BOOK REVIEW: Erdogan Indicted: David L. Phillips’ An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship (Transaction Publishers, 2017)


As the publisher’s website for An Uncertain Ally proclaims, the book is an outright indictment of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, current president of the Republic of Turkey, who is referred to as a dictator. It is not a scholarly study, but rather a political history concluding with policy recommendations for the United States.

Phillips has written similar types of works before. In From Bullets to Ballots: Violent Muslim Movements in Transition (2009), he provides recommendations concerning how to moderate violent Muslim movements. With Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco (2011), he attempts to draw lessons from the mistakes made by the US in Iraq, while in Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U. S. Intervention (2012), he examines the violent collapse of Yugoslavia and the US and NATO role in the creation of an independent Kosovo. Most recently, in The Kurdish Spring: A New Map of the Middle East (2015), he examines Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, and a possible path towards Iraqi Kurdish independence.

His articles are frequently published in major American newspapers like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. He has worked in various academic institutions such as Columbia University and American University as director of conflict prevention or resolution programs, and has taught in many others, as well as held senior positions in various think tanks, including at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Atlantic Council and the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo. At present he is director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University.

Phillips not only attempts to influence policymaking through writing and academia, but also is an active actor in the field, working with the US State Department as a “senior adviser” on various projects during the administrations of Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama, and with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He has worked as president of the Congressional Human Rights Foundation, founded by Congressmen Tom Lantos and John Porter, and executive director of the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity.

The present volume only has some brief direct treatment of Armenian related issues. No doubt many Armenian readers will remember David Phillips for his mediating role in the ill-fated Turkish Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC), which was in existence from 2001 to 2004. Immediately afterwards, he wrote a volume about TARC called Unsilencing the Past: Track Two Diplomacy and Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation (2005). He wrote a second related volume called Diplomatic History: The Turkey-Armenia Protocols (2012), on recent efforts to promote normalization of state relations between the two countries noted in in its title.

In An Uncertain Ally, Phillips does briefly deal with recent Turkish-Armenian relations, starting with Turkish unwillingness to recognize the Armenian Genocide despite what Phillips accepts as an overwhelming consensus by historians on the categorization of what happened to the Armenians as such. He blames the failure of the 2009 Protocols on normalization of relations between the two countries due to Erdogan’s rivalry with Abdullah Gul, Turkish foreign minister and then president in this period. Phillips also believes that Erdogan’s linkage of restoring diplomatic relations with Armenia to a settlement of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, in Phillips words, “lent tacit support to hardliners in Azerbaijan,” which consequently attacked Armenian positions in April 2016 in a mini-war.

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Phillips begins An Uncertain Ally by presenting the background to contemporary Turkish developments. Turkey on the one hand was a US ally in the Cold War as a “secular, pro-Western democracy.” Yet this was a problematic democracy, for Phillips notes that after 1938 the ruling Republican Peoples Party (CHP), guardian of the state and secularism, was “taken over by corrupt and self-interested politicians. The so-called deep state — a web of security services, politicians, bureaucrats, and criminal gangs — emerged as a powerful shadow force.” Phillips states that “the CHP ruled with an iron fist,” and military interventions suppressed leftist ideologies, sectarianism and ethnic identities.

By 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power through a national election as a champion of political reform and the reintroduction of Islam into Turkish national life, the US was wary, but, Phillips writes, its leader Tayyip Recep Erdogan “sent all the right signals.” He broke with other religious conservatives and “embraced Western values as a vehicle to create a more liberal Turkey. He concluded that Islamic and Western values could coexist. Erdogan highlighted liberalism and progressive positions in the Qur’an, signaling support for human rights.” He pursued economic reforms, worked for Turkish entry into the European Union (EU), and entered into a dialogue with the Kurds.

The majority of the remainder of Phillip’s volume is devoted to tracing how Erdogan, initially seen as a reformer, turned into an authoritarian and corrupt proponent of Islamism. Phillips finds Erdogan to have been an opportunist pursuing power and Islamist goals from the beginning. Phillips wrote: “Erdogan presented himself as a European, but his commitment to Europe and democracy were instrumental.” Under the guise of reforming, he weakened the secularist military and the judiciary. Personally corrupt, he also pursued enrichment for himself and those around him, especially his family.

He was an uncertain ally for the West so, understanding this, he presented himself, Phillips wrote, “as a pragmatist and modernizer,” and thus “dampened fears of his radical Islamic tendencies.” Yet during the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Turkey “actively tried to undermine US interests in Iraq.” Turkey’s support of Sunni tribes and Islamic extremists, undercover military operations in Iraq, and its hostility to Iraqi Kurds allied with the US, destabilized the situation.

He examines relations with other states in the area, such as Greece, Arab countries, Armenia, and Israel. Close economic and military relations with Israel soured during the 2008-9 Gaza War but diplomatic relations were restored in June 2016. Phillips charted Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war along with many other outside states.

Turkey supported rebels against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government, including various Islamist and ISIS forces, and along with other outside Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia promoted the growing conflict between Sunnis and Syrian Alawites or Shiites. Turkey invaded Syrian territory in August 2016, primarily fighting against Kurds. The US on the other hand supported the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) of the Democratic Union Party as a reliable opponent of ISIS in Syria.

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Phillips describes the botched July 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan as conducted by factions in the Turkish army. Turkish officials accused the US of involvement in the attempt. The coup was used as an opportunity to crack down on Erdogan’s opponents on a massive scale, with arrests of tens of thousands and firing of over 100,000 from state institutions. Phillips said, “Erdogan transformed Turkey into a giant gulag.” Furthermore, according to Phillips, “the coup pushed Erdogan’s Islamism to the fore,” and Erdogan “unleashed his ‘inner Stalin’.”

Phillips calls for a major change in US relations with Turkey. He proclaims, “US administrations had coddled Turkey for generations.” Aside from a high-level “cooperation council,” Phillips suggests finding alternatives bypassing Turkey for fighting ISIS; accepting a decentralized Syria with a transitional role for Assad, greater US support for Syrian Kurds, and Kurdish self-rule in Rojava; and a declassification of the Kurdish PKK as a terrorist organization in order to encourage negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish government.

Phillips goes so far as to open up the possibility of the dismemberment of the territory of the present Republic of Turkey (à la Treaty of Sèvres), declaring: “If Turkey continues

its aggression against Kurdish regions in the Southeast, it will lose its right to govern. Then the discussion will go beyond human rights to include self-determination, raising the possibility of separating North Kurdistan from the clutches of Turkey’s dictatorship.”

As a friend to many Turks who has visited Turkey more than 40 times, Phillips ends his work on a personal note of sadness, and seems to almost feel personally betrayed by Erdogan. He says that he, like many other admirers, heralded Erdogan’s rise but now, “there is nothing in Erdogan’s character or recent conduct to suggest he will take the high road of conciliation.” Furthermore, Phillips learned through WikiLeaks that the Turkish government considered him a prominent shaper of American foreign policy who himself “betrayed” Turkey by proffering recommendations for peace with the PKK. Friends warned Phillips it would not be safe for him to step foot in Turkey again.

The extent of Phillips’ criticisms of Erdogan’s regime and the proposal of his prescriptions indicate how far the American-Turkish relationship has altered from the Cold War era of often unquestioning support for a NATO ally which at that time too employed great violence and oppression against its own citizens.

Phillips 206-page book includes an index, a list of acronyms, and a glossary of names, and while generally clearly written, could have used some editing to avoid typos and other minor errors.

(Next week the Mirror will print an interview with Phillips.)

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