CFR Master Class With Steven A. Cook

Tuesday, October 13, 2020
Murad Sezer/REUTERS

Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies and Director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars, Council on Foreign Relations; @stevenacook


Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair, Council on Foreign Relations; @jamesmlindsay

Steven A. Cook discusses Turkish politics. How did Turkey go from promising EU candidate to a model of authoritarian populism? What is next as Turks look forward to general elections in 2023?

The CFR Master Class Series is a biweekly 45-minute session in which a CFR fellow will take a step back from the news and discuss the fundamentals essential to understanding a given country, region of the world, or issue pertaining to U.S. foreign policy or international relations.


LINDSAY: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's on-the-record CFR Master Class. I'm Jim Lindsay, senior vice president and director of studies at the Council. I'm sitting in for Shannon O'Neil who normally hosts the Master Class Series. As those of you who have joined us before already know the Master Class Series is where we go beyond the headlines and explore a particular foreign policy issue or a part of the world. Today's topic is Turkey. And to lead us in this discussion, we're very fortunate to have Steven Cook. Steven is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for the Middle East and Africa studies. Steven has written widely and very well on a number of issues in Middle Eastern politics. His most recent book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. He also has a column and appears twice a month at Now, Steven is going to provide us with no more than ten minutes of opening remarks, and then we will have a discussion. So at this point, Steven, over to you.


COOK: Thanks very much, Jim. I appreciate the kind introduction and thank you all for taking part in this webinar today. I'm looking forward to Q&A. I know that we're really supposed to be moving beyond the headlines, but I did want to flag something that is in the news that probably didn't get a lot of attention. On October 6, just last week, the European Commission issued its annual progress report on Turkey's accession to the EU. And it was a stem-winder, it was incredibly critical—criticizing Turkey for its democratic practices, human rights, civil society, the weaponization of the judiciary, corruption and Kurdish rights. I should point out that this was almost exactly fifteen years to the day when Turkey began its formal negotiations to join the European Union. And the temptation here is to do a talk on what went wrong. I don't want to do that because it's going to take way too much of my time, but I think it's important to frame this discussion of Turkish foreign policy. Instead of a what went wrong, what I thought I would do is offer five, one calling, foundational points about Turkey that will help folks understand and make sense of the Turkey-related news cycle of which there is a lot lately. Before I begin—one note. The challenge to myself in the next nine minutes of my talk is not to mention three words at all. Those three words are Recep, Tayyip, and Erdogan. Because I think it's really important that as important a political figure that is the president of Turkey, he isn't the whole store.


So let me start. First of five points—Kemalism. Kemalism, named after the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal or Ataturk, is a set of ideas on that were the framework for the new Republic of Turkey, which was founded almost a hundred years ago. And there are six principles that are connected to Kemalism: Small "r" republicanism, populism, secularism, reformism—sometimes referred to as revolutionism, nationalism, and statism. These principles and the reforms that went with them were imposed from above, and over the ensuing hundred years, they've lost a lot of their nuance, especially secularism, which I'll get to in a moment. They really only became common sense or embedded in the minds of a relatively small number of Turks, mostly elites, military officers, those who are running the new Republic and their successors, which meant that these reforms and these principles really needed to be imposed from above, mostly by force. Kemalism demanded a certain amount of conformity in society. And it's something that became very, very hard to enforce over many years as Turkish society became much more dynamic.


A second foundational point for understanding Turkey—Kurds. When Ataturk was forging his nationalist revolution, he abolished the sultan and the caliph, who was the same person. The people in the territory that would become the Republic of Turkey had been unfailingly loyal to the sultan and the caliph, and he had to reorient the loyalty of these people to something else. And what he hit on was an ethno-national state based on what he called and what subsequently has been referred to as Turkishness. The problem with this, of course, is that Turkey was not, and is not ethnically homogenous. Approximately 20 percent of the population is Kurdish. Today that means 16.5 million people are not ethnically Turks, they are by definition of this ethno-national state, an "internal other." And while there are many Kurds who have become well integrated in the politics and economy and cultural life of the country, Kurds—their language, their culture, and their ethnicity—have been denied over all of these years.


Third point—religion. We can spend all day talking about religion in Turkey, and there's lots of confusion, and there's lots of contradictions in Turkey regarding religion. But let me just offer a few basic thoughts about it. When people often talk about Turkey, they talk about a secular republic. That's actually not a good translation of the word. There is no real kind of sense of secularism in Turkey in the way in which we think about it. The closest analogue to it is the French system of laïcité. That is where the government controls religion. That's an effort to ensure that religion remains in the private realm, and that there's no expression of it in the public sphere. And throughout the course of the republic's history, pious Turks were discriminated against. To varying degrees, the four coups d’état that happened in Turkey between 1960 and 1997, targeted Islamist politicians in Turkey's pious community. But and here's where things get really interesting, the Turkish state wasn't averse to using religion for its own purposes. The military rulers who took power in September 1980 went on a mosque-building spree. They enabled a rightist religious party to come to power when they handed power back to the civilians. They added religion to educational curricula, and they opened preacher schools throughout the country. There was a belief among the military elite and elites among them, that after the late 1970s, which was a period of left-right violence in Turkey that took the lives of almost five thousand people, that religion would depoliticize society, it was a form of social control. Of course, things didn't actually work out that way, which I'll talk about in a second.


Fourth one—Turkish nationalism. Turkey is really no different from other countries. It was born as a result of a nationalist revolution. Unlike other countries, the nationalist account of Turkey's history doesn't really have a lot of nuance. The European effort to defy Anatolia after World War I continues to animate Turkish politics and really is a wellspring of Turkish politics and society. Even within Turkey's Islamist community, folks are fiercely nationalist. And this is what sets Turkish Islamists apart from transnational Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which they are often put in the same category. Instead of Turkey being pro-Western, instead of the Turkish military and Turkish governments throughout the period of the Cold War being necessarily pro-Western, there was more of them being pro-Turkish than anything else. Yes, they were part of the NATO alliance, but not because they were necessarily pro-American or pro-Western in any sense, they were pro-Turkey and anti-Soviet. Turkish politicians, Turkish society, generally distrustful of big powers, including the United States as well as Europe. The EU project, in many ways was a contradiction to this kind of fulsome, Turkish nationalism that pervades Turkish society. There was this sense that the EU project was going to be a fulfillment of Ataturk's declaration that Turkey would rise to the level of civilization, meaning Western civilization. But mistrust among the people who were to carry out this raising the level of civilization, mistrust of the West was profound, and it has not diminished in the course of the ensuing almost one hundred years.


Fifth point and then I'll stop and look forward very much to your questions—the Justice and Development Party. How did the Justice and Development Party go from being a reformer to a kind of leading edge of nationalist authoritarian populism in the world? And let me take you back, I started out with 2005. Let me take you back to that era. There was tremendous hope that the Justice and Development Party would resolve some of the contradictions in Turkish politics. This was because, paradoxically, the AKP, its acronym in Turkish, was an anti-system party. Thus, when it came to the Kurds, it's up to shift from a strict interpretation of Turkishness to a view of religion and Muslimhood and Muslimness that could easily accommodate Kurds in the Turkish Republic. Part of that, that was part of a project to inject more religious values into the society. At the same time, the Justice and Development Party wanted to tear down the institutions of the Republic, which in the Islamist worldview was a historical accident, a deviation from the natural order of things. Justice and Development Party intellectuals were not shy about saying that. They didn't believe, though, institutions upon which the Republic were built, were not actually natural in a Muslim society. And they emphasize Turkey as a leading Muslim power, not as a Western power, not as a—but as a Muslim power.


And there was a real emphasis on Muslim solidarity. This rang alarm bells among the traditional elite in Turkey, and the Justice and Development Party ran up against the hard realities of the resistance from traditional power centers, like the judiciary, the military, the press, the academic world. I go into this in tremendous detail in False Dawn, which Jim was nice enough to mention, but in general, in response to this opposition from these power centers, the Justice and Development Party used a mix of quasi-democratic institutions, and authoritarian institutions to suppress its opponents. And to suppress them they did, to the point where Turkey really is one of the most repressive countries in the region where it is, which is saying a lot given that it sits next to a variety of pretty nasty countries. Overall in an effort to institutionalize its rule and to remake Turkish politics, in the Justice and Development Party's image, you get, instead of the kind of Justice and Development Party 1.0, one that was open to Europe, one that was open to the world, one that was seemingly cleaving an Islamist third way, what you get in this kind of intense competition in Turkish politics, you get an intertwining of a kind of ferocious authoritarianism, Islamism, and nationalism all rolled up into one. That is the recent evolution of the Justice and Development Party. And that's why we've seen so much backsliding in Turkey. That's why the European Commission was so critical of Turkey in its October 6 progress report. I'll stop there. And like I said, I'm very much looking forward to Q&A.


STAFF: We will take our first question from George Hoguet.


Q: Yes, I'm wondering if you could say a little bit about current Turkish foreign policy, particularly in Libya and Iraq, and how that might be seen in a historical context?


COOK: It's a great question and thank you so much for it. And there are a variety of determinants of Turkish foreign policy, which, you know, should not surprise anybody. Geostrategic concerns, domestic politics, and then there are things that are particular to Turkey. And I think that there's a mix of these things in its approach to both Libya and Iraq. Let's take Libya for a second. Because Libya really does seem to be something that's far afield from Turkey. At a geostrategic level, the Turks have watched as the Egyptians, the Cypriots, the Greeks, the Israelis had deepened their ties over the course of the last few years and established something called the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum. From the Turkish perspective, this was an effort to choke Turkey off from the Mediterranean where it has this enormous, enormous border. As a result, it reached out to Libya and established its own maritime zone with the Libyans as a way to strike back at this quartet of countries which also have a number of other countries that are part of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that raise alarm bells in Ankara, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.


And then of course, there is the question for another determinant of Turkish foreign policy in Libya is this question of domestic politics. President Erdogan, whose name I now will use, has often held himself and Turkey out as a principled actor in global affairs, and he has intervened in Libya. He has made the case, he's intervening in Libya on a matter of principle that the Government of National Accord which Turkey supports in Tripoli, is the internationally recognized government and is under assault by a number of forces, including Khalifa Haftar, a former Qaddafist military officer, with the help of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France and Russia. And this garners him a significant amount of goodwill at home, Turkey as a leading important principled actor in international politics. Part of that also is this question of Muslim solidarity that I talked about—the three P's of Turkish politics: prosperity, piety, and power. And part of the power piece of it is demonstrating that Turkey is a leading Muslim power in solidarity with other Muslims. And all three of these things—geostrategic concerns, domestic politics, and this question of Turkey as a leading Muslim power—are playing itself out in Libya.


In Iraq, it's really a question of geopolitics and threat. And what's happening in Iraq is that the Turks are pressing their advantage against the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, a terrorist organization that's been waging a campaign against Turkey since the mid-1980s. They have been successful in doing so. The Turks by the way, over the course of the last few months, well actually going back to last fall, have unveiled a variety of innovative military strategies that have impressed people around the region, but what it has done is it has sped up the coalescing of a coalition opposed to Turkey in the region. I recently was privy to video of the Greek air force exercising with the Emirati air force over the island of Crete. What are the Emiratis doing in Crete? Well, they're opposing the exercise of Turkish power around the region.


LINDSAY: We'll take the next question.


STAFF: We will take the next question from Joan Spero.


Q: Hi, Steven and thank you for this very interesting analysis. Could you talk a little bit about Turkey's relationship with Israel? And what exactly is going on? Thank you.


COOK: Thanks, Joan. It's an interesting question. And you know, there were the golden days of the late 1990s, where Turkey and Israel were strategic partners in a variety of ways. But again, bringing this back to my remarks, it was very, very hard for the Justice and Development Party to continue to have strategic ties with Israel if it was going to be a leading Muslim power. So that's one issue. Second issue is that, despite the fact that Turkey recognized Israel's right to exist, and there have been relations between the countries, though not diplomatic relations at the ambassadorial level until the until the early 1990s, I should say, that the Turkish public has been largely pro-Palestine, and that the strategic relations between Israel and Turkey in the late 1990s was really a function of Turkish domestic politics in which the military high command was demonstrating its hegemony over civilian politicians by forging this relationship with Israel over their objections and over the objections of many people in Turkish society. Then there is the piece of where the Justice and Development Party, which came to power in 2002, could be a leading Muslim power and have these relations with Turkey. There's also this aspect of Muslim solidarity that the Turks have a view of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, a terrorist organization, have been on view of Hamas as being like them, as being a legitimate, democratically elected group that has nevertheless been suppressed, and that the Justice and Development Party has a unique role to play in helping Hamas specifically but also in raising awareness and keeping the Palestinian cause front and center.


So, needless to say relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated over many years. There's the famous Mavi Marmara incident in 2010, in which Israeli troops boarded a vessel that started out in Turkey, sponsored by a Turkish aid organization that was trying to run the blockade of the Gaza Strip, killed eight Turks and a Turkish-American, and relations have been generally in the deep freeze ever since, despite efforts on the part of the Obama administration to resolve those problems. Those relations have become less important, particularly to Israel since then because the Israelis have been able to develop their relations, as I said before with Greece and Cyprus, as well as, and importantly, the United Arab Emirates, which it just signed an normalization agreement, Bahrain, for which it just signed a normalization agreement, and importantly, Saudi Arabia. Israel has looked around and said, well, having relations with Turkey would be nice, but we made all this progress with these other countries. So there's really no incentive on the part of either side to improve their improve their relationship. All that being said, commercial relations continue. In one indication of commercial relations, Turkish Airlines is the single largest international flag flying in and out of Israel. So, there's a certain amount of compartmentalization that goes on in the relationship that sets apart diplomatic problems and geopolitical problems, and then there is business. So I don't expect that the relations to warm anytime soon.


LINDSAY: Next question, please.


STAFF: We will take our next question from Ambassador Vershbow.


Q: Hi, Steve, thank you very much. Just going down the list now, how about the relationship with Russia? It seems to have been stressed a bit by what's happened in Libya and more recently, Turkey's intervention on behalf of the Azerbaijanis in Nagorno-Karabakh. How far do you think the Turks are prepared to go in annoying the Russians, or is there anything that we can do to kind of bring Turkey back closer to us, to NATO, because of their differences with the Russians on these issues?


COOK: Yes, it's a great question. In fact, I was just writing about it. The Turkish-Russian relationship is extraordinarily complex. As you point out, Turkey and Russia are on opposite ends of a variety of conflicts in the region. Libya—the Turks support the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, the Russians support Khalifa Haftar, the military leader of the government of the east. In Syria, the Russian support Bashar al-Assad. The Turks obviously don't support Bashar al-Assad. They have dropped the Assad must go thing, but they're clearly not ready to accommodate themselves to a regime victory there. And as you point out, they are obviously on opposite sides of the new conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. They seem to have been able to compartmentalize these relations, they have not always been good, but there seems to be an effort on the part of both Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep a lid on their differences because they both have larger goals. In Turkey, there's a series of larger goals that the Russians can help them out with. One of them being that if the Turks want their interest served in Syria, because the United States isn't involved in that conflict, the only address to go to there is Moscow. And so for the Turks to really take on the Russians, in a way, the Russians have all kinds of tools in Syria to make the Turkish lives miserable there and in Turkey. They've also been able to compartmentalize as I said, the other big issue for Turkey is the desire on the part of Turkey to move itself away from the United States, to demonstrate a foreign policy independent from the United States. When Turkey received the first components of the Russian S-400 air defense system in June 2019, the interior minister who's wildly popular in Turkey, declared it Turkey's independence day, this plays extremely well in a population in which the reservoir of anti-Americanism is enormous. And it's important domestically for Turkey to demonstrate that independence from the United States. For the Russians, they have it interesting containing the differences because they've developed this good relationship with Turkey. There's economic benefits to it. But most importantly, and you mentioned NATO, and this is the most important thing, is what is the overall, it seems to me, I'm not a Russia expert, but I do read these things. It seems to me that what Russia's overall strategy is to weaken the West, the North Atlantic alliance, to sow confusion in Europe. And one of the ways it's doing those things is by developing this relationship with Turkey, and by the way, other American allies in that region as well. So I think that they both have incentive to keep whatever differences they have over Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, at a certain level, and continue to talk through those differences in order not to blow up their larger geostrategic goals.


Now, what is it that we can do to pull the Turks back? You know, this is a debate that I've been involved in a bit, and it strikes me that it takes more than just one to engage us. The Turks have to want to be able to be pulled away, the Turks have to want to be able to come back within the NATO fold. And it doesn't strike me that they really do want to do that. It strikes me that, you know, there's a lot of loose talk about, oh, Turkey is Iran or Turkey's just like Russia, and so on and so forth. It's not like those countries. But one way it does share a view with the Russians and the Iranians, and that is an American-led order, particularly in American-led order in the Middle East, does not serve Turkey's interests and does not enhance Turkish power. And thus the Turks have been willing, more than willing, to go out and undermine American policy in the region. Our effort to pull the Turks back and kind of save the relationship—it's also complicated by the fact that in this area where there's intense American foreign policy and intense Turkish activity, the Middle East, we really actually don't know what we want. And people keep talking about the United States withdrawing and leaving, whether we really are withdrawing and leaving or not, leaders in the region believe it because we keep talking about it. And as long as we haven't really made it clear what our goals are and what our interests are, and that we're going to leave, the Turks and others feel free to pursue their interest as they see fit, regardless of what our wishes are.


LINDSAY: Thank you, Steven. We can take the next question.


STAFF: We will take our next question from Joseph Nye.


Q: The event was an excellent presentation in a very short time but it leaves an interesting puzzle, which is which changed more—Turkey or Erdogan? In your effort to explain the change, without mentioning the word Erdogan was wonderful, but there was a time when Erdogan, for example, backed Davutoglu's vision, which was a very different vision of Turkey and Turkish foreign policy still drawing on those same AK principles, so you can interpret it very differently. So which changed more—Turkey or Erdogan?


COOK: It's, you know, it's a terrific question. And thank you for it. It's something that I think kind of tears apart the Turkey-watching community. I'm going to suggest that there's and pick up your piece on Davutoglu and Erdogan and draw a distinction between the two of them. Davutoglu really sees himself as an intellectual and a deep thinker and a strategic thinker and was committed to a certain set of principles. He became the prime minister really by accident because Erdogan lost trust in a variety of other people and Davutoglu remained loyal to him, and then after entering politics became quite ambitious. It strikes me that Erdogan is cut from another cloth, not a big intellectual, believes in certain things, a small set of things, Turkish power, the importance of religious values, and forging a prosperous society—the three P's of Turkish politics. But he doesn't seem to be committed to any particular pathway to doing that. So Erdogan version 1.0, pro-European, pro-American, open to the world, forged under his watch three major constitutional reform packages that led the European Union to say, you had met enough of the Copenhagen criteria to begin formal EU negotiations. But as he ran into trouble in Turkey, I alluded to it, as the traditional elites, as the military tried to undermine Erdogan, he tapped in different ways for his own survival in the service of his vision of a powerful, pious and prosperous Turkey.


Let's take, for example, in May 2007, there was essentially a military attempt to overthrow Erdogan. They did it by saying that, the then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who had been nominated by the AKP to become the next president of Turkey, could not become the president of Turkey because his wife wore the headscarf. Erdogan outmaneuvered them. He won, but to his mind, because he's a Turkish Islamist, and because Turkish Islamists have been suppressed and have paid a price in each and every one of Turkey's coups between 1960 and 1997, as well as kind of an everyday kind of, I don't want to call it repression, but discrimination against pious Turks during these periods. He's deeply, deeply paranoid about where the next coup would come from. Well, the next coup came from the judiciary, the prosecutor's office tried to close down the Justice and Development Party because it was a center of anti-secular activity. The Constitutional Court actually voted to close the AKP in 2008, but they didn't have enough votes. They did have a justice newfound party reform; they didn't have enough votes on the court to actually close it.


This taught Erdogan another lesson, that no matter what he does, no matter how successful he is, the elites will continue to go after him and this he decided that he had to crush his opponents. So out with the good Erdogan, or what we perceive to be the good Erdogan, and in came the Erdogan who's going to use any means necessary to outmaneuver and crush his opponents. And here we are more than a decade after the Constitutional Court voted to close the Justice and Development Party, Erdogan has become the kind of supremo leader but not through real genuine democratic means, but through suppressing and crushing his opponents. That doesn't mean he doesn't have opponents. He's got a lot of opponents from different kinds of ideological places, but he is a shrewd and cunning politician. And he sees himself as the person who can single handedly forge this new Turkey, which used to be in the image of the Justice and Development Party and is now really in the image of Erdogan. So to go back to your question, Professor Nye, to answer it firmly now, I'd say Erdogan has changed more than Turkey has changed. I don't think though if Erdogan goes Turkey will snap back to where it was in 2002. Too much has happened. Too much change has been made to institutions, too many institutions have been hollowed out. There's now something called Erdoganism. But I do think the man himself has changed and has been buffeted by the kind of rough and tumble nature of Turkish politics and his perennial fight with the Turkish elites.


LINDSAY: Thank you, Steven. Can we have another question.


STAFF: Certainly, we will take the next question from Matthias Matthijs.


Q: Steven. Hi, can you hear me?


COOK: Yes, I can you hear you fine.


Q: This was excellent, you've missed your calling in the classroom. I did want to come back to the NATO question, right, the future of Turkey and NATO. I mean, just this morning, again, all kinds of skirmishes in the Eastern Mediterranean. What game are they playing with Greece? And is it sustainable for an alliance that two close neighbors are, I mean, at such hostile relations right now?


COOK: Let me just say anytime you want me to come and guest lecture, I'm happy to do it. Look, I think there are others who I think can tell you about, with more expertise about the stresses in NATO and whether the alliance can handle it. I can tell you what I think the Turks are up to with the Greeks. As I said before, you have this kind of coalescing of a group of countries in the Eastern Mediterranean that claim that they are interested in the exploitation of natural gas under the Eastern Mediterranean and that they would welcome Turkey and if Turkey was just different, if Erdogan would stop being as aggressive as he is. You know, the Turks aren't that stupid. The coalition of Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, with the Emiratis and the Saudis and some others coming in on the side, they know that they are up against basically a security coalition against the exercise of Turkish power. And the Turks, who had this long southern border along the Mediterranean, are not going to stand for what they perceive to be an effort to choke them off from their own backyard, or I guess, in this case, their own front yard. That's one issue that I think is going.


Two, it's always been a part of Turkish foreign policy, I think, not always, but always something that was at a lever that the Turks could pull with Europe and within NATO to keep the Greeks off balance. Now, this is not something new. The Turks have been messing with the Greeks in the Aegean for years now. And there was a particular uptick in skirmishes in the air above the Aegean since 2016. The Greeks lost a fighter pilot who crashed after an encounter with a Turkish F-16. So this has been going on. Now though that the Greeks are deeply involved in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum and because the Turks believed that they are being shut out of their front yard, the Turks who have naval advantage over the Greeks in the Eastern Mediterranean are going to play this game with the Greeks to keep them off balance.


Third, there's an ideological component here. Turkey is kind of awash in discussion of something called the "Blue Homeland." It is allegedly a naval strategy that is based on kind of romance of Turkish power, deep and profound mistrust of the North Atlantic alliance, hardcore Turkish nationalism, and friendliness to Russia. And it is an aggressive doctrine. And the Turks are putting this into action in the Eastern Mediterranean to demonstrate that they are a big power that needs to be dealt with and that they can be part of and must be part of the rules of the road in not just the Eastern Mediterranean and the Mediterranean. This has obviously aroused the concern of other actors, most notably France, which really puts a lot of pressure on the North Atlantic alliance. Whenever this kind of thing happens, as you will know, people say kick Turkey out of NATO, we know that that isn't going to happen. The talks between Turkey and Greece under NATO auspices broke down. I've only thus far heard the Greek side of it, but it's a question of whether the Turks were moving the goalposts or not. The question is, are the other big powers in NATO going to come in and play referee, really come in and play referee, and send the Turks and the Greeks and others to their sides and genuinely stabilize the situation? I haven't really seen a lot of evidence of it. And when I talk about the big NATO powers, I'm talking about the United States. And we've been active there, but not in a way that seems to be in a stabilizing way.


LINDSAY: Thank you, Steven, we have time for one more short question and short answer.


COOK: I'll try to be concise.


Steven A. Cook discusses Turkish politics. How did Turkey go from promising EU candidate to a model of authoritarian populism? What is next as Turks look forward to general elections in 2023?

The CFR Master Class Series is a biweekly 45-minute session in which a CFR fellow will take a step back from the news and discuss the fundamentals essential to understanding a given country, region of the world, or issue pertaining to U.S. foreign policy or international relations.


LINDSAY: Good, call on someone.


STAFF: Certainly. We will take our last question from Amy Austin Holmes.


Q: Hi, Steven, thanks so much. This was a fantastic lecture. My question is how committed do you believe Turkey is to the areas in northern Syria, which they've occupied? And do you see any differences between the areas that they occupied back in, say, 2016? And the areas that they've occupied since last November after the Peace Spring intervention because in some areas, as you know, they're essentially establishing like Turkish schools and introducing Turkish language, whereas in other areas, most recently, they're still relying on the Syrian mercenaries. And there was a UN report that basically accused Turkey of war crimes that came out on September 15. So how do you view their commitment to the occupation of northern Syria?


COOK: Thanks, Amy, and you know, deference to you on a question of the Kurds, who you've had the courage to spend the time in northeastern-northwestern Syria. Look, it strikes me that in those places where Turkey has basically brought it's, let me put it this way, created a sphere of influence and opened Turkish schools and opened the Turkish PTT, the telegraph and phone company and all these things, they are there to stay and they're not likely to leave anytime soon, and it serves their interests. This is a way in which they can encourage Kurds to come back into Syria and continue to apply pressure on the Assad regime, and by extension on the Russians. As I said, it's a compartmentalized relationship with the Russians. But having this sphere of influence in northern Syria, makes it easier for them to apply pressure and gain some leverage on the Russians when there's a problem in that relationship. I think once the Turks are in these places, where they have extended, essentially Turkish rule, it's going to be very, very hard for them to leave. Other places, as you point out, they're continuing to rely on Syrian mercenaries, which is a huge problem. The question is, do the Turks, is it a question of capacity or desire? My sense is that the Turks may not necessarily have the capacity in those areas. Either way, whether they're relying on Syrian mercenaries or they're carving out this sphere of influence, their overarching interest in Syria is served, not the end of the Assad regime, but preventing the emergence of some type of Syrian independent, autonomous, whatever you want to call it—state, stateless, statelet—I should say, that is run by the Kurds. This is their nightmare scenario, that big powers will have midwifed a Kurdish zone, like I said, state/statelet, on their southern border from which the PKK and the YPG which to them are the thing, can continue to wage war on Turkey. It strikes me they're there to stay. I will point out one last thing before Jim cuts me off, that creating these security belts never ever works out well for the countries that create those security belts.


LINDSAY: Well, that brings us to the end of the Council's CFR Master Class with Steven Cook. Steven, thank you very much for the terrific set of remarks. I want to remind everybody who has been listening in that you can find the audio and transcript of today's meeting on CFR's website at And everyone have a great rest of your day.



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