Turkey Situation Report: Update August 2016

The last year has been a year of turmoil and confusion for Turkey. Many, both inside and outside of Turkey, argue that the election of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been a catalyst for this sudden shift towards autocracy after nearly a decade of rule where supporters saw him as a charismatic leader who changed the crisis-hit Turkey of the early 2000s into a prospering and respected country. In the three years he’s been in office, freedom of speech has been almost completely outlawed. In November 2015, two Turkish journalists were arrested and jailed for 92 days for publishing a report on an arms delivery from Turkey to Syria. Since then, hundreds of news outlets have been closed and journalists have been attacked or simply disappeared.

Beyond cracking down on the press, Erdogan has taken control of the economy, pressuring the central banks to lower interest rates despite high inflation. Claiming high interest rates will decrease potential investment and entrepreneurship, the president has called raising interest rates an “act of treason.” Economists warn that Erdogan’s economic plans will interfere with the already shaky economy and simply increase the existing inflation.

Furthermore, Erdogan has continuously campaigned to rewrite Turkey’s constitution and establish an executive government. In May, the ruling Justice and Development Party unanimously elected Binali Yildirim, the sole candidate for prime minister and a longtime friend of President Erdogan. For many, this election solidified the President’s ability to extend his power with very few checks. It’s expected that Prime Minister Yildirim will play an obedient role to President Erdogan, pushing through constitutional amendments that will grant the president the all-encompassing control he wants.

A Nation Under Constant Attack

Once a strong ally of the West and a leader in the region, Turkey is slowly being swallowed by the struggles of the Middle East. On top of the internal turmoil plaguing Turkey, the country has also been the target of many attacks over the summer. On June 28 at the main airport in Istanbul, 41 people were killed and over 140 wounded by three suicide bombers. This attack, attributed to ISIS, was one of at least six the country has suffered through during the past year. Soon after the attacks against ISIS were underway, President Erdogan began waging airstrikes on PKK camps in Northern Iraq and Syria, ending the delicate peace established in 2012. Not only has ISIS set its sights on Turkey, attacks from Kurdish groups like the PKK continue also.

Kurdish Minority – Divides Becoming Deeper

From 1984 to 2013, the Turkish government struggled to control the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK; a Kurdish separatist group fighting for self-determination for the thousands of Kurds living in Turkey. During that time, over 40,000 lives were lost, thousands upon thousands of Kurds were displaced, and Turkish security forces burned over 3,000 Kurdish villages. PKK is considered by many Western countries to be a terrorist organization, having attacked both military and civilian targets in Turkey, France, Belgium, and Iraq and until recently did not represent the majority of the 10 to 12 million Kurds in Turkey, many of which supported Erdogan throughout the years as he promoted economic growth.

Peace talks were conducted in 2012 and a fragile truce was maintained until recently.   Erdogan’s activism in regards to Syria and lack of support for Kurds in crisis in Iraq and Syria has distanced this supportive Kurd majority, in addition to some of his more autocratic policies around women’s rights. As a result, all Kurds are becoming more sympathetic to the PKK, creating domestic turmoil on top of the other issues with Syria facing Turkey.

Domestic Turmoil Fueled by Regional Conflict

Turkey’s Western allies have been critical of the country’s approach to relations in the region. Experts in the United States believe that Turkey made a mistake early on when it maintained its open border policy with Syria, potentially allowing the Islamic State to grow and expand. In response, Turkey has become upset over the United States’ support for Kurdish groups fighting in Syria who are in turn supporting the PKK within Turkey.

A mere two weeks after the deadly airport attack, Turkish military forces attempted a coup on July 15. The Turkish Army is seen as a stalwart and trusted organization, guarding the secular principles that Turkey was founded on. Another major player in the coup is former Imam Fethullah Gulen, a previous ally of the president who now lives in the United States and promotes a more liberal understanding of Islam -- in direct opposition to Erdogan’s policies. The Republican People’s Party, an opposition party to the Justice and Development Policy, might also be indirectly involved in the coup, as they are more pro-American and would be pleased if Erdogan’s grip on the country was somehow loosened.

The attempted coup did not last long. President Erdogan purged almost 6,000 of soldiers from the military and threw them in jail and, by the end of the evening, almost 300 people were dead. When the president addressed the people the next day, his speech was couched in Islam and he praised Islamists who had resisted the coup.

Losing Turkey as an Ally?

This split from a secularist and Western nation to a government guided by the tenants of Islam has been a jolt to the international community. The United States and Europe have both counted on Turkey as a strong ally -- helping the U.S. fight the Islamic State and working with Europe to control the flow of refugees. If Erdogan keeps relying on the rhetoric of Islam instead of embracing the secular history of Turkey, many worry that Turkey will be lost as a leader in the chaotic region. However, President Obama has stayed supportive of the Turkish president. The Obama administration seems to be working under the tenet that it is better to tolerate Erdogan’s autocratic government than lose control of the situation.

In the aftermath of the attempted coup, most of the country has been critical of the military instead of the president, seeing a coup as a violation of democracy. This criticism, in turn, has given President Erdogan an unexpected benefit. In fact, in the days following the attempt, the streets turned into a parade of Erdogan supporters, waving flags in support of Islam and democracy. Two days after the attempted coup, almost 85,000 mosques throughout the country simultaneously blared a prayer for martyrs from their speakers, attempting to rally support against those in favor of the coup. While the criticism of the coup began as a call for democracy, the message has been warped to come pro-radical Islam instead of pro-democracy.

Current State of Affairs

President Erdogan has used the aftermath of the coup to make sure the country is unified against a common enemy: Gulen, not Erdogan, resulting in the president’s approval rating shooting up to 68% (from 47% before). The president has even said he will release some of the political prisoners arrested in the post-coup purge -- while simultaneously arresting anyone who is believed to be connected to Gulen, stoking the country’s witch-hunt mentality.

The country seems to be in a holding pattern, as many also believe Turkish politics could devolve into an us vs. them mindset once the post-coup attempt dust settles. For example, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party was noticeably uninvited from some post-coup rallies. President Erdogan has done nothing to mend fences with the Kurds, and many experts worry this could create problems in the future.

At the moment, a fragile peace has been restored in Turkey. However, many argue this unity is driven by the president’s attempt to use the coup to grow his own power and move the country towards an increasingly autocratic system of government.  All of this threatens economic growth which despite the country’s troubles has stayed stable at close to 4% since 1999. 

Turkey Risk Assessment Guide

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