Power, Islam, and Pragmatism in Turkish Strategy


Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be “the world’s most insulted President,” and has certainly become very unpopular among Washington’s policy elite.  This has something to do with his domestic repression, but also with his regional strategies, which frequently both surprise and frustrate his counterparts and critics.  In their excellent recent essays in War on the Rocks, Burak Kadercan and Selim Koru provided badly needed context for the evolution of Turkey’s strategic mindset and regional approach in the Mideast. Kadercan argues that American critics of Turkey’s foreign policy have wrongly focused on the person of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, both by exaggerating his Islamism (which is instrumental, but not fundamental to his character), and by underestimating the influence of domestic political constituencies and external destabilizers in driving the present crisis. Koru notes that critics frequently miss the fact that Erdogan for a decade hewed to the restrained and liberal foreign policy precedents of 20th century Republican Turkey, only shifting to a more cynical and muscular approach after watching friends and foes in the region do the same.

Both sets of observations are right. American critics who dismiss Turkey’s approach as Islamist and sectarian, nostalgic and imperial, or simply dysfunctional are guilty of gross oversimplification. They are also misreading the dynamic nature of Erdogan’s evolving response to the crisis in Syria and elsewhere. By imputing ideological predilections or personal drives as fixed and dominant, such critics miss the rational and responsive side of the Turkish president and his inner circle, especially Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. In fact, Erdogan’s approach to regional security threats and crises, like his approach to domestic politics, has shown a high degree of adaptability and pragmatism.

Since 2013, this adaptability has been demonstrated by Erdogan’s reconciliation with the Turkish nationalist camp, if not the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) itself. Washington would be well advised to better understand the evolution of Erdogan from Muslim democrat to religious nationalist, assess what this means for the American critique of Erdogan and Turkey, and identify policy considerations in light of his record. Lest the reader mistake this explanation for an exculpation, I also offer what I consider to be the “right critique” of the Erdogan-Davutoglu approach to foreign policy.

Erdogan in Context

Erdogan recently made short list of President Obama’s most irritating allies, a sharp drop from being one of his five most trusted peers a mere four years earlier. Erdogan has arguably become the allied leader most disliked by the Washington press and policy establishment. His American critics have described him as sectarian and ideological, a dictatorial sharia proponent, and capricious. More damaging have been allegations  that Turkey has supported radical jihadist groups Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Disdain for Erdogan’s Turkey among Western policy elites has grown visceral and palpable, but is also sterile, since Erdogan now holds both the presidency and a parliamentary majority unchallenged through 2019.

These criticisms may be built on genuine concern over whether Erdogan truly evolved from his ideological roots, or just pretended in order to gradually disarm secularist safeguards in the military and civilian bureaucracy, and whether he is a more traditional center-right Turkish politician  or gradualist dictator. Such criticisms, however, ignore important context, such as the dynamic and adaptive nature of his policy approach, at least in foreign affairs.

Regarding Syria, Erdogan reversed decades of isolation beginning in 2002, and developed a close relationship with Assad until ties were severed after regime attacks on protestors in 2011. In Iraq, between 2003 and 2011 the Turks partnered closely with the Kurdistan Regional Government, attempted to maintain balanced relations with the Shia-dominated central government, and even reached out in 2012 to the terrorist and insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)  to pursue an unprecedented peace initiative (now in shambles). In 2010 Ankara tried, with Brazil, to broker a deal between the United States and Iran to end Iran’s isolation in exchange for safeguards against the development of Iranian nuclear weapons, an initiative that failed but looks very different in the wake of the Obama administration doing the exact same thing. Turkey also made serious attempts to unfreeze relations with Armenia, and pushed through a series of reforms aimed at furthering Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union. Critics focus on poor ties between Israel and Turkey as well as Ankara’s relationship with Hamas, but it is worth recalling that Turkey mediated several round of negotiations between Syria and Israel beginning in 2008, and has continued in its normalization talks with Israel to improve security and stability in Gaza. None of these actions were altruistic. Indeed, many were instances of continuing in-process reforms, and all stemmed from a calculus based on benefits for Erdoan personally, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) institutionally, and Turkey nationally. The bigger point is that they were not doctrinaire, sectarian, or primarily Islamist in motive.

There is a touch of irony in American critics latching onto Erdogan’s Islamism, given that two defining characteristics of the 20th century in Middle East and Central Asia were the stubborn secularism of the Turkish political elite and American support for Islam as a hedge against communism, which dates back at least to President Eisenhower’s letter to King Saud in 1957. It is an article of faith among Turkish secularists that the United States has long preferred a “green belt” of Islamists against the Russians, and as a way to put more pliable “moderate Islamists” (read AKP) in power over the pricklier local nationalists.

As Robert Dreyfuss has argued, U.S. observers of the Middle East, from Bayard Dodge through Bernard Lewis and Richard Perle, maintained for generations that the United States should instrumentalize Islamic movements to weaken communist, nationalist, and recalcitrant regimes across the broader Middle East. The mujahideen in Afghanistan were one but far from the only example. If American policy made comfortable use of Islamic groups (militant and otherwise) for various ends of state for decades, it is hard to be shocked when Erdogan’s Turkey does so.

Erdogan has utilized such groups, but has also shown adaptability by reversing an initially lax attitude toward the worst end of the jihadist spectrum in Syria. Turkey appeared soft on Jabhat al Nusra when it first emerged, blacklisting them only later. Turkey viewed ISIL initially as a secondary threat or “enemy of my enemy,” but joined the coalition by supporting and participating in attacks against them from July 2015 onward. They have stood by the Free Syrian Army, Turkmen militias, and Salafi but Syria-focused Ahrar al-Sham, but have taken steps to moderate their methods and behaviors.

Viewed in context, Erdogan’s Islamism forms a combination of electoral tool and geopolitical lever; in other words, it is instrumental rather than fundamental. Davutoglu, too, has shown a pragmatic and flexible approach, not rejecting the West but seeking a balance of Western ties with Eastern and Islamic ties that had been foresworn for generations. To conflate a doctrine so imbued with nationalist and geopolitical considerations with the apocalyptic or theocratic rantings of Islamic fundamentalists of the Sunni or Shia variety is to err gravely.

Crisis and Response

A confluence of internal and external events in 2013 and 2014 shook Erdogan badly, prompting a fundamental realignment from the early AKP’s “religious liberalism” back to a version of the religious nationalism that had been dominant in Turkey since 1980. The first was the rapid reversal of American policy on toppling Assad. Tacit cooperation between the United States and Turkey to arm Syrian rebels apparently continued through 2012, but scaled back sharply after the Benghazi consulate attack and public disclosure of the activity in southern Turkey. The United States backed off vigorous military action on Assad just as the Turks had drawn the conclusion that it was imminent. The second was a series of public mass demonstrations against Erdogan in Turkey, which came to be known as the Gezi Park events. The third was an aggressive corruption investigation opened against Erdogan’s inner circle by investigators associated with the Fetullah Gülen movement, which was publicly embarrassing and potentially fatal to the AKP’s string of electoral success with national elections on the horizon. The fourth was the rise of Kurdish militants in Syria, as PKK funding, weapons, and personnel flowed toward the Syrian Kurdish areas and the group consolidated its control over them. Combined with the realization that the PKK did not intend to disarm during peace negotiations – or, probably, ever – this convinced Erdogan that the PKK was not a partner in solving the Kurdish problem, it was the Kurdish problem. The fifth was the growth of the radical Islamist opposition in Syria at the expense of more moderate groups, as tepid international support left the moderates unable to compete. Finally, simultaneous tensions with nearly every major state in the Middle East – Israel, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Iran – as well as growing tensions with Russia and the United States led to a sense of regional isolation.

In the late 1970s, Turkey also faced significant domestic unrest, regional turmoil and isolation, tensions with America, and Soviet intervention in neighboring regions. The response then was to develop a “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis” that would inculcate throughout society the mutually reinforcing aspects of Islam and Turkish nationalism as a means of defending the state against leftist, Kurdish, or external challengers. The project had ideological, socio-educational, and external strategic dimensions. The government has been taking similar steps now, as the AKP and state institutions have symbolically re-embraced Ataturk, Turkish national heritage, and the military, especially through Erdogan’s rollback and disavowal of political trials that had hamstrung the leadership of the military. Erdogan has re-focused on national security by expanding the intelligence apparatus and defense industry. He also began taking a harder line against Europe, Russia, and the PKK. Some interpreted this as a re-assertion of control by the Turkish military, but what really occurred was a harmonization of AKP and military strategies in the context of clearly continued AKP political control. In fact, the AKP used its religious-nationalist approach in the November 2015 elections to undercut both the MHP by co-opting their voters (the MHP has long had a more religious wing), and the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) by offering conservative Kurdish voters a safer alternative in the midst of escalating violence in the renewed campaign against PKK militants. Erdogan has recast himself as a nationalist to the MHP base, a conservative to religious Kurds, and a devoted commander-in-chief to the younger generation of military officers.

Has it worked? Time will tell if Turkey successfully navigates the many-sided security crisis over the longer term, but what is remarkable as of April 2016 is how stable things remain for now. The military appears to have closed ranks with Erdogan, who has been able to shape and select the leadership cadre for the past decade. They didn’t act to remove him during street protests, are steadily beating down the PKK in the southeast, and even shot down a Russian fighter jet to signal the seriousness of his intent along the Syrian border. The Turkish military restrained Erdogan from a direct intervention in Syria, but this was for his own and his country’s good. Turkey’s economy has weathered the storm without major disruption, and while tourism has suffered from tensions with Russia and terror attacks, the sector has proven resilient in the past and is adjusting strategies to compensate for reduced Russian and European visitors. Turkish foreign policy has had a rough couple years, and faces deep challenges, but the depths of its crisis may be overstated in the West, as is the impact of Islamism in driving it.

The Right Critique

Erdogan and Davutoglu should be credited with developing a systematic, geopolitically grounded approach to foreign policy, one with liberal elements and a preference for balancing, and for trying to implement it for roughly a decade. They have shown remarkable flexibility not only by implementing this approach through 2013, but also by augmenting it with hardnosed tools when liberal approaches failed to resolve the Syrian and Kurdish conflicts.

A contextual and proper critique of their approach should center, instead, on three aspects of its implementation: naïveté, an errant read of the regional balance of power, and negative outcomes on civil liberties in Turkey. Erdogan and Davutoglu seem to have assumed that the rest of the world – regional competitors, political rivals, and global powers – would view their doctrine and program in the same positive manner that AKP supporters do, as balanced and practical. In fact, key leaders in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and the United States – and domestic critics in Turkey – found hypocrisy, hubris, and expansionism in it. Meanwhile, the AKP response to the Arab uprisings badly misread the balance of power in the states of the region. Consequently, Ankara put all its eggs in one proverbial basket – that of ideological fellow-travelers in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Iraq. A more nuanced approach – and one more in line with their own doctrine of flexibility and the search for “geo-cultural” unities – would have avoided focusing so intently on Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, Hamas in Gaza, Tariq Hashimi in Iraq, and a few proxy groups in Syria. The AKP was surprised by the ferocity of Assad, Iran, and Russia in Syria, as well as the limited involvement of the United States. It was similarly unprepared when Sisi, Netanyahu, and others rejected its regional efforts. Finally, the frustrations of the period led to an unfortunate roll-back of civil liberties in Turkey, including press freedom, protest rights, and affiliation with Gulenist groups and other ideological enemies.

It bears repeating that Erdogan and his party will, absent major unforeseen events, remain in power through 2019. It is critically important that the new administration understand where and why we diverge, and (still) converge with this important ally. The United States and the West are dealing with a rational, though difficult, partner in Turkey. In that regard, not much has changed since the days of military supervision in Turkey. In fact, the return of Turkish thinking to a religious-nationalist track makes it a more stable and predictable partner, arguably, than it has been over the past decade, as it tried to re-write rules and relationships across the region with a relatively unconstrained mentality.

So what now?

The next U.S. administration needs to take a longer view on Syria, one not just indexed to ISIL. Consequently, it must work with Turkey to create a common vision of what can be done in the region. If Assad holds the coast, what is Washington willing to do for the Sunnis in the north and south? An American commitment to press for protection of Sunni communities in northern Syria may induce Ankara to be more flexible on Syria’s Kurds, which they were before the PYD began metastasizing with external support.

The United States should also incentivize PYD leader Saleh Muslim to reduce the dependence of Syrian Kurds on the PKK and Russia. Turkey could conceivably learn to live with a Syrian Kurdish entity that looks more like the Kurdistan region of Iraq – ties to the central government but also with the U.S. and Turkey, no explicit PKK links and no explicit Russian support. Finally, the United States must encourage and support Israel-Turkey and Egypt-Turkey reconciliation on a priority basis. In both places Erdogan pushed too hard, and too narrowly, on behalf of groups aligned with his ideology but antagonistic to the regimes in place. For Turkey to be a regional stabilizer, it must advocate for these groups in a balanced manner, not a shrill manner. These steps will help end Turkey’s regional isolation, and restore cooperation among groups that have common an interest in not seeing Assad, or Tehran or Moscow, emerge the big winner in the region.


Rich Outzen is a U.S. Army Colonel and Senior Military Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS) at the National Defense University (NDU). He has been a Foreign Area Officer focused on the Middle East for 17 years, and has served in a variety of command, staff, liaison and advisory roles. He has served multiple tours in Turkey, Afghanistan, Israel, and Iraq. His opinions do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, NDU, or any government department or agency.