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Transcript: Erdogan’s Turkey

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Erdogan's Turkey: A Downward Spiral? 


  • Eric Edelman, Senior Advisor, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • Aykan Erdemir, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
  • John Hannah, Senior Fellow, Foundation for Defense of Democracies

HANNAH:  Welcome everybody.  Thanks for -- for being here and we're pleased to kick this off.  I'm not sure it's the happiest or most optimistic subject but this is going to be a panel.  It's entitled, Turkey, a downward spiral? 

State in the form of a question.  But let me break the suspense and say, and answer it definitely, yes, Turkey is in a downward spiral and the only real question is how deep -- how severe the implication will be for the United States and then what if anything American can do to help mitigate some of the damage and to -- to preserve U.S. interest. 

Happy to have us FDD's -- one of our most recent additions, Senior Fellow Aykan Erdemir, who has come to us from Turkey, recently left as a parliamentarian, member of the opposition CHP party in Turkey, so the one term. 

Has now left Turkish politics and to FDD's great benefit is decided to come to Washington and work for FDD in our Turkey program, which while only a year old, I think is already making a significant impact on Washington's ability.

And assess and understand what are the trends in Turkey and what it is that the United States might -- might do to help shape some beneficial -- beneficial outcomes.  We're also going to be join by my former colleague Eric Edelman, who is current a professor at SAIS.

But long time career, U.S. diplomat who was most importantly for these purposes, our ambassador to Turkey in 2003 to 2005.  And then retired from the U.S. government from the pentagon as our undersecretary of defense for policy, the top policy position in the Pentagon, the top policy advisor to the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. 

Eric is going to be a little bit late but he's going to join us in -- hopefully in just a few minutes.  Aykan, let me kick off this discussion.  I sort of gave the ending to this story, which is that we do need to be concern about Turkey.

But I wonder if you can just fill in some of the blank spaces and provide a fuller assessment of what are the different trends and trajectories we see, domestically particularly in side of Turkey now.

ERDEMIR:  Those in the audience who either witnessed or read about President Erdo?an D.C. visit just two weeks ago probably know at firsthand what the problems are.  You know, journalists were insulted, harassed, kicked out of the Turkey's event, protesters were attacked physically and verbally.

And I think that was very symbolic of the kind of problems Turkey is living through.  Turkey's in a downward spiral.  Sure, Turkey's democracy was never perfect.  So, it's not all current, President Erdo?an doing, but under his 14-year rule, what we see is a systematic, majoritarian, authoritarian rule strategy being put to action. 

That is Erdogan, who is committed to Muslim Brotherhood goals is taking Turkey, I think down the wrong path.  Turkey is a very important NATO member since 1952.  A very important partner of the Transatlantic Alliance, is I think gradually knitting their way, not only from the Transatlantic Alliance.

But also western values, secular liberal democracy, it's -- for example, just two years ago, President Erdo?an at a public event told Putin to allow Turkey into Shandi Corporation organization, so that he could say, farewell to the European Union. 

Now, he seems to have -- you know, President Erdo?an seems to have changed his opinion on that, after the downing of the Russian jet, but this shows the kind of drifting away Turkey is in.  The double-play. 

The very tactical, pragmatic U-turns, but ultimately the facts speak for themselves, Turkey has now a witch hunt for 2,000 academics who -- whose only sin was to sign a petition for peace.  Turkey leads in the number of the journalists jailed.  The government has been cracking down on independent media. 

Appointing government trustees and turning critical media outlets into government mouthpieces.  And Turkey is now gradually moving to a more centralized, executive presidential system that is a de facto executive presidential system that President Erdo?an would like to, either through snap elections.

Or through forcing through a constitutional amendment would like to bring in a system whereby he would have full control over judicially, legislative and executive branches.  The media, we know is already under government control. 

So when you add all these up, this neither looks good for Turkey's democracy, nor for the Transatlantic Alliance, because we are -- we seem to be losing a very important member of the -- of the NATO and also a member of the Council of Europe, an annexation -- it comes through annexation process of the European Union. 

HANNAH:  Yes, I wonder if you can just quickly say a few words about the other big problem that Turkey faces internally, which is that problem with -- with its own Kurdish minority that is really flared up recently and poses I think a great danger, at least in the long-term to the integrity of the state, itself.

ERDEMIR:  Yes, let me start by praising President Erdo?an and that doesn't come too often so this is a historical moment.  He did initiate the Kurdish peace process.  The way he did it was not sustainable but nevertheless it was a brave and important step. 

Second, under his strength Turkey developed very positive cordial ties with the Kurdistan regional government, so those two steps were actually steps in the right direction.  But now there seems to be a U-turn, vis a vie Turkey's own Kurds. 

The Kurdish peace process, in part owning to Turkish government's mistakes and in part owning to the PKK mistakes seemed to be over.  There is all out fighting.  Surely there's a few who will visit Istanbul will see a vibrant Turkey on the rise but if you go to a Kurdish majority cities in Turkey's southeast, you'll see almost civil war proportions. 

You'll see whole town quarters erased to ground.  You'll see almost quarter million internally displaced peoples.  And you'll see more importantly, Turkey losing a generation of its Kurds.  The Kurdish youth be completely disengaged from Turkish politics and they probably no longer see any future within the Turkish republic.

HANNAH:  It's -- it's no wonder that you mentioned the -- the Brookings event, which I think really encapsulates this terrible problem we face, the thought that this guy could have thought he would have brought these goons to do in Washington D.C..

The heart of the greatest democracy in the world, the same thing is what he's doing on the streets of Ankara and Istanbul is really quite a -- quite a chilling prospect for a country that has been this important and this pivotal to American national security interest for -- for more than 50 years.  Welcome, Eric. 

Great, you could make it to be here.  We really appreciate it -- have -- having you. 

EDELMAN:  It probably works better in there, if works -- if it's not -- it doesn't -- it will still work?

(UNKNOWN):  Yes, as long as you -- well, are you sitting or standing?

EDELMAN:  I don't know --

HANNAH:  Turn it down please.  I don't know if you've got anything to add in terms of what you said about -- not to Michael comment.  I mean Michael's always very -- very smart so it's -- but on Turkey, do you -- if you've got anything to add, you know, from where you sit here in Washington.

You wrote a very penetrating Op Ed recently together with former Ambassador  Abromowitz, your colleague talking about the situation in -- inside of Turkey and suggesting that if -- if Erdo?an can't find a way to change from his current course to the best thing for the -- for the United States and for Turkey would be if he -- he resigns. 

So I wonder if you can add just any comments to that, and then quickly, tell us in the time we have remaining, what -- what it is that America might do to at least mitigate the -- the tremendous damage that could be caused by a rupture in this relationship.

EDELMAN:  Well, thank you John.  And it's -- I apologize for being late but I also want to just start by saying how terrific it is that FDD is being devoting as much time and attention to Turkey as -- as it has  because I think this is a hugely important problem, as you said.  This is a pivotal country.  Has been for the United States since the end of the second world war. 

And notwithstanding all the difficulties and from what I heard of Aykan's comments, they perfectly describe my own views of this.  When Morton and I wrote our Op Ed, you know, I don't think we had any illusions that President Erdo?an was going to heed our injunction that he should either reform his ways or resign. 

But what we really were, I think trying to draw attention to was the fact that a party, a government and a leader, who when they arrived on the scene 14- years ago, were greeted, not just in Turkey.

But here in Washington as potentially reformers who could undo some of the -- who could accomplish some of the unfinished business of Turkey's modernization have turned away from that reform agenda and have gone in the direction -- the unfortunate direction that Aykan described so well.  And -- and that people here needed to recognize this. 

Little did we know that the President would do so much to help us in our effort to draw attention to the authoritarianism that now afflicts Turkey and the relationship.  So I do think, you know, thanks in no small part to the work of FDD that people, you know.

Now in Washington see the problem a little more accurately, even President Obama who had a virtual bromance (sic) with Tayyip Erdo?an for the first five years of his presidency, has said in the Jeff Goldberg interview that he regards him as a disappointment and --

HANNAH:  As a failure.

EDELMAN:  -- and a failure and an authoritarian.  So, that at least -- at least we can now all agree on the problem and the diagnosis.

HANNAH:  Yeah.

EDELMAN:  Now we have to figure out what the prescription is.  And -- and part of the difficulty is that notwithstanding all things about Turkey, there it is still, you know, looming very large in the affairs of the region and in our own -- tied up very much with our own interests in the region. 

So I think what is, you know called -- what we're called upon to do is something that's very difficult for us to do, for any country to do in its diplomacy but particularly for us as a democracy, as a vibrant democracy with, you know a lot of moving parts and a lot of people with opinions and stakeholders in the system. 

And -- and that is to -- in the first instance, have a very serious strategic dialog, which we have not had for the last five or six years since the civil war in Syria broke out.  A dialog that really conveys to Turkey that we really are listening and understand their concerns about their own security and what's happening on their doorstep. 

And that we're prepared to undertake things like a safe zone, a no fly zone in northeastern Syria along the Turkish border that will help staunch the flow of refugees and therefore help Turkey deal with the refuges crisis, although people to return from Turkey, who want to go back to Syria. 

Give them a safe place to be before they can perhaps to get back to their homes eventually, and also give us a place, a space from which we can actually train an alternative force to the forces that are tearing the country apart now which are the Assad regime forces.

And -- and the Islamic forces of Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL, which have in sense been helped by the Russian intervention, which seeks to preserve that binary choice and force us into choosing Assad.  I think that would at least open the way to have a more serious discussion with Turkey about what it's priorities are. 

Right now, Turkey's priorities are, you know public enemy number one is the PKK, but more broadly really than the PKK, the Kurds, because Aykan suggested, what's going on in southeastern Turkey now is a war.

And the -- and the lack of training, lack of equipment of the Turkish armed forces has led them to essentially perform counter insurgency by artillery strike, which as you and I know from our experience with this, it's not a very effective way to do counter insurgency in at least the results that I can describe. 

Second, I think while we do that and while we try and, you know reorient them towards fighting ISIL, fighting Assad and trying to go back to what Erdo?an was initially trying to do, which was to make peace with the Kurdish population, not to alienate them and radicalize them as he's doing with his current policy. 

We also have to make clear that both publicly and privately that the kinds of things we saw at Brookings, the kinds of things we're seeing with the media in Turkey, the rule of law in Turkey are not acceptable and that Turkey can't be the kind of partner working with us that we want it to be if that's the course they're going to be on.

HANNAH:  Yeah, no, I think that, that's right, that, that issue of what role America can play behind the scenes and doing something of what we did with the Kurds of Iraq and Turkey to try and move that relationship in a far more positive direction that advantages U.S. interest is the type of thing we probably do need to be somehow thinking about in our -- with respect to Turkey's own Kurds. 

OK, unfortunately, I'm getting the sign that, that's the -- that's the hook.  This is just the briefest of introductions to the kinds of things FDD is thinking about and researching with respect to Turkey.  It's like we see, a pivotal country and we'll continue to -- to do our work and continue to want to engage with all of you. 

Before we thank these terrific panelists, I am going to now say, it is my honor to invite Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Talabani and Interior Minister Sinjari to share with us their thoughts on the war against ISIS and other regional challenges.  Michael Gordon will be moderating this session from the New York Times. 

Everybody, please thank Eric Edelman and Aykan Erdemir.