Spare a moment today to remember Hrant Dink, the Turkish-Armenian journalist gunned down exactly five years ago by a nationalist angry that he had uncovered evidence of Armenian blood running through the veins of modern Turkey’s founder, Ataturk. On Friday, tens of thousands of angry Turks, most of the secular opponents of the current government, went into the street to protest what they see as the light sentence handed to his murderer – 23 years – as well as the state prosecutor’s inability to prove a larger, army-inspired conspiracy.
Turkey’s rise as the most important influence in the greater Middle East and a major emerging economy is a win-win, as I’ve often argued. Only someone with the narrowest of pro-Israeli agendas (or, like the current governor of Texas, very little gray matter), can reasonable label Turkey as a nation led by Islamic extremists. (If there is an extremist between Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s clearly the guy who insists that Texas has the right to secede from the US anytime it likes. The thought that came to the minds of many Democrats after that gem from Perry was, ‘Where do we sign?)
But the persistence of various conspiracy theories in Turkish society creates a source for genuine concern. On the secular side, far too many see the government of Erdogan’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party as part of a conspiracy to impose a new Islamic caliphate – first on Turkey, then on the wider Middle East.
Among Erdogan’s supporters, this exacerbates fears that nationalist army officers and the secular parties are conspiring to overthrow the government on constitutional grounds – citing, as they have in past coups, a risk to Ataturk’s legacy of secularism.
Add into this the on-and-off Kurdish separatist violence in the east, plus the long-running controversy over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915-16, a travesty, which Turkey adamantly denies amounts to genocide, and you’ve got a fertile atmosphere for outrageous claims and conspiracy theories.
The Dink murder five years ago – ostensibly the work of a small coterie of angry nationalists – hardly appears to be the work of the government. But the government has found itself accused of, at best, negligence in not pursuing an alleged conspiracy to the place many liberal Turks believe such cases always lead: the Army’s general staff.
Erdogan, meanwhile, has pursued phantoms of his own, in the process sullying an otherwise fantastic narrative of Turkey’s rise by jailing dozens of journalists and army officers, most prominently imprisoning the former Army chief, Gen. Ilker Basbug, on January 6, for allegedly leading a plot to overthrow his government.
It is easy from outside to dismiss all this as paranoia: both the secularists who fear a repeat of Iran’s 1979 Islamic takeover and Erdogan supporters who can point to a half dozen actual army coups over the past several decades have history on their side. But surely, in a country now displacing the United States in many ways as the most influential power in the Middle East and the region’s most powerful economy, each side has reason to seek an accommodation.
The US could help by being less tepid about Turkey’s rise. The US should be pressing to mend the Turkish-Israeli spat over Gaza and Israel’s botched commando raid on a civilian aid convoy that originated Turkey in 2009 – killing nine Turks on board. Paranoia of a different kind on both sides have kept that unfortunately split from healing. Similarly, the US should bless Erdogan’s new standing in the region by bringing him in as a peer partner in Middle East diplomacy, both on the Arab-Israeli front, but particularly on Iran, where the Mullahs are showing through their desperate threats to close the Straits of Hormuz they are just about on the ropes.
A U.S.-Turkish partnership would enable a more realistic approach to Iran’s nuclear program. The current U.N. sanctions and other unilateral moves aimed at pressuring Tehran have been more effective recently, but given the high oil prices buoying Iran’s economy, sanctions will not be quite enough to force hard bargaining. Turkey already tried, in partnership with Brazil in 2009, to broker an agreement with Iran on uranium enrichment. It failed largely because of a defensive US reaction. Forging a truly joint Turkish-American approach (and hell, bring the Brazilians in, too) could break the deadlock.
None of this would be simple. Turkey’s anger at Israel and its independence on foreign policy issues has earned it enemies in Washington – some of them a lot less clueless than Rick Perry. Yet down the road, drawing Turkey deeper into the politics of its former empire will be key to creating a lasting security structure – a kind of Middle Eastern NATO – to keep the peace as American power wanes and other interested players, from China to India to the oil-thirsty EU, move to secure the region’s vital resources. With Washington’s help, and the addition of Egypt and possibly the Saudis, the Turks could help create the first truly regional security collective in the Middle East.
None of this is possible, however, if Turkey remains consumed by the kind of cloak and dagger prejudices of its two major political factions. Erdogan, caught flat-footed by the risings in Libya and then Syria, showed himself quite willing to do an about face when face with changing realities. He should consider something similar at home; both in his treatment of so-called “seditious journalists,” and with the old soldiers he fears will not just fade away.