Monday 26 September 2016

Washing our hands of Turkey's crisis would mean chaos in the Near East

Published 21/07/2016 | 02:30

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Photo: AP Photo
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Photo: AP Photo

Three years ago, I wrote in these very pages about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and how his authoritarian tendencies were threatening not only Turkey but also the Near East and the country's application for EU membership. 'Imperious Leader has gone too far with his strange edicts' was the prescient headline. Well, now we will find out just how far Erdogan will go.

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The Turkish president has reacted furiously to the failed coup against him by dismissing and jailing tens of thousands of military personnel and officials. He is now moving on to the courts and the schools. It does not look good.

Of course, the strange edicts of Erdogan have led to this. But his proposals of three years ago (a partial ban on alcohol, and on the wearing of bright lipsticks by Turkish Air stewardesses) are trifling compared with his attempts since then to consolidate powers in a revised presidency.

Protests have come from secular activists, but also from followers of Fethullah Gulen, the mystic cleric who has fallen out with Erdogan and alleges corruption by the Turkish regime.

Turkey blames the elderly Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, of fomenting the coup from afar and wants the US to extradite him.

Basically, Erdogan cannot believe that anyone can disagree with him and wants to return Turkey to the strong-man leadership of the country's founder, Ataturk, or even the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. In fairness, he has won continual elections and has presided over an amazing economic revival in Turkey.

On a recent visit, it took me two hours to get to the airport from central Istanbul, such was the congestion of shiny new cars circling the Bosphorus. But my jubilant taxi driver wouldn't hear of any complaints and pointed to his election stickers for the AKP (Erdogan's ruling party). This prosperity has provoked a new pride - but also new demands and challenges.

So, for the rest us, this crisis couldn't be happening at a worse time. We rely on Turkey, a major Nato member, in the fight against Isil and in dealing with war-torn Syria, as well as in coping with the refugee crisis, as shown by the financial deal it did with the EU. Can the West control the situation and control Erdogan, and restrain his vengeance?

It has to be done. Otherwise, we are in real trouble. And it would endanger what has been created in Turkey itself, which is an amazing, vibrant culture and the ideal crossover between East and West, and between the Islamic world and a mainly Christian Europe. Huge advances have been made in trade, art, fashion and culture and even in human rights, as well as in recognising the rights of the country's Kurdish minority - although a guerrilla war continues with the Kurdish PKK terror group.

Some would say that the crisis shows the damage that can be done by just one ruler, in the shape of Erdogan, or indeed Vladimir Putin in Russia. But, like Putin, Erdogan remains popular and has had to contend with a scheming political landscape and dangerous neighbours.

For the West, and the EU in particular, the reaction should be to stay close to the situation and exert what influence it has as a restraint on a Turkey that still craves a European association. To wash our hands of the Turkish crisis, or to impose sanctions or isolation, would be a mistake.

The irony is that the coup was ostensibly launched to 'protect democracy'. In Turkey, the army has traditionally been a bulwark of secularism. This was the legacy of Ataturk, who, much to the delight of the West, kept Turkey in the Western camp. But he was a dictator too.

Indeed, in 1980, after a period of political chaos, the army staged a coup and imposed order. And, on New Year's Eve 1981, when martial law was lifted, I was among the many young backpackers in Istanbul who joined in the celebrations. It was quite a party. The soldiers were hailed as heroes who had rescued Turkey from instability and 'backward' Islam.

Turkey has come a long way since then. It has advanced economically but has also become more Islamic in a moderate way, which is probably a more accurate manifestation of society than Ataturk's repressive secularism. Erdogan's wife is veiled, for example. But his Islam is a long way from the radicalised Islam of Isil or the Gulf states. Turkey is, as Irish travellers will testify, almost entirely Westernised.

However, the Turkish president is volatile. He has reacted furiously to social media, stormed off the stage at a Davos discussion on Israel and gave the go-ahead for the downing of a Russian jet. The hope would be that his shrewdness and common sense would prevail and he would see that any further over-reaction would endanger him, as well as Turkey and the region. However, on current evidence, that realisation clearly hasn't come yet. Now that the UK is leaving the EU (what timing) it is really left to the Germans to fashion a response. Germany has a huge Turkish community and should be familiar with the culture there, including the political landscape. Being sympathetic but firm should be the approach - and not letting Turkey slip away.

Otherwise, we are facing turmoil in the Near East and an end to meaningful co-operation on refugees and jihadis - the last thing that a shaken Europe needs right now.

Irish Independent

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