To stop the rise of Sunni Islamism, Trump should start with Erdogan’s Turkey

If the Trump administration is serious about confronting the threat of aggressive Sunni Islamism at home and abroad, it should consider starting with Turkey. In terms of domestic security, Turkey is a threat, waging an aggressive intelligence effort, infiltrating local Turkish and Kurdish communities, and threatening dissenters.

Likewise, regardless of Mike Flynn’s agency and legal culpability in a plot to abduct Erdogan’s opponent Fetullah Gullen and the Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, implicated in a massive bribery scheme and in assisting in Iran’s circumvention of sanctions, the role of Turkish government in instigating criminal conspiracies with a potential to affect the United States is nefarious and worthy of a probe. That a number of well known attorneys, including Rudy Giuliani and Mike Mukasey,  have been involved in an attempt to organize a prisoner swap, would not exculpate Erdogan’s government in the event the plan for kidnapping had indeed originated there.

More concrete evidence of Erdogan’s lack of respect for US national sovereignty includes brutal attacks on peaceful protesters that occurred during his two visits to the US this past year. In the instance of his May visit to the US, some of his bodyguards were identified and charged with assault; the attacks of his security on the college-age protesters in NYC later, went by largely unnoticed. In a similar vein, money trail of heavy-handed lobbying efforts in preparation for Erdogan’s visits leads from his palace to some of the major think tanks, responsible for briefing President Trump before meetings, including the Atlantic Council and the Brookings Institute. Well-funded Turkish lobbyists and “cultural centers”, with easy access to Congress and the administration are no match for the largely impecunious opposition and a few isolated human rights activists, genuinely dedicated to standing up to Erdogan’s growing hegemony and tyranny, despite his embrace by the Trump administration.

The fact that Turkey is a NATO member and an ally is a travesty, rather than an excuse. Rather than being pressured by other members on the fronts of democracy, human rights, and security in exchange for retaining the respect allotted to this membership, and the level of defence of cooperation that comes with partaking in this exclusive club, Erdogan, an increasingly authoritarian strongman, gets to eat his cake and have it too. At this point, any objective observer would be hard pressed to explain the security value of Turkey’s NATO membership to the rest of the group. Turkey has not only intervened with the U.S. efforts in Syria, but has actively aided its enemies over the past couple of years – from buying oil from ISIS and enabling it in various ways up until that sub rosa relationship literally exploded in Erdogan’s face to welcoming terrorist leaders of Hamas and escaped Muslim Brotherhood heads from Egypt. Same Muslim Brotherhood has been funding terrorism and hateful education all over the world, and is linked to a number of un indicted co-conspirator organizations in the United States, known for channeling illicit money to Hamas and other terrorist organizations.

Simultaneously, Erdogan has cracked down on criticism, arresting and firing secularist officers, members of the press, professors, school teachers, and human rights lawyers en masse, torturing anyone suspected of taking part in the attempted coup or being a Gullenist (a convenient catch all for any criticism, with no due process or investigation), invoking xenophobic and nativist rhetoric against foreigners, Kurds, and other minorities, and engaging in mass torture of prisoners and widespread human rights violations against Kurdish civilians, including children, accused with a broad brush of being affiliated with the outlawed PKK. Erdogan is putting the Kurdish co-chair of the left-leaning HDP party, Selahattin Demirtas, along with other HDP and Kurdish politicians,  on trial on trumped up charges of terrorism and other bogus offense; the outcome is predetermined and undemocratic.

Such actions delegitimize any pretence at democracy in Turkey, and yet Erdogan’s consolidation of power through manipulation of courts and fraudulent elections enjoys mass popularity thanks to widespread bribery by AKP, a campaign of terror against dissidents, and mass brainwashing through limited and one-sided education in schools, universities, and the media. Not satisfied with domestic shenanigans, Erdogan seeks to dominate, terrorize, or subvert everyone who displeases him, at times only talking the talk and at times taking action that is unjustified and illegal, such as taking American hostage in order to force the US into giving up Gullen and other refugee opposition members, in violation of US law and international law. To put it plainly, Erdogan is a terrorist, and his regime sponsors terrorism. Someone like that should never have a sit at a table of liberal democracies, much less be considered an indispensable ally.

Not only his immediate actions, but his long-term goals are at odds with the US, and any country that supports stability, peace, and  respect for human rights and individual freedoms. Erdogan’s rhetoric of restoring an Ottoman caliphate speaks for itself. His interventionism in Syria, and attempt to prevent Syrian Kurds from creating a contiguous autonomous territory are just a start. His growing closeness with Russia and Iran point clearly to Erdogan’s disregard for the role of the US in the Middle East, and for the general direction Turkey’s governance and role in the region are taking. He is looking to divvy up power and expand Turkey’s spheres of influence over Sunni regions and former Ottoman territories, by coming to agreeable arrangements by the other two rising powers – Iran, whose focus is on the Shi’a Crescent for the moment, and Russia, which seeks to compensate for Western sanctions through access to oil and lucrative regional deals. Turkey is an aggressor, the ambitions of which are bellicose and threatening to US interests in security for herself and her allies, at home and abroad.

The Trump administration should stop buying into the tempting lobbying tactics, and avoid the repetition of Obama’s foreign policy fiasco in his support for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt. If left undeterred, Turkey is hurtling towards the same kind of abominable chaos and will drag down everyone around it as well. The author is a human rights and national security lawyer based in New York

By Irina Tsukerman



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