Erdogan is no friend to America. He’s a dictator with strange ideas, not unlike Nicolás Maduro.
Turkish citizens are wildly optimistic about the invasion of Syria that began Oct. 9. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision finds broad support within Turkey, including from all the major opposition parties except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. The incursion is understood domestically not only as a measure to protect the country from the Kurdish forces Mr. Erdogan calls “terrorists,” but also to affirm Turkey’s status as a power; Ankara no longer must bow to the wishes of Washington, Berlin or Moscow.
Then there’s the pessimistic view, the one I share. The invasion damages Turkey internationally: Western and Arab governments have condemned the military operation, as have the Russian, Iranian, Indian and Chinese governments. Volkswagen paused a planned investment in Turkey, and other companies may follow suit. Congress is weighing economic sanctions. Italy, France and Germany have suspended arms sales. Tensions are heightening between Turks and Kurds in Germany, and will likely rise within Turkey as well.
Though northern Syria’s open terrain is favorable to regular forces, Turkey’s huge army may not do so well on the battlefield. Mr. Erdogan has purged the officer corps several times in recent years for domestic political reasons. Even if initially routed, the Syrian Kurdish forces could regroup to mount a costly insurgency against the Turkish occupation. Turkey has many regional enemies eager to trip it up. Like many prior wars begun in a flush of jubilation—recall the British youth joyfully enlisting in 1914, confident of returning victorious within weeks—this one may end ingloriously.
Should the military operation go badly, responsibility for the failure will fall squarely on Mr. Erdogan’s shoulders. A brilliant politician and Turkey’s most consequential leader since Atatürk, Mr. Erdogan has repudiated Atatürk’s legacy of socialism, secularism and avoiding foreign military adventures. Instead, for years he oversaw a capitalist economic boom, and he still rules with an Islamist sensibility and a neo-Ottoman approach to foreign policy. In the nearly 17 years since his party first took Parliament, he has transformed Turkey.
But like other masters of domestic politics— Saddam Hussein comes to mind—Mr. Erdogan wrongly assumes that the cunning and aggression that brought him political success internally will also work internationally. This explains his unleashing thugs on the streets of Washington, abducting Turkish citizens accused of coup plotting from multiple countries, attempting to smuggle dual-use materials to Gaza, illegally drilling for natural gas in Cypriot waters, and shooting down a Russian jet fighter, among other bellicose actions.
Mr. Erdogan’s foreign-policy ineptitude has alienated other governments.
- Europeans seethe when he threatens to send 3.6 million displaced Syrians their way.
- Israelis despise him for a vitriolic anti-Zionism that compares them to Nazis.
- Egypt’s president hates Mr. Erdogan’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Erdogan’s abject apologies haven’t compensated for
- shooting down the Russian jet
- China hasn’t forgotten Mr. Erdogan’s accusing it of genocide against the Uighurs, despite his silence now.
When the candidate from Mr. Erdogan’s AKP party twice lost the Istanbul mayor’s race this year, most analysts saw this as a “political earthquake” and a “stunning blow” to Mr. Erdogan, but he remains as dominant and dangerous as ever. A ruthless ideologue, his continued rule could bring to Turkey the
- political repression,
- economic collapse,
- hunger and
- mass emigration
that plague Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.
I worry about this terrible outcome because Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power over Turkey’s institutions:
- the military, the
- intelligence services, the
- police, the
- judiciary, the
- banks, the
- media, the
- election board, the
- mosques and the
- educational system.
He has supported the private security company Sadat, which some analysts consider a “shadow” or “private” army. Academics who signed a 2016 petition critical of Mr. Erdogan’s policies toward the Kurds have lost their jobs, faced criminal charges and even been jailed. Mr. Erdogan’s hare-brained theory that high interest rates cause, rather than cure, high inflation has recently done great damage to the economy. The 1,150-room palace he had built symbolizes his grandiosity and ambition.
In short, Mr. Erdogan is a dictator with strange ideas, wild ambitions and no restraints. The invasion of Syria has made a domestic and regional tragedy the most likely outcome.
How can the outside world prevent catastrophe? By terminating its disgraceful indulgence of Mr. Erdogan. Donald Trump is only the latest politician to fall for his mysterious charms— George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, among others, preceded him. Mr. Erdogan deserves punishment, not rewards, for his outrageous behavior. His heading a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country should raise, not lower, the bar.