The Republic of Turkey used to be known as a bridge between East and West, a shining example of a Muslim-majority liberal democracy. It is a member of NATO, was considered a candidate for European Union membership and is an important partner because of its geostrategic location.
However, since the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as prime minister in 2003, Turkey has abandoned its secular democratic underpinnings and is now seen less as a solution in the region than as one of its most threatening problems, along with Iran.
The United States, the European Union and the West, in general, have been extremely patient with Erdoğan’s Turkey, despite the purging of its judiciary, media and military, long considered reliable barriers against creeping Islamism.
Nevertheless, Turkey’s recent actions demonstrate that it is no longer a friend or ally but is pursuing what a former senior member of Erdoğan’s inner circle called “neo-Ottomanism”—a return to its imperial and regional ambitions. These moves are sufficiently contrary to U.S. and Western security interests that it’s time to call Turkey to account.
Turkey’s political closeness to Russia is a major worry for NATO. Its decision to take delivery of next-generation Russian S-400 missile-defense systems is considered a slap in the face of NATO, especially when Western systems were on offer. Many warned against the purchase, saying the systems could gravely compromise NATO defenses by giving Russian technicians access to vital information on the latest American and European fighter aircraft.
Moreover, Turkey has pursued what Cyprus, an E.U. member, called “illegal expansionist plans” in the Eastern Mediterranean by continually attempting to drill for gas in waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights. On many occasions, these exploration vessels were accompanied by warships. Experts have called these activities “acts of piracy” and contrary to international law.
Having long illegally occupied the northern part of Cyprus and violently oppressed its own Kurdish population, Turkey has become increasingly involved in the Syrian civil war in recent years. It has long provided military and diplomatic support for Al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front, which has caused untold atrocities and is considered a terrorist organization by many across the world. While ostensibly claiming it was conducting operations against Islamic State, the Turkish military has repeatedly entered and shelled parts of Syria controlled by Kurds, who fought against Syria’s Bashar Assad alongside Western forces. One U.S. senator on the Senate Armed Services Committee said last year that the Turkish offensive against Kurds in northern Syria is “on the cusp of genocide.”
Erdoğan has increasingly become open about his relations with terrorist organizations. He recently and publicly met with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, both of whom have a $5 million bounty on their heads after being designated as terrorists by the United States.
“President Erdoğan’s continued outreach to this terrorist organization only serves to isolate Turkey from the international community, harms the interests of the Palestinian people, and undercuts global efforts to prevent terrorist attacks launched from Gaza,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement. This comes on the heels of reports that some of the 12 senior Hamas members who are located in Turkey have received Turkish citizenship.
In July, Erdoğan formally converted Istanbul’s iconic sixth-century Orthodox Christian cathedral Hagia Sophia into a mosque and declared the UNESCO world heritage site open to Muslim worship, hours after the Turkish high court annulled a 1934 decision that had turned it into a museum. This despite repeated calls from international officials and Christian leaders not to take this controversial and explosive step.
One of the most glaring examples of Turkey’s turn away from the West and its interests is in its rapidly deteriorating relationship with Israel, which used to be considered an axle of stability and security in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Over the years, Erdoğan and his supporters have engaged in anti-Semitic incitement, directly supported the IHH, a terrorist organization responsible for the violent flotillas to Gaza, and has attacked Israel in international forums. He has been branded an anti-Semite not infrequently by Israeli officials and organizations like the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Erdoğan recently claimed that Jerusalem “is our city” and said that the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque is a first step into “liberating” the al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Judaism’s holiest site.
These are just some of many examples of Turkey’s turn away from the West, and its place as a pillar of stability and security in the region. Some, like former U.S. President Barack Obama, believed Erdoğan was a loyal partner, regarding him as “a man of principle, and also a man of action.” However, even Obama was disillusioned with him by the end of his tenure.
However, few have attempted to exert pressure on Turkey to change direction. They have been worried that by pushing too hard, they will completely lose and alienate it. They are also worried about Turkey’s threat to allow for more Middle Eastern refugees to use it as a transit nation to gain access illegally to the European Union. This is a hollow threat because it has barely acted on this issue up until now, and if anything continues to allow access in the other direction, allowing terrorist sympathizers from Europe to use it as an access point to join with terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq.
Nevertheless, in recent years, Erdoğan’s Turkey has completely recalibrated its position vis-à-vis the West and even its former partners in the region.
Thus, it is incumbent on the United States, members of NATO and other interested nations to exert pressure economically, geostrategically and diplomatically, to convince Erdoğan that he has more to lose than gain from his behavior. They must show that they will not be bowed by threats from Turkey and its role in conflicts, such as in Libya, to gain leverage.
Turkey is vulnerable because of its dire economic situation. The European Union buys more than half of Turkey’s exports and owns more than two-thirds of its foreign direct investment. Late last year, President Trump signed an executive order sanctioning Turkish officials, hiking tariffs on Turkish steel up to 50 percent and “immediately” halting trade negotiations with the country. It now dangles the possibility of a free trade deal with Turkey.
Turkey’s allies, Russia, China and Iran, simply cannot compete with this reality, and Erdoğan knows it. That is why the European Union and the United States must condition their assistance, trade and alliance on Turkey’s changing its behavior. It has largely only seen the carrot—if it continues its misdeeds, Erdoğan must also feel the stick.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.