But eventually, over 8,000 demonstrators were injured police efforts to shut down the public protests. At least five people died and over 2.5 million Turks participated in the protests. The government blamed this on agents from foreign countries as well as American social media like Facebook and Twitter. That popular anger has grown as Erdogan acts more like a reactionary than a reformer. Opponents call him “Sultan Erdogan” and note that he is apparently preparing his son to succeed him.
No one is sure how all this will end or when. Meanwhile, Turkey is going backward rather than forward and most Turks do not want, as Erdogan says he does, Turkey to become the leader of an Islamic coalition to destroy Israel and, presumably, create another Turkish empire. Worse, many fear that Erdogan is not really sure where he wants to go.