Panelists discuss Turkey’s domestic politics, its recent actions in northern Syria, and the shifting nature of U.S.-Turkish relations in the three years since the attempted July 2016 coup.
LAIPSON: Good afternoon, everyone. I want to welcome you all to today’s meeting on U.S.-Turkish relations, “The Shifting Nature of Two NATO Allies.” I’m Ellen Laipson, and I’m currently the director of the International Security Program at George Mason University. And it’s a great pleasure to preside over today’s discussion on a topic that I think is particularly compelling.
So in our topsy-turvy world where we write love letters to authoritarians and we publicly disparage our allies, it’s kind of interesting to think where does the U.S.-Turkish relations fit in that sort of spectrum from how we treat allies and authoritarians. It seems to fit into every category or maybe none, and maybe we’re going to try to figure out today how special is the case of U.S.-Turkish relations.
It’s, of course, often been a tumultuous relationship, one where the executive branch and Congress don’t always see eye to eye. Is it fundamentally a security partnership, or do we have a stake in Turkey’s democratic standing? And if Turkey is questioning its NATO membership and its evolving—in its evolving relationship with Moscow, what should the United States do? And this is without even mentioning the incursion into northern Syria and the decision by the United States to withdraw our troops from northern Syria.
So there’s just a lot going on in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, and I’m delighted that we have three such excellent speakers today to join us and try to make sense of this.
Henri Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University, where he also served for over a decade as chairman of the IR Department. He’s an adjunct senior fellow here in Middle East Studies at the Council. He served on the Department of State’s Policy Planning Staff, and he currently is an active member of the Board of Trustees of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.
Naz Durakoglu is currently a senior policy advisor to Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, but she’s moved back and forth between both the Hill and the executive branch. She served in the European Bureau at the Department of State and spent some time on the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, a very interesting project that looks at the digital dimensions of international relations.
And Gönül Tol, to my immediate right, is the founding director of the Middle East program at the—the Turkish program at the Middle East Institute, and is also an adjunct professor at GW.
So we decided to start with all three of our speakers giving their topline analysis of whither U.S.-Turkish relations. What’s the current state of play? Is it different than it’s been in the past? And where do they see it heading? So they’ll each speak for about two to three minutes on that very broad opening question, and I think we’ll start—Naz, would you like to go first?
DURAKOGLU: Sure. Thank you, Ellen.
So thank you again for having me.
You know, I know what’s probably on everyone’s minds right now is the current crisis and how our own government is going to deal with this. What I can say is I’m coming from the legislative branch, and for many years the legislative branch has been pushing for some creative thinking, some new thinking on U.S.-Turkey relations. Obviously, there are a number of different perspectives in Congress, both on the House—in the House and in the Senate, but a lot of what you’re seeing now is driven by a sense of frustration among senators and congressmen who felt—who feel that for many years we’ve been turning a blind eye to what they refer to as Turkish bad behavior. Much of it, obviously, is focused on Turkish President Erdoğan.
I think from a little bit going back to my time two years ago in the executive branch, I have to say I don’t think those in the executive branch do not feel that frustration. I think they’re very well aware of it, too. But there is more of a long-term thinking to what’s going on with Turkey. And, obviously, there is this constant fear that if you push Turkey or President Erdoğan too far in a certain direction, they will actually go in that direction.
I guess the main difference between Congress and the executive branch on this—on this issue is that the legislative branch in particular feels as though Turkey is already there—Turkey is already in the clutches of Russia, it’s an authoritarian state, and for the most part we can’t do much wile Turkish President Erdoğan is there to actually bring Turkey back. So they’re looking at what sort of example does this set in terms of our own relations with Turkey and Turkey’s relations with Europe.
And so this is what’s actually driving some of what you’re hearing now when it comes to the sanctions debate. So it’s not solely focused on the incursion in Syria. This is actually a much broader conversation that’s been—that’s been had for the last few years over some of the steps that Turkey has taken.
I will say there is something fundamentally different about the conversation that’s taking place right now. Even though I think the legislative and executive branches have not always seen eye to eye on how to respond to Turkey, I do think for the most part the legislative branch did defer to the executive branch for many years in terms of how to go about this relationship, how we should kind of deal with Turkey and President Erdoğan. I think since October 6 there has been a tangible change. And I do think that what you’re going to see is both Republicans and Democrats take a very stern turn and look at their own authorities to address some of the issues that they feel are not being addressed by the administration now.
And then added into this dynamic is—and Democrats are a little bit more forward on this issue than Republicans are—but just extreme frustration with our own president, and not being able to really decipher what President Trump is trying to do with his relationships not just with President Erdoğan, but with other leaders who have a bit of an authoritarian bent. So part of the discussion about sanctions and the response to Turkey is also related to how do we respond to President Trump.
And what members of Congress feel is just these open-ended relationships with authoritarians don’t really tie back into the U.S. interest. So they’re trying to use what leverage they have. And quite frankly, in the legislative branch we have limited options, and sanctions happen to be one of those options.
LAIPSON: So I think we’ll return to sanctions later.
LAIPSON: But why don’t we continue with the kind of topline, big picture. Gönül?
TOL: Well, Naz just talked about the frustration on the Hill, and I think there is something to be said about the nature of the current crisis. This partnership survived many crises in the past, but I think this is certainly the most turbulent period in the history of Turkish-American relations. And there’s something different, and I would like to talk about several factors that make it—that make the relationship between these two countries conflict-prone and make it difficult for them to solve problems.
And I think the number-one problem here is a centralization and personalization of power in Turkey. So the last decade we’ve seen a transformation of Turkey from an institutional democratic state into a highly personalized one. All foreign and security policymaking is very centralized in the presidential palace. So in the past the United States—the U.S. policy sought to weather the storm during turbulent times by investing in institutions or through regular government contacts, but these things are not there anymore. Erdoğan is the—is the key, key figure. And you would think that this should make things easier because you are dealing with one man, but Turkey is not Saudi Arabia. Turkey is not Egypt. Despite the centralization of power and authoritarianism, public opinion and elections still matter in Turkey. And you’re dealing with a public that is deeply anti-American, that thinks that the U.S. is in decline and has become even irrelevant. So this is a—so you combine that very anti-American public opinion with a very personalized system in which there is no one that can put the brakes on Erdoğan’s worst instincts, so you get a Turkey where Erdoğan’s worldview and his domestic electoral considerations become decisive in foreign policymaking.
And the second thing that I want to talk about is the change in Turkish military. Historically, the Turkish military has been an asset in this relationship. It’s been—despite the very marginal pro-Russia cliques within the military, it’s always been very pro-NATO, very pro-United States, and it was this very strong actor that pulled the relationship from the brink during difficult times. But now that military has become very ideological. Just recently I saw Turkish soldiers on their way to Syria. They were flashing far-right—Turkish far-right party sign, and some of them said that they were going to the lands where the sun of Islam rose. And this is something that you would never see before. So Turkish military has become very ideological. And also it’s a similar story that you’re seeing here in Washington. Central Command is very, very skeptical, has very negative views of Turkey and the Turkish military.
So the third factor is in the past when we had these problems there was overarching threat that kept these countries together despite all the problems. And now not only is there not an overarching threat, but these two countries are in bed with each other’s archenemies. The United States is working with the PKK Syrian offshoot and Turkey is working with the al-Qaida-linked groups. So it’s really difficult to bridge that gap.
And the last factor that I want to talk about is the question of nationalism. President Erdoğan has built his political—domestic political legitimacy on a very aggressive nationalist, anti-Kurdish policy, and this nationalist strain is pushing him toward confrontation with the United States rather than conciliation. So Erdoğan’s political interests are served by these rather very, very strong anti-American narratives, hedging with Russia, or with very aggressive anti-Kurdish policies. So I think in the past fixing relations through government contacts and thinking that limited concessions will placate Turkey is a very outdated approach now because many of the problems that we’re seeing in Turkey-U.S. ties are rooted in Turkey’s domestic political transformation.
LAIPSON: Thank you. Thank you very much.
Henri, your take on the current and prospective state?
BARKEY: Thank you. Sometimes people say everything that’s been said has already been said, but not with my accent, but. (Laughter.)
So I—let me take a step back a little bit and say—and look at the Turkish-American relationship. And for the most part, we all know that one thing that determined and was the most important factor in Turkish-American relationship was what real estate people talk about, is location, location, location. I mean, the fact—the fact that Turkey was—controlled the straits; the fact that Turkey, if you look at it from NATO’s perspective, was the most eastern part of NATO in terms of confronting the Soviet Union; that’s what—that’s what counted. And that’s why—that vision of Turkey has not disappeared. It still, I think, remains, and you still see—whether it’s in government circles or elsewhere in Washington, you see this notion that Turkey’s important because it is—its location is crucial to NATO plays a very important role in the way people perceive Turkey.
That said, if security and location were the most important factors in the Turkish-American relationship, that kind of changed for a little while when the Turks actually engaged in very, very seriously reforms because of the European Union accession process. And then there was a significant change here in Washington, that maybe we should look at Turkey as a model country. Here’s a Muslim country going through significant democratic changes on its own, and this could be essentially a model for the rest of the Islamic world, with which the United States had serious, serious problems, especially on the democracy side. And unfortunately, that little, shall we say, window of opportunity disappeared with Erdoğan becoming more and more autocratic.
So now we are essentially in a third phase. And I heard the other day General McMaster say that Turkey’s geopolitical shift is one of the most significant strategic surprises of the last—I don’t know what he said, whether it was ten or twenty years. And so there a perception that Turkey is moving in another direction. And that direction—the implicit thought here is that that direction it towards the Soviet Union or—I’m sorry, Russia. I’m still—I’m still in the 1950s. But towards Russia and maybe other, shall we say, adversaries of the United States, and maybe China.
But I would argue that this is not the case; that is, that Turkey is not moving towards Russia. Turkey is making all kinds of deals with the Russians. We saw the S-400s. We saw the Sochi deal. We see a very much improved relationship between Russia and Turkey. But fundamentally—and also Gönül implied—this is really about Erdoğan. Erdoğan is trying to create a new Turkey, in his mind, a new narrative for Turkey. He is ambitious for Turkey. He is—but mostly, of course, he’s ambitious for himself. And so what’s really happening is if you want a third way, he wants to see Turkey as a leader. I’m not sure exactly what. Maybe he wants to reconstitute the Third World around him. But look at all his—some of his pronouncements, some of the policy options. You saw only last week in the New York Times that he’s now talking about a nuclear option, that Turkey should have nuclear weapons. By the way, that’s not new; he’s been saying that for a while. He’s been wanting to reform the U.N. Security Council. In 2017 he had actually a detailed plan for that. And of course he thinks that, you know, Turkey should be a permanent member of the Security Council and that the world is greater than five—the five permanent members. So you see, very ambitious.
But this is very much in line with authoritarian leaders kind of ideational foreign policy. It’s mission-driven. It comes sometimes very aggressive and ideological, but he is also very pragmatic. He knows how much to push, and he knows when to stop pushing, and he knows when to make—to make deals. And the trick here is to understand that, you know, he can—he can be—he can be stopped.
But part of—but the most significant aspect of his foreign policy is really domestic. It is really a way of consolidating power, but also making himself kind of the most important leader since Ataturk, maybe even upstaging Ataturk. But in the process he’s creating, essentially, a system that is completely personalized. The state has been de-institutionalized and he is replacing the state. But for that he needs a message. He needs a message that continuously galvanizes/mobilizes people. And part of that message, and a critical part of the message, has to do with antagonizing liberal democracies.
You know, you’ve seen him calling the Europeans Nazi remnants. But of course, Turkey’s trade—most of Turkey’s trade is with Europe. Let’s not forget that. One of his great new buddies is Nicolas Maduro. So, I mean, all of these policies are designed for domestic purposes. And especially when it comes to America, an amazing amount of anti-Americanism comes from the palace. That gets repeated by the Turkish press, basically saying that Turkey has one big enemy and that’s the United States.
LAIPSON: Thank you.
So I think what we should follow up with is two remarks on the domestic determinants of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Gönül wrote an interesting piece in Foreign Affairs about the Turkish desire to take over northern Syria as being driven by some specific domestic realities of Erdoğan’s hold on power at home, so I thought maybe you could say more about that.
TOL: Sure. I’ve always argued that Turkey’s reaction to the conflict in Syria must be seen against the backdrop of President Erdoğan’s domestic struggle to consolidate his one-man rule. It’s always been the case. In 2011, for instance, when the Syrian conflict started, Erdoğan’s number-one priority was toppling the regime and securing an Islamist victory because at home he had consolidated his power. Until 2011 his Islamist ideology really could not play a role because he was still vulnerable. He was facing opposition. But by 2011 he had consolidated his power and saw the Arab uprisings as an opportunity to embark on an Islamization process at home. So that’s—that shaped his priorities in Syria, and that was again toppling the regime and securing an Islamist victory.
And in 2015 that priority changed, because in 2015 President Erdoğan, his ruling party lost its parliamentary majority after many years, and that was thanks to the rise of a pro-Kurdish party. And after the June 2015 elections, to hold onto power he decided to strike a deal with the country’s ultra-nationalists that is known for their very anti-Kurdish stance. So after that deal he turned his attention, so domestically his priority was to contain Kurdish nationalism both at home and in the region.
So his priorities in Syria shifted accordingly. Starting from 2015, containing the Kurdish gains in northern Syria became his number-one priority and toppling the regime took the backseat. And in fact, Erdoğan weakened the opposition. For instance, Turkish actions in Aleppo played a decisive role in the fall of Aleppo because Turkey decided to enlist the opposition fighters fighting in Aleppo in its fight against the Kurds. And Turkey worked very closely with Iran and the Assad regime starting from 2015, which ended up consolidating the regime’s gains on the ground.
And we have recently seen another change with the recent local elections that dealt a huge blow to Erdoğan’s rule. So in March 2019 elections his ruling party lost almost all major cities in Turkey. And in the rerun elections in Istanbul he lost Istanbul again, by even a bigger margin. And the number-one reason is, obviously, the economic downturn played a very important role, but one of the top reasons for his failure was the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees. We’ve been seeing an increasing nationalist backlash against the Syrian refugees. So now his priority has shifted again in Syria, so he’s now talking about creating a safe zone that could host up to 3 million Syrian refugees. That’s his plan, and I think that’s even a more urgent priority for him than containing the Syrian Kurds. In a recent talk he said that we have to clear that area—northeastern Syria—of the YPG elements because it’s going to make it—they are going to make it difficult for us to establish that safe zone so we can send back the Syrian refugees. So even his narrative shifted, and you could see that in the way he talks about the Kurds.
So they are—that containing Kurds is still—is still important, but I think his number-one priority is the Syrian refugees now. And that’s why we’re seeing what we’ve been seeing today, the recent—most recent Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria and the deals with the United States and Russia. So that’s what he’s been trying to do.
LAIPSON: Thank you.
Naz, I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that relations between the White House and Congress on foreign policy issues is also in a state of some agitation these days, whether it’s Ukraine or the Turkey-Syria crisis. So I wonder if you could just flesh out for us a little bit, maybe, the different parts of that conversation, and whether the legislative activity to impose sanctions on Turkey is real. Do you think it’s likely to, you know, produce a particular outcome? How do you see those—the debates that include Turkey, but not exclusively Turkey, playing out as a political struggle between the White House and the Congress?
DURAKOGLU: Sure. So, actually, to do that I have to move away from Turkey for a quick second. But you know, again, what I referenced earlier, there are separate authorities between the executive and legislative, and what we’ve been seeing since President Trump’s election and since he’s come into office is the Senate in particular, but Congress across the board—and in fact, under Democrats it’s been happening even more in the House—there is an effort to regain certain authorities that Congress feels like it’s lost over time. There is a push and pull for that reason. And quite frankly, it did exist a little bit under the last administration as well. Congress always, you know—it does have a place in foreign policy; it’s just a different type of place than the executive has. So there is this constant tension between the executive and legislative branches over this.
But when President Trump came in, particularly over issues regarding Russia, there was an overwhelming mistrust of his intentions. And obviously, there are some members of Congress that are more willing to talk about that than others, but it really played out in the—in 2017 when the CAATSA legislation actually came forward. And that was a huge—that was a huge move because, quite frankly, Leader McConnell at the time allowed for Democrats and Republicans to come together to put together a massive sanctions package that not only enforced new sanctions on Russia, but it also took away the executive branch’s ability, and particularly the president’s ability, to remove sanctions off certain entities, existing sanctions, particularly those related to Ukraine. So this whole—this situation actually shaped the current—the current narrative—what’s currently happening between the executive branch and the legislative branch.
Now, going to what we’re dealing with now, you’re seeing that again. And that’s—quite frankly, the legislative branch is, again, mistrustful of President Trump’s intentions when it comes to Turkey. They don’t really understand what happened in December 2018, when there was a phone call between Erdoğan and Trump, and Trump tweeted that U.S. troops would be withdrawn from northeast Syria. And they certainly don’t understand what happened on October 6, when we basically saw the same thing happen, but this time with very real consequences.
And further, many of these members of Congress—including my own boss, Senator Shaheen—have visited northeast Syria. They actually went there when it was a stabilized region. They met with multiethnic groups. And they have their own perception of what was happening there, and they very much feel like Trump opened the door to have Erdoğan basically ruin that stability. And the numbers, if you just look at what UNHCR is reporting in terms of people fleeing to Iraq, really do illustrate that. There is absolute—people there, even with whatever agreements were reached with the United States and Russia.
And so what we’re dealing with now are a number of separate proposals. You have two proposals, mainly, in the House, and then two proposals in the Senate. And initially I think what congressmen and -women were trying to do, they were really trying to send a message, and they were trying to let everyone—globally, they wanted to kind of reclaim the message that they felt like President Trump was abusing a little bit, and that was they don’t feel like Turkey’s incursion was right. They feel like the U.S. has a valid presence in northeast Syria, and it was actually one that was working, and therefore it shouldn’t have—the president shouldn’t have done what he did.
So the initial packages, I think, were really meant to send this loud message. Now there’s more of a deliberative effort to try and get these sanctions right. So what you’re probably going to see is next week the House will bypass markup and bring forward one of their sanctions proposals, and then it’s really going to be up to Leader McConnell and others in the Senate as to what they’re going to do next. And McConnell has already spoken on the floor in support of sanctions, but again, he’s also—he indicated that they have to be very carefully put together. So it’s a little bit unclear still what the pathway forward is, but I have to say there is an overwhelming, you know, push to do something. What senators will say is we have to have a response.
So I think you are going to see that. And whatever ends up happening, I do think it has a veto-proof majority both in the House and the Senate. So you will see something.
LAIPSON: Thank you.
So in this complicated dynamic and crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations, there’s more than two actors. We’ve mentioned Russia. We’ve mentioned the Syrian regime. But I think we—the Kurds deserve a little more attention as a party to this current crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations. Henri, you’ve been looking at the kind of Kurdish future, looking at Kurds within Turkey, the activities of the Syrian Kurds as well as Iraqi Kurds. So I wonder if you want to address how the Kurdish question has always been a part of the U.S.-Turkish relationship and whether—you know, what’s the Kurdish side of the story these days?
BARKEY: Thank you. Look, for the Kurds, clearly, this is a really—a major, major setback, but they’ve been here before. They’ve been—everybody knows the Kurds have been betrayed left, right, and center whenever it was convenient for the large powers, whether it was Mahabad Republic, if it was the shah of Iran and the United States in the mid-’70s. So there’s been a number of cases.
But in terms of understanding also Erdoğan’s actions over the Syrian Kurds, let me just mention a couple of things. Erdoğan keeps saying that this was—the YPG is PKK, this is a security threat for Turkey, but the truth of the matter is that there was never a bullet that crossed the Syrian-Turkish border. So the YPG never engaged the Turks militarily, was never a threat. They wouldn’t have been because the Americans also would not have let them, even if they had thought about it.
Of course, what is—what is forgotten here is in the elections—the municipal elections that Gönül mentioned this year, at one point Erdoğan, realizing that his party was going to lose, had emissaries sent to none other than Abdullah Öcalan, the head of the PKK, in jail to see if he could convince Öcalan to tell the Turkish Kurds not to vote for the opposition and abstain. So this is part of the pragmatism that I talk about Erdoğan. He’s very, very pragmatic.
But when it comes to Syria, he did have a threat. I mean, I do—actually do concede that there was a real threat to Turkey in Syria. And it was not necessarily the YPG itself, but it was the possibility of the emergence of another autonomous statelet in Syria, especially after the creation of the KRG. And in both instances—remember, the KRG—the midwife of the creation of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq was the United States. And the United States was doing exactly the same thing, in a way, from the Turkish perspective. Was in the process of helping a group that had created an autonomous—functioning autonomous region in Syria. And the logical step is that once the Syrian civil war is over, that with the United States’ help the Syrian Kurds would actually get autonomy in Syria.
That in and of itself is a strategic threat to Turkey because, guess what, who’s next? And in a—in an environment where there’s paranoia and the West is seen as the enemy, you see all the time government officials and Turks mentioning the fact that what United States really, really wants to do, and the reason it went into the Middle East, was to split Turkey up. So this fear of Turkey being split up is not real, of course. But for many people. it is actually a galvanizing, an organizing principle. So for Erdoğan, it was critical to stop the Syrian Kurds from achieving anything. And that’s because down the road they would create an autonomous region supported by the United States, all right?
So what does it mean, very briefly, about the future of the Kurds? I mean, as I said, the Kurds have been here before, and they have come back. And they will come back. And every—you know, it’s like it’s always two steps forward, one step backwards, right? So over the years—and all you have to do is look essentially at the last hundred years, after the Sèvres treaty, that the Kurds have made slow improvements in their stature. Yes, they get defeated. Yes, they get killed. Yes, they get—people get displaced. But let’s face it, there’s—now there is the KRG. Everybody in Turkey realizes, and everybody outside Turkey realizes, that Turkey’s main and single most important problem is not the PKK. It is a Kurdish problem.
Syria now has a Kurdish problem. That’s something that people did not really focus on a few years ago. And I can assure you, the Iranian Kurds are also looking at the situation. There’s already been demonstrations in Iranian Kurdistan in favor of the Syrian Kurds. And especially the fact that the Syrian Kurds managed to defeat ISIS, made an alliance with the United States—and it’s true that the alliance was broken. But it was broken by one man. Let’s face it, it was broken by President Trump, not by the American government. I mean, in that sense, we have a very bizarre situation in Washington. And the assumption is if there is a change of government here that maybe things would go back to normal. But that said, there was an alliance between the PKK Kurds, if you want, and United States.
So these are all small steps, if you want, that improves slowly the Kurdish position internationally. That doesn’t mean there’s going to be a Kurdish—an independent Kurdish state anywhere in the future. Chances are it will be autonomous regions everywhere if we were—if we were to get together a hundred years from now here. But that’s where this is going. So think of it, as I said, two steps forward one step backwards.
LAIPSON: OK. We’re now a minute or two overdue to let our members and guests join the conversation. I do ask you to—first of all, today we’re on the record, as you may have been able to tell from cameras. Please wait for the microphone, speak directly into it, state your name and affiliation, and please limit yourself to one question. So I’m going to start in the back, please. The woman on this side of the table. Yes. Stand up—can I ask you to stand?
Q: Rachel Oswald, reporter with CQ Roll Call.
Next week the House is expected to pass, under suspension of the rules, a resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. The resolution says this shouldn’t be a one-off; this should be a continuous part of U.S. policy toward Turkey. Would the panel comment on that, as well as what this—is this likely to infuriate the Turkish public? Will this play into Erdoğan’s hands, if he can use it to rally his base and increase his likelihood to be reelected?
LAIPSON: Who would like to take that one?
DURAKOGLU: Well, I mean, you’re right. It’s definitely—it’s on the Rules Committee now, and the House does have intentions of moving that. Yes. I mean, this is not the first time we’ve seen the Armenian genocide resolution. And, yes, each time it infuriates the Turkish government and Turkish public. That being said, I think another reason—what’s happening right now on the Hill is there are such heightened emotions over what they just saw over northeast Syria. And, again, this is a collection of heightened emotions over time—over Pastor Brunson, over S-400s, over a number of other issues. So I do think there is an effort to just try and get everything out the gate right now. I won’t necessarily comment on whether or not that’s a strategy that’s going to lead to shaping Turkey’s behavior or not. But at the same time I do know that, you know, this is on the radar, and this is definitely one of the reasons why the Hill feels the need to kind of move forward on that measure, as well as others.
TOL: But I think it’s also—I think Congress using this as a political tool is not a wise strategy. First, I think it’s a disservice to the victims of the genocide. So every time when there is—something is wrong with Turkey, you bring this issue to the table. I think it’s not the right strategy.
LAIPSON: Henri, did you want—
BARKEY: Very quickly. I mean, it’s certainly going to lay into the narrative of the government and the anti-Americanism. But let’s assume this all passes, et cetera. Again, remember, Erdoğan is a pragmatist. He’s going to rail against it, but when it comes to making deals he will make deals. Look, Trump wrote him the most insulting letter anybody has ever sent from the White House. I mean, and in 1974 there was a famous—I’m sorry—1963 there was a famous Johnson letter. And he took a long time to get over it. This time it’s really an insulting letter, and Erdoğan seems to have, as he said, thrown it in the trashcan and make a deal with Trump. So, yes, he’s going to be upset, but he will live with it.
LAIPSON: Mike, you’re next. And right here.
Q: Thank you. I’m Mike Haltzel from Johns Hopkins SAIS.
Henri, you make a convincing case for Erdoğan’s pragmatism. And he’s already gotten the S-400s, which I think are a severe threat to our F-35s. And that’s a done deal. My question to all of you, really is, how important is NATO to Erdoğan? I’m not suggesting that Turkey should be kicked out. I might just say parenthetically that there had been two examples in the last few decades where countries—members of NATO have been chastised and punished without being thrown out. The Greek colonels, ’67-’73, and for a few weeks in the summer of ’75 when Portugal looked like it was going communist. They—in both causes, they were barred from the NAC, they were denied intel. I mean, it’s a rap on the knuckles, and it might be a way to make clear to Erdoğan that there are limits. But basically, my question is how important is NATO, not the United States?
LAIPSON: And I guess a variation on the question would be is it more likely that NATO would take action or that Erdoğan himself would say, as the French have done or others, you know, I’m suspending my NATO membership for the following reasons? So.
BARKEY: I was actually going to mention this in my—in my initial comments, but I thought I was running out of time. I don’t think Erdoğan wants to get out of NATO. I think NATO is very, very critical to Turkey, and he understands it, because Turkey that is not a member of NATO is a much-diminished power. Remember, he wants to create—he wants to make Turkey one of the big, important powers in the world. And if you’re not in NATO, then your wings will have been clipped. So he’s playing this game. I mean, he gets S-400s, but he’s never going to leave NATO. And he keeps pushing the envelope, and to see how far he can go.
TOL: And also I think we also have to underline the fact that there is still mistrust. Despite everything going on between Turkey and Russia, there is still a lot of mistrust between the countries. They don’t really trust each other. Just a few years ago, in 2015, remember that was when Turkey shot down the Russian jet. President Erdoğan begged its NATO allies, it appealed to them not to withdraw the Patriots. That was—in some ways, that was a turning point. But as recently as just a few months ago, when he was talking about the tension in Eastern Mediterranean, he again appealed to the NATO partners. So NATO is still very important. And Turkey-Russia partnership is not that tight. I mean, we’re not—we’re not at a point where we can talk about a strategic Turkey-Russia partnership. I think I see that relationship as still very fragile. There are so many policy disagreements everywhere—in Eastern Mediterranean, where Russia is on the opposing front, in the region, in Africa, in the Balkans, in the Caucasus everywhere. So despite that close partnership, Turkey is the junior partner. And I think Erdoğan understands that. So that’s one of the reasons why I think leaving NATO is not going to be his preferred option.
DURAKOGLU: If I could add—if I can add to that? I think it’s also important to just—what Henri said. Erdoğan is pragmatic. So obviously NATO is going to be a continued tool, because it’s in an alliance with a number of nations that pay close attention to Turkey’s domestic turn as well—some of the authoritarian actions and things. So as long as Turkey is in NATO, it could—it is somewhat of a chip for Erdoğan to make sure that others aren’t necessarily paying too much attention, or at least expressing frustrations with what he’s doing internally in his own country.
But that being said, I think you also have to look at Turkey’s actions in NATO. For the most part, they are actually a pretty good NATO partner with AWACS, they have Kosovo missions, they’re a framing nation in Afghanistan. So it’s not a country that I think we should—this rhetoric about kicking Turkey out of NATO, which we all know we can’t do, we do have to be careful because it’s—even in his really tumultuous time we have to be really careful to try and hold on to those levers that exist between the West and Turkey. And NATO’s probably the premier level and the premier foundation for making sure that in the future, you know, a future Turkey, post-Erdoğan, will still maintain its links.
LAIPSON: I’m going to go to the front here, and then Steve Cook, and then John Negroponte, and then to the back.
Q: Grace Skuh (ph) Josena Capital (ph).
I wanted to pick on two points the panel has spoken about. The first one is, Congress’ best tool is a sanction. Second point is, Turkish public opinion is turning against America. And my question is, normally in foreign policy you like to see sticks and carrots. And to me, the recent years we’ve been using lots of sticks and very little carrots. So can you comment on that, and, you know, kind of reflect on your thoughts of what’s the best way forward? Thank you.
DURAKOGLU: Should I go ahead? In terms of sticks and carrots, I think actually before this time period that we’re currently in, just since October 6, there have been discussions about carrots as well as sticks. In fact, the discussion of carrots, in my opinion, outweighed the discussion on sticks. And if I could be so bold to say, I think that’s part of the reason we may be here right now as well. But in terms of looking at other countries, yes, that might be true. The discussion of sticks sometimes outweighs the discussion of carrots. But with Turkey, there’s always been this effort to try and make sure we’re not pushing them away, that it’s, you know, somehow the United States is really the one that’s kind of in charge of making sure that you can determine Erdoğan’s next move, and next alliance, and next phone call.
But I think there is now more of a realization that the country itself under Erdoğan is moving in a direction—and, again, I agree with you, it’s not the country itself. The country is much more than one man, Erdoğan. But Erdoğan is pretty much all-powerful. And he is making these decisions. We have to see what the sanctions package—what will actually come of that. But I do—I do sense that it won’t be—it won’t be an exact replica of the bills that you’re currently seeing right now.
TOL: And you have to be careful with the sanctions too. You want to make sure that you don’t punish the Turkish public that’s already very anti-America, because that will only strengthen Erdoğan’s hand.
LAIPSON: Good point. Steve.
Q: Steven Cook from the Council on Foreign Relations.
I’m wondering if anybody or all of you can reflect on this question. I know that it’s hard to imagine Turkey without Erdoğan, but what do you think the state of relations would be between Turkey and the United States without Erdoğan? And I ask this question because Gönül made the point, and a very good point, about the domestic determinants of what is happening in Syria. It strikes me that Erdoğan two years ago was very proud of the way in which Turkey had handled the Syrian refugee crisis. Now he is the leading voice of pushing Syrians back. He’s taken that from the opposition. It strikes me that we talk a lot about Erdoğan, as we should, as Naz just pointed out, but it’s—is this a Turkey-U.S. problem or is this an Erdoğan-U.S. problem? Thank you.
BARKEY: Look, it isn’t an Erdoğan problem in the sense that there’s always been anti-Americans in Turkey. It goes back decades. But Erdoğan has amplified it, has organized it, has routinized it and so—and because there’s no free press in Turkey, there are no outlets for alternative viewpoints anymore. It is—that view is becoming—it has become completely dominant. Completely dominant.
That said, Turkey without Erdoğan, I think Erdoğan plans to stay until 2034, so if the kind of Turkey you’re thinking about without Erdoğan is—(laughter)—
Q: (Off mic)—my question.
BARKEY: —is far away. But that said, authoritarians are their own worst enemies. They always must make mistakes and they always make the kind of mistakes that ultimately become—undermines them. We saw a small one in Istanbul this year by Erdoğan when he had the elections cancelled and had to run again.
But you see the same thing in—today in Bolivia. I mean, in many different countries authoritarians don’t know where to stop. And at some point there will be other factors that will intervene. And change in Turkey will come, maybe before 2034, but it will be also—the kind of change that will come will also change, I think, Turkish-American relations, because it will go back to the old normal, so to say. A healthy dose of anti-Americanism, but at the same time a close relationship, a working relationship.
DURAKOGLU: I’d like to say this. I think it’s really important. Your question’s important because we do have to actually think about what Turkey will look like post-Erdoğan, and that—I think one of, and I know Senator Shaheen has said this as well, one of the big criticisms is that we’re not necessarily doing what we can as the United States to invest in that day, to make sure that we have strong links to Turkish civil society, to make sure that we’re actually looking at other segments to see where we can actually grow our relationship in the future. And I think we do that in other countries, for sure, but it hasn’t been as strong in Turkey. Part of that is because we don’t have a USAID mission in Turkey, so there are some practical reasons.
But looking at Russia, I mean, the Turkish public is also—or was also rather anti-Russian as well. If you look at public opinion polling now, they are not as anti-Russian anymore. So if we look a little bit at what the Kremlin’s doing with their public diplomacy initiatives and others in Turkey, I think you can see that there’s a bit of a blueprint there that we probably should have followed as well with our own public diplomacy initiatives and just civil society in reaching out to the actual people in Turkey.
TOL: And I—
LAIPSON: Who wants to—
TOL: Can I just—and I—actually, I don’t think that we can talk and think about a post-Erdoğan Turkey because I think he’s electorally at his most vulnerable. I mean, because of the Syrian incursion, I’ve heard that there are now public opinion polls show he’s—the support for him is now at 40 percent, which was hovering around 32 (percent) before that. But I think this is going to be short-lived.
So he is very vulnerable, and I can think of several scenarios where he can actually survive this, and one is in which the PKK ramps up its attacks inside Turkey. That’s definitely going to empower Erdoğan. And the second, if somehow Turkish economy turns around and the economic concerns are not there anymore. But aside from that, I think he is very vulnerable. And that’s one of the reasons why the Western world, as Naz mentioned, has to engage the opposition.
And to your question about what happens after Erdoğan leaves, do we go back to normalcy? How would a Turkey-U.S. relationship look like? I think—imagine if the CHP is in power. First they have to dismantle this very personalized system that Erdoğan has built, because I think that’s one of the—one of the big problems.
LAIPSON: Explain who CHP is.
TOL: Well, the main opposition party. If they’re in power, I think they really have to rebuild the institutions. And it’s going to take a lot of effort and time, but I think things could change.
LAIPSON: OK. Let’s go quickly, as we—because we have a number more hands.
John Negroponte’s next, then the woman in the back is next.
Q: Hi. John Negroponte, McLarty Associates. One comment and one question.
The comment is simply as the Senate or others contemplate sanctions, just be sure that that doesn’t increase his popularity rather than decrease it. So I suggest we reflect on that possibility.
LAIPSON: Important point.
Q: The question is what happened to Kemalism and the notion of a non-sectarian, political state in Turkey, and where are the remnants of Kemalism in the body politic? I mean, where are the strong points and where can they be found?
LAIPSON: Henri, want to—Henri and Gönül on that one, maybe, then—
BARKEY: Kemalism is alive and well, I can assure you, but it is a little bit dormant, all right? It is dormant in the sense that because Erdoğan is so omnipresent, because he dominates everything, the Kemalist element has been pushed down. But—and let me put—I mean, today for example, they announced that at important national events like the Republic Day on the 29th of October, Turkish embassies will no longer serve alcohol, right? This is clearly an attempt at Attaturk’s, since he was a bon vivant—it’s his legacy. But the great—(inaudible)—in Turkey with the Kemalists—and look, the Kemalists were not democrats, so let’s not say that this is—they are the savior in this situation. I mean, they are the ones who backed the military for all these years and backed military coups. So I’m a little bit skeptical in trying to look at the Kemalists as a—as a panacea.
That said, the point is that the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, was a Kemalist party is awful. I mean, they would not know how to win an election. If everybody was against Erdoğan, they would still manage to lose the election. So the problem with part of it is that there is no organized political movement, if you want, to represent Kemalism. It’s out there, as an idea it’s, as I said, it’s a little bit dormant.
LAIPSON: Did you want to quickly—and then we’ll go to the—
TOL: Yeah. And it has been transformed that radical secularism that defined Kemalism is not there anymore. The main opposition party, the representative of Kemalism, if you look at the candidates that it fielded in major towns, in Istanbul and Ankara, for instance, they come from center-right backgrounds. They are the one in Istanbul has come from a conservative background. So Kemalism has transformed itself.
But what has happened is in places like military, for instance, Kemalism is in alliance with Erdoğan’s Islamism. And their common denominator is nationalism and the anti-Kurdish sentiment. So they are not—they’re not completely against each other, so you see the merging of these two ideologies, and the result is a policy that is very anti-Western, anti-American and anti-Kurdish. But both Erdoğan’s Islamism and Kemalism’s focus on state power is there.
Henri just mentioned how Kemalism has never been a liberal democratic ideology. He’s right. I mean, they are both obsessed with state power and statism, and that’s one of the reasons why Kemalism has not delivered on democratic consolidation.
So imagine, picked—all the worst elements of Kemalism was nationalism, anti-Kurdish sentiment and statism. Erdoğan’s Islamism has all of those, and now they are in alliance.
LAIPSON: You’ve been very patient. Thank you.
Q: Thank you. I am Katerina Sokou with Greek daily Kathimerini, correspondent here in town. and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Moving to the Eastern Mediterranean, I was wondering, how concerned are you with Turkey’s drilling activity in the—Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone? And can you see the U.S. administration doing something to stop it? And given the recent experience in Syria, do you think that this would be enough? Thank you.
LAIPSON: OK. Henri, you’ve written on this. So I don’t know if the others have, but I know you’ve written on this.
BARKEY: Look, I think it goes back to this notion of—with Erdoğan and the United States is—the United States has done all these things for Erdoğan and basically his response is, OK, that was yesterday; what are you going to do for me today, right? I mean, we see it—we see it even today because now he wants the Kurdish military leader that Trump (touted ?) to be extradited.
So on the Eastern Med—and there are people in this room who know the situation better than I do—but my sense is there essentially two problems. One is, as you said, the drilling activities, and he’s going to push as much as he can, all right? And the other one is Famagusta, and whether or not there may be an attempt by the Turkish Cypriots or by Erdoğan himself to take over the town of Famagusta, which is this area which is uninhabited between the two—the Greek and Turkish zones.
The point is I worry because every time he sees the West backing down, he will take another step. He will push the envelope. But what will he do? I don’t know.
LAIPSON: I’d like to just see how many more hands are up, see if we can do a very, very quick round.
Pat, the gentleman there, and why don’t we take all three questions and then we’ll do a final round. Very quick questions, please.
Q: Yeah. Patrick Theros, retired Foreign Service officer.
How does Erdoğan view the tension in the United States? How does he see the difference between how the Congress and the president—I mean, there seems to be a bit of a bromance. Does he see the president as a get-out-of-jail card for him?
Q: Hi. Tatiana Smialowski with RIA Novosti news agency.
I’d like the panel to talk a little bit more about the arrangements between Russia and Turkey versus United States and Turkey, how that will all play out. Thank you.
Q: Nelson Cunningham, McLarty Associates.
Another intersection between Turkey and the U.S. we haven’t talked about really yet is Gülen. It’s recently been come out that Rudy Giuliani was lobbying for the extradition of Gülen. People forget that Michael Flynn in part was brought down for work he was doing on behalf of that. So Gülen.
LAIPSON: Thank you. All right. So you’ve got three issues. Why don’t we quickly each take one minute if you could to just pick up on any of the questions?
DURAKOGLU: Sure. I could just—I mean, this touches on both, but I think if Erdoğan doesn’t see Trump as a get-out-of-jail-free card, then he’s blind, because clearly that’s why he calls him directly and every time he’s called him he’s been able to bypass those in the administration who may have other opinions. And definitely Congress has been concerned about this, and yeah, we‘ve seen those reports as well. I think it’s all a part of a larger discussion about the administration, the president and who he surrounds himself with and what sort of effect those individuals have on our foreign policy. And if, you know, there’s a larger-picture inquiry in the House that’s taking place on some related matters.
TOL: Well, there was a question about Russia, U.S. and—in Syria. I think with the recent deal that was agreed in Sochi between Turkey and Russia, Turkey got half of what it wanted from Putin, which was now there’s going to be a—that the Kurds will be pushed back. There’s going to be a thirty-kilometer-deep zone and that’s going to be off-limits to the YPG forces, the Kurdish forces. And that was one of the things that he wanted, Erdoğan wanted from Putin.
But he also wanted a larger zone, a wider zone so he could send back the Syrian refugees. He didn’t get that. Russia only agreed to the current military presence, Turkish military presence in northeastern Syria. And also with that agreement, Turkey is one step closer to recognizing the Assad regime again, because there is a clause in that agreement that refers to an agreement that was signed between Turkey and Syria in 1998 and the agreement says it’s the duty of the Assad regime to address Turkey’s security concerns. So the Assad regime is saying that if you have problems with the Syrian Kurds, let me deal with it, so you stay away.
So but I think that in the short term this is only the Russians have agreed to Turkish military presence, but I think that’s going to be—that’s going to be a short-term solution. In the end, they will ask Turkish forces to leave. And in terms of American troops, well, you know, it takes a Tweet to change everything. But just yesterday we heard that Americans are now might—the president is weighing options to send hundreds of troops to send hundreds of troops back to Syria. If that happens—to secure oilfields, which is not a realistic thing. But if that happens, that would only strengthen the Kurdish hands in their negotiations with the regime and Russia. But it’s not going to fix U.S.’s problems in Syria.
LAIPSON: Henri, final thoughts?
BARKEY: On Russia, look, I think you have to take your hat off to Putin. I mean, he essentially is playing a three-stage game. First, he managed to create tensions between Turkey and the rest of NATO, and so that always has been one of his goals. He—we also saw him doing that earlier. He got the United States out of Syria, all right? And third, and this is what the Turks don’t realize, his next step is he’s going to get the Turks out of Syria. Because he very much wants Assad to consolidate power completely, all of Syria.
He couldn’t have done it with—as long as United States was there, so essentially Turkey played into his hands and you’re already seeing that the—and this was to be expected that the next move from Russia is going to be with Assad to take over Idlib, which is going to create problems for Turkey in terms of more refugees. So I don’t know if actually—yes, Erdoğan won against United States, but he lost against Russia. So Russia is a real big winner.
As far as Gülen is concerned, look, there’s been always all these lobbyists and Giuliani, the characters who have been trying to get Gülen extradited. The problem is that when the Turks have not sent a file that is one that you can use in an American court, because they’ve put in everything they want into those files, and they really do not necessarily make much sense.
LAIPSON: I’m sorry that we’ve run out of time, but I want you to join me in thanking this terrific panel. (Applause.)