Developments in the Middle East frequently confound even the most astute observers. Turkey, with its booming economy, NATO membership, and business-friendly government is often cited as critical ally and model Muslim-majority state embracing many Western social and economic values. The U.S. ambassador in Ankara, Francis Ricciardone, has nevertheless privately warned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Washington will be unable to support his violent repression of demonstrators protesting massive government development projects.
The Turkish people have begun to refer to the Syrian conflict as Ankara’s Vietnam, while secular Turks unite to push back against Islamization, and the country’s security services warn about a new wave of al-Qaeda style terrorism. The U.S. Embassy and CIA have been caught flatfooted by the developments. The State Department has had virtually no contact with opposition political parties because of fear of offending Erdogan, a pattern similar to the one that prevailed with Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. CIA officers are routinely subject to blanket surveillance by the Turkish intelligence service MIT and have consequently considered it prudent to avoid developmental contact with any politicians, working instead against targets that Ankara would consider agreeable, like terrorism. Beyond its limited understanding of the political opposition, the Embassy has generally handled Erdogan with kid gloves, only gently rebuking the government’s execrable treatment of journalists and the media while reserving most of its political influence to advance Turkish rapprochement with Israel. CIA and State analysts have been scrambling to come up with cogent finished intelligence explaining the deteriorating situation, but have found that they have little independent reporting to identify the players in the emerging opposition.
Some Turkey analysts believe that this crisis will not go away, leaving Erdogan with two options. He can resign “for the good of the country” and turn over the prime ministership to some Justice and Development Party nonentity as a placeholder for him. He will meanwhile work behind the scenes to increase the power of the presidency through tweaking the constitution and will run for that office next year. Or he can call for his supporters to confront the demonstrators, as in Mubarak’s Egypt. If security breaks down, the role of the army could prove critical, and Erdogan is not greatly loved by many in the officer corps.
Many Turks, even those who are religious, fear a drift into the type of intolerance that characterizes Islamic regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Erdogan, saying the demonstrators are “arm-in-arm with terrorism,” insists he will do what he wants, emboldened by his successful clamp down on the once vibrant press. The Taksim riots were largely unreported in the Turkish media, and Erdogan blamed the part that he does not control, online social networks, for the unrest.
Erdogan’s authoritarianism and his Islamist beliefs appear to go hand in hand. The national air carrier Turkish Airlines recently stopped serving alcohol on most domestic and some international flights and air stewardesses have been told to refrain from wearing makeup and bright colors. The drinking of alcohol in public and after certain hours was banned to “protect new generations from such un-Islamic habits,” and in an attempt to rewrite Turkey’s rich culinary history, Erdogan even declared the nonalcoholic yoghurt drink ayran to be the national beverage, leading critics to note that the modern republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, was rarely seen in photos without a glass of alcoholic raki in hand.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.