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Turkey – the country straddling Europe and Asia – not the main course of next month’s dinner, has been a hot topic for years now. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been in power since 2003. In 2016 Erdoğan survived an attempted military coup that some pundits believe may well have been staged by the president himself, since it was so disorganized and ineffectual. Certainly Erdoğan was the only person who benefitted from the failed attempt to overthrow him by force. Never one to miss an opportunity afforded by crisis, Erdoğan jailed more than a half million people and sentenced dozens to death. After the 2016 failed coup, the conservative president, who had largely broken the power of the Turkish military in the years prior to the failed putsch, emerged with a more solid grip than ever before.
Often called an Islamist by western media outlets, Erdoğan counts for support on Turkish
conservatives whose voices are strong and numbers growing. Public face coverings and head scarves for women, traditionally outlawed by Turkey’s secular constitution, are increasingly common sights on the streets, especially in more traditional cities like Konya. The turn to more conventional Islamic social mores has alarmed many at home and abroad. So too has the President’s predilection for censorship and mischief-making.
Erdoğan has long muzzled effective public dissent, having run out of business or otherwise
neutralized anything resembling a free-speech media outlet in his country, and his adventurism is increasingly drawing the ire of European nations and the United States. For years now, Erdoğan’s government – head of a NATO alliance nation – has publicly proclaimed their intent to buy the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system, which military observers view as one of the most advanced in the world. The manifest problem with Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is that NATO and Russia view one another as prime antagonists. Turkey, as a NATO member, was to be involved in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Project.
Russia views the western alliance as a serious national security threat. NATO is increasingly alarmed by the Kremlin, which in recent years has invaded its neighbors Ukraine and Georgia and intervened militarily in Syria and Libya. The Russians are also supplying arms to Armenia and Azerbaijan, former territories of the Soviet Union which are now engaged in a shooting war. Russian construction of a massive nuclear reactor on the doorstep of NATO alliance members in the Baltics in unstable Belarus, a country ruled by a Russian-crony dictator, has further inflamed tensions between Russia and the West and brought more concern about Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 and its role in NATO.
Over the past 12 months, Erdoğan has incited hundreds of Turkish air and sea incursions against Turkey’s neighbor and traditional nemesis Greece. Recent reports indicate that to boost their Turkic ally Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia, the Turks have recruited fighters from the bloody Syrian civil war. There, in a conflict more than a decade old, numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity have been committed by rebel and government fighters. In Syria, Turkish soldiers, supposedly NATO allies of the United States, have reportedly fired artillery over the positions where they knew American troops were stationed. Similarly, the Turkish government has recruited veterans of the Syria conflict to fight on behalf of Turkish interests in the six-year-old civil war in oil-rich Libya.
In 2017 The Financial Times reported that the Turkish-Iranian gold trader, Reza Zarrab, was charged for his role in helping Turkey violate UN and US sanctions on Iran. The scheme in which Mr. Zarrab was allegedly involved resulted in the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars to Iran in exchange for Turkish purchases of sanctioned Iranian oil and natural gas. After a plea deal, Zarrab awaits trial in US Federal Court.
Critics within the United States and Europe point to cases like Zarrab’s and Turkish intentions to deploy the S-400 missiles, which would compromise the NATO air defense system and potentially pass top secret data regarding NATO fighter planes directly to the Kremlin, as a bridge too far. They want sanctions to be imposed on Turkey, whose economy is already suffering under a rash of economic uncertainty. The Turkish lira is showing signs of pressure and uncertainty. At the start of 2018, one US dollar bought just 3.77 Turkish lira. Today, one dollar buys 7.88 lira, and this despite considerable quantitative easing on the part of Washington.
Given that President Trump has often expressed admiration for Erdoğan and the reach,
effectiveness, and power of the pro-Turkey government lobby in Washington, D.C., there are no possibilities of sanctions being imposed prior to the US elections on 3 November. However, if Democrats were to take power in the so-called ‘Blue Wave’, Turkey may not be out of the woods. As Erdoğan continues to pursue his own independent foreign policies that put him at odds with the US and its allies, expect that pressure will mount for punitive financial steps to be taken against Ankara by Washington in 2021. How Erdoğan will react is anyone’s guess, but his recent actions make it likely that any such move will push Turkey even closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia.