BACKGROUND: On September 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States remains “deeply concerned” about Turkey’s actions in the eastern Mediterranean. Historically, Turkey has sought to wield power in the eastern Mediterranean and in the Levant. It has largely been motivated by fear of Greeks and Kurds. The Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, who ordered the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, called the island an “aircraft carrier that targets Turkey’s soft belly.” And Turkish policy makers dread the prospect of a Kurdish state that they imagine would stretch from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia. Kemal Atatürk did not want to give up Mosul to what was then the British mandate of Iraq because he feared the future consequences of leaving its Kurdish population to its own devices. But he succeeded in wresting Alexandretta (today Hatay) from France, the colonial master of Syria, which provided Turkey with a crucial harbor from which the 1974 invasion of Cyprus was launched.
Mosul and Alexandretta nearly brought Turkey into war with Great Britain and France respectively, and Turkey’s attempts to contain Greece and check the Kurds have been detrimental to its relationship with the United States. Washington and Ankara have repeatedly clashed over Cyprus since 1964, when the United States prevented Turkey from intervening on the island. Recently the U.S. decided to resume its arms sales to Cyprus. During the 1990s, Turkish-American relations were strained by Washington’s support to Kurdish self-government in Iraq. More recently the U.S. military support to the Kurds in Syria – who are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 – has poisoned, if not destroyed, the relationship.
Moreover, the clash of what has proved to be incompatible national security objectives – to counter Greece and Cyprus and check the Kurds while preserving the spirit of the strategic partnership with the United States – has fueled divisions within the Turkish military, between conservative pro-Americans and self-described anti-imperialists (known as ulusalcılar in Turkish). This division first surfaced in the 1960s, when a strong current in the military advocated greater independence from the United States, arguing that Turkey’s adherence to the Western, capitalist camp impeded its economic development. The leftists came close to taking power in a coup in 1971, but were outmaneuvered by conservative pro-Americans.
Anti-Americanism resurged in the military from the 1990s onward, when the suspicion took hold that the U.S. was scheming to set up an independent Kurdistan that would also encompass Kurdish populated provinces of Turkey. This suspicion played a key role in Turkey’s rejection of the U.S. request in 2003 to station troops in southeastern Turkey to mount a northerly invasion of Iraq. That rejection in turn bred a deep distrust of Turkey in Washington. But this rejection was also a blow to the standing of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which had come to power promising to develop a close relationship with the United States but had failed to deliver. In the following years, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ally, the cleric Fethullah Gülen – whose followers had become entrenched in the police and the judiciary and had gained a strong foothold in the military as well – proceeded to purge the anti-imperialist officers, promoting pro-American Gülenists in their place.
IMPLICATIONS: The AKP represented a break with the anti-American wing of Turkish Islamism. Erdoğan hailed from this tradition, but he and other reformists recognized that they had to change with their base: the social conservatives were prospering and this new middle class wanted to enjoy good relations with the United States and Europe. Fethullah Gülen, meanwhile, was a pro-American of an older date: he had been a staunch supporter of Turkey’s NATO membership and an advocate of the United States since the early days of his career, when his first political step had been to set up the local branch of the Association for the Fight against Communism in his hometown.
The anti-Western faction in the military was an obstacle to the harmonious relationship that Erdoğan and Gülen wanted to establish with the West. In the case of the latter, it was also an obstacle to his ambition to take over the state. But the fortunes of the anti-Westerners were unexpectedly revived when the Gülenists went too far in their power grab and tried to force Erdoğan himself into submission. To shore up his power, Erdoğan turned to those in the military that resisted the Gülenists. All imprisoned officers were released in early 2014, and many, if not all, were returned to active duty. Several of the released, self-described anti-imperialist officers helped defeat the 2016 Gülenist coup attempt, and have been in the forefront of the planning and execution of Turkey’s recent power projection in the eastern Mediterranean.
But although they have a strong presence in the military, the anti-imperialists are otherwise marginal in the state. The police and the National Intelligence Agency (MİT) are run by right-wing nationalists (ülkücüler in Turkish) who are also strong in the judiciary and the military. Their political views are relayed by the far right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), whose leader Devlet Bahçeli has pushed Erdoğan, who since 2015 depends on the MHP’s support to remain in power, to the far right – notably on the Kurdish issue. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has commented that “Erdoğan is under the tutelage of Bahçeli.”
For the right-wing nationalists, the democratic aspirations of the Kurds constitute an existential threat, and the MHP leader is in the habit of warning that the “fate of the state” is at stake. Traditionally, Turkish right-wing nationalists have been pro-American, but the U.S. support for the PKK-affiliated Kurds in Syria has brought about a historically unique convergence of views between the far right and the nationalist left, which is equally hostile to the Kurds. The leading representative of this left is Doğu Perinçek, the chairman of the Patriotic Party (Vatan Partisi) that hosts several retired officers from the anti-imperialist faction. The nationalist left insists that the PKK is the “infantry” of the U.S., and Perinçek welcomes that the “liberation of our armed forces from the yoke of the United States” since 2015 has made it possible to successfully combat the “terrorist organization that is aided by the United States.” Devlet Bahçeli levels the same charges against the U.S.
Yet unlike the nationalist left, the right-wing nationalists don’t call for “liberation” from the American “yoke” – at least not yet. That is mainly because they dislike the alternative just as much. The fracture point of Turkey’s nationalist alliance is the relationship with Russia. Historically, right-wing Turkish nationalism holds a grudge against Russia, the hereditary enemy of the Ottoman Empire. For its part, the nationalist left idealizes the partnership that Soviet Russia and Kemalist Turkey forged in the 1920s, when Soviet aid was instrumental in securing Turkish independence, overlooking the fact that the rapprochement was prompted by purely tactical reasons on both sides.
Devlet Bahçeli called on the government to “reconsider the alliance with Russia” after Russian-Turkish interests clashed in Syria earlier this year, but retired Rear Admiral Cem Gürdeniz, the author of Turkey’s “Blue Homeland” doctrine and a member of Perinçek’s leftist nationalist party, argues that Russia does not menace Turkish interests, and that on the contrary it has become a trusted partner. “Unfortunately,” says Gürdeniz, “it is some of Turkey’s NATO allies who menace Turkish interests.”
Nonetheless, Bahçeli has appropriated the discourse of the nationalist left. In a recent statement he condemned the “colonial mentality” of the United States, and charged that it had undermined Turkish democracy from the very beginning: “Unfortunately, our history is a history of coups, and it is well known that the social, political and economic troubles that have rocked Turkey since 1945 have had not only domestic sources and instigators, but that there has also been a foreign hand involved in the planning and execution of these schemes.” This is how the left in Turkey views the country’s modern history, not normally the right. Indeed, Bahçeli is the leader of a party that played a crucial role in this history. The founding leader of the MHP, Alparslan Türkeş, whom Bahçeli succeeded, was a U.S.-trained counter-insurgency officer and a leading force behind Turkey’s first military coup in 1960. The MHP was a principal instigator of the troubles to which Bahçeli refers: its militants killed thousands of leftists who were seen as a threat to the Cold War order in Turkey, and paved the way for the military coup in 1980.
CONCLUSIONS: Even though the new anti-Americanism of the Turkish nationalist right represents a sensational break with this historical legacy, it also mirrors it: like its Cold War anti-communism, its new anti-Americanism feeds on the perception that the state is threatened by an internal enemy – yesterday the left, today the Kurds –that is in turn encouraged and abetted by an external patron, then the Soviet Union, now the United States.
The pro-Russian faction in the Turkish military is not strong enough to steer Turkey in a Eurasian direction. But neither will Atlanticism prevail. The fact that the right-wing nationalists, who rule the Turkish state and who have historically looked to the West for protection, have come to see the United States as a threat to Turkey is a profound change.
Halil Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Editor of the Turkey Analyst. He is the author of Why Turkey is Authoritarian: From Atatürk to Erdoğan (Pluto Press)
Image Source: U.S. Department of State via Flickr 10.17.2018