Last year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigned for a new constitution that would change from a parliamentary to a presidential system. When German officials refused to allow his ministers to travel to Germany and woo its million-strong expatriate vote, he called them Nazis. He later also accused the German Chancellor of Nazism for saying that the European Union should reconsider its relations with Turkey — a veiled threat for suspending talks to bring it into the EU. Ankara and Amsterdam withdrew their ambassadors during a spat over the same campaign.
During a disastrous visit to Athens last December, Erdogan demanded the return of 10 fugitive officers who allegedly plotted an army coup in June 2016 that nearly unseated him, even though Greece’s Supreme Court ruled against their extradition. And he called for a revision of the Lausanne Treaty, which has established peace between Greece and Turkey for the last century.
But the worst clash was with the US. Last summer, Congress discussed imposing sanctions on Turkey over its refusal to release an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who had been imprisoned for two years for allegedly plotting against Erdogan, and was released last week, possibly to secure American support in Turkey’s standoff with Saudi Arabia over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
The US is also withholding delivery of F-35 stealth aircraft Turkey has bought because it is unhappy over Turkey’s increasingly close relationship with Russia. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor and Turkey plans to purchase Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles over the objections of NATO.
Above all, Erdogan wants to stay in power. The fragility of parliamentary majorities was brought forcefully home to his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the June 2015 election, which produced a hung parliament. AKP had ruled since 2002 but lost popularity after the Gezi Park uprisings two years earlier. Erdogan-backed plans to build a mall in the historic Istanbul park drew massive protests, which were cleared after days of rioting and heavy-handed policing.
Erdogan regained his parliamentary majority in a repeat election in November 2015, but the experience cemented his resolve to move to a winner-take-all presidential system. As Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump have shown, it’s possible to win office without a popular majority, because presidential systems are designed to produce a decisive result.
Second, Erdogan wants to avoid prosecution. Leaked telephone conversations in which he appears to be discussing illicit funds with his son could lead to a judicial investigation and indictment once he leaves office. As president, however, he has given himself the power to appoint top judges. Again, Erdogan might be taking a leaf from the Republican playbook. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell permanently altered senate majority rules (and ethics) for Supreme Court appointments, specifically in order to give his party greater influence in the judiciary.
Third, Erdogan wants to prevent the creation of a Kurdish state along his southern border, in Iraq and Syria, which could threaten to pull away the Kurdish-majority region of southeast Turkey. The US has armed and trained Kurdish militias to fight against the Islamic State in Syria, and they have been devastatingly effective. In the process, it has made an enemy of the Turkish establishment, which considers all Kurds potential terrorists and separatists.
Turkey’s allegedly defensive designs are also expansionist. The US rebuffed Turkey’s bid to participate in the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, thus preventing it from acquiring a role in the affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan, but the US was unable to prevent Erdogan from launching a military incursion in Syria this year, which resulted in the Turkish conquest of the Kurdish city of Afrin.
Turkey uses the Kurdish threat, whether real or imaginary, as a means of transforming Turkey from nation state, NATO member and US ally, to regional power. In further signs of regional ambition, Turkey has built a military base in Mogadishu, and is building an Adriatic naval base in Albania. In the next few years Turkey will take possession of an aircraft carrier, an expensive piece of equipment with no conceivable defensive use.
The United States eyes these ambitions warily. Turkey, by befriending Putin’s Russia, now straddles the east-west alliance system. And, the Second Gulf War having dissuaded Washington from Middle Eastern escapades, the US can contain Turkey only through proxies.
Erdogan has secured his historical position as a pre-eminent Turkish statesman, second only to the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He has increased the country’s economy fourfold. He has broken the stranglehold of Turkey’s westernising, secular elite over Turkish politics. And by bringing power and prosperity to the mass of Turkish Muslims, Erdogan has transformed his country’s view of itself in the region. What Erdogan wants is power, immunity and a fundamental revision of Turkey’s role in the Middle East. The question now is whether Erdogan can override Western objections to his authoritarian style of government and his dreams of projecting neo-Ottoman power beyond Turkish borders.
Based in Athens, John Psaropoulos writes and broadcasts for the Daily Beast, the Washington Post, the Weekly Standard and Al Jazeera English.