The Turkey tutorial to fear

5 January 2017
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Turkey is sinking ever deeper into trouble at home and abroad.

The dangers it faces concern not only its own people, its social cohesion and territorial integrity, but also provide lessons for the rest of the world.

The first concerns the ease with which an elected government can slide into authoritarianism when it undermines institutions; the second is how quickly citizens can be divided under the influence of nationalism, populism and political cynicism; the third concerns the perils of subjugating foreign policy to domestic needs.

Authoritarianism was always part of Turkish political life. In Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s effort to become omnipotent through a change of constitution, however, his excesses (which, we must stress, were tempered in his clashes with a “deep state” that repeatedly tried to destroy him), have driven the country into the current crisis.

After surviving the attempted coup last July – which he described as a “godsend” – when almost all Turkish citizens sided with him, the president has continually invested in division and fear in order to keep his supporters close to him.

This tactic preceded July, when Erdogan pushed Kurdish separatists to pick up arms after years of peace negotiations so that his AKP party could gain in elections.

The greater the tension, the more the government needs new enemies, the more it divides society.

Abroad, the continual drive to find enemies for domestic consumption leads to haphazard foreign policy.

First, Ankara abandoned a long friendship with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, contributing to the rise of the self-declared Islamic State and bringing Turkey into direct confrontation with Russia.

When this became too dangerous, Turkey changed course and now has troops in Syria and northern Iraq, is tied to Russia’s chariot and its relations with the United States are chilly, to say the least.

Scores of Turkish soldiers have been killed in clashes with IS, and the terrorists even produced a horrendous video showing them burning alive two men who they said were Turkish soldiers.

The danger of a Mesopotamian quagmire is great, even as IS followers and Kurdish separatists increase their attacks inside Turkey.

The country thus sinks into further violence, division and economic difficulties.

Mustafa Kemal exploited his status as a military genius and national savior to impose a single Turkish identity and a secular system on a country inhabited by many ethnic and religious groups.

Despite much cruelty and injustice, the system served the Turks for nearly a century.

Today, Erdogan invests in division, in fear, in populism. Cynicism benefits the government for as long as citizens tolerate it.

But it leads only to further violence and a dead end.

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