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Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

The Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Project Director, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

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Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel

Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin

Originally published in Russia File

The chummy joint news conference of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki seemed to suggest that the Russian president had scored a major victory over his U.S. counterpart in their one-on-one meeting on July 17. Indeed, the optics could go a long way toward fulfilling Putin’s purposes: he badly wants the Kremlin to be seen as the White House’s equal on the world stage.

But in the summit’s aftermath it appears that Trump’s coziness with Putin could actually undermine Russia’s prospects of realizing substantive gains from the summit.

The Russians had modest expectations, seeing the summit as primarily an opportunity to display Putin as an equal to the U.S. president, but it also presented at least a slim chance to open up much-needed channels of bilateral dialogue on everything from Syria to the sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine in 2014. Both the confrontation between Russia and the West following the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections have narrowed these channels, to say the least: the two sides are communicating, but with mistrust compounded by confusion over U.S. diplomatic positions.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, does talk often with his Russian opposite number, General Valery Gerasimov, particularly about deconfliction in Syria. But a rider in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act prohibits “bilateral military-to-military cooperation” with Russia as a result of its actions in Ukraine in 2014. Although the prohibition can be waived by the U.S. secretary of defense, there has been little contact between the two countries’ ministers or legislators.

Immediately after the summit, Moscow seemed to hope things were looking up. The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying it was “ready to intensify contacts with American colleagues at the level of the General Staffs and through other available channels of communication to discuss the extension of the START treaty, the interaction in Syria and other topical issues of military security.” Russian state-run news reports on the Helsinki meeting cited “agreements” ostensibly reached between Putin and Trump. Such “agreements” could be a useful first step in widening the bilateral dialogue. But because there appears to have been very little internal preparation and goal setting on the U.S. side, and very little internal communication afterward about what happened at Helsinki, U.S. officials struggled in the days following the summit to understand what had been agreed to, much less how to implement any agreements that might have been reached.

There is an expression in Russian—medvezhya usluga, “a bear’s service”—describing a gesture that appears well-meaning but ultimately does more harm than good.

The combination of suspicion about Trump’s motives and confusion about his actions is such that some in Congress have made unprecedented calls to question Trump’s translator about what transpired in the closed-door meeting with Putin. Amid the hubbub, U.S. defense secretary James Mattis hinted at the possibility of meeting with his counterpart, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, but made no commitment to do so.

The hesitancy should not be surprising. With his widely panned performance in Helsinki, Trump has made rapprochement with Russia more toxic than usual among the American political class. The backlash has yet to include concrete consequences, but for the time being, few U.S. politicians other than the president are embracing closer ties with Russia. At the Pentagon, there is bewilderment at Trump’s seeming embrace of a country named in the National Security Strategy as a “revisionist power” out to “shape a world antithetical” to U.S. interests and stated values. And while public discussion of new sanctions legislation flared only briefly after the Helsinki visit, the closer Trump draws to Moscow, the more Congress may feel tempted to send Moscow a disapproving signal by taking matters into its own hands.

In Moscow, this state of affairs causes considerable frustration. On the one hand, many policymakers echo Trump’s remarks that his Washington detractors are out to undermine what should be welcome attempts at warmer bilateral relations. But if it really was Trump’s intention to strengthen ties with Russia, then he “fared badly,” one policy adviser here remarked. “It’s not that there was a lot of desire to increase contact in the U.S. establishment to begin with. Trump—and Putin only played along—made this only worse.” On the other hand, these same policymakers often say that Russia would benefit from closer contact not just at the presidential level but at the congressional and ministerial levels as well. Ahead of the summit, in fact, observers touted the Moscow visit of a delegation of Republican senators as exactly what is needed.

But even from the Russian perspective, there is a disconnect between these objectives. If the aim is to rebuild institutional links between Moscow and Washington, then the appearance that has been created—that Putin has expertly manipulated Trump—may in the medium term do the Kremlin a disservice. Putin’s proposal to hold a joint referendum on the conflict in eastern Ukraine may have been intended as a test of Trump’s flexibility, but now that it has been made public, Kremlin advisers recognize there is little chance the issue will be discussed further.

There is an expression in Russian—medvezhya usluga, “a bear’s service”—describing a gesture that appears well-meaning but ultimately does more harm than good. Putin should hope that Trump has not done him that sort of favor with his overtures, making him look good momentarily but sabotaging the substantive dialogue Russia is after.