Turkey's death spiral

BISHKEK • The series of terrorist attacks in Turkey over the past year is sending the country - once viewed as a democratic, secular model for the Middle East - into a death spiral at the very moment when its people are to vote on a new Constitution next month.

Tourism - accounting for over 10 per cent of Turkey's gross domestic product previously - is withering, and foreign direct investment is set to slow considerably. These outcomes will reinforce each other, producing a vicious cycle that will be difficult to halt.

Turkey's government-controlled media and large swathes of the population see the nefarious hand of the West in the country's unravelling. Observers often blame Turkey's deepening plight on its inability to reconcile traditional Islam and modernising Western tendencies, as well as on external events, such as the conflict in Syria. But decisions by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have also contributed to Turkey's vulnerability to terrorism.

Mr Erdogan's first such decision, motivated by his desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime collapse, was to allow fighters, including recruits for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, to cross Turkey's southern border into Syria relatively freely. He failed to recognise fully the danger these fighters posed to Turkey's own security, particularly as many of them joined Islamist-affiliated groups that are as hostile to Turkey as they are to Mr Assad.

President Erdogan's second fateful decision was to relaunch the on-again, off-again civil war with Turkey's Kurdish population. In the early years of his presidency, Mr Erdogan reached out to the Kurds and managed, more or less, to halt active hostilities.

But, in June 2015, Mr Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority, prompting him to resume open hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers' Party rebels. Mr Erdogan's gambit allowed the AKP to retake a parliamentary majority in a snap election that November, but at the cost of reopening the Pandora's box of civil war.

Despite these two decisions, it might have been possible for the Turkish security forces to continue protecting the country from both Islamist and Kurdish terrorism. But a third decision ruled that out: Mr Erdogan chose to break with the expatriate cleric Fethullah Gulen, whose influential followers - the so-called Hizmet movement - had for many years been among the President's most important allies.

Over the course of roughly six years, the Gulenists had helped Mr Erdogan to oust military and police cadres (among many other public-sector employees) who were loyal to Turkish secular and nationalist ideals, rather than to his own soft Islamism. But in 2013, Mr Erdogan, suspecting that the Gulenists had begun plotting against him, began turning on them. The short-lived coup attempt last July spurred a vengeful Mr Erdogan to organise a purge of the military and security services.

While it certainly makes sense for a government to prosecute those who have attempted to overthrow it, Mr Erdogan took matters significantly further, pursuing anyone with the slightest potential connection to Mr Gulen. In the process, he severely weakened the capacity of Turkey's police and military.

Coming at a time when threats from Islamist and Kurdish groups were intensifying, that was the last thing Turkey needed. Perhaps Mr Erdogan should have recalled Joseph Stalin's purge of the Red Army's officer corps in the late 1930s, which left the Soviet Union almost defenceless, opening the way for Adolf Hitler to attack in 1941.

Turkey is now fully under the political control of a single individual - and incapable of dealing with the multiple crises that it faces. Even in the best-case scenario, Turkey will be severely weakened, no longer capable of sustaining the regional leadership role that it had played for nearly a century. In the worst-case scenario, Turkey's economy will collapse, sending huge numbers of refugees - including Syrians and others currently in Turkey, as well as Turks themselves - to Western Europe.

Not everyone is distressed by Turkey's misfortune. Russian President Vladimir Putin is probably more than pleased with the country's transformation. In Mr Putin's worldview, the most dangerous countries are successful democracies allied with the West. Turkey used to be precisely that: a democratic and reasonably prosperous country and a longtime Nato member, moving swiftly to deepen its ties with the West.

Now, Turkey is becoming an economically weakened autocracy, wracked by terrorism and unable to defend itself, much less help Nato project power. This is a dream come true for Mr Putin. (It is also good news for Russia's ally Iran, which can only welcome the destabilisation of its main non-Arab Sunni rival in the region.) If Turkey's downward spiral generates a new wave of refugees bound for Europe, further destabilising the European Union, all the better.

This is not to say that Mr Putin has planned Turkey's downfall. He didn't have to. Leaders like Mr Erdogan easily fall for Mr Putin's brand of modern dictatorship, which relies on disinformation and the trappings of democracy to bolster the ruler's personal power. All Mr Putin has to offer is inspiration, and perhaps some advice from time to time.

Beyond Turkey, US President Donald Trump seems equally enamoured of Mr Putin. We shall see whether the United States - with its economic strength, relative geographical isolation, and strong institutions - is better protected than Turkey against the influence of Mr Putin's malign example.


•The writer is president of the American University of Central Asia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Turkey's death spiral'. Print Edition | Subscribe