Turkey’s Islamist hegemons in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been losing their grip on reality for some time. Anti-Western conspiracy theories have multiplied in the country since the attempted coup by Turkish military officers on July 15, 2016. Members of the religious-political Gülen movement, which split from the AKP in 2013, were involved in the power struggle with the AKP government that culminated in the coup attempt. Since the leader of the Gülen movement, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, is based in Pennsylvania, suspicion has also fallen on the United States. Further confounding the AKP-led government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are the mixed messages coming out of Washington. Initially, the AKP believed that Trump as president would help their efforts to extradite Gülen. Yet, Turkey’s rulers cannot square their assumption of Trump’s sympathy for them with his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his inability (or unwillingness, in Erdoğan’s eyes) to put an end to the politically sensitive US trial of Turkish banker Hakan Atilla.

The Turkish ruling party is unable to grasp the monstrosity of Donald Trump’s assault on diplomacy and constitutional arrangements precisely because the AKP has already achieved in Turkey what the Trump administration can only dream of: a thorough destruction of independent institutions, the suspension of democratic process, the dismantling of the separation of powers, and a government conducted on the basis of interpersonal relationships. The Turkish regime shares Trump’s dislike for established conventions, his disdain for democracy and dissent,1 and his attempts at advancement by wilful destruction of official arrangements. Both leaders hold revisionist perspectives on the global order and both fight challenges to their pursuit of power. The Turkish hegemons do not seem to understand the geopolitical and world historical shifts that underlie President Trump’s term in office. The same can probably be said for the Trump administration’s inability to understand developments in Turkey and beyond.

Uncovering how power is wielded in Turkey is not a straightforward business. At first glance, the extreme concentration of power in the hands of President Erdoğan and his immediate circle of advisers, business associates and family is obvious. Yet, delving deeper, uneasy coalitions and ideologically irreconcilable actors abound—to the point of making the current power arrangements look incredibly fragile. It is not exactly clear where power is located in Turkey at the moment. But it is evident that in addition to Erdoğan’s inner circle and an array of Islamist groups, extreme nationalists and a strong pro-Russia faction, known as Eurasianists, are exerting a growing influence over the making of foreign policy. [2] Their perspective on the Trump administration is framed by a set of entangled ideological ambitions and short-term concerns. Ideologically, Islamists, nationalists and the so-called Eurasianists want Turkey’s ties with the West cut, its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) terminated, and its accession process to the European Union reversed. The Eurasianists are Turkish nationalists, influenced by former Kremlin ideologue Alexander Dugin, who see a future for Turkey in an expanded Eurasian space, stretching from Russia and China through the Turkic republics of Central Asia. This Eurasian undercurrent in Turkish politics bears a close family resemblance to early twentieth century pan-Turkism. It has survived in the ideologies of extreme nationalist parties well into the 2000s. The contemporary, expanded version only came out into the open forcefully after the failed coup. Since that time, the anti-Western position has become the government’s default position—pronounced audibly and repeatedly in the now dominant pro-government media. The Eurasianists around Erdoğan are believed to be using disagreements and miscommunications between Turkey and the West to create conditions for a conflict that would provoke the United States and European countries to force Turkey out of the NATO alliance. Russian actors, including Russia-based social media and news media, plus their outlets in Turkey such as the Sputnik news agency, are a major force supporting this anti-Western current.3 The purchase of the Russian-made S400 air defence system has to be seen in this context.

More important for the Erdoğan government than long-term strategy, however, is its short-term survival—a trait it shares with the Trump administration. Two immediate concerns frame the Turkish view of the Trump White House and the United States more generally: Turkey’s request for extradition of the cleric and alleged coup leader Fethullah Gülen from the United States, and the fallout from the US sanctions case that recently convicted the Turkish banker Hakan Atilla, and which involves the Turkish-Iranian businessman Reza Zarrab. The fact that Gülen remains in the United States is read in Ankara as proof of US complicity in the coup attempt. Seemingly in response to the US refusal to extradite Gülen, Turkey arrested a US consular staff member in Istanbul, which then sparked the temporary mutual suspension of the visa regime in October 2017. Hakan Atilla has been convicted of infringement of the US sanctions against Iran.4 Yet, it is the major corruption allegations against Erdoğan’s inner circle, which emerged from the proceedings, and the revelations of key witness Reza Zarrab that are cause for concern at the “palace”—Erdoğan’s new residence in Ankara. Sanctions could, in theory, also be applied to Turkey. Hefty fines for Turkish banks are more likely. In any case, more anti-Americanism is unavoidable.

Turkey, it is important to remember, is officially still an ally of the United States and in fact the only country in the region whose relationship with Washington has been conducted through NATO. Unlike Middle Eastern client states such as Egypt, Turkey has had a say, albeit limited, in the decisions on military and security policies to which it is subjected. This position of relative autonomy vis-à-vis the United States, however, is now coming to an end. Turkey is gradually absconding from the transatlantic alliance, which indicates a new and unpredictable phase in Turkey’s international orientation as much as it is a sign of the relative decline in importance of the United States in the world.

The increasingly unclear location of real power in Turkey applies to the United States too. How much power the Trump administration is really able to exert through foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, remains to be seen. So far, Turkey has been treated with a strange mix of ignorance and an absence of long-term strategy. The two states are involved in major disagreements, from the role of Kurdish military units in the Syrian war and against ISIS, to the detention of American citizens in Turkey. It would be naive to believe that Turkish-American relations can survive this current situation without lasting damage. Yet, as seen from Ankara, the short-term problem is not Trump, but Gülen and Atilla. From the strategic long-term angle, the problem is again not Trump, but America and the West in its entirety, whose global power Turkey’s current hegemons see as a thing of the past. They may not be entirely wrong, but they are unlikely to be around long enough to witness its demise.


[1] Stephen M. Walt, “Trump Isn’t Sure if Democracy Is Better Than Autocracy,” Foreign Policy, November 13, 2017. [2] Metin Gurcan, “The Rise of the Eurasianist Vision in Turkey,” Al Monitor, May 17, 2017.
[3] Metin Gurcan, “Russia’s Winning the War for Turkish Public’s Trust,” Al Monitor – Turkey Pulse, November 20, 2017.
[4] Semih Idiz, “Erdoğan Trouble Continues with US Indictment,” Al Monitor – Turkey Pulse, September 13, 2017.

How to cite this article:

Kerem Öktem "Turkey Dispatch," Middle East Report 283 (Summer 2017).

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