Combining elements of the Reichstag fire, the Night of the Long Knives, and Stalin’s Great Purge, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan took full advantage of the failed coup of July 15—a “gift from Allah,” as he put it—to execute a countercoup that has enabled him to purge all of his enemies, real or imagined. Within days some 50,000 people had been arrested, dismissed, or suspended, including almost half of Turkey’s generals and admirals; 3,000 judges and prosecutors; 8,000 police officers; 15,000 teachers and educators; over 1,500 university deans; 30 provincial governors; and dozens of top-ranking civil servants. A state of emergency was introduced to hunt down the “terrorists” connected to the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, who was immediately accused of masterminding the coup.
Turkey has ceased to be a democracy in any conventional sense. The process of using democratic procedures and institutions to usher in Islamic authoritarianism, which started with Erdogan’s first victory 14 years ago, has been completed. The result is what Israeli historian Jacob Talmon termed six decades ago a totalitarian messianic democracy. Freed from any legal or institutional checks and balances, Erdogan now mobilizes agitated multitudes to express their devotion to the leader and to threaten all enemies.
Those “enemies” include not only Gülen’s supporters but the Kurds, ISIS, and Turkish secularists. As Ira Straus noted in The Globalist on August 28, Erdogan conflates contrasting opponents, mixes foreign enemies with domestic ones, and lumps together groups that are at war with one another:
This practice was termed “amalgamationism”—conflating all enemies and all non-adherents—by the Trotskyists, when they were describing Stalin’s practices. Stalin lumped the Trotskyists with the Bukharinists, and indeed with the Nazis . . . [T]hey are all in league with one another no matter how superficially different they may be.
The regime can make alliances with any of its enemies in order to destroy one enemy at a time, Strauss concludes: “[H]e has called off his enmity to the Syrian regime in order to strike a blow against the Kurds—the only effective fighters against the Islamic State—all in the name of supposedly fighting the Islamic State.”
The real target of Erdogan’s direct intervention in Syria, which started on August 24, had been clear all along. The Obama administration nevertheless pretended otherwise. Joe Biden, who was in Ankara that day, called on the U.S.-supported Kurdish YPG militia to comply with Turkey’s demand that they withdraw from the territories west of the Euphrates; this zone included the city of Manbij, which the Kurds had taken after heavy fighting against the Islamic State earlier in the summer. To add insult to injury, American planes—the same planes that had provided air cover to the Kurds in the eastern city of Hasakah days earlier—supported the Turks. On August 29 the Obama administration took a different tack, declaring it opposed Turkey’s push into areas controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, as if that outcome had not been certain from the moment the first Turkish tank entered Syria.
By trying to appease Erdogan—who is demanding Gülen’s extradition, whose supporters are openly claiming that the U.S. was complicit in the coup attempt, and who has restored relations with Russia—the White House has shown its customary prevarication. One group of U.S.-supported Syrian rebels (Turkey’s clients) was fighting another (the YPG), to the delight of ISIS. The Kurds were betrayed, having long been hailed as America’s only reliable ally in Syria. No such allies exist any longer.
In the last week of August Erdogan pulled off a major political, military, and psychological coup that would have been unimaginable only a few weeks earlier. He has no reason to redirect his fire against ISIS, or to downgrade his relations with Moscow yet again, because Washington no longer has the wherewithal to exact payment for noncompliance. At home he is now unassailable. In addition to cozying up to Vladimir Putin, he has improved ties with Iran, Egypt, and Israel. And he has Europe under his thumb, as he is always able to unleash another round of migrant invasion.
After Erdogan’s high-risk gambits last summer, Washington needs to accept the fact that Turkey is no longer an “indispensable ally of the United States” (as Paul Wolfowitz once called her) and may not remain an ally of any kind for much longer. She is a necessary if awkward and unpredictable partner, however. The new partnership, whichever form it takes, should be free from the illusions, wishful thinking, and strategic ineptitude that have characterized much of U.S. policy in the Greater Middle East for decades.