Turkey, That Friend Who’s Trouble Because They’re Always Trying to Fight Your Other Friends

In recent months, the country of Turkey (whose national bird is, you guessed it, the redwing!) has been in US news much more than usual. It was in Turkey that Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi left discreetly without telling his fiancée or family/disappeared /was accidentally killed in a fistfight/was murdered by a rogue operation that was just coincidentally well-prepared and connected to the highest levels of Saudi government/was murdered at the direction of the Saudi government, and the government of Turkey has been using media leaks and diplomatic pressure to relentlessly push for Saudi Arabia to be held accountable.

Before that, Turkey’s President and strongman in development (as I like to describe myself during he 2 weeks per year I decide to go to the gym) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been harassing Turkish dissidents in the US, most notably demanding the extradition of his former ally, Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is exiled in the US and who Erdogan conveniently blames for a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. (For good measure, Erdogan also had his “bodyguards” beat down a bunch of protestors outside the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. last year, which I’m sure led to serious repercussio…oh, wait, I forgot who was in charge now).  Perhaps most serious for US foreign policy, Turkey has frequently used its military to target the Kurds, a minority ethnic group spanning several countries including Turkey and Iraq. The Kurds have been among the strongest US allies in the fight against ISIS (and before that, against Saddam Hussein, US abandonment notwithstanding), but they have often clashed with the Turkish government, making it very difficult for America to maintain both Turkey and the Kurds as allies.

Turkey is a complicated country to understand.  It sits at a cultural and geographical nexus between Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Turkey was once at the heart of the Ottoman Empire, a centuries long Islamic megastate stretching across these regions (by contrast, the Sofa and Chaise Lounge Empire only existed for a brief period in the 2000s when I was procrastinating from my dissertation and at most spanned my living room and portions of the kitchen), but when the Ottomans found themselves in the losing alliance in WWI, the empire was carved up by the victors and Turkey declared independence, fighting off several European powers in the process.

The independence movement was led by military hero Mustafa Kemal, who became the founding President of modern Turkey, earning the moniker Ataturk or “father of the Turks.” Mustafa “I love it when you call me big poppa” Ataturk viewed Turkey as being stuck in the backwardness of the Ottoman Empire and sought to rapidly modernize the country, micromanaging society in order to do so: the Turkish governments passed laws on everything from educational reforms to changing the country’s alphabet to dictating what types of hats men could wear.

Ataturk, similar to previous movements such as the Young Turks (the revolutionary but genocidal Turkish movement, not the progressive but sometimes douchy, maybe racist/ sexist Youtubers), were staunchly nationalist; for them, part of the problems of the Ottoman Empire came from mixing a strong Turkish people and culture with other groups (Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, etc.)  The Father of the Turks unsurprisingly attempted to make the Turkish ethnic group and culture dominant within Turkey, going as far as to deny the existence of other groups (the Kurds, for example, were publicly called “mountain Turks” for decades.

Ataturk and his successors also saw traditional Islam as part of the problem, and many of the reforms carried out after Turkish independence were aimed at curtailing the influence of the religion that was associated with the old empire by establishing an assertive secularism in the country (a similar process happened concerning France and Catholicism after the French Revolution).  Secularism is enshrined in the Turkish constitution and many of its laws and policies.

The current government, led by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have maintained the Kemalist tradition of Turkish nationalism, including maintaining an often bloody conflict with the Kurdish minority and especially the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has been fighting on and off for decades for Kurdish autonomy or independence (turns out that people don’t like having their language, culture and even their names made illegal).  the AK Parti, as Erdogan’s party is known locally, has broken with tradition as far as religion is concerned. The party is moderately Islamist, although it rejects that label – Erdogan has attempted to thread the needle between the secularism taht has dominated post-Ataturk Turkey and the more extreme Islamism of more conservative Middle Eastern countries.  Tensions with Gulen, a former Erdogan supporter, and with Saudi Arabia for regional influence, stem largely from differences in the role and degree to which Islam has been reintroduced into Turkish politics under Erdogan and the AK Parti.

The Islamist sympathies of the Turkish government have also contributed to Erdogan’s greater desire to fight against Kurdish independence than to support the Kurds in the fight against ISIS.  Nevertheless, the support that Turkey does provide for US efforts in the region, against the Islamic State and otherwise, have made US governments hesitant to strain relationships with Erdogan too far.  Donald Trump, who admires both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and President Erdogan, has attempted to thread his own needle by remaining close to both.  Trump’s sudden decision to exit the Syrian conflict apparently came from a conversation with Erdogan, and is largely seen as tacit approval for Turkey to continue the fight against ISIS in a way that also targets Kurdish militias in Syria (and, as a bonus, the US pullout also allows Saudi Arabia to assert its influence in Syria with President Trump’s blessing).  Time will tell whether this strategy is sustainable, or if either Turkey or other US allies in the region get unfollowed by US.

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