GOP is Missing a Key Campaign Issue: Turkey

It is a striking feature of the presidential race so far that the word Turkey has seldom been mentioned to date on either side in the foreign policy debate. This is understandable for the Democratic Party under president Barack Obama, whose policies in the Middle East have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster unfolding in front of us. But it could become a costly failure for the GOP. For nothing can explain better the rise of violent jihadism in the region and the decline of western influence than a close look at the pernicious role played by Turkey’s Islamists led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the past thirteen years. And it happens to be a fact that in their subversive pursuits, Erdogan and Co., knowingly or not, were aided and abetted by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. This, therefore, is one area of US foreign policy where the unfathomable mess created by the administration ought to provide the GOP with a clear advantage in the run to 2016.

Some history is in order to better understand the profound transformation of a place that retains a positive image for most Americans. Turkey, the heir of the Ottoman Empire, the most powerful and longest lasting Muslim empire in history, was also the one Muslim state to turn its back on Islamic dogma and join the family of secular nations under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal ‘Attaturk’ (father of the Turks). Among other things, Attaturk constitutionally anointed the military as the guardians of secularism and they often and, at times, heavy-handedly, stepped in when they thought secular Turkey was threatened. It wasn’t always the most democratic of polities, but Turkey emancipated its women, introduced modern education and became a staunch member of the Western alliance against communism.

This period ended with the huge victory of Erdogan’s Islamist Peace and Justice Party (AKP) party in the 2002 parliamentary elections. The AKP claimed a 2/3 majority in parliament with just 34.2% of the vote, because most of the competing parties could not clear the 10% threshold for parliamentary representation.

Before being elected prime-minister, Erdogan had been the mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998) and had never hidden his radical Islamist beliefs and ambitions. In numerous speeches time and again he expressed his disdain for democracy, the Turkish secular constitution, which he labeled “a big lie,” and secularism, because, he said, “One cannot be a Muslim and secular at the same time.” “Democracy” he asserted, “is like a street car, when you get to your stop you get off.” And he was quite specific as to what that particular street car stop was: “Our only goal”, he said, “is an Islamic state” and it couldn’t be any other way for somebody who considered himself a “servant of sharia.” Sharia being the reactionary and obscurantist post-Quranic doctrine about which the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled as follows: “The institution of sharia law and a theocratic regime are incompatible with the requirements of a democratic society.”

Once ensconced in power, Erdogan began working toward the Islamic goals he had always espoused. Two of them were of paramount importance: neutralizing the military as the powerful guardian of secular Turkey, as well as other secular bastions in the press and politics and gradually Islamizing Turkish society and institutions.  In both of these goals, he enjoyed the powerful  support  of Fethullah Gulen’s  Hizmet group, a sect-like Islamist movement that had infiltrated Turkish police and the justice system at all levels.

With respect to the military, plans to break it once and for all began being made early in the AKP tenure, reportedly with the personal involvement of Erdogan. By 2010 two “conspiracies” named “Ergenekon” and “Sledgehammer” allegedly involving hundreds of high-ranking officers, prominent journalists and public figures,  and said to involve a planned coup d’etat and terrorist acts against the AKP government, were unveiled and close to a thousand putative conspirators, including the Chief of the General Staff, arrested and thrown in jail. Many of them were kept imprisoned for years without any charges. That the accusations and evidence offered by the Erdogan government were completely bogus became evident very early on, but it wasn’t until mid-June 2014 that the accused were released to be eventually acquitted of all charges in March 2015. The incident proved beyond doubt that the Erdogan government was willing to abuse the justice system and the  rule of law at will to achieve its objectives and there is little doubt that the military has been duly intimidated and unlikely to stand up in defense of secularism again.

Erdogan’s Islamization campaign is a massive and ongoing effort and analyzing it in any depth is beyond the scope of this short essay. Nonetheless, even a quick look into a single aspect of it is enough to indicate the profound transformation of Turkish society that this campaign has as its objective.  It has to do with one of the key instruments in the campaign – the madrassa-like imam-hatip religious schools and the government Directorate of Religious Affairs, better known in Turkey as Diyanet, that runs them. The imam-hatip schools traditionally prepared imams for the Turkish mosques, a “technical” education, which was below high-school standards academically and did not entitle its graduates to go to the university or into government service. Upon assuming power, Erdogan, himself the product of an imam-hatip school, dramatically increased the funding of Diyanet from $325 million in 2002 to $2.1 billion in 2014 and removed all career limitations on their graduates, hundreds of thousands of whom entered government service without having to take the requisite exam.

Diyanet now has an army of 120,000 employees and 30,000 part-timers administering the 85,000 Turkish mosques, or one mosque for every 350 citizens, compared to one hospital for every 60,000 Turks. Young people got the message quickly. The fastest way to success in Erdogan’s Turkey was to join his Islamist legions. Not surprisingly, the number of imam-hatip students exploded from 60,000 in 2002 to over 1 million in 2014.

It is in foreign policy, however, that Turkey’s Islamist course has had the greatest and most deleterious effect on Middle Eastern policy and Western interests. And it is with respect to Ankara’s foreign policies that the Obama administration’s failures are most pronounced and therefore should be of greatest interest to Republican presidential candidates.

Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan has been based from the beginning on a doctrine called neo-Ottomanism. Originally developed by the current prime-minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in a book entitled “Strategic Depth,” first published in 2001 and reissued many times since (but still not available in English). This rather shallow doctrine holds that Turkey could become a leading world power by becoming the leader of radical Sunni Islam in the former Ottoman territories, which include most of the Middle East and Southeastern Europe. To accomplish that, Turkey would have to neutralize or expel Western influence from the region, while relying on radical Islamist movements in the Middle East and Muslim communities in the Balkans.

This was little more than an unrealistic fantasy, but it had and continues to have a number of troubling practical consequences. It involved the rehabilitation of the Ottoman legacy and denying any legitimacy to Attaturk’s secular republican legacy. As part of it, the enslaved and brutalized Christian nations of the Balkans were now told that the Ottoman centuries had been their “Golden Age.” More to the point, Ankara began openly supporting assorted radical and terrorist Sunni groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and engaged in ever more strident anti-western and anti-Semitic rhetoric.

Yet, it was exactly as these policies inevitably pushed Turkey in a starkly anti-democratic and anti-western direction that the new Obama administration in Washington began touting Erdogan’s Turkey as model of an Islamic democracy worth emulating. On his very first overseas trip in April of 2009, Obama anointed Erdogan in Ankara as the key to solving Middle East problems and deemed U.S. Turkish relations as a “model partnership.”

On this and later occasions, Obama was unstinting in his praise for the dyed-in-the-wool Islamist as “an outstanding partner and an outstanding friend” and “one of his five best friends” internationally. Even as Erdogan imprisoned hundreds of innocent journalists and military and made a mockery of the rule of law, Obama continued spouting the mantra of Turkey as a “secular democratic state that respects the rule of law.”

Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was no more restrained in singing paeans to the Islamist regime in Ankara. “We share a commitment, to democracy, a secular constitution and respect for religious freedoms,” she has argued with a straight face. It is no wonder that many secular Turks believe that Erdogan would not have been able to Islamize Turkey to the extent he has without the tacit complicity of the Obama Administration.

It is the crisis in Syria, however, that has revealed the full extent of the metamorphosis of Turkey from an ally of the West to a jihadist enabler. From the very beginning of the revolt against Bashar Assad, Ankara has not hidden its sympathies for the jihadist groups opposing him. As early as 2012, Turkey officially protested the U.S. designation of Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization under the pretext that it was the most effective force fighting Assad. Since then, despite the rigorous efforts of the AKP to control the media, incontrovertible evidence has come out that Ankara has opened its borders to more than 20,000 jihadists from around the world flocking to the terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq, that Turkey has supplied ISIS and al-Nusra with weapons and explosives, treated its injured in Turkish hospitals and generally served as its vital logistic base. Indeed, the Syrian Kurdish PYD force allied with the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS has long argued that ISIS was created by Ankara to prevent Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria and elsewhere. All of this is well-known to U.S. intelligence organs and the Obama administration, which chose to remain silent.

The crisis has come to a head following AKP’s dramatic loss of its absolute majority in parliament this past June 7.  Seemingly fed up with Erdogan’s growing lawlessness and a deteriorating economy, 60% of the Turks voted against the AKP, thereby terminating its one party rule. Unwilling to compromise, Erdogan has ordered new snap elections on Nov. 1 and unleashed a campaign of persecution and demonization of the Kurds and terminated the ceasefire with the Kurdish militant group PKK. Both risk being transformed into an ethnic conflict if not a full-fledged civil war.

In the meantime, Erdogan’s jihadist shenanigans have come home to roost. Following a suicide bombing that targeted a July 20 gathering in the Kurdish town of Suruc that claimed 33 victims, another attack on a peaceful pro-Kurdish demonstration in Ankara on Oct. 10 claimed 102 killed. Eyewitnesses reported that as the dead and 400 wounded lay on the ground, police treated them to a liberal dose of tear and pepper gas before allowing ambulances to approach.  It later turned out that both bombings were the work of two brothers who had long operated unmolested an ISIS recruitment teashop in the southern city of Adiyaman. Not surprisingly, both the leader of the largest opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtas, openly accused the government of complicity in the bombing.

Whatever happens on Nov. 1, it is already clear that Turkey is heading for more turmoil and violence as is the Middle East with it. It should also be clear that the US-led coalition against ISIS has no chance of success if Ankara continues to be de facto on the other side. GOP presidential candidates would do well to start asking the simple question: “who lost Turkey?”

Alex Alexiev is a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC) in Wash. D.C. He tweets on national security at and could be reached at