Trial by turbulence in Turkey

The Hill
October 30, 2015
By Ariel Cohen

As the maelstrom of mayhem in the Middle East – from Benghazi to Baghdad and from Tripoli to Tikrit – expands, Turkey, a pillar of U.S. Middle East policy, is facing tough tests from without and within. Sunni-Shi’a strife combined with the rise of ISIS is erasing the post-World War I borders in the Levant, driving a flow of millions of refugees into Europe.

On Nov. 1, Turks will go to the parliamentary polls for the second time this year, as the political system deadlocked after a vote held in June proved indecisive.

In the past year, a record number of people were killed in terrorist attacks on Turkish soil. Over 100 died during a bloody attack on a pro-Kurdish rally held in the capital Ankara earlier this month, with Turkish prosecutors naming ISIS as the key suspect. The embattled democracy is also under attack by the terrorist Kurdish PKK and the ultra-leftist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Army (DHKP-C).

Turkey has fought 20 wars with Russia over the past 300 years. Today, the “strategic partnership” with Moscow, established over gas supply via the Blue Stream pipeline and massive construction contracts in Russia, has been pushed close to the breaking point. Turkey was buffeted as Russia entered Syria, raising specters of the aggression Russian neighbors Georgia and Ukraine faced in 2008 and 2014.

Today, the Turkish population is deeply split between religious and secular, left and right, Turk and Kurd and Alevi. Prosecutors and police reportedly connected to the Islamist Gulen Movement have investigated and prosecuted hundreds of military brass and secular nationalists in what are known as the Ergenekon and Hammer conspiracies, undermining the credibility of the rule of law. The sum total is not a pretty picture – the political class needs to find a common vision if it is to avoid violence and rancor and move the country forward.

The U.S. has a great deal riding on Turkey’s stability and cooperation in the quest to solve the Syrian conundrum and fight ISIS. Ankara has been Washington’s ally in the region for over 60 years and a factor in NATO’s stability.

The country is a geopolitical linchpin between Europe and Iraq and between the Mediterranean and the Caspian. An increasingly pious Sunni country, it is a counter-balance to militant Shi’a Iran. Ankara is a leading actor in Syria supporting the anti-Assad forces, some of them militant Islamists.

Turkey is also a growing energy hub. Oil and gas from Azerbaijan on the Caspian Sea, Iraq, and possibly in the future, from Turkmenistan, and perhaps Israel and Cyprus will flow through its ports to Europe via new pipelines. European consumers would greatly appreciate an alternative to GAZPROM.

Ankara’s relationships with its neighbors – and with the United States – have not been always smooth. The Turkish Parliament rejected the passage of the US 4th Infantry Division to Northern Iraq in 2003. Difficulties aside, the United States has a vital national interest in Turkey’s survival as a NATO member as a democratic state with a strong military, which currently provides one-quarter of NATO’s ground forces.

With Russian military forces in the Crimea to Turkey’s north and in Syria to Turkey’s south, the US needs to provide Ankara with reassurances that the strategic alliance will continue. As the confrontation with Russia in the Middle East could transform into a “Cold War 2.0”, US-Turkish political-military relations need a boost. U.S. support of Turkey will also be necessary if Iran continues its missile build-up and flaunts the P-5+1 nuclear agreement, as many suggest it might.

The U.S. should encourage Turkey to repair its bridges with Egypt and revive its ties with Israel, which frayed in the wake of Ankara’s vitriolic support of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority starting in 2008 as part of a move to reposition Ankara as a strong regional leader. In the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey’s bet on the success of the Muslim Brotherhood backfired, and relationships with the governments of Saudi Arabia, other Gulf States and Egypt became cantankerous.

The U.S. might also help Turkey stabilize by having law enforcement take a closer – and broader – look at the activities of the Gulen movement, which is under investigation in Turkey for involvement in an alleged attempt to overthrow the government. Its spiritual leader lives in Pennsylvania as a political refugee. Several countries on three continents have banned these schools outright; while the FBI recently raided several of school offices in connection with potential fraud and visa violations. Gulen movement supporters are challenging the elected government in their home country, a pivotal US ally, during its hour of truth.

The coming Turkish elections may result in another indecisive outcome– possibly in a fragile coalition between the ruling AK Party and the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or one of the smaller parties. Patience, support, encouragement and cooperation will be needed – this is one relationship the U.S. cannot afford to mishandle.

Cohen is the director of the Center for Energy, Natural Resources and Geopolitics at the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security ( He is the founding principal of International Market Analysis Ltd (