No “Hero of Haarlem” in Ankara

With Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, the English-speaking world took to heart the tale of a Dutch boy who saves his beloved homeland from certain flood by plugging a leaky dike.  Briefly: Happening home as dark approached, the lad espied a leak in one of Haarlem’s many dikes. Grasping the potential calamity, the boy stemmed the flow with his finger, suffering cold and solitude through the night until the townspeople discover him and mend the leak. The boy becomes a hero, having saved Haarlem from deluge.

The boy-cum-hero was more than brave. He demonstrated prescient awareness, grasping the potential magnitude of the situation. He responded with appropriate measure, running for help or stuffing the dike with soil would have left the danger unguarded. The boy then readily called for help at first chance.

The analogy to Ankara?  With Turkey’s economy threatened by turbulent waters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to pose as his country’s indispensable protector. However,  he shows poorly in comparison to Haarlem’s little savior. The president’s most recent maneuver to keep the country’s economic ship aright—an enormous transfer of state-owned corporate shares to Turkey’s first sovereign wealth fund—will fail to achieve its intended aims. Any dissenting counsel to this undertaking will be prone to the president’s usual dismissal.  

The republic’s economy will instead likely worsen. As growth slows and consequent discontent rises, Erdogan will not retreat from his autocratic drive to direct the economy himself. For now, Turkey’s once-emerging democracy will instead continue to deconsolidate as Erdogan adds further economic power to his already dominant political role.

The Economy:  Red Sky at Morning

On February 6, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s privatization administration announced the transfer of billions of dollars worth of  government-owned shares into a new sovereign wealth fund (SWF). These involve several of Turkey’s best performing companies and banks, including Turkish Airlines  and Halkbank with a combined value of $3 billion, in which the state has 49.1 and 59.1 percent of the shares, respectively. Also included in the mass transfer were the Borsa stock exchange and BOTAS—the state-owned natural gas pipeline operator. The stated purpose of this asset transfer is to reassure foreign lenders whose confidence in Turkey has steeply declined.

Why will this move fail? Turkey’s SWF is a sharp departure from the international norm. SWFs are commonly funded out of revenue generated by a country’s natural resources or foreign exchange reserves and established when there exists a significant budgetary surplus.  Moreover, SWFs typically invest globally. In contrast, the assets transferred this month come from domestic banks and firms, not from commodity revenues or reserves.  Although Turkey’s budget deficit is currently somewhere between 1-2%, 2016 saw a marked increase in budget expenditures on health, welfare, and pensions; and none are poised to abate. Furthermore, the AKP government is likely to use the SWF as leverage to borrow for mega-infrastructure projects at home, rather than pursue investment opportunities abroad. Such a build-up of debt is likely to decrease rather than increase investor confidence in the Turkish economy.

There are few indicators suggesting that the Turkish economy will resume the robust growth that propelled it to become the world’s 17th largest economy. The attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and its aftermath greatly shook investors and creditors alike. In the third quarter of 2016, Turkey’s economy contracted for the first time in several years to levels lower than predicted. Last September, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Turkey’s sovereign credit rating to junk status.  The Turkish lira has dramatically declined against the dollar, falling 23.73 percent between September 2016 and February 2017.

Not all of Turkey’s current economic woes are linked to July 15th fallout. Turkey continues to struggle with a growing current account deficit. It is forecasted at $34.3 billion for 2016 (an increase of $2.1 billion from the previous year). This is nothing new—Turkey has been struggling to keep its current account out of a deep red since 2010.  And due to Russian boycotts and terror attacks, Turkey’s tourism industry was already suffering mightily before the attempted coup. Tourism’s contribution to GDP dropped from  twelve percent in 2014 to 4.5 percent in 2015. Employing eight percent of the country’s workforce, this industry’s shrinkage is being felt.  

Governance: Bad Crescent Moon Rising

The sweeping shift of wealth into Turkey’s SWF is the latest step in Erdogan’s drive to centralize authority under his own personal executive control. Should he win April’s referendum on the expansion of Turkey’s presidential powers, authority over the SWF would no doubt transfer to him, since the position of its current overseer, the prime minister, would be abolished. This is especially dangerous, as SWF transactions will be unaccountable to either parliament or Turkey’s High Court of Auditors, thereby giving a uniquely dominating president tremendous sway over the use of state funds.  

This would conform with a consistent pattern of incremental power consolidation, in economic affairs as well as in the political realm. The AKP party has unrelentingly relied on the crony issuance of tenders for unnecessary infrastructure projects as a key means of securing political influence; Turkey’s SWF is simply another chapter. Furthermore, AKP’s leader regularly disregards sound economic counsel in favor of political expediency. For example, Erdogan has for years shouted down top economic advisors seeking to stem inflation by increasing interest rates, a widely accepted remedy. The Gulenist witch hunt following the July 15 coup attempt provides a further example of damaging market interference. By executive order under a state of emergency, hundreds of businesses were shuttered, eliminating in many cases competitors of AKP-aligned enterprises and banks.

Given the breadth of Turkey’s current economic challenges, Erdogan’s continued reliance on his tried playbook will turn up insufficient. The demographic bulge that fueled Turkey’s post-2002 Wirtschaftswunder is coming to a close. Of Turkey’s top ten export destinations, six are presently European Union member states, a trade zone whose “outlook is surrounded by higher-than-usual uncertainty” and moderate recovery remains nascent. Nor will the resumption of trade with Russia via the recent rapprochement do much. At best, the countries may return to the same steady levels that preceded the crisis-provoking downing of a Russian jet in November 2015. And don’t expect a return of Russia’s tourist masses as long as ISIS and PKK terror attacks continue. This insecurity and Turkey’s noteworthy political risk are especially damaging to prospects of foreign direct investment at a time when multinational corporations appear on a full-fledged retreat worldwide.

Despite Turkey’s autocratic regression over the past several years of AKP rule, Erdogan and his party could become vulnerable. When polled, Turks regularly assign their greatest concerns to security and the economy. Although the AKP won 40.9 and 49.5 percent in the last two multiparty parliamentary elections, there is now no end in sight to the current fighting with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). If, added to this, there is a severe contraction of Turkey’s economy, it could cost AKP and the president dearly at the ballot box.

In sum Erdogan’s “finger in the dike” does not seem likely to bar the flood. And, absent an uncharacteristic change of tack—such as a willingness to better heed sound economic counsel or greater inclusion of private sector actors unsupportive of his political agenda—the dyke could well give way.

Unfortunately, Erdogan’s reliance on political charisma and personal power-projection tends to preclude rethinking or retreat, particularly before the looming mid-April referendum. Unfortunately for our Turkish friends, it may thus be a long time before they see a red sky on the evening’s horizon.           

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Turkey: From “NATO’s Anchor” to What?

On Monday, the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet Gazetesi published the backstory to President Recep Erdoğan’s meeting in St. Petersburg with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 9 August.[1] The report credited two persons for acting as go-betweens in the eventual “rapprochement,” Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar. A number of Russian[2] and regional[3] media outlets published accounts of the Hürriyet Gazetesi report.

Welcoming Turkey’s “restoration of legitimate and constitutional order,” Mr. Putin said in St. Petersburg, “We have always opposed anti-constitutional actions.”[4] The Kremlin used that same term—anti-constitutional actions (antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy)— in its official statement after Mr. Putin spoke to Mr. Erdoğan on 17 July in the aftermath of the attempted coup (a conversation, the Kremlin hastened to point out, Russia initiated):

“Vladimir Putin…stressed the principled position of Russia regarding the categorical inadmissibility in the conduct of public affairs of anti-constitutional actions and violence.”[5]  

Turkish press reports emphasized Mr. Putin’s “decisive opposition to unconstitutional actions”[6] against Mr. Erdoğan’s government, some repeating Mr. Putin’s phrase verbatim.[7] That phrase is also the same one Mr. Putin used after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster.[8] It was echoed then by other members of his government—for example, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s condemnation of “radical unconstitutional actions of Ukrainian oppositionists.”[9]

The Hürriyet Gazetesi account of events leading up to the meeting in St. Petersburg is worthy of a spy novel, and Ramazan Abdulatipov and Cavit Çağlar are among its central characters. Mr. Abdulatipov is said to have taken his directions from Yury Ushakov, a long-time Russian diplomat and aide to Mr. Putin. In September 2013, Mr. Putin appointed Mr. Abdulatipov to his second four-year term as Head of the Republic of Dagestan, a Russian federal republic located in the North Caucasus.

Mr. Abdulatipov ‘s counterpart, Cavit Çağlar, is said to have taken his directions from General Hulsi Akar, Turkey’s Chief of the General Staff since April 2015. Mr. Çağlar’s usual description as “a Turkish businessman” does not do him justice. In 1999, he was a central figure[10] in a covert operation in Kenya conducted by the Millî İstihbarat Teşkilâtı (Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency, aka “MIT”) to interdict and capture Abdullah Öcalan, a founding member of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as the PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎). Mr. Çağlar’s private aircraft was used to spirit Mr. Öcalan from Nairobi to Turkey. In late April 2001, he was arrested by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation in a parking garage at New York’s JFK Airport and extradited to Turkey, which had issued an Interpol Red Notice pursuant to his conviction in the collapse of Turkey’s Interbank. 

The precursor to the St. Petersburg meeting was President Erdoğan’s letter to President Putin. In it, Turkey apologized for the 24 November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane in Turkish airspace that was taking part in a combat mission in Syria.[11] Hürriyet Gazetesi reported a 30 April meeting in Istanbul, during which President Erdoğan authorized General Akar and Mr. Çağlar to open discussions with Russia about “normalizing” relations. Messrs. Abdulatipov and Çağlar then spent several weeks shuttling successive drafts of the letter (written by prior agreement in Turkish and Russian, not English) back and forth, with the support of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This led to a 24 June meeting in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where President Putin was scheduled to meet President Nazarbayev at the conclusion of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. The Kazakh ambassador to Turkey contacted an aide to President Erdoğan, Ibrahim Kalyn, to set the meeting in Tashkent. After several last minute hitches—there were problems reconciling the Turkish and Russian versions of the letter, and Uzbekistan had closed its airspace due to the SCO summit so Kazakh President Nazarbayev had to ask Uzbek President Islam Karimov for permission to fly “his friends from Turkey” (whose aircraft, low of fuel, had landed in Shymkent) to Tashkent—President Putin and President Erdoğan agreed to the final wording. The timing was uncanny, coming a fortnight before the attempted coup in Turkey. As the Hürriyet Gazetesi report points out, the first leader to phone President Erdoğan with a message of support was President Putin.

The St. Petersburg meeting, write Gallia Lindenstrauss and Zvi Magen,[12] “is likely to be a beginning of a new phase in Turkish-Russian relations.” It may very well mark the beginning of something wider, given the pivotal Kazakh and Uzbek roles in brokering the rapprochement between their neighbors. There is another, less noticed factor as well: as Mr. Erdoğan met with Mr. Putin in St. Petersburg, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu declared his country would suspend its migration agreement[13] with the European Commission unless the Commission established a definitive date to abolish visa requirements for Turkish citizens.[14] Where that goes is anyone’s guess. What is certain, however, is that Turkey’s traditional role as NATO’s “anchor” on the Black Sea is indeed ripe for revision, exactly how much and to what extent nobody today can know.


The translation of all source material is by the author.

[1] ” Türk-Rus krizini bitiren gizli diplomasinin öyküsü.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 8 August 2016].

[2] See for example: “Ramazan Abdulatipov yakoby okazal sodeystviye v vosstanovlenii otnosheniy mezhdu liderami Rossii i Turtsii.” Seryy zhurnal [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[3] “Negocieri secrete. Cum au reuşit Turcia şi Rusia să-şi restabilească relaţiile.” [published online in Romanian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[4] “Putin: Rossiya i Turtsiya vystupayut za vozobnovleniye dvustoronnikh otnosheniy.” Novaya Gazeta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[5] ” Putin v razgovore s Erdoganom zayavil o nedopustimosti antikonstitutsionnykh deystviy.” TASS [published online in Russian 17 July 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[6] ” Putin’den Erdoğan’a telefon.” Hürriyet Gazetesi [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[7] See for example: “Putin’den Erdoğan’a: Anayasaya aykırı hiçbir eylem kabul edilemez.” İleri Haber [published online in Turkish 17 July 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[8] For example see: “Putin po telefonu obsudil s Merkel’ i Netan’yakhu ukrainskiye sobytiya.” [published online in Russian 16 April 2014]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[9] “Ukraina na krayu. Vozmozhnyye stsenarii razvitiya sobytiy.” Vechernyaya Moskva [published online in Russian 24 January 2014]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[10] One of the best descriptions of the events surrounding Mr. Öcalan’s flight and capture was published in the United States Central Intelligence Agency’s Studies in Intelligence series. See: Miron Varouhakis (2009). “Fiasco in Nairobi: Greek Intelligence and the Capture of PKK Leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999.” Studies in Intelligence. 53:1. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[11] A Russian language report about the Hürriyet Gazetesi article stated that the language of President Erdoğan’s letter in Russian used words that were ” stronger than ‘sorry’ but not as strong as ‘apology’.” Mr. Putin, it wrote, “approved the text, despite the fact that he found it a little closer to the Turkish position, because he read it as a request for forgiveness.” See: “Ramazan Abdulatipov vsplyl v istorii s izvineniyami Redzhepa Erdogana pered Vladimirom Putinym.” On Kavkaz [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[12] Gallia Lindenstrauss & Zvi Magen (2016). “The Russian-Turkish Reset.” FPRI E-Note 8 August 2016. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[13] According to the European Commission Fact Sheet dated 4 April 2016, “On 18 March 2016, EU Heads of State or Government and Turkey agreed to end the irregular migration from Turkey to the EU and replace it instead with legal channels of resettlement of refugees to the European Union. The aim is to replace disorganised, chaotic, irregular and dangerous migratory flows by organised, safe and legal pathways to Europe for those entitled to international protection in line with EU and international law. The agreement took effect as of 20 March 2016.” It provides for unauthorized migrants to be returned to Turkey and for Turkey to block “nee sea or land routes for irregular migration.” In exchange, Turkey received a payment in the amount of EU payment of €3bn (USD3.3bn). Last accessed 9 August 2016.

[14] “Turtsiya postavila EC ul’timatum po bezhentsam.” Lenta [published online in Russian 9 August 2016]. Last accessed 9 August 2016.

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Turkey’s Greater Unknowns

On July 15 at approximately 10 PM, an attempted coup d’etat was staged by elements of Turkey’s military. Parliament and the presidential palace were bombed. An assassination attempt was made on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Tanks took to streets, seizing the Bosphorus Bridge, now renamed the 15 July Martyrs Bridge in memory of the 230 Turks who died that night. Surviving the attack, Erdogan implored people to take to streets in response. Of the deceased, 145 were people protesting the attempt.

A 90-day state of emergency has been declared, giving the state sweeping powers in its pursuit of those allegedly complicit in the action. To date, approximately 60,000 soldiers, police officers, teachers, and civil servants have been suspended, detained, or placed under investigation. 6,000 arrested in a sweep anti-Gulen dragnet. 2,431 schools, unions, charities, and health care centers have been closed. Thirty-five percent (124 of 358) of Turkey’s generals and admirals are under arrest. Forty-two journalists were indicted. Gulen-related businesses are being shuttered. The government suspended the European Human Rights Convention. There are calls to reintroduce the death penalty.

The military and other state institutions have been significantly weakened and are now vulnerable. This is happening while jihadists kill scores of Turkish civilians, outright war is being fought against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents in the southeast, and the Turkish military is nominally engaged in the coalition against ISIS.

What is the likelihood of Fetullah Gulen’s extradition?

Fetullah Gulen is the clerical leader of the global Hizmet. A murky Islamic-social-educational movement comprised of various service-based organizations, its unifying theme is interfaith and cultural dialogue.  Gulen provides spiritual and executive direction from his Pennsylvania estate, where he has lived in exile since 1999. While Gulen was an erstwhile ally of the ruling AK Party (AKP), Erdogan is at present placing all blame for the attempted coup on Gulen and his followers and has asked the US to extradite him to Turkey.

The US and Turkey have had an extradition treaty since 1979. Officials at the Department of Justice are responding to Turkey’s extradition request. The Turkish state will have to bear the burden of proof, which includes an arrest warrant, statement of facts, and evidence that the offense is prosecutable in the US, although it occurred in Turkey. In sum, it is possible.

Current and past efforts to evidence crimes against the state were a categorical mockery; i.e. in the Sledgehammer cases of 2012, prosecutors presented the alleged 2003 coup plans on documents generated by Microsoft Word 2007. AKP needs to do better than that to win in a US federal magistrate’s court. And if Amnesty International can verify the accusations of suspected coup-plotters being beaten, raped, and tortured, then submitted confessions won’t count for much.

In case of no extradition – What’s the impact on US-Turkey relations?

If a federal judge denies the extradition request, the judgment will likely be problematic for US-Turkey relations. The latter will see it as a political decision, rather than a genuine legal ruling.

At greatest risk would be the end the government’s (i.e. the ruling and two largest opposition parties’) tolerance of continued US material and financial support of a ground force highly effective in killing ISIS recruits in Syria – the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Then, there’s the US Air Force’s use of the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey, from which at least 25 sorties are flown daily. Without it, American strike capabilities in Syria would be drastically limited.

Finally, there’s the concern of Turkey withdrawing from NATO. The USSR is no more, anti-Americanism is running exceptionally high, the European Community staggers from crisis to crisis (and it is not likely Turks believe they’ll someday be living in an EU Member State, according to polls), so what’s the point as long as there is trade? Diminished sovereignty in exchange for what, exactly?

Yet another go at alliances on eastern horizons?

Something rather extraordinary happened in late 2013. After centuries of wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, topped off with decades of teeth bared at the border between the USSR and Turkey, then prime minister Erdogan proposed the idea of a Turkish bid to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Comprising member states such as Russia, China, and Uzbekistan, this Eurasian political, military, and economic group is as far in aims and practices from the EU as it is geographically. Primarily a swipe at the EU’s foot-dragging on Turkey’s EU membership accession process, it nonetheless struck a rather anxious chord in the West.

Fed up with constant cries of an increasingly “authoritarian” Turkey in the halls of European capitals, worn of limited sovereignty, and boiling mad over what will be a lengthy extradition process regardless, might Erdogan throw up his hands and be done with whole affair?

And enmity between Turkey and Russia over the former’s downing of the latter’s jet in November last year? Well, a genuinely authoritarian Turkey would be a boon to the geostrategic interests of Putin, whose cronies seize each and every opportunity to weaken the Trans-Atlantic Alliance and the EU. Values are a feel-good luxury when one is a political animal of such ruthless caliber. Case in point: Erdogan finally came around to apologizing for the affair to Putin just last month and is set to fly to Moscow on August 9.

Is a broader witch hunt coming?

This remains to be seen. If the ruling party’s previous court-approved purges such as Ergenekon and the aforementioned Sledgehammer afford a guide, then the spies are in the shadows and evil-doers at every pass. The sheer magnitude of detentions, arrests, and investigations suggest that a greater net may be soon cast.  

Yet there is a silver lining. Turkish entities once considered enemies of AKP rejected the attempt outright. Backed into a corner, Erdogan took full advantage of the video chat application FaceTime—despite his repeated attacks on social media—to call citizens to the streets. This was broadcast live by CNN-Turk, previously lambasted by the president with accusations of working to undermine the government. On July 24 the main opposition party CHP and AKP held the joint “Republic and Democracy” rally in Istanbul on the following day. The following Monday, Erdogan met with the leaders of all major political parties (except the People’s Democratic Party – HDP) to discuss post-coup plans and measures. Could the base for a limited-but-unifying common ground be forming in a society otherwise toxically divided?

Consider that Turks of every political and social color came out in solidarity to protest the Friday coup attempt. The message was this:  We’re done. We’ve moved on from those days. Our rights to democratically participate in our own governance won’t be denied yet again.

These are the same Turks who voted down the mighty AKP in June 2015, forcing them to try to form a coalition government after years of parliamentary dominance. Why? AKP was bruised by corruption scandals and, perhaps more importantly, polls consistently indicated that Turks were weary of their president’s efforts to corral and then enlarge executive powers. Unfortunately, the renewed war with the PKK in the south changed that trend with November’s elections. People quite like stability, after all. Yet coupled with last summer’s election and strikingly unified stances taken on and after July 15, there is a genuine sign of hope, and one most deserving of our respect.

Editor’s Note: In view of the current ambiguities in Turkey concerning academics and journalists, the author wishes to remain anonymous.

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.


The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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Turkey’s Parliamentary System has a Presidential Stage-Manager

In the summer of 2015, I wrote a profile of Turkey’s electoral system and noted the following:

“In essence, the [June] 2015 election was not only a high stakes gamble for the Kurds, it was also a referendum on Erdoğan himself and his ability to affect the structure of the Turkish electoral system.”

Nearly a year later, on May 5th of 2016, Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was pressured by strongman Erdoğan to resign from his position, and on May 22nd the seemingly more pliable Binali Yildirim was elected in his place as the leader of the AKP and new prime minister of Turkey.

Ancient World Map of Turkey

Meanwhile, on May 20th, Turkey’s parliament voted in favor of a law that will lift the legislative immunity of 138 parliamentarians, allowing them to be prosecuted for outstanding offenses, whereas before they were protected. While the parliamentarians who will now be subject to prosecution are not all from one party, the law is clearly meant to target members of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose two co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, both face potential prosecution.

The international community is not blind to the connection between these two developments or to the concerning tendencies of the man pulling the strings behind them both: Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan.

For some time now, it has been apparent that Erdoğan has harbored aspirations to increase the executive power of the president in Turkey. Yet, in response to the obstacles he has encountered in his quest to formally—that is, constitutionally—change Turkey’s government structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan’s tactics have become increasingly varied and unconventional.

Until he is able to obtain the political capital to overhaul the parliamentary system completely, Erdoğan has busied himself by slowly chipping away at it from within by increasing his own de facto power, ignoring rules meant to ensure a separation of powers, and manipulating the political landscape to set the stage for a constitutional referendum.

Erodgan’s plan for the June 2015 elections was for the AKP (the party which he had formerly led and of which he is still the unofficial leader, despite the fact that the Turkish president is, by law, not allowed to be affiliated with any political party) to win enough seats in the parliament to constitutionally transform Turkey into a presidential system. In terms of numbers, this means that he was hoping for the AKP to win 367 out of 500 parliamentary seats to unilaterally pass the measure. Or, in a more likely scenario, he hoped to garner the support of 330 out of the 500 parliamentary votes in favor of changing the constitution in order to send the measure to the Turkish people in a public referendum.

Yet last summer Erdoğan fell well short of his goal in large part due to an aspect unique to Turkey’s electoral system: the country’s extremely high electoral threshold.

At 10%, Turkey’s electoral threshold is the highest in the world, meaning that a party must win a minimum of 10% of the total vote in order to earn any seats in the parliament. In most countries with a threshold, that number is closer to 5%. This excludes smaller-sized parties from participating in the parliament while over-representing larger parties.

In the June 2015 election, Kurdish candidates who had previously run as independent candidates out of fear of not reaching the 10% threshold should they have run as a party, decided to run for the first time as the HDP. The Kurds won 13.1% of the vote, securing 80 seats in parliament, while the AKP only managed to win 258 seats.

A snap election was held in November of 2015 after a summer of violent clashes between the Turkish government and Kurdish nationalists as well as coalition talks that failed to lead to the formation of a functional government. The November election led to results more favorable for Erdoğan, but still not sufficient for amending the constitution. The AKP won 317 seats (still short of the 330 needed for a public referendum), the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 134 seats and 40 seats respectively, and the Kurdish HDP won 59 seats after just surpassing the electoral threshold with 10.7% of the vote.


Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, Erdoğan’s newest pawn, has not been subtle about his intentions in the position. Just after he assumed office, he gave a speech in which he stated:

“The most important mission we have today is to legalize the de facto situation, to bring to an end this confusion by changing the constitution…The new constitution will be on an executive presidential system.”

It is becoming more and more apparent that Turkey has a parliamentary system on paper but has become a presidential state in practice. Turkey is not the only country masquerading as something that it is not. Brazil has a presidential system that, because of the high number of operational parties, acts as a de facto parliamentary system. As Brazil experiences its own political controversies, this has raised some interesting questions about how to oust an unpopular leader within this convoluted political system.

The biggest problem with Turkey is that its de facto presidential system seems to be teetering on the edge of authoritarianism and nobody is sure quite how far Erdoğan will go in his quest for power.

There is no doubt that a referendum and constitutional change is the strongest and longest-lasting method for changing the Turkish system from a parliamentary to a presidential one. This still seems to be Erdoğan’s goal, yet the developments of the past month show that there are other political tools that Erdoğan is using to slowly change the way the Turkish government operates and, more troublingly, to concentrate his own political power.

Last June I thought the success of the HDP had quelled Erdoğan’s presidential aspirations, at least in the short-term; today, I feel there is little that will stop him.

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Is Turkey’s Military Reentering Politics?

Hulusi Akar, the recently selected chief of Turkey’s military, confronts a very tense, if not perilous environment. His August appointment occurred amid political uncertainty and increased security concerns. The Turkish government has been at a virtual standstill since last June’s general election, unable to forge a viable coalition based on the results. Shortly thereafter, after a 2 ½ year ceasefire, fighting renewed between Ankara and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement, reigniting a bloody struggle which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives over the past thirty years. Economic uncertainty adds to the nation’s anxiety, along with neighboring Syria’s strategic and humanitarian dilemmas. Another national vote is scheduled for November 1, but recent polling shows little if any change per voter sentiments.

In the past, such circumstances would have prompted the Turkish military to express serious concerns as to how the country was being managed. If civilian authority didn’t heed these warnings, a coup d’etat would usually ensue.  The last thirteen years of Islamist rule has effectively ended the military’s political interventions, albeit by questionable means.  Then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a series of investigations that accused the armed forces and alleged civilian cohorts of plotting to overthrow their duly elected government.  These probes are riddled with controversy, begetting trials which have purged large swaths of senior officers from the various branches. The overall result has subjugated the Turkish military to non-political status, ostensibly creating a new generation of leadership that respects civilian governance by not meddling in it.

General Akar represents this changing of the guard. His philosophical bearings noticeably differ from his predecessors, especially concerning Islamist politics. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, religious activism was a red flag for the officer corps.  There are several episodes in Turkey’s political history where the military deemed Islamist-based organizations to be threatening the nation’s secularist precepts and subsequently were disbanded. A decade plus of the AKP’s governance has effectively chastened the armed forces disposition on this matter.

A more pressing topic for the military these days is national unity.   The renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while there’s political impasse raises various questions and concerns throughout Turkish society. Heightening the uncertainty is the increased presence of homegrown radical jihadist networks within Turkey. Much of their material and financial support comes via next-door Syria as well as Iraq, denoting lax, if not compromised border security. (A similar observation can be made about the massive outflow of Syrian refugees from Turkey’s Aegean provinces towards Europe.) Together, the Kurdish and border issues convey an overall impression of teetering state authority.

Another indication of growing restiveness recently appeared at several funerals for soldiers and policemen killed in the latest round of battling the PKK. Their burials have become an outlet for voicing discontent with the current state of affairs. Much of the disgruntling has been directed at Mr. Erdogan, whom mourners accuse of deliberately instigating combat for his own political purposes. The most prominent case occurred at an August funeral ceremony when a uniformed Lieutenant Colonel accused Erdogan of being responsible for his younger brother’s death. It was a widely televised incident, yet pro-government media outlets avoided reporting the officer’s protest and overall clamor. In order to avoid further embarrassment, Ankara subsequently restricted access to these interments, thereby curbing journalistic coverage. Additional methods have been employed to offset the protests via government-friendly social media networks (who accused the Lieutenant General of being a “terrorist” and “PKK sympathizer”) and indictments.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the funeral demonstrations is that they are happening in areas soundly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s policies. While the AKP effectively represent these citizen’s interests, many questions have arisen about the ceasefire’s collapse and the underlying motives which caused it.

There’s a broad consensus that Mr. Erdogan created the present atmosphere in order to avenge last June’s election results. The  Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) foiled plans that would have allowed Erdogan greater executive authority.  The HDP’s higher than expected vote tally came at the expense of Erdogan’s AKP, ending the latter’s one party dominance since 2003. Adding insult to injury, the HDP is a Kurdish-oriented party that serves as the PKK’s political representative. When Mr. Erdogan was Prime Minister, he took an enlightened stance towards the HDP/PKK arrangement. As President Erdogan, it’s been a complete reversal. The HDP is no longer viewed as an emissary seeking a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish situation, but a political opponent whose eighty parliamentary seats block the path to an autocratic presidency.

A campaign to discredit HDP is underway which aims at exploiting its PKK connection. There are indications that the PKK wasn’t surprised by recent events and were readily prepared for a new round of warfare.  Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Erdogan is taking a huge gamble that will result in a  Pyrrhic victory. The military recognizes what’s at stake and has so far refrained from overstepping boundaries that have been established during the AKP’s reign.  This could change however, depending upon the November 1st election results.


The horrific bombing which recently occurred in Ankara has further heightened pre-election tensions. Indications point to Islamic extremists being responsible for the attack, namely as a warning about Turkey’s Syria policy. The incident has also widened AKP/HDP hostilities. There is a general consensus that the government didn’t adequately safeguard the largely Kurdish gathering. The claim has become politicized with both the HDP and AKP accusing each other of complicity with the operation. Instead of a nation uniting over this tragedy, societal polarization prevails.

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Turkey’s Competing Strategic Cultures: Part 4 – Now and Into the Future

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

Scholars of strategic culture have noted that multiple strategic cultures can exist in the same country or community. Indeed, this is true of the concept of culture writ large. As Alastair Iain Johnston argues, “the diversity of a particular society’s geographical, political, cultural, and strategic experience will produce multiple strategic cultures….” This is certainly the case in Turkey where two elites have produced two competing strategic cultures – one republican and the other neo-Ottoman.

The rise of the neo-Ottoman strategic culture and the slow decline of the republican one have been the subject of this series so far. Both strategic cultures were elite driven (as strategic cultures almost always are). Republican strategic culture rose from the traumatic dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which lost its populous, prosperous European territories from the early 19th century through to the First World War. This process culminated in the never-enacted Treaty of Sevres, which sought to end Turkish control of the Straits, put Smyrna under Greek suzerainty and then sovereignty, and carve out independent Armenian and Kurdish states from Eastern Anatolia. Turkish nationalists prevailed in the end under the inspiring leadership of Mustafa Kemal. These experiences and the hard realities of geography forged a strategic culture that was obsessed with homogeneity and internal unity, distrustful of outside powers (particularly Russia), saw security as limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity, slow to compromise, and fearful of getting dragged into outside conflicts.

Republican strategic culture is now being challenged and even, in some ways, superseded by a neo-Ottoman strategic culture – the product of a different elite. Mustafa Kemal disestablished Islam’s political role as he forged the Turkish Republic and the military and government bureaucracy served as reliable guardians of the principle of laicism. But in the aftermath of Turkey’s 1980 coup, a spectrum of devout political actors, including Islamists from the Milli Görüş, found more fertile soil in which to grow. The military and republican elites turned to the Turkish Islamic-Synthesis to stave off far leftist ideologies that, as they saw it, almost tore Turkey apart in the late 1970s. They enacted educational reforms that gave religious actors more room to maneuver. Turgut Özal, who from deputy prime minister to prime minister to president in the 1980s, embodied many of the transformational reforms of the era in the political, religious, military, and social spheres. He championed a more forward-leaning, activist foreign policy. While he was often stymied in these efforts by the Turkish Armed Forces, he set the stage for the more assertive strategic culture now seen embodied by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture accepts diverse, subnational identities; prefers more balance in Turkey’s Western-Eastern orientation; seeks greater regional power, if not regional hegemony; favors activism and involvement, particularly in the Middle East and broader Muslim world; and views security as a far broader concept than territorial integrity. In this entry, I will briefly address how Turkey’s two strategic cultures are interacting with two key issue facing Turkey today: Syria and the Kurdish problem. I will then discuss one case where Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture is clearly ascendant and dominant: post-Arab Spring Egypt.

Syria: Problems with a Neighbor

Bashar al Assad’s Syria was once the testing ground of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine. Erdoğan and Assad seemed to have become friends and even vacationed together. That was then. The Syrian civil war broke out and now Erdoğan and Assad are deadly enemies, with the former supporting a wide range of rebels, including a wide range of Islamists, who seek to depose the Alawite-dominated regime. Throughout the course of the conflict, Turkey’s political opposition parties have loudly and consistently protested Erdoğan’s leadership on this issue, accusing him of adventurism and recklessness (echoing opposition criticisms of Özal back in the day). From Kurds to Alevis to republicans and beyond, many Turks have serious objections with Erdoğan’s Syria policies. And as much as he grumbles about Western power and foreign lobbies, Erdoğan is still afraid of acting boldly without Western (and particularly American) backing. Erdoğan is therefore constrained. He is unable and unwilling to follow through on the strategic culture he has been so instrumental in advancing.

Kurds: Trying to Answer the Eastern Question

The Kurdish problem is perhaps the most interesting illustration of the tension between Turkey’s two strategic cultures. A restive Kurdish population has been the biggest challenge to the homogenous Turkish identity the modern Republic has sought to establish. Both Özal, himself of partial Kurdish extraction, and Erdoğan extended more political and social rights to Turkey’s Kurds than they previously enjoyed. Under Erdoğan, the Kurds enjoy greater freedom to use their own language and organize as Kurds. And in the aftermath of America’s second war in Iraq, the Turkish government forged ties with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and started peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which the Turkish state had been fighting since the 1980’s. A peace deal with the PKK would involve even greater Kurdish freedoms in exchange for PKK disarmament and demobilization.

And then two strands of Turkish policy collided. Just as the PKK talks had reportedly reached discussions about disarmament, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploded out of Syria into Iraq, seizing much of the country’s north and west, threatening the KRG, among others. ISIL also advanced on Kobane, one of three main Syrian Kurdish enclaves that had enjoyed relative autonomy for the last two years. While Turkey could accept military relief and support for the KRG, Kobane was a different matter. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the predominant Syrian Kurdish faction and is affiliated with the PKK. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been effective in the field against ISIL previously, but talk of arming them came up against serious opposition from Ankara. A tension was thereby revealed between a neo-Ottoman strategic culture that sought to advance Turkish power abroad and accept sub-national identities and a republican strategic culture that was threatened by challenges to internal unity.

Egypt: Neo-Ottomanism Ascends

As the so-called “Arab Spring” took off in Egypt, then Prime Minister Erdoğan and his foreign minister saw this as their moment to shine and exert Turkey’s fatherly influence on this emerging Middle Eastern democracy and former Ottoman territory. As it rose to power, it did not take long for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to cool to Erdoğan’s advances, although this did not decrease his desire to woo them with the so-called “Turkish Model.” When the Brotherhood was deposed, Erdoğan harshly condemned the coup as an affront to democracy and has since sheltered Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including a body that resembles a sort of government-in-exile. Erdoğan continues to condemn Egypt’s new government every chance he gets. Turkey is not only missing out on a healthy relationship with Egypt – its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also strained over the issue, aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood at a time these Gulf states have banned the group.

These examples demonstrate to different extents the tension that still exists between republicanism and neo-Ottomanism. Turkey’s republican strategic culture is far from irrelevant and still exerts influence over the military, opposition parties, and even explains some of the hesitancy of the ruling AKP, the key vehicle of neo-Ottoman strategic culture.

Why is this? Strategic cultures change slowly – often very slowly. Dominant strategic cultures are resilient even in the face of revolutionary strategic change (continuity between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation provide a good example of this). One reason for this, and one that certainly applies to Turkey, is that bureaucracies are stubborn – a simple, yet under-acknowledged factor in the study of strategic culture.

Where does all this mean for U.S.-Turkish relations? It is hard to say. I will focus here on two points: the historic difficulties of U.S.-Turkish relations and the limits of personal diplomacy. Since Erdoğan rose to power, Western op-ed pages have regularly worried about Turkey’s reliability as an American ally. These op-eds constitute a genre of their own They reflect on Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, Islamist leanings, anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric, and his general bombastic and stubborn style. The tone of these op-eds has intensified in the context of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s tolerance (and worse) of violent Islamist networks, its refusal to allow U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik as a base against ISIL, and Ankara’s resistance to come to the relief of the besieged Turks of Kobane have left many American observers frustrated and angry. In these op-eds, vexing Turkish policies are always juxtaposed with the simple fact that Turkey is a NATO ally as if they are asking: “How could this be? They are in NATO!”

Unfortunately, people who write op-eds for a living often have a blinkered view of history and this is especially true for those penning op-eds in this genre. The fact of the matter is, Turkey has almost always been a rather difficult ally, even at the height of the Cold War when republican strategic culture reigned. For example, this is not the first time Ankara has restricted U.S. usage of Incirlik. The air base has long been, as one reviewer put it, “a pressuring mechanism in the hands of Turkey to gain concessions from the US.” In 1970, Turkey told Washington not to use the air base to relieve Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom during Black September or to supply Israel in 1967 (although the United States did both anyway, just as Washington more recently resupplied the Kurds of Kobane in the face of objections from Ankara). In 1967 and 1974, Turkey nearly went to war with Greece – another NATO ally. In 1974, Turkey actually did seize northern Cyprus despite American objections (and thought they had sunk two Greek warships, when in fact it was a friendly fire incident against Turkish naval vessels). In response, the United States imposed an arms embargo that impacted U.S.-Turkish military relations until it was lifted during the Carter Administration. While the character of the challenges presented by Turkey have changed in line with its strategic culture, a recalcitrant, difficult Turkey is nothing new and exclusive to neither republican or neo-Ottoman strategic cultures. So before someone writes another op-ed about how uniquely impossible Erdoğan is, they should take a beat and view today’s problems in historical perspective.

During President Obama’s first term, he depicted Erdoğan as his one of his most important international friends. The president directed considerable charm and attention to strengthening and maintaining the U.S.-Turkish relationship, talking to Erdoğan regularly. But personal diplomacy does not always pay off. Turkey has gradually become a more authoritarian place and its foreign policies have been, from Washington’s perspective, far from ideal. But we cannot blame Obama for this. The forces at work driving Turkey’s foreign policies and strategic cultures are bigger than Obama and bigger than Erdoğan. Strategic culture is manifested in personalities and represented by them more than it is driven by them. I hope the United States applies this lesson, not just to Turkey, but to dealings with other allies and especially with rivals such as Russia and China.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. The author would like to thank Soner Çağaptay, Michael Koplow, Bill Park, Joshua Walker, and Chase Winter for their input and mentorship in all matters Turkey. 

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Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 3 – From Republican to Neo-Ottoman

(Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.)

Coups are a constant reference point in Turkish politics. This is not surprising given the fact that the country has experienced three of them, plus a military intervention into politics in the late 1990s that has been dubbed a “post-modern coup.” The 1980 coup occupies a uniquely salient position in Turkey’s historical memory and contemporary politics. It was the most far-reaching in terms of its remaking of the Turkish polity and the most heavy-handed.  Its masterminds – real and imagined – are routinely condemned and disparaged for their repressive measures. Just this past summer, the two surviving coup leaders, including General Kenan Evren, who served as Turkey’s self-appointed president for most of the 1980s, were sentenced to life imprisonment.  In 2010, amidst efforts to reform the Turkish Constitution, which was heavily revised by the 1980 coup leaders, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused those opposing reforms to be defenders of the coup. He read aloud letters from people who were executed during the coup with tears welling up in his eyes and described the constitutional referendum as a way to “face the torture, cruelty, and inhuman practices of Sept. 12, 1980.”

Ironically, surveying the landscape of Turkish history, it is clear that no event contributed to the rise of Turkey’s new, Islamic-oriented strategic culture more than the 1980 coup. Given the fact that the coup was launched precisely – like those before it – to maintain and defend the republican order, how can this be?

In the previous entries in this series I explained the concept of strategic culture and how it can illuminate our understanding of Turkish national behavior. I discussed the roots, rise, and character of Turkey’s republican strategic culture out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and the violent struggles that followed. In this entry, I will examine the roots, rise, and character of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture. And in pursuit of that aim, no event is more crucial to understand than the 1980 coup and the political reforms that followed.  But how can we characterize the neo-Ottoman strategic culture?

  • Accepting of diverse identities internal to Turkey, including ethnic and especially Islamic identity.
  • A rebalancing of Western-Eastern orientation.
  • A desire to become the region’s major political, military, and economic power.
  • A related ethos of international activism and even interventionism, particularly in the Middle East.
  • A conception of security interests reaching far beyond territorial integrity.

If republican strategic culture was a rejection of Ottoman universalism and expansionism, neo-Ottomanism is, in turn, a return to these qualities and a rejection of republican constraints. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture (Malik Mufti calls this an “imperial” strategic culture in his excellent Daring and Caution in Turkish Strategic Culture, which has heavily influenced my thinking here)* is a major departure from the republican strategic culture. Now, the external world is a source of opportunity for the spread of Turkish power. And the very idea of Turkish power is now more imperative and far broader in its application. It includes Turkey’s ability to realize its will outside of its borders, even  intervening in internal political matters in other states across the Muslim world.

How does this bring us to the 1980 coup? The coup kicked off three intertwined developments that enabled the rise of a new, Islamic-oriented elite that has come to change Turkey’s strategic culture: the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, the transformative leadership of Turgut Özal, and neo-liberal economic reforms.  These will be discussed below to explain the rise of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture.**

The late 1970s were turbulent years for Turkey. From December 1978 to the coup in September 1980, there were nearly 9000 violent incidents across Turkey, with over 3500 people killed and over 10,000 people wounded.  By 1980, almost half of Turkey’s 67 provinces contained so-called “liberated zones.” The far left battled the nationalist far right. The economic turbulence of this period played no small role in driving the political violence of the 1970s. The Turkish economy languished, feeding instability.  While industrialization and production proceeded, the expansion of the manufacturing sector was not met with a growth in jobs sufficient to take in the labor force bleeding out of the shrinking agricultural sector. Foreign trade was dismal. Unemployment reached 11 percent. Seven months before the coup, consensus formed for a transition from centralized planning of industry and import substitution industrialization to an export-led neo-liberal development model. Özal, during this period, was an economic technocrat with political ambitions. In January 1980, he was charged with implementing a liberalizing economic reform program spurred by the IMF as head of the State Planning Organization and Deputy Under-Secretary of the Prime Minister (then Demirel). 

In the context of the Cold War and Turkey’s own internal divisions, the greatest concern for the Turkish Armed Forces was the far left. They saw far left militants and activists as serious threats to the internal unity of the state being sponsored by a fundamentally hostile Soviet Union. The religious right armed itself as well, but was not a major player in the political violence that wracked Turkey. They did, however, hold a series of provocative rallies during which they chanted for sharia (Islamic law) and the remaking of the Turkish state into a theocracy. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran had provided an example that no one in the Turkish Armed Forces cared to emulate.

With alleged support from the United States, General Kenan Evren planned and launched a coup on September 12, 1980. Tens of thousands were arrested, weapons were seized, and politicians were deposed.

From 1980 to 1983, the Turkish Armed Forces set about remaking the country’s social and political fabric into something more durable. Schools were purged, curricula rewritten, and existing political parties banned. General Evren became president and stayed in that role, wielding veto power until 1989. A new constitution was approved in 1982. Leftist leaders and groups bore the brunt of the crackdown. After the coup, Özal was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Economic Affairs.  The military regime, in a departure from its preference for state planning, chose to continue down the path of liberalization.  As a part of its transition to a neo-liberal development model, Turkish imports and exports took off in the post-coup period, more than doubling from 1979 to 1981. And GNP rose, although inflation remained high (but far lower than it had been in the late 1970s). Trade took off.

Evren’s regime attempted to bolster the Turkish right and infuse it with Islam in what became known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. This ideology, intended to counter leftism, had its roots in the Intellectuals Hearth, a movement started in the 1960s that sought to bridge the divides across the political right between far right nationalists and the devout. Banu Eligur, in her excellent study of Turkish Islamism, explains, “The nationalist intellectuals associated with the Hearth viewed Islam not only as a crucial part of Turkish culture, but also as a part of the ideological context of society.” Like elsewhere in the Muslim world during this time, Islam was understood to provide a strong barrier against communism. This is not to say that the Turkish state began to sponsor and endorse Islamism, but it became far more tolerant of a spectrum of Islamic political activism as a bulwark against subversive leftism. Tapper, in his classic volume Islam in Modern Turkey, tells us “Proponents of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis wanted an authoritarian but not an Islamic state: religion, the essence of culture and social control, must be fostered in schools, but it must not be politicized.” Still, Eligur argues that this “represented a fundamental shift in state ideology away from Kemalist secularism.” This led to a few contradictions in Turkish policy (religious principles were still constitutionally banned from political life) leading left wing secularists and Islamists themselves to criticize the state.  Eligur explains, “As a result of the military’s strategy, the process of Islamization in society grew stronger than ever.”

Civil elections took place in 1983 under very strict controls. Only three parties were permitted to participate. Among them was Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party. His party won a majority of seats and he formed a government by December. He was therefore able to solidify and sustain the liberalizing economic reforms as Prime Minister once the transitional period was over. The Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party, founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1983, was one of the parties that was at first banned from national elections, but it was allowed to be otherwise active. Martial law remained in effect for some years after. Key reforms were enacted that made religious education mandatory and provided religious groups more room to maneuver. 

Özal himself embodied many of the reforms of the period beyond just economics. He, the first neo-Ottoman national Turkish leader, set the stage for Erdoğan’s successful offensive against the republican strategic culture. Özal was devout without being an Islamist, although he ran in the 1970s unsuccessfully on the Islamist National Salvation Party ticket before going to work for Demirel’s Justice Party. As Metin Heper explains (pdf):

[Özal’s] father, Mehmet Sıddık, was a devout Muslim, having played a significant role in Özal’s religious beliefs and practices. At different periods in his life, Özal regularly attended the Naksibandi Brotherhood’s İskenderpaşa Dergahı (Seminary) in Istanbul. Özal had connections with Mehmet Zahit Kotku (1897-1980), who was the Shaykh of the İskenderpaşa Dergahı.

Kotku was the spiritual guide of Erbakan, the founder of Turkey’s preeminent Islamist movement, Milli Görüş (National View, or Outlook).  Heper continues:

Although Özal opposed certain Republican ideals and policies, his reservations about those…were not informed by religious considerations. Particularly in the early Republican period, the Ottoman past had been relegated to the attic of Turkish history, as those centuries were considered a complete failure. In contrast, Özal held the Ottoman past in high regard.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey was faced with a turbulent Middle East and Özal often strained to get more involved in matters beyond Turkey’s borders, for which he was criticized by Turkey’s republicans for “adventurism.”  The Middle East had been mostly ignored by Ankara in the Cold War era, but Özal was not merely being an adventurist. He was, in part, responding to the fact that Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors – namely Iran, Iraq, and Syria – had developed strong and capable military forces, to include ballistic missiles that could threaten Turkey. Özal had a vision to make Turkey “one of the [world’s] ten or fifteen leading nations,” as he said in a 1992 speech. He said, “In the years of the Republic, we see a timid Turkey; a Turkey that remained closed in on itself and…that took care to have as little contact as possible with the outside world. We have constructed a kind of wall around ourselves….” Özal aimed to take down that wall.

Among the social and political consequences of economic liberalization championed by Özal was the growth of wealth and economic activity outside of traditional, state controlled networks and other business networks close to the state.  This began to expand the middle class and awaken the political influence and awareness of segments of Turkish society that had thus far been far more peripheral.  Erbakan’s Welfare Party was one of the beneficiaries of these developments. Özal became Turkey’s president in 1989 and served in that capacity until his untimely and suspicious death in 1993. Upon becoming president, Özal began to acknowledge and even foster Turkey’s sub-national identities, admitting publicly that he himself was partially of Kurdish extraction.

But something else happened: the Cold War ended. And with the end of this era, the Russian threat to Turkey suddenly and dramatically withered.  The end of this era left Turkey’s elites both relieved and vulnerable. They were of course pleased that an expansionist communist empire was longer at their border, but there was also concern that Turkey would now be seen as a less important ally to the West in a post-Cold War world. Özal said, “[I]n the balance of the future…we will hold two cards. One is the card we hold with the Western countries, and the other is the card we hold with these Islamic and Arab countries. Turkey is obliged to carry both these cards.”

Erbakan’s Welfare Party went from success to success in the 1990s and he even captured the prime ministry, only to be deposed by the 1997 “post-modern coup” after proposing educational reforms that displeased the military and pursuing openly Islamist foreign policy aims. In the years following the coup, Turkey’s religious right reconfigured itself and some younger Islamist leaders, including Turkey’s former and current presidents – Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan – broke from Erbakan and the Milli Görüş to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which promised to be Islamic without being Islamist and would embrace rather than heap scorn upon the West. Among some key early AKP leaders were former members of Özal’s inner circle from the Motherland Party.

Erdoğan and the AKP went from victory to victory at the ballot box since the 2002 national elections, making Erdoğan Turkey’s most powerful leaders since Atatürk and the AKP the most successful political party since the multi-party period began in the 1940s. The character of the AKP has evolved from a center-right party that attracted both liberals and the devout to a conservative party with mild authoritarian tendencies and an appetite for greater risks abroad. Many of the liberals who joined with the AKP out of exasperation with the military’s role in politics and the tiresome antics of the established parties have since left the AKP.

In the context of Turkey’s strategic culture and approach to foreign policy, there are some interesting parallels between Özal and Erdoğan besides their piety. In some cases, where Özal fell short, Erdoğan has succeeded. But in others Erdoğan has fallen into the same traps. Both sought to confront the military and shake up military personnel at the highest levels of leadership. Özal, as president, overruled the recommendation of the outgoing chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces and appointed his own choice, which was described by the media at the time as a “civilian coup.” He sought unsuccessfully to reduce the military’s influence over Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Erdoğan cooperated with the Gulenist-influenced police and judiciary to imprison nearly 15% of all Turkish generals and flag officers in an effort to coup-proof the state to protect the AKP’s democratic gains. One of Erdoğan’s most loyal lieutenants now runs the MİT. Both Özal and Erdoğan sought to bury old problems with neighboring states. When Özal ascended to the presidency, in the words of Mufti he “installed an underling in the prime ministry and ran Turkey “virtually by decree, and began agitating for a formal shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system.” Erdoğan has followed the same script. Özal tried and failed to smooth things over with Greece and Syria. Erdoğan implemented Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy (described here by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and evaluated less charitably here), which imploded with the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

Regardless, the republican elite that once governed the country and maintained its particular strategic culture has now been supplanted. They have been defeated at the ballot box and republican military guardians have been jailed, cowed, and largely silenced for the time being. Turkey has not totally abandoned its republican strategic culture, but it now has a stronger competitor evident in Turkey’s contemporary behavior, which I will discuss in the next entry in this series.


Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


* Many of the quotes in this article are translations from Mufti’s book and I recommend it highly.

** Rather than trying to discuss every major foreign policy event or crisis during the period under discussion in this article, I focus on the drivers and factors shaping this new, rising strategic culture. 

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Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 2 – The Rise of Republican Strategic Culture

(Read Part 1Part 3, and Part 4.)

Turkey is in the headlines for its reticence to intervene more aggressively in Syria, both in support of that country’s besieged Kurds in Kobane and against their besiegers, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  A keener understanding of Turkey’s fading, but still relevant strategic culture can illuminate these events and the drivers behind them. As I explained in the first part of this series, strategic culture provides a useful mechanism by which to understand the behavior of nations and the sources of this behavior.

The Ottoman centuries and – more specifically – the Ottoman decline produced a republican elite. And it is this elite class that defined and drove Turkey’s strategic culture, just as a new religious elite has slowly been redefining it since the 1980s. Shaped by the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the republican elite latched on to a strategic culture premised on

  • An obsession with homogeneity and unity;
  • The Sèvres Syndrome (a slightly misleading term), which results in an intense distrust of outside powers – often even allies – and the threat foreign enemies pose to internal unity;
  • A related narrow conception of security, limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity;
  • Reluctance to compromise;
  • And a subsequent reluctance to get involved in the conflicts of others.

How did Turkey get here?

When the 21 year old Mehmet the Conqueror rode victoriously into Constantinople in the spring of 1453, the Ottomans seemed unstoppable. And for a long time they were, but by the 17th century, decline set in.  Conquests continued through the 18th century, but there were now major reversals and defeats. Things had changed.

The Ottoman decline got particularly nasty by the 19th century. A nationalist wave crashed down upon the Empire’s European territories. By the end of the 19th Century, the Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria broke free and other territories were lost to Russia. The Ottoman Empire became “the sick man of Europe.” European powers all had various reasons to interfere in the internal affairs of the Empire – the management of debt, protection of Christian minorities, promotion of trade, and enforcement of major economic and commercial concessions known as the capitulations, which – as the Ottomans eventually saw it – left them debt-ridden, humiliated, and resentful of European power.

John Leech, ‘Punch’, September 17, 1853

And while this was all troubling to the Ottomans, Russia was the real problem. Russia, due to its geography and ambitions, was direct in its efforts to seize territory from the Ottomans. Over the course of three centuries, the Ottoman and Russian Empires went to war 13 times. Britain assumed a balancing role in the region, aiming to keep the Ottoman Empire intact enough to serve as a buffer zone between Russia and the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India, much like Afghanistan was seen as a buffer zone between Russia and India.

Most Ottoman territorial losses were accompanied by wars, many involving Russia, as well as massacres of Muslims by Christians and of Christians by Muslims as well as large, destabilizing population transfers. The Empire was slowly being torn apart while, at the same time, becoming more predominantly Muslim with every passing decade. The so-called Sevres Syndrome predated the Treaty of Sevres. Imagine nearly a century of territorial losses and Muslim refugees flooding into Anatolia and Istanbul and you begin to understand what happened next: the rise of the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, which effectively seized control of the Empire a few years into the 20th Century), the hardening of identities, an obsession with internal unity, and an intense fear of division. This is not to excuse crimes against humanity, but to view events from the Turkish perspective, which is crucial to understanding the formation of a Turkish strategic culture.

Punch, 1856: The great powers cutting up Ottoman territories with a map and scissors

By 1914, the Ottoman Empire barely had any European territories left. Ethnic violence within its territory and on its borders was common. Seven years earlier, the British and Russians signed a convention that settled many of their differences and the Ottomans felt left out in the cold. With few friends to turn to, Turkey grew close with Germany, with whom they cast their lot in the First World War, against their traditional foes, the Russians. In the chaos of the war, with death all around, the Armenians of Anatolia met a tragic fate. They were displaced by fighting, faced starvation, forced out of their cities and villages, and even – in many cases – massacred. From the Turkish perspective, there was a great fear that their last refuge – Anatolia – would be torn asunder.  Many Muslims were also killed and displaced in eastern Anatolia and Russia supported Armenian guerrilla bands. The war itself was an unmitigated strategic disaster. By the war’s end, the Ottoman Empire was no more, its capital and its non-Anatolian territories occupied by its enemies. There were 2,500,000 casualties out of a total Anatolian population of 12 million, not including the missing.

In 1919, winners of the First World War convened in Paris to discuss, among other things, the future of the now deceased sick man of Europe. Paul Helmreich writes in his magisterial history of the negotiations as they concerned the Ottomans:

Traditional imperial ambitions and national rivalries, supplemented by personal conflicts and prejudices on the part of the negotiators, dominated the negotiations between the leaders of various Western powers as they proceeded, both gleefully and acrimoniously, to partition the Ottoman Empire along nineteenth-century imperialistic lines.

Negotiations between the victorious powers turned into a disorganized, spiteful process that led the French, Italians, and Greeks to encroach upon Anatolia – most notably with the Greek seizure of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir), while also calling for the creation of Armenian and Kurdish states. This was too much for the Turkish nationalists to endure. Mustafa Kemal, a member of the Committee of Union and Progress and war hero organized the nationalist movement. At the head of a nationalist congress, he presented the National Pact which elucidated a nascent Turkish identity and strategic culture.

The Pact accepted the loss of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab territories, but insisted that those areas not occupied by the victorious powers at the time of the Armistice of Mudros that have a Muslim majority were the homeland of the Turkish Nation. The National Pact rejected any restrictions on Turkish independence and development. It asserted that free trade through the Straits would be a matter for Turkey and other relevant countries to figure out.

War broke out once more, with nationalists fighting Greeks, Armenians, the French, and anti-nationalist militias who supported the Sultan. The Allies sought to formalize the dismemberment and subjugation of the Ottomans with the Treaty of Sevres (August 1920). If implemented, it would have been far harsher than the Treaty of Versailles, which dictated terms to Germany at the end of the war.

Under the terms of the treaty, Turkey would lose of all of its non-Anatolian territories and sovereignty in parts of Anatolia. It would lose control of the Straits, agree to the occupation of its capital, commit to paying reparations, agree to an independent Armenia carved out of its eastern flank and assent to the possibility of an independent Kurdistan within a few years. The Sultan’s government also agreed to “transfer to the Greek Government the exercise of her rights of sovereignty” over Smyrna, Turkey’s most important Anatolian port city, now under occupation of the Greeks. After five years, the Treaty held that Smyrna’s citizens would have the option to vote to unify itself with the Kingdom of Greece.

The signing of the Treaty and the outright Greek invasion of Anatolia changed the nationalists’ fortunes. The elites and peoples of Turkey were disgusted and dejected by the terms of the Treaty, which was rejected by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalists. The nationalists were all that stood between the people of Turkey and Greek aggression. After a major initial defeat, Turkish nationalist forces recovered and decisively drove Greek forces back. Foreign powers began inking agreements with the nationalists, who were increasingly seen as Turkey’s real government. By 1922, non-Turkish forces had all departed or been driven from Anatolia and the parts of Thrace that now belong to Turkey. In July 1923, after eight months of negotiations, the Allied powers and Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne, which officially nullified many of the Allies’ ambitions as represented in the Treaty of Sevres and codified the bulk of Turkey’s National Pact.  

Turkey proclaimed itself a republic in October with Mustafa Kemal as its first president. In practice, in this early period, Turkey was a paternalistic autocracy. No other political parties were allowed to organize until years after his death. In March 1924, Turkey abolished the caliphate (the sultanate had been abolished two years prior). This was the start of Kemal’s offensive against the role of the Islamic faith and Muslim institutions in Turkish politics. Within several years, he had subordinated Islam to the state, drove religion out of politics, and placed religious institutions under strict state control and regulation. In 1934 he was granted the name Atatürk meaning “father of the Turks.”

What was the nature of the republican state founded by Atatürk? In the words of Carter Vaughn Findley, it was led by a “modernist intelligentsia” that coalesced around the military, “gained control of the state and then wielded state power to shape the nation to its specifications, rejecting or repressing whatever did not fit its model.” Atatürk’s disciples viewed his principles as “non-negotiable dogmas” expressed by the ”six arrows” of his party’s official ideology: nationalism, republicanism, laicism, statism, populism, and “transformation.” These were written into Turkey’s constitution. In Atatürk’s Turkey, the only identity that officially mattered was national identity: Turkish. Unofficially, Sunni Muslims who spoke Turkish as their first language were always privileged from the start, but the heterodox Alevis were also major supporters of the republican agenda. Yeşim Bayar writes, “By linking the presence of ethnic and linguistic diversity with threats to national security, national unity and political legitimacy, the political elite justified a variety of policies aimed at ethnic groups – ranging from assimilation to discrimination and forced resettlement.”

While Atatürk’s principles set out a clear vision and path to achieving them, Frederick Frey, writing in the mid-1970s, argued that they “pertained primarily to the first stage – the stage of elite modernization.” He continues: “It clearly had very little to say about the second stage – that of bringing mass elements into active participation.” The decades that followed Atatürk’s rule have been defined by this struggle over how the Turkish people, beyond the military-centric laic elite, would participate in politics and, in doing so, shape Turkey and its strategic culture.

Turkey had to rebuild itself and recover after the devastation of the First World War and violence that followed all while shaping itself into a modern nation, which also contributed to the development of the republican elite-driven strategic culture. Bruce Kuniholm summarized Turkey’s interests in this period in his excellent history, The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East:

…Turkey renounced expansionist, revisionist ventures and concentrated on internal transformation. International peace and hence the status quo were prerequisites to her development. Development, in turn, was necessary to assure continued independence. As a small power, Turkey followed a realistic policy which, while cognizant of international pressures and the global balance of power, remained rooted in her own, national self-interest.

The Turkish Republic was a status quo country. She signed nonaggression treaties with her neighbors and other regional and European countries, including the Soviet Union and Greece. When World War II broke out, anxiety across Turkey was high. Both sides tried to pull Turkey into the war, particularly the Allies. Turkey resisted these pressures, due – in equal measure – to fears of German retaliation and Soviet post-war intentions toward the Straits and Turkish territory. Turkey remaining neutral until Germany’s defeat was a foregone conclusion.

All of this fits quite well with the republican strategic culture mentioned at the start of this article. President İsmet İnönü said “our national policy completely rejects the mentality of seeking adventures abroad.” During a period of intense international peril, Turkish leaders executed a number of diplomatic maneuvers to keep out of the war. They focused on internal unity, rebuilding their economy and military, and extending and deepening Atatürk’s reforms. To an extent, one can discern the same concerns animating Ankara’s stubbornness over getting involved in the fight against ISIL, but this does not paint the full picture, as we shall see in the next entry in this series.

As World War II came to an end, the focus of the great powers – especially Moscow – was increasingly focused on the post-war order, including in Turkey’s neighborhood. In fact, Ankara’s reluctance to become embroiled in the Second World War can be explained more by its fear of leaving itself vulnerable to the Soviet Union than by German retaliation, especially as the war dragged on.  Turkey feared losing territory and control of the Straits to the Soviet Union as well as the spread of Soviet Communism. Turkey could no longer afford to be quite so inward looking. 

Britain, worn out and weakened by the war, could no longer balance against Soviet/Russian power. As communist power threatened to encroach on Greece, Turkey, and the rest of what became known as the “northern tier,” the United States assumed Britain’s traditional role with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. An American military assistance mission to Turkey was immediately dispatched and it endured for much of the Cold War. After paying a price of admission (Turkish participation in the Korean War), Turkey became a member of the new NATO alliance in 1952, aligning itself with the West against Russian aggression, which had previously been so perilous to the Ottomans. This defined Turkey’s overall strategic position for the duration of the Cold War, in sync with the republican elite’s strategic culture. The alliance secured Turkey’s sovereignty, allowing it to focus on internal development, but never again to the same extent that they could before the Cold War. Indeed, many key events of the Cold War tested Turkey’s strategic culture and drew out contradictions both internal to it as well as between it and the strategic reality that faced Turkey.

This overview of the experiences, geography, and ideologies that shaped Turkey and its strategic culture help explain its national behavior through the Cold War and even up through the 1990s.  The painful dismemberments of the late Ottoman period and the First World War as well as the tumult that followed have been salient to Turkey’s strategic culture. However, in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, a new strategic culture began to manifest itself. This will be the subject of the next installment in this series. 

Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Further reading:

– Dietrich Jung, “The Sevres Syndrome: Turkish Foreign Policy and its Historical Legacies,” American Diplomacy, August 2003

– Joanna Christobel Kidd, Turkey’s Participation in the European Union’s Common European Security and Defence Policy, 1998-2003 (King’s College London: DPhil Dissertation, 2009)

– Malik Mufti, Daring and Caution in Turkish Strategic Culture: Republic At Sea (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

– Güneş Murat Tezcür, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation (University of Texas Press, 2010).

– Yeşim Bayar, Formation of the Turkish Nation-State, 1920-1938 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part I

(Read Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.)

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently sworn in as the President of the Republic of Turkey, the ceremony did not lack in symbolism, much of it contradictory.

Erdoğan represents a shift in the nature of the Turkish state. He is a fundamental departure from every Turkish national leader before him and the most consequential Turkish political figure since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. Erdoğan emerged on the national stage out of the country’s Islamist Milli Görüş movement, which is often compared to the Muslim Brotherhood (although it differs in some key respects). After breaking with the movement in 2001, he took his Justice and Development Party (AKP) from victory to victory and was the country’s longest serving prime minister since İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s right-hand man.

Erdoğan’s rise to the presidency is not quite the coup de grâce to Turkish laicism that admirers and critics both imagine, but observers could be forgiven for seeing it that way. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Atatürk’s, has singularly failed to achieve any sort of meaningful electoral victory for years. Rather than nominating a presidential candidate that reflected the secular ideals of their party to face off against the Erdoğan juggernaut, they joined with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – an even more Kemalist-inclined party – to nominate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. A graduate of Islamic world’s premiere center of religious learning, Al-Azhar, and former head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, based in Jeddah, Ihsanoğlu was not the candidate secularists hoped to see. While many secularists condemned the CHP-MHP alliance for not sticking by their principles, others praised what they saw as a pragmatic recognition of the Turkish electorate’s center-right and religious orientation.

Regardless, Ihsanoğlu lost and a prominent CHP deputy was reduced to hurling a parliamentary rulings book at the Speaker of the Turkish General Assembly before Erdoğan’s swearing in. No one really could have defeated Erdoğan, even after a corruption scandal and mining disaster that left him bloodied. As such, the opposition’s presidential nominee represented something beyond the immediate contest — a signpost, pointing to where they now understand votes can be found in the future. Turkey has changed indeed. (Michael Koplow and Steven Cook wrote an effective analysis of the Ihsanoğlu nomination and its implications.)

After Erdoğan took the oath (which includes a promise to protect “the principle of a secular republic”), he went to Atatürk’s tomb, as is customary, to pay homage to Turkey’s founding father. He then went to continue the ceremony at Çankaya Mansion, the presidential residence (at least until now; Erdoğan will be the Turkish Republic’s first president that lives elsewhere). In his remarks there, Erdoğan vowed, “The era of the Old Turkey is over. We are now in the era of a New Turkey, the Great Turkey that carries the substance and spirit of the Republic.”

Erdoğan’s friends and foes alike would agree that this is indeed a new Turkey. Over the past eleven years, Erdoğan centralized power via his party, whose leaders represent a new Islamic-oriented elite driving national policy. The Ergenekon trials ended the battle over civil-military affairs in favor of a segment of the former camp. The AKP’s “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy has been strained if not shattered. Yet its foundational ideas based on Islamic identity still drive Turkish foreign policy and its chief advocate, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was promoted to the prime ministry. It seems that, perhaps, there has been a major shift in Turkey’s strategic culture – one that has its roots in the 1980s but has not fully manifested itself until much more recent times.

But what does that mean? What is strategic culture and why is it so important? And how can it help us better understand Turkey?

Strategic culture provides a useful mechanism by which to understand the behavior of nations and the sources of this behavior.

This concept and the best means by which to investigate it are hotly contested.  There are three generations of strategic culture scholarship. While the second and third generations illuminated some methodological shortcomings with the first, they did little to improve upon them, in my opinion. And since this isn’t a literature review, I’m not going to discuss them (but feel free to read a major critique of the first generation here).

The pioneers of the first generation included Jack Snyder, Colin Gray, and Ken Booth. Snyder coined the term, describing strategic culture as the “sum total of ideals, conditional emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behavior that members of the national strategic community have acquired though instruction or imitation and share with each other with regard to nuclear strategy.” Yes, nuclear strategy. This was 1977, still in the thick of the Cold War era. These thinkers were inspired, according to Gray, by Bernard Brodie’s observation that “good strategy presumes good anthropology and sociology.” One might imagine they couldn’t have helped but also be inspired by George Kennan’s incisive “Long Telegram” and subsequent Foreign Affairs article, signed X, which focused, as the title promised, on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” many of which were cultural, historical, and ideological.

As with all things regarding strategy, one can do much worse than starting with Colin Gray, who defined the concept as “modes of thought and action with respect to force, which derives from perception of the national historical experience, from aspirations for responsible behavior in national terms” and from “the civic culture and way of life.” He offered the most incisive and useful exploration of the concept of strategic culture in a 1999 article aptly sub-titled: “the first generation of theory strikes back.”

Gray argued that “different security communities and sub-communities (1) tend to exhibit in their strategic thought and behaviour [emphasis original] patterns that could be termed cultural, and that (2) strategic culture finds expression in distinctively patterned styles of strategic behaviour.” He defines strategic behavior as that “relevant to the threat or use of force for political purposes,” but strategy and strategic behavior encompass so much more than war and war-making. It includes the matching of ways and means in pursuit of national goals writ large and therefore involve economic, diplomatic, and informational behavior, in addition to force and its particular coercive properties.

As for culture, Gray prefers the definition offered by Raymond Williams who says culture is composed of three general categories: the “ideal,” the “documentary” – or “’the artefacts’ of intellectual and imaginative work in which human thoughts and experiences are variously recorded,” and the “social” – or the “description of a particular way of life which finds expression in institutions and ordinary behaviour.”

“Strategic culture,” argues Gray, “matters deeply for modern strategy, because the culture of the strategic players, individuals and organisations, influences strategic behaviour.”  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself touched on this when he said, “[T]he matter to which foreign policy most relates and on which it is most dependent is the state’s internal organization.”

Turkey has a distinctive approach to strategy that we can unearth and understand by examining its history, geography, political and military speeches, military strategies and organization, political organization, sense of nationality and identity, etc. And I argue that this strategic culture has been gradually experiencing a major shift since the 1980s and the pinnacle of this shift is best represented by the rise of President Erdoğan.

Turkey had a distinctive approach to strategy based on the experience of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the trauma of World War I and the war of independence that followed. The Turkish state was inward looking and obsessively focused on internal unity, strict control of religion, and a straightforward interpretation of Turkish identity that did not tolerate competition. In foreign affairs, it was not activist. It sought to stay out of foreign conflicts and to align with the West culturally, politically, and militarily. On the security front, its most important concern was its territorial integrity and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The United States quickly became its most valuable ally after World War II. 

Ever since the death of Atatürk, political power has been slowly devolving – in uneven fits and starts, often interrupted by coups – from the center to the periphery. The shift in Turkey’s strategic culture began with the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that followed the 1980s coup as well as the leadership of Prime Minister and, later, President Turgut Özal. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of the Welfare Party of the Milli Görüş movement. But we will get to that story soon enough.  

In Part II, I’ll discuss Turkey’s old, fading strategic culture. In Part III, I’ll turn to Turkey’s new strategic culture and the mechanisms that explain the shift. In Part IV, I’ll argue that this matters a great deal for the United States.

Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

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