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“Turkey has its supporters in this country, on Capitol Hill, but it is largely due to the past track record not the current activity…There is the Turkey we have long relied upon up until the rise of the AKP (the Islamist party that has ruled Turkey since 2003) and now there is a different kind of Turkey. Unfortunately, one we think is going down the wrong path and needs to be engaged and reformed.”  Jonathan Schanzer 


Turkey is a Republic with a Grand National Assembly. The president serves a five year term, and can appoint vice presidents, cabinet ministers, state bureaucrats, and senior judges. He can propose budgets and issue decrees. There are 600 members of the assembly. In 2002, an Islamist-based Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won an election victory, and the party has continued to win elections – with one short exception – including the last one in 2018. Recep Erdogan, the leader of the AKP, served as Prime Minister from 2002-2014. In 2014, after changes were made to the constitution, Erdogan became President. In 2018, the Erdogan won the presidency and his party won the majority of the assembly in an alliance with a nationalist party.

Ethnic & Religious Divisions

Turkey has 81 million people. The ethnic group breakdown is roughly Turkish 70-75%, Kurdish 20%, other minorities 5-10%. Religious divisions are 99.8% Muslim, with between 25-30% Alevi Muslims, 3% Shia Muslim, and the rest Sunni Muslims. There are continuing tensions between the Turks and the Kurds.

Syrian Refugees

There are 3,500,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. They are tolerated but not liked by the Turks.

The Kurdish Insurgency

The Kurdish population has long been discriminated and oppressed by the Turkish government. The Kurds do not have any national rights, autonomy, or even primary schools where they can be educated in the Kurdish language. Turkey’s founders claimed that when the Turkish republic was established, there were no Kurds – just “mountain Turks.” This denial was accompanied by massacres, killings, enforced disappearances, unlawful arrests and torture. The Kurds in Turkey have a much greater demographic growth rate than the Turks, which has prompted paranoia in Erdogan and others in the Turkish government. Since 1984, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – originally a Marxist guerrilla movement, but now a more moderate, leftist and non-religious movement – has fought a war against Turkey which resulted in more than 40,000 deaths.  In the 90s, the PKK dropped its demand for independence and called for more autonomy. The PKK has been listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department since 1997. In 1999, the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was jailed. Erdogan signed a ceasefire with the PKK in 2013, but in 2015 he abrogated it. Turkey continues to target and terrorize the Kurds. Post-Coup, Turkey arrested the leaders of the country’s pro-Kurdish party in a terrorism probe.

Economic Problems 

Erdogan has run a debt bubble in Turkey. Turkey has increased its foreign debt and is running a current account deficit of about 8% GDP per year, which requires the import of net $80 billion worth of goods per year. The Turkish short fall is made up by funding from the oil rich Sunni Arab Gulf States. Post-Coup, Turkey’s security clampdown has had economic repercussions, with agencies downgrading the country’s debt to “junk” and the lira weakening. Since the U.S. placed sanctions and doubled tariffs on Turkey in 2018, the Turkish currency and stock market have plunged. It is now in a recession and unemployment has surged.

Turkey’s Troubling Trends on Human Rights

In January 2018, the annual Freedom in the World report, produced by Freedom House, classified Turkey as “not free” for the first time. Turkey’s human rights record has been increasingly poor. Women’s rights have declined under Erdogan, who has been quoted as saying that: “You cannot bring women and men into equal positions; that is against nature because their nature is different…” Around a third of all marriages in Turkey are between an elder man and a child; there may be more than 180,000 child brides. Erdogan has called homosexuality “contrary” to Islam. Since 2015, Turkey has banned the Istanbul pride march, sometimes using violence.

Turkey never had a strong record of protecting speech, and things have gotten worse under Erdogan. In 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists again called Turkey “the world’s worst jailer” of journalists. The government uses vague, broadly worded laws, such as bringing charges under Article 299 of the Turkish penal code, which says that anyone who insults the president can face 4 or more years in prison; replaces the management of opposition media outlets and fires their staff; and routinely imposes bans on the reporting of sensitive stories. Turkish citizens can face imprisonment, fines, job losses, and/or other punishments for their speech. Turkey made news after one Turk lost his government job and another Turk lost custody of his children for Facebook posts comparing President Erdogan to the character of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Even children have been prosecuted and/or imprisoned for their criticism of Erdogan. In 2016, a former Turkish beauty queen was convicted of insulting Erdogan by sharing a poem on social media. Erdogan’s problem with free speech is not only limited to Turkey. In 2016, Erdogan sought and won — from Germany — the prosecution of comedian, who recited a crude poem about Erdogan on German television. And Turkey has sought to extradite and jail Knicks star Enes Kanter, a green card holder, for insulting Erdogan’s regime. Erdogan allies control more than 90 percent of Turkey’s media. Freedom House reports, “The government has repeatedly suspended access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and WhatsApp on national security grounds, while Wikipedia has been permanently blocked.” 

2016 Coup

On July 15-17, 2016, elements of the Turkish military attempted a coup against Erdogan. This coup failed, with about 250 Turks killed and another 2000 plus wounded. Since then, “nearly 160,000 people arrested during an 18-month state of emergency; 152,000 civil servants dismissed, many totally arbitrarily; teachers, judges and lawyers dismissed or prosecuted; journalists arrested, media outlets shut down and websites blocked – clearly the successive states of emergency declared in Turkey have been used to severely and arbitrarily curtail the human rights of a very large number of people.” Some people have been tortured, including children. Almost 4000 members of the judiciary have been sacked. More than 11,000 Kurdish teachers were suspended for suspected links with the PKK. More than 2,250 social, educational or health-care institutions and facilities have been seized. 4,262 business companies have been shut. Erdogan restructured the intelligence service to purge opponents. In October, another 13,000 police were suspended. Post-his June 2018 re-election, Erdogan dismissed more than 18,000 state employees for alleged ties to terror groups, including nearly 9,000 police officers, over 6,000 military personnel, and about 1,000 employees from the justice ministry. The Turkish military has been largely “broken” by the attempted coup. Prior to it, the military had a budget of $20 billion a year and 500,000 soldiers. Turkish officials have claimed that 8,600 soldiers participated in the coup attempt. Nearly half of Turkey’s top generals and admirals have been jailed or dismissed and thousands of soldiers charged; a number of the U.S. military’s closest allies have been jailed. Another 1,500 officers were dishonorably discharged. One in four Turkish pilots is in prison; many Turkish F-16s are grounded for lack of trained pilots. Erdogan has demanded that the U.S. extradite Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish Islamist whose Gulen Movement was originally allied with him. Erdogan claims that Gulen was behind the coup, although he did not provide evidence to the U.S. Erdogan claimed that “his people” believe the U.S. was behind the failed coup, and has accused the U.S. of standing by the plotters for its refusal to extradite Gulen. Turkish officials have filed a criminal complaint against 3 U.S. military officials for conspiring with the plotters. 

Incirlik Air Base

The U.S. has an air base at Incirlik in Southern Turkey, where NATO has nuclear weapons. After initial hesitancy, in 2015 Turkey allowed the U.S. to use it against ISIS, although it has threatened to kick the U.S. out for backing the Syrian Kurds. Post-2016 coup, to pressure the U.S., power was cut off for 6 days. Later, Turkish troops surrounded it. Turkey has given Russia the go-ahead to use Incirlik for operations in Syria.

Turkey’s Support for Armed Radical Islamists

U.S. national security adviser HR McMaster condemned Turkey for taking on a “new role” as a main sponsor of funding for Islamist ideology that targets western interests. Turkey assisted Iran in one of the biggest sanctions-evasion schemes, when a Turkish bank funneled up to $100 billion into Iran’s coffers in 2013 and 2014, and used a ‘gas-for-gold’ sanctions-busting scheme to enrich elites. In 2019, Turkey reversed course and has respected sanctions on Iran. Turkish banks have been fined. Turkey’s porous borders allowed IS to reinforce supplies and manpower. ISIS fighters went to Turkish hospitals. “Turkey has also played a key role in facilitating the life-blood of ISIS’ expansion: black market oil sales… Turkey has facilitated over $1 billion worth.” Turkey is a leading financier of Hamas, providing $250 million a year. In 2010, Erdogan provoked the Mavi Marmara incident. Hamas terrorists operate freely from Turkey where they raise and launder money for Hamas. Turkey has supported al-Qaeda in Syria, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab. Turkey may have known that IS leader Baghdadi was living in Syria, may have visited Turkey, and was planning to relocate to Turkey.

Turkey as a Western Ally                                               

Turkey is a problematic ally of the West. Anti-American sentiment runs high, with a 2014 Pew Center poll showing only 19% of Turks have a favorable view of the U.S., and 73% of Turks dislike NATO. Both the government and the population often see the U.S. behind every crisis. Turkey is holding three Americans on dubious chargesone it later freed – and has arrested or threatened Turks working in the U.S. Embassy. An Erdogan ally has put a bounty on American critics. Turkey has threatened Europe with migrants. Turkey occupies part of Cyprus and has threatened fellow NATO member Greece. Turkey is developing long-range ballistic missiles, and Erdogan has called for Turkey to get nuclear weapons. Turkey has threatened to attack U.S. forces in Syria for their willingness to work with the Kurds in the SDF. Turkey has conducted joint military exercises with Syria and China. During Erdogan visits to the U.S., Turkish guards have attacked Americans who were peacefully protesting him. In one case, in DC, eight people were injured, and in reaction, several U.S. Congressmen denounced the attack. Reports suggested that Erdogan may have personally ordered the attacks and then watched the violence. The State Department officially summoned Turkey’s ambassador in Washington to protest, and in turn Turkey’s government summoned the U.S. ambassador to the Foreign Ministry to protest the “aggressive” action taken against the guards. Eventually, the Turkish guards were charged with their assaults. Turkey has divulged the locations of 10 U.S. military bases and outposts in Syria where the U.S. is leading an operation to destroy the Islamic State in Raqqa. It has also purchased and took possession of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, without asking for the assent of the rest of NATO, which is required. Erdogan has also proposed that Turkey and Russia jointly produce the S-500 system. Turkey was barred from purchasing F-35s from the U.S. because the data collected by the S-400 system from the jet could help expose the fighter’s vulnerabilities to Russia. Turkey also has signed a deal with Russia to build nuclear plants. Turkey and Iran conducted a joint military operation against Kurdish groups. Turkey may have violated U.S. sanctions on Venezuela. It has violated the UN arms embargo of weapons to Libyan Islamist groups.

Turkey’s Imperial Designs, & the Invasions of Syria & Iraq

President Erdogan expressed his disapproval of the loss of Ottoman territories post-WWI. 

Over a thousand Turkish troops and possibly 100,000 allied Syrian fighters occupy an area inside Syria. Most of the allied Syrian fighters have radical backgrounds with ISIS or other groups. The Turkish conquest of this area was done largely to prevent Syrian Kurds, who have created a multi-ethnic force called the Syrian Defense Forces, from securing an autonomous area in Syria. Turkey is enforcing economic and cultural integration with Turkey. Around 600,000 people live in the enclave, most of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria, and at the expense of local Syrian Kurds. In 2018, Turkey conquered Afrin, killing at least 10,000 Kurds, and driving out 300,000 more, and replacing them with Sunni Arabs and Turkmen from Syria. In 2019, Turkey attacked along the entire border with SDF controlled territory to establish a “safe zone” free of Kurdish fighters about twenty miles wide. This attack has killed and wounded hundreds, and prompted from 180,00 to 300,000 civilians to flee their homes or shelters, including 80,000 children. Turkey claims that 440 Kurdish fighters have been killed since the operation, while the SDF has said 56 of its fighters have died. Turkey also said four of its soldiers were killed, along with 16 allied Syrian fighters. Turkey hopes to repopulate this area with Syrian Sunni Arabs who are refugees in Turkey, and to take control of Syrian oil. Eventually, Turkey negotiated a cease fire with Russia, splitting control of the safe zone area with the Russians and the Assad regime, with the SDF pushed back from all Turkish border areas. Turkey has demanded that the U.S. turn over the SDF commander, Mazloum Abdi. Also, 2–3 million people live in Idlib, a rebel-held province, where Turkey “has gained a major say.” Turkey maintains a military presence in Idlib, and has paid the wages, provided support, and provided weapons to the Syrian fighters in Idlib. In Idlib, the Turks helped form the National Front for Liberation, which brings together groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They claim a total strength close to 100,000.

Turkey has 2000 troops in northern Iraq, along with several thousand mostly Sunni Arabs from Mosul. Iraq has objected to their presence. The Turks have also threatened Kurds from the PKK that are stationed in Iraq, and they have attacked them. The Turks seek to block Christians or Shia Muslims from living in the area. Turkey opposed their referendum on Kurdish independence, and threatened war.

Turkey 2018 Elections

On June 24th, Turkish citizens voted for both President and Parliament, while abolishing the position of Prime Minister, giving Erdogan sweeping executive powers. He will continue to rule Turkey until 2023. As predicted, Erdogan won the elections to be President, again with 52.5% of the votes. Erdogan’s AKP won 42% in parliament and holds a majority after aligning with the ultra-nationalist MHP party. The observer mission of the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe described the elections as unfair. The AKP and its allies controlled the media and prevented the opposition from gaining much attention and relocated ballot boxes. There were also occasional complaints of fraud and/or violence.


The U.S. has doubled metals tariffs and put sanctions on two members of the Turkish cabinet. In retaliation, Turkey responded by imposing duties on U.S. goods including coal and paper, and made a criminal complaint against U.S. officers at Incirlik for “having connections to the Gulenist’s. 

About the Author

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