Will the West Lose Turkey?

March 26, 2018 Updated: March 26, 2018

Relations between Turks and Western Europeans have always been fraught.

It takes a bit of historical perspective to remember that Europeans encountered Turks as one of the invading groups that regularly boiled out of Asia seeking conquest on their way to the English Channel.

With desperate fighting, Europeans stopped the Turkish onslaught at Vienna in 1683. Although little by little the Turkish monarchy became less dynamic and effective, the Ottoman Empire retained control of good portions of southern Europe and the Middle East.

Love was not lost between Europeans and Turks.

And, while by the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was dubbed the “sick man of Europe,” its control of the Dardanelles and thus Russian exit to the Mediterranean continued to give it strategic significance.

But with the outbreak of WWI, the Ottomans made a fatal error: they aligned with Germany and Austria-Hungary. Although German-organized Turkish forces repulsed British/Allied forces at Gallipoli, defeat of Germany and its allies resulted in disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the Ottoman domestic political structure.

Therewith followed an extended period of confused fighting, including a Greek invasion of Turkey (1919-22) and massive exchanges of populations between Greece and Turkey. Included in the chaos were the still historically disputed military and political actions regarding the Armenian population.

Ultimately modern Turkey emerged from the ruins in 1923. Led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the successful military leader in post-WWI fighting, this new country took a firmly pro-Western stance. Ataturk secularized society and politics, repressing Islamic activity, ending use of Arabic script, emphasizing Western clothing, providing education for all, giving women a more prominent role in society, and designing a political structure with democratic trappings but a strong presidency. The armed forces were placed in oversight to assure the continuation of the Ataturk structure.

And it worked. Turkey edged steadily closer to the West throughout the Cold War. A Turkish brigade fought in Korea; Ankara joined NATO in 1952. Although Greek-Turkish animosity remained boiling, acerbated by the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 following an attempted Greek-inspired coup and Ankara’s fears for Turkish Cypriots, NATO-Europe accepted Turkey, despite these “warts.”

As part of the U.S. global presence, Washington maintained military bases in Turkey and provided the Turkish armed forces with high quality military equipment and training to assure an effective counter to potential Soviet excursions in the region.

But with the end of the Cold War, Turkey began to appear superfluous so far as European interests were concerned. Ankara’s efforts to join the EU (for its obvious political benefits) starting in 1987 were delayed/sidetracked through 2016 when they were de facto suspended. Significant European leaders regarded Turkish westernization as veneer and were uninterested in giving tens of millions of Muslims free entry to the EU. Ankara remains frustrated with this cold shoulder.

And Now the Kurds

It is difficult to explain the Kurdish-Turkish passions to Americans. Imagine, perhaps, an insurgent Hispanic movement seeking to create an independent “Hispanistan” incorporating Southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. U.S. efforts to repress the movement stimulate greater violence—including terror bombings killing hundreds in major U.S. cities. An element of U.S. armed forces attempts a coup—which “loyal” forces suppress (and the suppression includes massive arrests of participants and prominent citizens not sympathetic to the Hispanics, but hostile to the government). No compromise appears possible.

In Turkey a longstanding Kurdish minority has sought greater autonomy; nationalistic Turks have been unresponsive. Efforts at accommodation have failed, and Turkish military efforts to suppress Kurds in border regions as well as discrimination against Kurdish citizens has generated ever greater domestic tension, including bombings killing hundreds.

The most prominent Turkish political leader of our era, Recep Erdogan, through a series of elections has gained ever greater power, depending for support increasingly on rural and Islamic-oriented citizens. Step by step, he has marginalized the westernized political elite.

The proximate cause for current Turkish political turmoil was the unsuccessful military coup in July 2016—demonstrating that when you strike at the king, you must kill him. Erdogan responded with massive arrests, incarcerations, and repression of media, democratic institutions, and every element that might be regarded as hostile. The upshot has been intense criticism and denunciation by humanitarian and other organizations, albeit not the United Nations.

Consequently, we face conundrums. Turkey is not run by League of Women Voters rules, and Erdogan is a brutal autocrat. Ankara, however, remains a vital player in Middle East politics whose support for U.S. objectives is vital.

These facts lead to this conclusion: Human rights have to go on the backburner.

David T. Jones. (Courtesy of David T. Jones)
David T. Jones.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”


Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.