During his nearly 20 years in power, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has violated human rights in his own country of Turkey and destabilized and exploited others in order to promote his nationalist agenda abroad. Western powers, especially his allies in NATO, have ignored his transgressions as the price they are willing to pay to keep what they view as an indispensible ally.
By Dr. Alon Ben-Meir*
Historically, Western democracies have held their moral values high, waged wars, and made painful and costly sacrifices to preserve human rights and freedoms, the rule of law, and respect for international norms of conduct. While realpolitik governs relations between independent countries and compromises are often made to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes, in dealing with Turkey’s President Erdogan, the EU and the US have forsaken their values by allowing Erdogan to run wild with impunity.
He is violating every article of human rights in his own country, destabilizing other countries while exploiting their weaknesses and resources in order to promote his nationalist agenda. Sadly, Western powers have convinced themselves that Turkey remains an indispensable ‘ally’, and that Erdogan’s transgressions and moral insolvency are the price they are willing to pay. They embrace the illusion that in the post-Erdogan era, Turkey will become a constructive player and a power of geostrategic importance, which outweighs Erdogan’s transient outrageous behavior.
To understand the gravity of Erdogan’s foreign transgressions and moral breaches, even a brief sketch would suffice to expose the magnitude of his culpability, which raises the baffling question: why do Western powers continue to indulge such a ruthless, unrepentant dictator—a despot who made it all but abundantly clear, as I was told repeatedly by former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, that by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, Turkey will project its power and exert the influence once enjoyed by the Ottoman Empire in its heyday, which is a recipe for instability and violence. Erdogan’s domestic and international forays offer a panoramic view of his menacing objectives.
Erdogan continues to commit gross human rights violations in Turkey by using the failed 2016 military coup as an excuse to silence the media. He has jailed over 150 journalists, incarcerated around 80,000 suspected of affiliation with the Gülen movement, purged 150,000 military officers and civil servants, and engaged in a systematic operation of ethnic cleansing against minorities in Turkey and northern Syria.
He systematically persecutes his own Kurdish community, continues a 50-year-old war against the PKK, which he views as a terrorist organization, and refuses to resume negotiations with the Kurds and end the carnage that has taken the lives of approximately 40,000 on both sides.
He invaded Syria to both prevent the Syrian Kurdish community from establishing autonomous rule, and to entrench for Turkey a permanent foothold in the country, which is bound to only prolong the conflict and further destabilize the region.
He purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system, which, once operational, NATO fears would seriously compromise the alliance’s intelligence sharing and technology, apart from being fully incompatible with NATO systems.
He invested heavily in promoting his Islamic agenda by supporting anti-Western Islamist extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and even ISIS. He uses Islam as a political tool by building mosques and other Islamic theological institutions, and sends his imams to teach and preach his brand of religious nationalism in many countries in the Middle East and the Balkans.
He violated US sanctions against Iran by laundering up to $20 billion in an oil-for-gold scheme from 2012-2018, and continues to cooperate and trade with Tehran in defiance of Western interests.
He made a deal with Putin in late 2019 to patrol northern Syria while working closely with Moscow and Tehran to delineate their spheres of influence in the country—thus leaving Syria de facto a divided state under their control, while significantly diminishing what’s left of Western influence.
He sent troops to support Libya’s Government of National Accord in an effort to establish a strong foothold in the country, exploiting its oil and gas and threatening the free flow of energy from the Eastern Mediterranean.
He violated a UN arms embargo while resisting NATO’s peace plans in Libya, including exercising extreme aggression against NATO ally France’s warship enforcing the embargo.
He blocked a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland and regularly intimidates Greece, a NATO member state, violating the country’s airspace by flying Turkish military jets.
He drilled for gas in the territorial waters of Cyprus and has begun plans to expand drilling off the coast of the Greek island of Crete. He remains at odds with Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, and Israel over ownership of natural resources, threatening to use force to secure ‘his share’ which could burgeon into a violent conflict.
Last but not least, he perpetuated the heated conflict with Cyprus over his demand that his puppet—the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus—enjoy equal political power to the Republic of Cyprus, which is four times larger in population and territory and is an EU member state.
Notwithstanding his threatening waywardness, he still has the chutzpa to demand that Turkey receive “complete support from our allies in the fight [in Syria] that Turkey has been carrying out alone…NATO is in a critical period during which it needs to clearly show [military] support.” Asking NATO to support his reckless war on foreign land is the highest of shameless audacity.
All the above and some should have convinced Western powers that their occasional warnings made no impression on a tyrant who knows from past experiences that Western powers will simply not take significant punitive measures against Turkey because they made the case for him to justify his unruly behavior.
They cite the fact that Turkey has the second largest military force in NATO, albeit he uses his military forces for his foreign adventures, be they in Syria, Libya, Somalia, Qatar, or the Sudan.
They view Turkey as critical to the alliance given its strategic position between Europe and Asia, which Erdogan has only exploited to his own advantage.
They find him essential in controlling migration into Europe, even though he uses migrants as a lever to blackmail the EU into providing additional financial aid to care for the Syrian refugees.
They value Turkey’s strategic importance for hosting US nuclear warheads at Incirlik Air Base, yet Erdogan continuously threatens to demand their removal if sanctions are imposed on Turkey.
They argue that NATO needs Turkey on its side to confront militant attacks in Europe, when in fact he is the chief Islamist and many Islamic militants often count on his nod.
They consider Turkey’s strategic eastern location as a shield against the threat of ballistic missiles from Iran to North Korea, but ignore Erdogan’s deepening ties and friendship with Iran.
And finally, NATO has persuaded itself that since there is no mechanism to allow for the expulsion, suspension, or sanctioning of a NATO member, there is little it can do other than keep Turkey close. The fact that he is in bed with Putin, the West’s foremost adversary, who is resolved to weaken NATO and the US, and uses Erdogan to do his bidding, seems to matter little, believing that ultimately Turkey will always choose the Western alliance over Russia.
Although Erdogan is presumably allied with the West, his independent streak and foreign ventures make him a serious liability. As a French defense ministry official recently said, “We have known complicated moments in the alliance, but we can’t be an ostrich and can’t pretend there isn’t a Turkey problem at NATO. We have to see it, say it and handle it.”
Indeed, there must be limits to the concessions the West is making, regardless of how advantageous they may be. Contrary to Trump, the great facilitator of Erdogan’s criminal misadventures, the NATO member states must warn Erdogan that he has exhausted their patience.
NATO member states must make it unequivocally clear that he will no longer be allowed to compromise their security and undermine their strategic interest in the eastern Mediterranean and threaten allies such as Cyprus and Greece. Moreover, they must warn him that he will suffer severe consequences if he continues to commit gross human rights violations, disrespect the sovereignty and the independence of other countries, and disregard international conventions and accords. Finally, he must grant ethnic groups, especially his own Kurdish community, the right to live fully while embracing their tradition and culture without fear.
The fact that there is no precedent for kicking a NATO member out of the organization does not mean that there cannot be a first. The preamble of NATO’s charter states that “[member countries] are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Erdogan has grossly and consistently violated the letter and the spirit of the charter. NATO must begin distancing Turkey from the organization by not sharing sensitive intelligence and technology and imposing selective sanctions as a warning shot.
He must be convinced that the EU will take any necessary action to preserve its values and that his days of blackmailing are over. Russia has little to offer Erdogan compared to the magnitude of what the EU can provide. He must be warned that he will be eased out of the European orbit completely if Turkey continues to be a destabilizing power while challenging Western ideals and geostrategic interests.
To be sure, Turkey is not an indispensable power and Erdogan must be tamed and disabused of the notion that the West needs him more than he needs the West. Otherwise, the failure of Western powers to protect human rights, their democratic values, and commitment to the alliance will dangerously erode the foundation of their democracies and lead to increasing instability and violence, which will swiftly come knocking on their doors.
*Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.