Is Turkey's Erdoğan in Decline?
by Veli Sirin
Turkey's Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have entered a decline after 11 years of increasing national political command.
Erdoğan proclaims Turkey to be a state of law and a defender of freedom of expression, even though its record in the persecution of journalists is among the world's worst, according to such international media monitors as Freedom House, in its 2014 survey, Democracy in Crisis: Corruption, Media, and Power in Turkey.
On February 2, 2015, the London Guardian reported that the Dutch journalist Fréderike Geerdink was indicted by a Turkish prosecutor for "terrorist propaganda" because of her writing on Kurdish affairs. Representing the leading Dutch daily, Het Parool, and producing a blog from Diyarbakır in eastern Turkey, Geerdink was arrested in a Turkish police raid at her home on January 6, the very day that the Netherlands' Foreign Minister, Bert Koenders, was in Ankara. Geerdink is due to appear in court on April, and faces a possible sentence of five years in prison if found guilty.
More broadly, Erdoğan's handling of events in Syria, ravaged by the two predators embodied in the dictatorship of Bashar Al-Assad and the brutal terrorists of the so-called "Islamic State" or ISIS, the latter acting with other bandits in the name of Sunni Islam, has undermined his reputation as a crafty chieftain capable of imposing on his country his authoritarian will.
On February 21, as reported by The New York Times, Turkey sent troops into Syria to evacuate army personnel guarding the reputed tomb of Süleyman Shah [c. 1178-1236], grandfather of the first Ottoman imperial ruler. The tomb was dismantled at Erdoğan's order and moved to the Turkish-Syrian border.
Until now, the monument to the predecessor of the Ottoman Empire was sited at Qal'at Ja'bar, near Al-Raqqah in northern Syria, some 20 miles from the Turkish frontier. It had been established, since 1921, as Turkish property within Syria. But Al-Raqqah is now the capital of the purported "Islamic State." Based on its Wahhabi fundamentalism, ISIS has smashed to rubble the most exquisite antiquities, and has burned libraries, along with countless Muslim shrines, Christian churches, and other historical buildings. In addition to their hated of Christians, ISIS Wahhabis destroy pre-Islamic and Muslim cultural heritage, on the argument that preservation of ancient statuary and the shrines of the monotheistic religions alike is polytheism or idol-worship.
The tomb of the ancestor of the Ottoman state -- the most powerful Islamic political entity in history -- is considered by ordinary Muslims, both Sunnis and unorthodox Alevis, to merit protection. Although the Turkish government has allowed ISIS to operate without hindrance, these considerations are of no significance to ISIS; they are tomb-wreckers and grave-robbers, as well as men and some women who blow themselves up as a weapon of mass murder, crucify, slit throats, enslave and burn people alive. The concern of the Turkish authorities for the security of the sepulcher and their soldiers stationed there was justifiable.
Erdoğan took up this challenge in a manner that showed weakness rather than strength. According to The New York Times, reports on the army incursion into Syria were quickly taken off Turkish news websites. Nevertheless, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, a close associate of Erdoğan in leading the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), stated via Twitter that the inventory of the tomb had been returned to Turkey.
Further, the "rescue" of the cenotaph and of the soldiers stationed there was carried out through the town of Kobane, saved from ISIS by Kurdish troops. A Kurdish commander in Kobane, Enver Muslim, cooperated with the Turkish army in the Süleyman Shah tomb operation.
Erdoğan held the Turkish army back from defending Kobane, and seemed willing to let it fall to ISIS. His motivation for this remains unclear, since Turkey, as a NATO member, is considered a probable ally against ISIS. He repeatedly predicted an ISIS victory in the town, and dismissed Kobane as irrelevant to Turkish interests. A Kurdish man, Ape Nemir, aged 67, said about the situation: "Erdoğan was counting the days for the fall of Kobane. He was uttering his wish each day. Kobane did not fall, but [the reputation of] Erdoğan did. It became a source of worry for him. He is no different from the [ISIS] gangs. We also know about his hostility towards the Kurds. We refused to surrender Kobane to the gangs. We fought until the last drop of our blood and will continue to do so. It is the land of our ancestors; we will not give in to [ISIS]."
Erdoğan and his associates then scrambled to save face. Turkish deputy prime minister Bülent Arınç declared after Kobane was saved from ISIS, "The support Turkey provided for Kobane should not be forgotten." In October 2014, however, Arınç had denounced mass demonstrations for solidarity with Kobane as "terrorist acts."
Last year was good for Erdoğan. He became Turkey's president. Although he was required to sever his affiliation with the party officially, the AKP won local and presidential balloting. He suppressed the judicial investigation, beginning in December 2013, of three members of his cabinet and his son Bilal Erdoğan. They faced an inquiry alleging financial corruption linked to Iran. He drove his former allies in Fethullah Gülen's Islamist movement into a defensive posture by arrests and purges in the state apparatus. As described in the Istanbul-based Hürriyet Daily News, he opened a 1,150-room presidential palace in Ankara, the Turkish capital, with a staff of 1,150 police to guard it – one for each room. Construction of the residence was estimated to cost $615 million.
Many Turkish citizens view these expressions of narcissism with dismay. Erdoğan has sought to dampen criticism of his behavior by accusing Western Europe of persecuting Muslims.
If 2014 was good for Erdoğan, 2015 has begun badly. The Turkish "economic miracle" has ended, growth has slowed, and unemployment is rising. As he did when he was Turkey's prime minister, from 2003 to 2014, Erdoğan aggravates the polarization of society by agitating his Islamist voter base. So far, these tactics have awarded him with electoral victories.
On June 7, 2015, Turkey is scheduled to hold new parliamentary elections, and AKP seeks a full majority of ballots, exceeding the 49.3% the party won in 2014. president Erdoğan will then, it is presumed, attempt to broaden his executive powers by a constitutional referendum, which would put the Islamists at the summit of the state for a long time.
In anticipating the election, meanwhile, Erdoğan and AKP have introduced a parliamentary measure that would enhance police power, including use of firearms against demonstrators. Daniel Dombey wrote in the London Financial Times of February 27, "the opposition says [the bill] could usher in a police state." The arrogant Erdoğan told legislators, "Your duty is to make these laws in parliament, not to block them."
Above all, the confusion of Turkey's policy toward ISIS and the Kurds will not be easily forgotten. Erdoğan may believe, from his gaudy new palace, that his rule will go on forever. But other autocrats have clung to similar fantasies that were, as at Kobane, shattered by reality.