When noted Middle East expert and author David L. Phillips titled his latest book Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship, he hoped to capture the fraught nature of the U.S. relationship with its long-time diplomatic and security partner at the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East. Recent revelations that Turkey supplied the Islamic State with military weapons, guns, and logistical support along its border with Syria should erase any doubts about whether the country is a U.S. ally, said Phillips during a blunt, and at times bleak, book talk hosted by the Center on National Security on Feb. 27.
Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey is “a rogue nation” that has embraced Islamist, anti-democratic positions in recent years, limiting free elections, undermining the judiciary, and jailing more journalists than any country worldwide. Erdogan survived an attempted coup in July 2016 and has rewritten the Turkish constitution to consolidate his powers. In April, Turkish voters will cast ballots on a referendum that would make Erdogan the country’s dictator until 2029.
Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, would not be invited today due to its Islamist, anti-democratic, anti-American, and anti-human rights positions, stated Phillips, whom the Center on National Security Director Karen Greenberg praised as “an essential voice” in understanding Turkey and the region it inhabits. During his distinguished career, Phillips has worked with the U.N., the U.S. State Department, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Turkey is no longer what it was during NATO’s heyday,” said Phillips, who directs the Peace-building and Rights Program for Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. “It’s actively undermined U.S. efforts against ISIS, and it would be a mistake for the U.S. to align itself with Turkey at a critical juncture in the fight against ISIS.”
President Trump is considering partnering with Russia and Turkey in Syria, a development Phillips feared would lead the American government to “turn a blind eye to the gross pattern of human rights violations occurring in Turkey.” Trump has also raised the specter of deploying U.S. ground forces in Syria, as an attempt to “mollify Turkey’s concerns about cooperation between the U.S. and Syrian Kurds,” Phillips noted.
“The idea American men and women would be put in harm’s way to placate Turkey’s views is absolutely abhorrent, especially when you need and have a local ground force in place, which is able to do the job,” Phillips said, referring to the 40,000 members of the Syrian Democratic Forces who are fighting against ISIS. Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Pentagon recognize that Syrian Kurds are America’s best allies on the ground, Phillips added.
The U.S.-Turkey relationship is also frayed because Erdogan has demanded the U.S. extradite Imam Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdogan alleges sparked his attempted overthrow last July. U.S. law does not allow for political extraditions and the U.S. Department of Justice must review the materials and decide whether the legal case is strong enough in order to send Gülen back to Turkey. A federal court will ultimately decide the matter if Attorney General Jeff Sessions recommends Gülen’s removal. The process could take months, if not years, Phillips said.
Though he has maintained power, Erdogan faces growing problems at home, from an economy in a deep slump and rising debt to high-profile terror attacks (i.e., the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and the bombing of Istanbul’s international airport). While Erdogan has called for the eradication of Kurdish extremism, Phillips said the Turkish leader has shown no willingness to compromise or be flexible through the use of democratic institutions or increased cultural rights.
Turkey is also currently hosting 2.7 million refugees, most of whom are from Syria. Some experts have suggested that the current refugee crisis in Europe is due in part to Erdogan creating conditions that led the refugees to flee Turkey. What is clear, Phillips noted, is Erdogan seeks to benefit financially and politically from Europe’s disunity, and that Turkey has institutionally supported the Islamic State through the “jihadist highway” running between the Turkey-Syria border. This makes combatting terror in Turkey, Syria, and in Europe more complex and difficult than remedies such as improving education and economic growth.
“When you have an outside party like Turkey actively stirring the pot, it’s hard to have an anecdote for extremism,” Phillips said. “When Turkey provides the money, weapons, and logistical support to the Islamic State, it’s hard for Turkey to credibly present itself as a U.S. security partner in our stated goal of destroying the Islamic State.”