Is Erdogan Running out of Moves?


By Edmond Y. Azadian

Technology has been changing the world at a rapid pace. Once, the way to conquer a country was to invade and overrun it. Today, physical borders no longer can defend a country, as there are more potent weapons to do the job: economy and technology. The US in particular has weaponized its tremendous economic power and has been using it these days effectively against Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The first two are adversaries, while Turkey is a NATO ally, which is being subjected to US economic sanctions.

The other weapon being deployed is technology, which can wreak havoc in the hands of industrialized nations. Governments can also weaponize social media through which they can penetrate the borders of other countries, shape public opinion, feed misinformation to foment upheavals in societies and bring down targeted regimes.

Of course, technologically poor countries are immune to these kinds of invasions.

Turkey, whose economy scored remarkable gains in recent years, has devised its own particular defense against weaponized electronic warfare: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has polarized Turkish society, playing partisan groups against each other. He has either exiled or jailed the cream of the crop among the elite, educated segment, whose lives revolve around cyber technology. Since Erdogan has savagely deposed the educated elements of Turkish society, he can depend on the fanatically indoctrinated (i.e. less educated and poorer segment of Turkish society) which is delivering one electoral victory after another for him.

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The brain drain does not concern him, nor does the collapse of the middle class which forms the backbone of a healthy society. All Erdogan needs is the group galvanized by Ottomanist dreams and armed with religious fervor.

The truth of Erdogan’s strategy was revealed when he challenged President Trump’s punitive measures in the wake of the latter’s hostile actions in response to Turkey’s jailing an American pastor. Erdogan announced to a cheering crowd: “If they have dollars, we have Allah with us.”

To further encourage his followers, Erdogan has ordered them to crush their iPhones publicly, as if to defy the US and its exported technology.

The standoff between the US and Turkey hit a boiling point when a Turkish court in Izmir failed to release American pastor Andrew Brunson.

President Trump said Turkey “has not acted as a friend,” adding, “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian pastor, who I must ask to represent our country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey.”

President Trump raised the tariffs by 50 percent on the import of Turkish steel and aluminum, causing the Turkish lira to take a nasty stumble. The Turkish currency has lost its value by 40 percent since the beginning of this year. The United States was the fourth largest source of imports to Turkey the previous year, accounting for $12 billion in imports according to the International Monetary Fund.

Turkey in turn doubled its tariffs on US imports such as cars, alcohol and tobacco.

We may wonder why this crisis has erupted at this juncture and not two years ago, when Brunson was first jailed. It appears the pastor’s case was the straw that broke the camel’s back, since grievances had been accumulating over several years, with Turkey increasingly leaning toward Russia, buying S-400 missile defense systems from Moscow, challenging Israel in the Middle East and fighting the Kurds who had stood up with the US forces in the Syria battlefields supporting Washington’s strategic goals in that conflict.

The other reason is that the Trump administration has its eyes on the November elections, where many Republican Congressional seats are at risk and the Bible Belt in the US has to be mobilized. What better way than to make the case for the release of a North Carolina pastor held in faraway Izmir for his preaching? Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been instrumental in rallying the Evangelical vote.

Since the Trump administration interjected the religious element in the ongoing conflict with Turkey, Erdogan retaliated in kind by forcing minority religious leaders in Turkey to sign a declaration, stating that religious minorities enjoy total freedom in Turkey.  Armenian Parliament Member Garo Paylan responded by asking why Armenians can’t elect their own patriarch if they are free in Turkey, or why churches and other charitable institutions are not allowed to elect their boards. Of course, other restrictions on minorities may also be cited: The Armenian Surp Khatch Seminary and the Greek Orthodox Seminary are closed, thereby denying religious education to aspiring members of the clergy.

President Erdogan further threatened the US by stating: “If the American officials fail to correct their one-sided policy, Turkey will begin to look for other allies.” In truth, Turkey has already found other allies and has been collaborating for some time now.

Turkey has begun to court some countries in Europe. Mr. Erdogan has toned down his rhetoric against Germany, expecting some help in return. Until now, Germany, France and Russia have sympathized with some lip service. Only the Emirate of Qatar has come up with cold, hard cash. Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of  Qatar has pledged $15 billion in investments and loans to stabilize Turkish banks. One would think too little and too late, since the Turkish economy is large enough to rank that country in the G-7 economic club members. One of the Erdogan achievements was to develop the country’s poor economy, which in turn built the middle class, which is in jeopardy at this moment.

The US-Turkish row has raised hopes among the Armenians that they may see the Trump administration recognize the Armenian Genocide. That hope is further fanned by calls from US legislators to recognize the Genocide. If recent history can teach us anything, it is that the US and Israel will threaten Turkey with Genocide recognition, but will never take that ultimate step of carrying out the threat.

In addition, some Armenians believe that Turkish-Armenian antagonism may somehow help Armenia. But as we watch the other side of the political equation, we find that that antagonism will be offset by a Russo-Turkish rapprochement. Turkey is a prized political friend for Russia, making it more valuable than Armenia, especially when Armenian-Russian relations have been experiencing some strains.

In theory, Russia is Armenia’s defender against a potential Turkish attack. However, Russia can afford to hedge its bets.

It is of interest for Armenians to watch how the Turkish-American relations shape up. Can they reach a breaking point when Turkey is asked to leave the NATO structure?

Brinksmanship has always well served Mr. Erdogan. We have to remember the standoff with Russia after Turkey shot down the Russian fighter jet over the Syrian border. After some grandstanding, when Russia used economic sanctions by cutting off trade and tourism with Turkey, Erdogan blinked. He not only blinked but he bowed and apologized. And he hailed that indignity as diplomatic flexibility.

Erdogan always has a similar trick up his sleeve.