CATF Reports May 19, 2016, 1:46pm


As the events over the past few weeks have shown, a mix of opportunism and domestic and international pressure, combined with the problematic implications of Turkey’s presence in a growing number of critical scenarios may accelerate even further Turkish President Erdogan’s authoritarian devolution.  

One-Man-Rule

On May 10th, the President of the Banking Supervisory and Regulatory Authority in Turkey Mehmet Ali Akben announced that Bank Asya – considered the major financial institution of the Gülen movement, Erdogan’s former staunch ally turned archenemy – will be liquidated by the end of the month should its sale not be finalized on time. The reasons adduced for the bank takeover included “lack of transparency in conducting business” and “irregular monetary transactions”, yet unsurprisingly loans issued to Gulen’s affiliates started to be labelled as dubious transactions soon after Turkish authorities tightened their grip on the movement.

Early this month, Erdogan shouted that Turkey should have parted ways from Europe when EU authorities urged Ankara to narrow down its definition of terrorism in line with the 72 criteria which any country has to comply with to win visa-free travel privileges. Erdogan, who had already reassured the EU about his commitment to prevent the flow of refugees from spilling into European territory, rejected the additional request as “outrageous” in a moment of extreme vulnerability for Turkey.

Erdogan’s susceptibility was highly predictable, though. In his hands, Turkish terror laws and legal mechanisms in general have proved a highly effective tool to crush dissent and marginalize opponents. In a secret ballot on May 17th, 348 members of the Turkish parliament endorsed a constitutional change that would strip parliament members who are currently under investigation of their immunity from prosecution, a measure that is widely expected to be exploited to target 100 deputies from the pro-Kurdish HDP and from the traditional opposition party, the CHP. The ruling party has failed to secure the 367 necessary votes to exclude a referendum, yet it is highly concerning that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) rallied behind such a divisive will after Erdogan publicly called for HDP affiliates to face prosecution for their alleged ties with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker Party (PKK).

Davutoglu’s Departure Brings About Further Unbalance

Overall, the past few weeks offer a precious insight into how Turkey will look in the coming months. Now that Ahmet Davutoglu is out of the picture, the country may adopt a much more confrontational stance towards Western powers while embracing a more cooperative attitude towards its Eastern neighbors, especially Qatar.

Davutoglu was at once – and not coincidentally – Erdogan’s closest ally, the AKP Secretary General, and Turkey’s Prime Minister. After months of fluctuating tension with Erdogan on matters of presidential powers, economic policies and pretrial detention for alleged dissidents, he announced that he will step down after the May 22 extraordinary AKP meeting at the request of the President, and promised that he will not run for office again.

The positive perception of Davutoglu among Western powers may have served as a catalyst for his political marginalization. Davutoglu was widely regarded as “a voice of sobriety” in the Turkish government and the ultimate bastion against Turkey’s march to autocracy. An expert diplomat and respected intellectual, Davutoglu has a long history of close cooperation with the European and American authorities. He served and supported Erdogan’s concept of Turkey’s foreign policy first as Erdogan’s chief political adviser and then as his Foreign Minister in 2009. The President’s most recent electoral triumph in November 2015 is largely ascribed to his partnership with Davutoglu, his Prime Minister since August 2014.

With his trusted ally and sole counterpoint out of the way, Erdogan will see no obstacles to maintain an even harder line against the PKK and to advocate Turkish nationalism against the Kurdish minority, a dynamic that is likely to escalate tensions with Washington. The Ankara-based Economic Policy Research Foundation analyst Nihat Ali Ozcan posited that Erdogan’s anti-Kurdish resolve may be dictated by electoral concerns translated into a strategy to win the nationalist constituency and their backing for a new constitution that will expand the presidential role. Ozcan’s point suggests that Ankara’s resistance to Washington’s support for the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds in Iraq and Syria may grow increasingly problematic in the long run between the two countries.

In fact, Washington has heavily relied on the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds as a credible ground force against ISIS since they secured control over Kobani in early 2015. U.S. authorities have recently announced additional support for PYD with 250 additional troops on the ground. Hurriyet columnist Verda Ozer reports that the U.S. has a major operation in store in northern Syria between Azez and Jarablus that envisions the PYD as the main ground force. However, the PYD’s connection with the PKK has complicated internal dynamics within the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, especially since the U.S. appears to be actively supporting forces that Turkish authorities perceive as a national security threat.

A Shared Vision

Over the past few years, an increasingly disenchanted Turkey has become less and less reliant on its alliance with Western powers in matters of regional and international status and military defense. A perceived U.S. disengagement from the Gulf and its own ambition for greater regional prominence induced Turkey to seek to “diversify its potential allies”. In fact, the country has greatly expanded its economic and military ties with its Arab neighbors since 2008.

Turkey’s military base in Qatar, inaugurated on May 10th, assumes an even stronger symbolic relevance now that Davutoglu is gone. The base constitutes Turkey’s first military installation in the Middle East, and is expected to host three thousand troops which will be supported by aerial and naval assets, military trainers, and special operation forces. It signals that Turkey’s Eastern neighbors have gained new strategic relevance for the country’s foreign policy outlook. It also officially ratifies Turkey’s commitment to a long term partnership with Qatar based on a joint vision and in the face of common threats to the Gulf and the Middle East writ large.

Qatar and Turkey’s foreign policy priorities have substantially overlapped in the Syrian, Yemeni, and Libyan scenario since the Arab Spring, but their rapprochement was strategically consolidated through key political and military initiatives. In January 2015, the two governments established a high-level cooperation council to foster closer political and economic ties. The two countries signed sixteen separate agreements in the field of education, science, finance, commerce, and security, and a declaration of intent involving the bilateral lifting of visa requirements for citizens of both countries. Erdogan even recently received an honorary doctoral degree from Qatar University. Last month Qatar National Bank (QNB), the largest lender in the Middle East and Africa by assets, received the approval of Qatar's central bank and Turkey's Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency to acquire Turkey's Finansbank, the Gulf Arab region's largest lender, from National Bank of Greece for 2.7 billion euros ($3.08 billion).

However, Qatar and Turkey’s commitment to the Islamist cause runs deeper than their recent political, military and financial partnership. Since the early 2000s, Qatar and Turkey have devoted significant energies and funds to supporting Islamist parties in the Middle East. Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular rank among the primary beneficiaries of both countries. Both Qatar and Turkey have historically hosted Hamas’s ruling branches and prominent affiliates, and have a long track record of financial and political support to the terrorist organization, especially in Gaza, to the detriment of the Palestinian Authority. Both have boosted the Muslim Brotherhood’s political ascent in Egypt with the election of Mohamed Morsi, and saw their ties with the country deteriorate after Sisi’s military coup. Qatar has exerted a quasi-formal patronage over the Muslim Brotherhood worldwide and has supported affiliated Islamist factions in Syria and Libya. But so has Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, which has played a mediating role between the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and the Assad regime since 2006.

Minarets and Power Projections

Interestingly, a certain resonance can be inferred in another, unconventional profile of both countries’ foreign policy – a shared endeavor that The Economist labelled “religious diplomacy”. Qatar is committed to export Salafism and win influence across the globe since the late 1970s, primarily by funding mosques and cultural institutions. Although more recently, Turkey boasts a respectable record of mosques and schools sponsorship as well.

According to Turkish official records, the state-controlled Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has bankrolled projects for the construction of schools and over 100 mosques in more than 25 countries – five mosques in 2015 alone. The Times revealed that ten new mosques are currently in the planning stages, including one in Cambridge for which Turkey has reportedly disbursed £17 million (about $24.5 million). The minarets of Tirana’s mega-mosque – the largest mosque in the Balkans – and the brand new mosque in Lanham, Maryland, recently inaugurated by Erdogan himself, have made the news as the most spectacular accomplishments of Erdogan’s mosque program.

The tones of the Qatari Wahhabism are substantially different from Turkey’s Sufi Islam, yet the rationale of the Erdogan administration’s investments in mosques and school sponsorship seems to align with Qatar’s. As confirmed by a recent report on the 900 German mosques allegedly controlled by Turkey, Turkey has joined the race for political and cultural influence beyond its borders by seeking to control education and religious sites in several countries.

What’s on Turkey’s Horizon

Davutoglu leaves behind a country visibly headed for an authoritarian devolution, whose president is even willing to offer a new opportunity for political prominence to the same military that he had aggressively prosecuted for decades. Yet, from Turkey’s mosques program to his plan for reengagement of its Middle Eastern neighbors, Erdogan has always been the final decision maker in Turkey’s foreign policy since his rise to political power in 2002 and Davutoglu’s departure is not expected to change this. Moreover, the current Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications Minister, Binali Yildirim, who will officially take power next week as the new AKP leader and Turkey’s Prime Minister, has already declared that he will work in total harmony with the President.

If Davutoglu’s resignation marks the final chapter of Turkey’s hopeless ambition for EU membership, no major evolution should be expected in the country’s relations with the United States. Many experts have remarked that Turkey still needs the U.S. to serve as its military and political guarantor. What, instead, should be expected is Turkey’s reinvigorated cooperation with Qatar and its Arab neighbors.

Turkey’s new permanent presence on the Qatari territory through the new military base will be mutually expendable. Qatar, on the one hand, will be reinforced in terms of security measures the country is implementing for the 2022 World Cup and in its own autonomy – underwritten by Turkey – especially in light of its tense relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey, on the other hand, will play the role of a more valuable interlocutor both to the Gulf countries and to the United States. Their common friends – from Islamists to extremist factions and terrorist groups – are likely to benefit from this consolidated axis.

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