Erdogan’s Agenda
Turkey was once a staunch ally of the West and a reasonably free country. No longer.

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan


Michael Rubin

A decade ago, Turks saw themselves as aligned with the United States, Europe, and Israel; today Turkey is firmly in the camp led by Iran, Sudan, and Hamas. If Turkey is a bridge between West and East, it is now decidedly one-way. Rather than pursue peace in the Middle East, Turkey seeks division. While the West sought to isolate Hamas until that group accepted the diplomatic premises upon which Middle Eastern peace must rest, Erdogan welcomed the group’s leader to Ankara, where his party cadres feted him and gave him a standing ovation. Erdogan subsequently labeled Israeli complaints regarding Hamas rockets “a hoax.” Turkish attempts to support and supply Hamas terrorists — the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” being just the most famous example — have made Turkey a terror sponsor in all but name.

Alas, Turkey’s support for terrorism neither begins nor ends with Hamas. When it was revealed that Cuneyd Zapsu, one of the prime minister’s top advisers, had donated tens of thousands of dollars to an al-Qaeda–linked financier, Erdogan shrugged off the information, saying of the financier, “I believe in him as I believe in myself. For Mr. Qadi to associate with a terrorist organization, or support one, is impossible.” Earlier this year, Ahmet Kavas — a product of the religious schools Erdogan promotes inside Turkey, and now ambassador to Chad — raised eyebrows when he denied that al-Qaeda was a terrorist group. This appears increasingly to be Turkey’s official position regarding al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, last year, the Turkish Islamist magazine Islam Dunyasi called for attacks on the United States. The Turkish government continues to support the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate in Turkey. When the leader of Turkey’s secular opposition questioned Turkey’s relationship with that group, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu blamed any linkage between jihad and terrorism on the propaganda of “American neocons and Israelis.”

When it comes to common foes, Erdogan channels Secretary of State John Kerry: He was with them before he was against them. While Turkish diplomats point to cooperation with the U.S. and Europe in Libya, Erdogan was long a cheerleader for Moammar Qaddafi, even accepting the Qaddafi International Prize for Human Rights (and an accompanying quarter-million dollars) just months before the Libyan strongman began massacring his own people. Likewise, while Turkey now sides firmly with the Syrian opposition, just a couple of years ago, Erdogan was Bashar al-Assad’s best friend. When the Lebanese people rose up against the Syrian army in 2005, Erdogan sided with the Syrians. As the White House sought to isolate Assad, Erdogan invited the Assads to vacation with him and his wife along the Turkish Mediterranean. Turkey’s new support for the Syrian opposition has less to do with a desire for Syria to be free, and more to do with furthering Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman vision and empowering sectarian radicals. Even in Afghanistan, Turkey is not fully on board with the coalition’s mission. Turkish-sponsored billboards in Kabul — outside the International Security Assistance Force bubble — praise a common Islamic heritage rather than promoting a unified Afghan government. And while Turkey maintains a large contingent of troops in Afghanistan, many Turks fight against American troops there under the banner of Taifetul Mansura, yet another Turkish al-Qaeda affiliate.

So when Obama meets Erdogan later today, what should the president say? Even as Turkey changes, Erdogan and his aides point to the relationship with the United States as evidence of Western endorsement for his agenda. Every word of diplomatic praise gets repeated in the Turkish press and, in all likelihood, read to the journalists, civic leaders, academicians, and military officers now sitting in Turkish prisons. A few choice words from President Obama regarding freedom, basic human rights, and the importance of standing up to terrorism regardless of the religion of its perpetrators would go a long way. Every emperor — or aspiring sultan, as the case may be — sometimes needs to be told that he is naked.

— Michael Rubin (@mrubin1971) is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.