Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Is Turkey's Erdogan a control-freak who is losing his grip on the nation's security?

In times of crisis when violence stalks the land people cry out for a strongman to get a grip on the problem. But what if terrorism spawns chaos in a country already under the thumb of a strong man?
Turkey is in a uniquely awful position.
It now has its strongest president since the military coup in 1980, possibly since Ataturk himself ninety years ago. But President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s extraordinary skill in consolidating his power has not been matched by an ability to solve the country’s problems.
While Erdogan was drawing together all  the threads of authority in his hands in a still democratic Turkey, random killings, suicide bombings and civil war with the Kurds in the south-east have been spiralling out of control. 
Bizarrely, Erdogan is a control-freak who is not really on top of the threats facing his society. If anything his capricious style of government has bred them.
By arming and encouraging radical jihadis to fight Assad’s regime in Syria, Erdogan ignored the risks of blowback. When Assad’s regime was weak, the Kurds in Syria began to assert themselves. Erdogan moved to stop them establishing a Kurdish mini-state south of Turkey as threat to his country's integrity given its millions of Kurds, but the price demanded by the West for turning a blind eye to that was that Erdogan started a crack down on IS in Syria too. Previously, Turkey had in effect allowed IS and other radical anti-Assad but also anti-Kurdish forcesuse its border region as a safe area.  These two crackdowns set off terrorist attacks in Turkey. Kurdish groups primarily attacked the army and 
police but IS has targeted civilians.
His foreign policy too has veered from confrontation with Russia and Iran to partnership with them and public allegations that his chief Western ally, the USA, is behind the terrorism afflicting Turkey.
The economy has gone from boom to bust under Erdogan. Once he seemed to have achieved the miracle of successful mixing Muslim politics with the market economy. But the backwash of conflicts in Syria and Iraq plus terrorism terrifying away tourists has tipped Turkey into recession.
In the past a military strongman has acted to restore order in Turkey (usually brutally).
Back in September, 1980, General Evren launched a military crackdown on the bloody civil war raging between gunmen of the radical left and the radical right. At a heavy cost the army restored order and even promoted economic development – and a return to democracy. But after the fiasco of the Putsch last July, another military coup – at least a successful one - seems improbable.
The crackdown since the attempted coup hit the security services hard. The Presidential Guard was disbanded showing how insecure Erdogan feels. But more problematic for Turkish society at large has been the evident falling off in the efficiency of surveillance by Turkish intelligence and police.
Erdogan alleged that supporters of his bete-noire, Fetullah Gulen, had infiltrated police and intelligence. They had but with his approval until the two fell out so spectacularly. That split leaves the armed forces and internal security deeply divided, some under suspicion, others promoted for loyalty not ability. That is no recipe for effective counter-terrorism even if it makes another coup unlikely.  
Of course it would be desirable if there was a democratic way out of the current impasse. But Erdogan’s opponents in parliament are divided and their support base stuck among certain minorities like the secularists  gunned down on New Year’s Eve or Kurds under assault as treacherous separatists in Erdogan’s eyes.
Is Turkey becoming a sick man on the edge of Europe? A kind of Pakistan with the radical jihadis of Syria providing its own Taliban-threat? 
Sadly, after decades of promoting Turkey as a model for it to follow, the West sees that the country now risks slipping down the road pioneered by Pakistan, whose sponsorship of jihadis in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s backfired horribly after 2001 rather as Erdogan's backing of anti-Assad rebels regardless of their fundamentalist agenda has blown back into Turkey since 2015. 

Maybe, inside the ruling party, there are men ready to defy the president’s grip on power and anxious to replace him and his increasingly capricious way of ruling.  But I doubt if they have the numbers or the courage to take President Erdogan on. Turkey’s agony looks set to continue. Failure to stem the terrorist tide could lead to bitter splits in Turkish society as the blame-game for the violence and the insidious economic consequences begins. But given the country’s sensitive geopolitical location, chaos in Turkey means instability for the West too.

( A version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph (2nd January, 2017) and online: