Speakers discuss the results from the June 24 elections and the implications for Turkish relations with neighboring countries in the Middle East and Europe, as well as the United States.
Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor in International Relations, Lehigh University
Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you so much. Hi, everyone. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations conference call on “Turkey’s Presidential and Parliamentary Elections.” We have Henri Barkey and Steven Cook. I’m Dan Kurtz-Phelan. I’m the executive editor of Foreign Affairs and I will be presiding over the discussion.
Before we begin, let me remind you that this conference call is on the record, and I will quickly introduce the two speakers. We will talk for 20 minutes or so, and then I will turn it over to all of you for questions on a wider range of topics. So quick introductions. I think you have some more extensive ones, but we’ll just hit the high points.
Henri Barkey is a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is also the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Chair in International Relations at Lehigh University. Here at CFR, he is working on a project on the strategic future of the Kurds in the Middle East. He has also been the director of the Middle East Center at the Woodrow Wilson Center and served on the State Department policy planning staff during the Clinton administration.
Steven Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He works on Arab and Turkish politics as well as on U.S.-Middle East policy. His most recent book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the Middle East and he’s also published books on Egypt and Turkey and Algeria over the last several years.
With that, let me go right into the discussion with that. As you all know, there were presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey on Sunday. The victory for President Erdogan has entrenched his power, especially following the constitutional referendum last year. Also gave his party, the AKP, and its partner the parliamentary majority. Obviously, it has big implications for Turkey, for its economy, for the state of its democracy, or lack thereof, and also for the region and beyond, given Turkey’s membership in NATO, as we head toward the NATO summit in the next couple of weeks.
So, Steven, let me start with you and go back to some of the commentary, at least in the United States but I think also more broadly, before Sunday’s election. You know, I think there was a broad impression that Erdogan was somewhat on the ropes. The lira has collapsed. The opposition team were more united and more energetic than it has been in a while. Why was that impression so widespread and to what extent did the results undercut it or not?
COOK: Thanks for the question, Dan, and thanks for everybody for calling in to this conference call on Turkey.
It’s a terrific question, and I think that there was, as you—as you just indicated, there was reason to believe that Erdogan might be vulnerable, going into this election. The—there was—the lira had lost 10 percent of its value in the first half of 2018. Inflation was picking up to double digit numbers. The current account deficit was widening.
There was much discussion about the coming Turkish economic collapse. And then there was the sense that President Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party had worn out their welcome after 15 years—that the purge that accelerated after the failed coup in July of 2016 had ensnared too many people—that the deepening of authoritarianism in Turkey had gone too far—that at least half the population but now perhaps more were now rising up to take back their democratic rights, and the opposition had a decent strategy and a decent candidate in Muharrem Ince, who was bringing out large crowds not just in the kind of usual places a candidate from the Republican People’s Party would bring out large (candidates ?), but even in places that were Justice and Development Party strongholds.
I think the narrative that Erdogan was on the ropes or that he would at least be pushed into a second round of elections and that the Justice and Development Party would lose control of the parliament were based on all of those things, and—and, let me emphasize, the idea that these elections would be actually free and fair. There was no real evidence of vote rigging and ballot stuffing, although there was some of that.
What really was is a kind of subtle manipulation of the process in the run-up to the elections. Erdogan had an overwhelming exposure in the press, which is controlled mostly by people who are friendly to him and the Justice and Development Party. You had the state-run news service declaring him a victor well before the Supreme Board of Elections could rule on anything. But, of course, the Supreme Board of Elections is all made up of Justice and Development Party appointees—things like that that led to his victory, and although the Justice and Development Party lost about 7 percent in terms of the popular vote, it is in alliance with the smaller Nationalist Party, which did stunningly well for a party that didn’t hold an election rally, didn’t really campaign, but, nevertheless, got about 11 percent of the votes.
So those two together will have effective control of the party. So not much has changed. I think the major problem with the narrative was the idea that Erdogan, who had essentially rigged the 2015 general election, had stolen the 2017 referendum on constitutional changes that paved the way to what’s called the executive presidency, that within—with all of the new powers that that executive presidency within his grasp that he wouldn’t manipulate the electoral process to give himself a win and the Justice and Development Party control of the parliament once again.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Henri, I want to just step back not just to the stretch before the election but even earlier in Erdogan’s tenure—you know, going back fifteen years or so, a lot of people certainly in the U.S., but I think also in Turkey thought of him as a, you know, modernizing Islamist democrat. And, you know, much about that impression has been demolished in the last—the last couple of years. What did people get wrong? And how have we gotten to this point when we’re now wondering about, you know, whether you can even talk about Turkish democracy and, you know, worrying about, you know, Turkish membership in NATO? How did we get here?
BARKEY: Look, when Erdogan got elected—and his party was elected first in 2002, then he became prime minister in 2003—he won with 34 percent of the vote in 2002. So he did not have a majority in the country but he had a majority in parliament, and at the time you have to remember that Turkey was a country which—in which the military plays a very, very important role.
So for Erdogan to survive—and we don’t know if Erdogan was always an autocrat. I mean, he may have been genuinely a democrat in 2002, 2003 and over time became an autocrat as the pillars of Turkish politics that stood in his way disappeared until he found himself all by himself running the country and, you know, he just filled in the vacuum.
But in 2002, 2003, there was the military to contend with. And he was seen by the rest of society and certainly by the military as an Islamist, and therefore, you know, the military, having intervened full-time in Turkish politics before, could have done it again. So Erdogan—(inaudible)—a line that was pro-European, pro-United States, pro-democracy, making it very difficult for the military to intervene politically.
So and also there was a president at the time. Remember, he was the prime minister, and there was a president, who doesn’t have—does not have executive powers but had, essentially, constitutional powers to lock him in and he was backed by the military.
That president’s term ended in 2007. Erdogan decided to—for the presidential election in 2007, decided to put forward his colleague, the then foreign minister, Abdullah Gül. Abdullah Gül, who’s genuinely moderate—at least he appears today especially as a genuine moderate, he was opposed by the military for the—for the very simple reason that his wife had—covers her head, and the idea of, essentially, a woman who covered her head becoming—keeping in the—(inaudible)—the proverbial presidential (bed ?). It was too much for the military, so they issued an ultimatum. And Erdogan went in 2007 to—for the elections, and the whole election campaign was essentially fought over whether or not Abdullah Gül had the right to run for the presidency. And Erdogan won resoundingly, which meant that the military lost resoundingly, and that was really the end of Turkish—military (influence ?) over Turkish politics. Once the military was out of the way, Erdogan’s road was clear to assume all kinds of powers. And slowly he got these powers, and he eventually changed the constitution to make himself the executive president.
But it is the military’s strategic mistake in 2007 that paved the way for a mostly—a civilian Turkey, but one which Erdogan was to shape that and—(inaudible)—and political capability, managed to impose himself on his party today. And today, as I’ve argued elsewhere, you know, the state is Erdogan. (Inaudible)—Erdogan, and he now controls—(inaudible)—everything in Turkey.
The only think I would add to what Steven said, I am actually not sure of the extent of cheating that took place in the election. Not only were the elections unfair, but we do not know how much cheating because they did it in such a way that we may never be able to find out, and all they needed was about 2 million votes, and the fact of the matter is that there were so many—the system was set up in such a way that he could very easily cheat, and then maybe they cheated in a way in which people did not notice that—(inaudible). Steven alluded to the fact that his coalition partner, who people thought was going to pull 5 percent, ended up getting 11 percent, maybe that’s where the cheating occurred. We don’t know. We will never know. But he’s now president and the state at the same time.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, Steven, you talked a bit about the—some of the economic struggles that led some to believe that Erdogan was less likely—was likely to do less well than he ended up doing. What does this mean for the—those economic challenges, going forward? What has to happen to address the currency issues, some of the other problems you mentioned, and can Erdogan do it?
COOK: Well, I think that they’re going to have to do it. But I’d say in the run-up to the election it was in Erdogan’s interest to blame everybody—to blame—especially when it came to the currency crisis to blame people who were jealous of Turkey’s success. That’s a common refrain from officials from the Justice and Development Party. It’s important to recognize that Erdogan has been essentially preparing the political grounds for this for quite some time.
Going back to at least 2013, he started railing about the interest rate lobby and other foreign forces that were seeking to undermine Turkey’s economic success, and this was a way of deflecting blame for the economic management of the country. In order to address the currency crisis, I think they had to—finally had to confront reality and begin raising interest rates before they were in, really, a full-blown currency crisis with people fleeing from the country.
I think the country is posting relatively strong economic growth (as a real ?) economy; at least that is what Turkish officials tell us. This is what the international financial institutions tell us. And that the real problem is this question—this issue of the currency, and had they continued to go down this road, they were looking at, once again, of having—potentially, having an IMF program, something that I think would be politically difficult for Erdogan.
He inherited one when he first came to power in 2003, handled it well, but it came from a previous government, which he ran against their economic mismanagement. It would be—I think it would be politically difficult to go back to the IMF unless their backs are really against the wall this time.
I think what will happen on the economy is what is typically the case during the AKP era. At a public level, President Erdogan will continue to rail against foreign forces, the interest rate lobby, bankers, European bankers, and others while quietly the Turkish professionals—those who are actually responsible for carrying out economic policy and developing economic policy will do all the things necessary to ensure that inflation doesn’t get out of control—that the unemployment rate, which is relatively high, but Turkey’s had kind of a stubborn unemployment problem for quite some time—that that remains an issue that is manageable—that if the country remains welcoming to foreign investors, because that is really the way—the way in which they finance a large current account deficit.
There is a difference, and you see it throughout a pattern of the last fifteen years but, in particular, since 2007, 2008, where there was a very tough public rhetoric on the economy and a very—and a more cooperative under-the-radar-screen type economic policymaking. I think Erdogan —going into the last point—going into the election, though, had a very strong interest in making sure that the rising interest rates was not too steep and not too quick.
This is a country of people who are indebted. They are leveraged to the hilt. There’s a new middle class that is enjoying the fruits of their new wealth under the Justice and Development Party over the course of the last fifteen years and they’ve discovered credit, and he, clearly, didn’t want his core constituency going broke as they were going to the polls.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Henri, I wanted to turn to some of the kind of external and foreign policy implications. What does this mean for Turkish policy in its own region—essentially, the Middle East? Does it have implications for Syria? You mentioned the right-wing coalition partner, the MNP. Does that portend anything in terms of Turkish policy towards the Kurds or for Syrian, more broadly?
BARKEY: Well, the two problems that confront Erdogan—the economy that Steven mentioned, and, essentially, the Kurdish question in Syria and, to a lesser extent, in Iraq—I do want to add one thing on the economy. The Turkish economy expanded but it is an expansion that came, essentially, from manufacturing, but that manufacturing expansion has kind of stalled. The rest of the expansion is coming from building things—large government projects, airports, bridges, highways, et cetera—that has fueled it.
But the problem with that is that the global interest rates are rising as the—as quantitative easing has stopped. So it’s becoming more and more expensive and it becomes much more difficult for Turkey to raise the money. There’s a great outflow of capital. Especially now, there is even more after Erdogan’s victory.
So he will be confronting an economic crisis very, very soon—sooner than other countries in the West—and if there’s a general recession—a global recession—that’s going to hit Turkey doubly. And so that’s the first problem he’s facing and that’s what he’s going to focus on.
The second problem is the Kurdish issue. He had started a peace process back in 2009, 2010. He abandoned it in 2014 when the Syrian Kurds, faced with an assault by ISIS, managed to get American help and the United States intervened to help the Syrian Kurds, and that alarmed Erdogan because the last time the United States intervened on behalf of the Kurds was in Iraq against Saddam Hussein, and look what happened.
A Kurdish—(coughs)—excuse me—a Kurdish regional government—a federal system emerged in Iraq. So Erdogan—so the potential of American intervention in Syria as a harbinger of another federal state on his borders, and that is very worrisome because there are four countries with significant Kurdish populations—Iran, Turkey, Iraq, and Syria—and two of them have federations uniting. Who’s next?
So he has taken an uncompromising position on the Kurds and he has intervened in Syria. He, basically, did ethnic cleansing in the province of Afrin. He kicked out two hundred thousand Kurds, and he probably—we can get to this refugee crisis—but he probably will want to move some of the Syrian refugees who are in Turkey at the moment—there’s 2 ½ million of them—into Syria because that’s also becoming a problem domestically.
But in Syria, with the rise of the SDF and the PYD—the Kurdish militia, which is affiliated with the Turkish Kurds and the Turkish PKK that the Turks consider as a terrorist organization, is aligned now with the United States, and that has been connected to Erdogan and that’s what has been a great deal of tension between the U.S. government and Turkey.
So but the problem is that his options are limited and he’s already intervened in Syria militarily, has taken over significant territory in Syria. But he cannot fight the Syrian Kurds because the United States military is there, and he’s tried to intervene in Iraq where the PKK has its bases. But the truth of the matter is that the topography of northern Iraq is such that the location of the PKK bases are high up in the mountains. It’s such that there’s no way the Turkish military can fight the PKK there.
They can achieve some successes but it’s going to be very, very limited, and domestically, he does have a two-pronged problem. One is that there is now a Kurdish party in the parliament that managed to come up to the 10 percent threshold. But, as Steven mentioned, the MHP—the arch-nationalist party, who’s a coalition partner—has one and one goal in life, and that is to deny Kurdish interests in Turkey. So they form a significant bloc. And there’s another party in the Turkish parliament—the Good Party—which is an offshoot of this nationalist party, which is also opposed to Kurdish—(inaudible). So they have two parties with 20 percent of their population—of the population’s sympathies that are very, very opposed to any concessions on the Kurds.
So Erdogan doesn’t have much leeway there either. So he has an economic crisis coming and a Kurdish problem that is probable at the—at the moment. And my suspicion is that he’s going to have to focus on the economy—that that’s the only place where he can—he has some leeway and can do something. But the Kurdish problem is much more problematic.
COOK: Let me just quickly follow up because, Dan, your question was about—also about the Middle East, and it’s worth just pointing to the fact that with the return of Erdogan to the presidential palace and AKP’s effective control over the Turkish Grand National Assembly, Turkey’s difficult relations with most of the major countries in the Middle East will continue. They have bad relations with the Israelis.
They have very, very difficult relations with the Egyptians and, in fact, Turkey’s presence in the Red Sea is deeply unnerving to the Egyptians, who already blame—who already blame the Turks for stirring up instability and terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula and even in Egypt’s Western Desert. There’s no evidence of that, but it’s clear that the Egyptians believe that.
The Emiratis are deeply distrustful of the exercise of Turkish power. King Salman in Saudi Arabia has essentially held his nose and dealt with the Turks because he believes that Turkey is a big important country. But none of the countries in the Gulf are particularly pleased about the strategic relationship that’s flowering between Turkey and the Qataris, whatever you think about the—whatever you think about the blockade on the Qataris.
So Erdogan has run, in part, on the idea that he can be a leader of the Muslim world, but in that core part of the Muslim world he has extraordinarily difficult relations with most of the important players.
KURTZ-PHELAN: So, Steven, could I just ask you to follow up on one other foreign policy point? What does this mean for Turkish-NATO relations as we go into the NATO summit on July 11 and 12? There’s obviously been concern about is Erdogan’s relationship with Putin and what that means. But what’s going to happen on that front?
COOK: Well, I think that everybody has signaled that it’s back to business with the Turks. The three European M’s—Merkel, May, and Macron—all called to congratulate Erdogan on his victory, as did President Trump. There is significant concern about the purchase of the S-400s. Congress has raised that issue in terms of delivery of the F-35s, of which Turkey is a part of the consortium that’s manufacturing it. But Congress wants to take action against Turkey as a result of this—the coming purchase of an advanced Russian air defense system.
So I think that there is a strong pull in Europe because of fear that the Turks might unleash large waves of refugees on European continents, which is destabilizing for European countries—that while they can’t necessarily be terribly pleased with the return of Erdogan, they can’t necessarily be—look upon the conduct of these elections and understand them to be free and fair—they were partially free, they were partially fair, and they were partially fake—they do have broader strategic interests.
I think anybody who suggests, though, that Turkey—as do people within the U.S. government, that Turkey can be a critical ally in the coming great power competition, I think are looking at the world in a way that we looked at the world during the Cold War rather than the way it really is now.
I think the Turks see their security concerns can be addressed by both NATO as well as Russia. I think that whereas analysts tend to want to define Turkey as either East or West, Turks don’t necessarily see it that way and they see significant opportunity, not least of which is—and piggybacking on what Henri was saying about the Kurds, is that their interests are best served and best secured by a better relationship with Moscow when it comes—when it comes to Syria.
That’s not to suggest that they trust the Russians. But I do think that Turkey is exploring its relations and expanding its relations in ways that it hasn’t before because of a profound mistrust between Turkey and the West, which has long been there, and because of new opportunities and new problems that have cropped up that have convinced the Turks that Europe and NATO is not the only address for their security.
BARKEY: Yeah, I—
KURTZ-PHELAN: I have about—oh, sorry. Yeah, go ahead.
BARKEY: One quick comment. There is also the fact that there’s a great deal of uncertainty about the Trump administration’s policies in the Middle East in the sense that to the extent that there is the perception out there that the—this administration wants to get out of the Middle East, wants to minimize its exposure to the Middle East, so if you are in the Middle East, as Turkey is, you need to hedge your bets.
So that’s—and the genius of Putin is that he has played, essentially, on all of these little differences between the United States and Turkey, in fact, to make them larger and play a role. And we see this with respect to the future of Syria, the Astana process, and so on and so forth, that Putin has essentially given Erdogan a say and a role.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you. Thank you, both. I have about a dozen more questions I would like to ask you but I want to give members time for all the questions I’m sure they have. So at this time, I’d like to open the line to members to join the conversation with their question. A reminder that this conference call is on the record and also to please limit yourself to one question and keep it as concise as possible to allow as many members as possible to speak. And with that, Operator, let’s start bringing the questions.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
The first question—
Q: (In progress following audio break)—listened to on the call surprises me because what you’ve really described here is basically a Western democracy in terms of their political activities. I always been reading the papers and thought that this had become an authoritarian dictatorship.
But what you said is Erdogan’s got to think about this and think about that and the economy and the monetary things and all these appeals like he could just be voted out again next week if he—or the next election. So if that’s the case, we’re dealing here with just a standard Western democracy, and I’m surprised at that on the phone call.
And by the way, in contrast to that, you also said on the call that there’s been an ethnic cleansing—the removal of Kurds from the country. Well, I don't know how that’s consistent with elections in Western democracies. So I’m trying to figure out what we got over here, and that’s my question.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Henri, do you want to—do you want to start and then we can go to Steven?
BARKEY: Look, this is not—this is not a Western democracy in any shape or form. I mean, what it is is a personalized autocracy. Erdogan has control of just about every single institution in the country, every single police officer, every single teacher, every single—so this is a very unusual system.
That doesn’t mean that he has an economic crisis facing him, and to the extent that he’s actually now—he personalizes the state—the buck stops with him, and from that perspective, he has to worry about it because, look, let’s face it, you can be a dictator and you still don’t want to have an ethnic problem or an economic problem because it looks—it looks bad for you and it’s actually, now, he has nobody to blame except himself because there is no other power source—no contenders to power—and the next election is going to be five years away. He doesn’t have to worry about elections, right?
But this is not democracy per se. It’s not also dictatorship. It’s autocracy. It’s a personal autocracy, where the leader represents everything and his pictures are everywhere. Every newspaper now in the country has the same – almost the same picture every morning, the same (code ?), the same thing.
But, no, I don’t think that either Steve or I was implying that this is a democracy. We have problems, and you have to come clean, deal with them.
COOK: I think there’s—I think it’s fairly clear, unless I misspoke, that this was an election that was manipulated by the Justice and Development Party, and it’s a hollowing out and manipulation of the state—the political institutions of the Turkish state, which was the way in which Erdogan ensured his victory and an effective parliamentary majority.
But beyond this election—and there are things called elected autocracies—beyond this election, I’m hard—anybody would be hard-pressed to think of Turkey in terms of a Western democracy when it is the single largest jailer of journalists in the world. And I’m including countries like China and Egypt. It is a country where most of the media is controlled by the ruling party. It is a country where there is now a political system in place where all of the power flows to the presidency with no or few checks and balances on executive power.
This is not a totalitarian state, but it is clearly one in which there’s a deepening of authoritarianism. Let’s keep in mind that there’s been an ongoing purge in Turkey since at least 2014 that was accelerated after 2016. Turkey has the most political prisoners in the region right now, including perhaps as many as 20 Turkish-Americans.
So in no way, shape, or form to describe Turkey as a Western democracy, unless you’re into including countries like Viktor Orbán’s system in Hungary as a Western democracy. These are clearly countries that have experienced a lot of backsliding in terms of democracy at the hands of strongmen.
I think Henri put it best when he called it an elected autocracy—elected personalized autocracy, my apologies.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Jove Oliver of Oliver Global.
Q: Yeah. Hi there. Thanks for this, everyone.
I wanted to pick up—you’re talking about the journalists who are imprisoned. I wanted to ask how the election might change things, both for domestic journalists, which I doubt it will change much, but for foreign journalists, because I know that they’ve had some trouble, as well as foreign websites like Wikipedia is completely banned in Turkey. And the only other country that completely bans it is China; so, you know, Human Rights Campaign or as Amnesty staffers, you know.
So just picking up on, you know, now that there’s some consolidation in the power, will he rest a little bit easier and maybe relax a little bit of the tightness, or do we expect it just to be perhaps getting even worse?
COOK: Henri, you want to start again?
BARKEY: I’m sorry. This is a—this is a very—sorry. This is a very good question. And I’ve been struggling with it in the sense that, yes, he can be magnanimous in victory, but I think it runs against his character.
But most importantly, when I look at who he’s surrounded himself with, these are all people who have essentially no political roots. They are hacks. They have only one loyalty, and that is to Erdogan. They have—so they are probably inclined to encourage him to be tough.
But he’s not going to get any kind of sage advice that he used to get from his colleagues when he first formed the party, because there were about 69 people who formed the party, of which—of whom Erdogan was the—previously the—(inaudible). But the others were very important personalities in Turkish politics, including former President Gül, who would advise him and who had certain—had power over the party. Today the party is completely controlled by him. So there is no incentive to (leave ?) the journalists and the others.
That said, if there was a campaign on the part of the outside world, a serious campaign against jailing of journalists, which really hasn’t happened—and here the United States hasn’t taken the lead. The United States has not even pushed hard to have its own employees, their free Turkish employees of the United States embassy and consulates who have been jailed—one of whom I’ve known for 30 years has been in jail for over a year on ridiculous charges and the U.S. government has done nothing about it. So if you don’t have the U.S. government push for it, I don’t expect Erdogan to release anybody. I hope I’m wrong.
COOK: Let me just add two quick points here. First is that Erdogan—people have been waiting for Erdogan to be magnanimous in victory for a long time, and it has never happened. It has never happened. And that’s related to the fact that he comes from a political movement that is deeply paranoid about the powers of the Turkish elite and the Turkish state.
And he has been convinced over a period of time that in his electoral success over the course of the last 15 years that the Turkey elites, the Turkish establishment, will always try to prevent him from ruling and governing the country, whether it was the 2007 effort to prevent Abdullah Gül from becoming the president of the republic, whether it was the closure case in 2008, an effort to close the party of the center on anti-secular activity; whether it was the Ergenekon conspiracy, which became a conspiracy within a conspiracy within a conspiracy; or the attempted 2016, July 2016, coup.
Erdogan not only comes from an Islamist political tradition that has a narrative of being suppressed and oppressed by the Turkish state. He’s also a very good politician and is very, very careful. He is never going to let his opponents off the hook. So his enemies, both real and perceived, now that he controls all of this power, are at his mercy.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Can I push on one point there? What does that mean in terms of, you know, the continuing effort to go after Gülen and Gülenist networks internationally—(inaudible)—is going to push on pressuring Washington on extradition? What might happen on that front?
COOK: I think that there will continue to be pressure applied from the Turkish government everywhere around the world to hand over Gülen to the Turkish government. They’re deeply frustrated by the fact that Fethullah Gülen is still a resident of the United States. However, they haven’t provided enough evidence of his culpability in it, too, for the—for the court system to determine that he should be extradited—that he should be extradited.
So there will be efforts. There have been some evidence that the Turkish government is seeking to render some of these people, going around governments and essentially kidnapping Gülenists around the world. This is—and the fact now there were, prior to this election, during the—in the previous political system, there were few checks and balances. And now there are even fewer, if any. Erdogan can direct the coercive forces of the Turkish state, to use a polite and diplomatic term, to go after his enemies, wherever they are.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Henri, anything to add on the Gülen question?
BARKEY: No, I agree. The interesting thing is that, after the elections, in one of his victory speeches, Erdogan said, well, you know, Gülen is still in the United States. And, by the way, I looked at the election results from people who voted in the United States. Seventy percent of Turkish-Americans or Turks who live in America who voted voted for the opposition and not for Erdogan. (Inaudible)—you know, this means, like—(inaudible)—I mean, (the show in ?) the United States is controlled by, you know—by the—by the Gülenists.
Look, the Gülen issue is actually an interesting one because Erdogan, when he came to power, had very little in the form of cadres to run the government. So he relied extensively on Gülen and Gülen’s followers, who were—he had the run of the public schools, universities. He had people who knew how to run institutions, how to run the government agencies. So Erdogan used those people to run the government.
And both Gülen and Erdogan had one common enemy, and that was the military. And as I said earlier, when the military got defeated in 2007, that left two powerful people standing in Turkey: Gülen, who was living here in the United States anyway, and Erdogan. And it was natural that the two would go after each other. And Erdogan had the upper hand, and he was essentially eliminating Gülenists.
I actually don’t think he really wants Gülen back. I think Gülen staying here is a nice way of always attacking the United States. And if he had Gülen in jail, then he loses that excuse to blame everything on Gülen. So I think, paradoxically, he’s very happy with Gülen being here. And this notion that the United States is not sending Gülen back to Turkey is much ado about nothing. I think he would rather have him here anyway.
Q: And do you share Steven’s view, a view that—it was laid out in a piece we published a few months ago called “Turkey’s Global Purge”—that there is this kind of broad international effort to round up Gülenists and bring them back to Turkey, either with or without the cooperation of national governments elsewhere?
BARKEY: Look, he has—he has been doing this—the number of people who are in jail, accused of being Gülenists, and people who had bank accounts in bank—supposedly Gülen through his bank to having sent a tweet that Erdogan did not like, this is—this is more than going after Gülenists. This is going after anybody who opposes him. And attaching the Gülen, shall we say, label, is that makes it easier for him to—for the judicial system to accuse people.
Look, I know—I know lots of journalists, lots of friends of mine, who are in jail. And they had nothing to do with Gülen. If anything, Erdogan had more to do with Gülen than anybody else. There are five members of his party today who got elected to parliament who at one point in time came to the United States to visit Gülen. But because they’re his people, they’re OK. So this Gülen label is just an excuse to go after opponents. It has nothing to do almost with—I shouldn’t say nothing, but little to do with Gülen today as accused.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Got it. Sorry for that interjection.
Operator, next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Herbert Levin of Council on Foreign Relations.
Q: Thank you for the presentation.
Steven, assuming that Erdogan remains in power for five years or so, and assuming that Mr. Trump remains in power and continues to do sword dances with the Saudis and other kinds of strange things—in other words, the two of them are in power and they don’t change their styles—what do you propose U.S. policy should be towards Turkey to defend what our real interests are in Turkey?
COOK: Well, thanks for the question. It’s a very good one.
And just a brief advertisement. I’ll have a Council special report on reassessing U.S.-Turkey relations coming out in the coming months. But generally—I don’t want to give it all away in this call, but generally speaking, generally speaking, what my proposals are for the U.S. government going forward are, first and foremost, to recognize the fact that there is a narrative about Turkey, about its great strategic importance to the United States, that the legacy of the Cold War that really isn’t accurate any longer. And the sooner we recognize this, the better off we are, that Turkey doesn’t necessarily want to have a strategic relationship with the United States, that Turkey is important in ways that are not necessarily constructive or positive for American foreign policy.
Take Syria, for example, where the Turks have worked very hard to undermine American policy in fear for their own—for their own interests, which are rational interests; my point being that the two countries neither share values nor core strategic interests any longer. And we need to—that doesn’t mean that there should be a breach in the relationship, but that what our expectations are about Turkey’s strategic importance to the United States does need to fundamentally change.
And let me just add one quick aside to that. This is not necessarily an Erdogan problem. There would be significant differences between the two countries. They may be a different mix. There may be a different emphasis on them. If someone else were the president of the country—Muharrem Ince’s views of Syria, for example, are actually fairly retrograde. The party that he represents has long advocated for a reestablishment of relations between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad. The Republican People’s Party sent delegations to Damascus to meet with Assad during some of the worst violence of the war. And Ince was very clear that he wanted to push Syrians back across the border into Syria and reestablish relations with the country.
So there are real differences in values and interests between the two countries. And I believe that the two countries will continue to diverge, and that the United States needs to establish options for itself. But let me once again emphasize this does not necessarily mean that I’m calling for a breach in relations, but I’m calling for a way for the United States to manage the change in the relationship.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Henri, anything you would add on the U.S. policy question?
BARKEY: Yes. If I can add to—one thing here, look, Steven is absolutely right. This is no longer—we are no longer in the Cold War. The legacy of the Cold War, of looking at this large alliance, where the United States is the number one power and everybody else essentially were junior partners, is no longer valid.
But, more importantly, the notion of being the junior partner, from the Turkish perspective, is something that the Turks are chafing at, especially Erdogan. Erdogan has very, very large hegemonic ambitions almost, I would say. I mean, he has, for example, sent troops to Qatar. He has established a base in Djibouti. He has now—is signing a deal with the Sudan to put troops way, way far from Turkey.
And you have to question, what Turkish security interests are there in all these places, except that you can think of this as only large powers historically have had far-flung bases from their own territory. And Erdogan is not, I think, in his own—expanded (in the Middle East ?) region. He’s trying to show that this is a—Turkey is a power to contend with. He can be a player. He can influence the course of events. And, by way, you have—(inaudible)—so he can have—you never know when they may be used.
Look, there’s a sense here that Turkey should no longer be a junior partner to the United States, that Turkey itself deserves to be a great power. And he keeps saying that. I mean, he doesn’t hide it. He says Turkey is going to be one of the top ten countries by the time he’s finished with his presidency—top ten. When you look at the top ten today, (you ask ?) how far Turkey is from that.
But this is a very ambitious, ambitious man, Erdogan. You know, to the extent that Atatürk supposedly changed Turkey, Erdogan is going to change and put Turkey on the map in a much more significant way, in his mind, than Atatürk ever did.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you.
Operator, next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Arlene Getz of Reuters.
Q: Hi. Yes.
I’d like to—I’m partially interested in the U.S. relationship, but I’m also interested in how you see the issue with the Kurds playing out. You know, there’s this dichotomy there in which Turkey seems to be advancing across the Iraq border to deal with the PKK. But at the same time, you have the U.S. with its alliance with the YPG in Syria.
How do you see that issue being resolved, if at all? And do you think that Erdogan’s win is going to make him more aggressive in combating the Kurds right now, especially in Iraq?
BARKEY: Great question. I mean, that is a very interesting situation in which the United States and Turkey look at the PKK and call it a terrorist organization. The United States has given enormous amount of help to the Turks to fight the PKK, from material help to intelligence help. If Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, was captured in 1998, it isn’t because the Turks found him. It’s because the United States found him and essentially delivered him to Turkey. Of course, the Turks refuse to acknowledge that.
So, yes, they are aligned. But in Syria, the YPG is the single most respected force against ISIS. And the critical issue with the YPG is that, say, for instance, the Trump administration would succumb to Turkish pressure and cool its support for the YPG. What will happen next? Yes, the YPG would be weakened. I think the Turks would not be—the Turks could not necessarily defeat the YPG in Syria. But what would happen as a result is that ISIS would reemerge, and then it would become another—a second ISIS 2.0 would become another problem. And what will the United States do in that—in that particular case? I think abandoning the Syrian Kurds at this stage might create much, much larger problems. And this is a dilemma for the administration at the moment.
But the Turkish deployment into northern Iraq before the election was partially driven to show the Turkish electorate that, yes, Turkey is fighting the PKK in Iraq. But there’s also—I mentioned earlier the topographical conditions in northern Iraq are such that the Turkish military cannot occupy the PKK bases. They’re too far-flung and they’re too—in very, very difficult conditions. And, look, every single Iraqi government has been going after Kurds in the mountains, and they’ve never succeeded in defeating them because essentially of the nature of the area.
So, yes, he’s going to be tougher on the Kurds, but he’s not going to be able to occupy the PKK bases in northern Iraq.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Steven, anything you want to add?
COOK: I defer to Professor Barkey on all things Kurdish.
Operator, I think we have time for one last question. I apologize to anyone who could not get to ask a question.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
Our next question comes from Oliver Staple of Ernst Young.
My question has to do with the immigration crisis and how Erdogan will use that in relations dealing with the European Union, and especially with Austria’s new prime minister and how he is wielding his influence with Merkel.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Steven, you have a thought?
COOK: Sure. I think that—first, let me just say that relations between Turkey and the EU have been difficult, to say the least, especially with Germany. And Chancellor Merkel has pushed back on Erdogan on a variety of issues, including the arrest of German journalists with Turkish backgrounds, and has threatened him with regard to economic cooperation and a variety of other things.
But I think the Europeans still remain quite concerned about large numbers of refugees who are in Turkey, many of whom are becoming integrated into Turkish society, but still large numbers who would like to make it to Europe, especially to Germany and beyond. And the Turkish government has, over and over again, either implicitly or explicitly, warned Europe that if Turkey’s concerns on a variety of issues aren’t met, if European leaders criticized President Erdogan and the AKP, if they didn’t allow the AKP to hold election rallies in their capital, that there was the possibility that the Turkish government would essentially allow large numbers of refugees in the country to flow into Europe unfettered.
And that’s something that I think that Europe continues to be worried about. And I think that with Erdogan’s victory and, as I mentioned earlier in the call, the congratulatory phone calls from the major leaders of major European countries, that they understand that he still has some amount of leverage—he still has some amount of leverage with them on those issues.
But that does not mean that Europe doesn’t have its own influence. And keep in mind that Turkey is anchored to the world’s largest economy in Europe through trade flows, investment flows, through actually EU institutions. And that gives them a certain amount of influence on the Turkish government’s behavior as well.
BARKEY: Let me—I would add one more thing. The immigration or the refugee card is no longer as powerful as it used to be, in large measure because Europeans’ investments, essentially, in trying to block those refugee flows. I mean, you can’t go now through Hungary or through Austria if you’re going to take the land route. The conditions on the Greek islands, where a lot of the Syrian refugees happen to be now, are actually quite atrocious. I mean, so the Syrian refugees are much better off staying in Turkey than trying to cross the Aegean and go—and if they get stuck in Greece, then they will really regret that.
Third, I think what Erdogan is also going to try and do now is, now that he has essentially cleared areas in northern Syria from the Kurds and ethnically cleansed some areas, like I was saying, he is going to move Syrian refugees into those areas. He already—the Turks have already established schools. They have—some Turkish universities are opening campuses or affiliates in northern Syria. So they are clearly thinking ahead in a very planned way to start moving some of those Syrian refugees, and therefore reduce the refugee issue as a topic, if you want, in both Turkish politics and also in the European context.
Finally, I think Steven is right. The Europeans have much more leverage on Turkey than before because of the worsening economic conditions in Turkey, to the extent that the Turks need investment, need tourism, because—(inaudible)—foreign exchange revenues. They cannot alienate the Europeans that much. There was a major downturn in European tourism towards Turkey, and that really hurt the Turks. Hence, it’s not—the debt now is—let me put it this way: Erdogan no longer controls all the cards. I think it’s 50/50, and maybe the Europeans have the upper hand now.
KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you. That seems like a good note to end on. We could go on on a number of topics, but that is all the time we have. Thanks very much, Henri and Steven. This is a busy week for both of you as you try to unpack and explain the election results. Thank you for taking the time to join.
And thanks to all of you members for joining today’s Council on Foreign Relations conference call. There will be more of these soon and a lot more to talk about with regard to Turkey.
Thanks so much.
COOK: Thank you.
BARKEY: Thank you.