May Go the Way of Venezuela
Turkish citizens are wildly
optimistic about the invasion of Syria that began Oct. 9. President Recep Tayyip
Erdogan’s decision finds
broad support within Turkey, including from all the major opposition parties
except the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party. The incursion is understood
domestically not only as a measure to protect the country from the Kurdish
forces Mr. Erdogan calls “terrorists,” but also to affirm Turkey’s status
as a power; Ankara no longer must bow to the wishes of Washington, Berlin or
Then there’s the pessimistic view,
the one I share. The invasion damages Turkey internationally: Western and Arab
governments have condemned the military operation, as have the Russian, Iranian,
Indian and Chinese governments. Volkswagen
paused a planned investment in Turkey, and other companies may follow suit.
Congress is weighing economic sanctions. Italy, France and Germany have suspended
arms sales. Tensions are heightening between Turks and Kurds in Germany, and
will likely rise within Turkey as well.
Though northern Syria’s open
terrain is favorable to regular forces, Turkey’s huge army may not do so well
on the battlefield. Mr. Erdogan has purged the officer corps several times in
recent years for domestic political reasons. Even if initially routed, the
Syrian Kurdish forces could regroup to mount a costly insurgency against the
Turkish occupation. Turkey has many regional enemies eager to trip it up. Like
many prior wars begun in a flush of jubilation—recall the British youth
joyfully enlisting in 1914, confident of returning victorious within
weeks—this one may end ingloriously.
Should the military operation go
badly, responsibility for the failure will fall squarely on Mr. Erdogan’s
shoulders. A brilliant politician and Turkey’s most consequential leader since
Atatürk, Mr. Erdogan has repudiated Atatürk’s legacy of socialism,
secularism and avoiding foreign military adventures. Instead, for years he
oversaw a capitalist economic boom, and he still rules with an Islamist
sensibility and a neo-Ottoman approach to foreign policy. In the nearly 17 years
since his party first took Parliament, he has transformed Turkey.
But like other masters of domestic
politics— Saddam Hussein comes to mind—Mr. Erdogan wrongly assumes that the
cunning and aggression that brought him political success internally will also
work internationally. This explains his unleashing thugs on the streets of
Turkish citizens accused of coup plotting from multiple countries,
attempting to smuggle dual-use materials to Gaza, illegally
drilling for natural gas in Cypriot waters, and shooting down a Russian jet
fighter, among other bellicose actions.
Mr. Erdogan’s foreign-policy
ineptitude has alienated other governments. Europeans seethe when he threatens
to send 3.6 million displaced Syrians their way. Israelis despise him for a
vitriolic anti-Zionism that compares
them to Nazis. Egypt’s president hates Mr. Erdogan’s backing of the
Muslim Brotherhood. Mr. Erdogan’s abject apologies haven’t compensated for
shooting down the Russian jet. China hasn’t forgotten Mr. Erdogan’s accusing
it of genocide against the Uighurs, despite his silence now.
When the candidate from Mr.
Erdogan’s AKP party twice lost the Istanbul mayor’s race this year, most
analysts saw this as a “political
earthquake” and a “stunning
blow” to Mr. Erdogan, but he remains as dominant and dangerous as ever. A
ruthless ideologue, his continued rule could bring to Turkey the political
repression, economic collapse, hunger and mass emigration that plague Nicolás
I worry about this terrible outcome
because Mr. Erdogan has consolidated power over Turkey’s institutions: the
military, the intelligence services, the police, the judiciary, the banks, the
media, the election board, the mosques and the educational system. He has
supported the private security company Sadat, which some analysts consider a “shadow”
army. Academics who signed
a 2016 petition critical of Mr. Erdogan’s policies toward the Kurds have lost
their jobs, faced criminal charges and even been jailed. Mr. Erdogan’s hare-brained
theory that high interest rates cause, rather than cure, high inflation has
recently done great damage to the economy. The 1,150-room palace he had built
symbolizes his grandiosity and ambition.
In short, Mr. Erdogan is a dictator
with strange ideas, wild ambitions and no restraints. The invasion of Syria has
made a domestic and regional tragedy the most likely outcome.
How can the outside world prevent
catastrophe? By terminating its disgraceful indulgence of Mr. Erdogan. Donald
Trump is only the latest politician to fall for his mysterious charms— George
W. Bush, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, among others, preceded him. Mr. Erdogan
deserves punishment, not rewards, for his outrageous behavior. His heading a
North Atlantic Treaty Organization member country should raise, not lower, the
The U.S. consensus rejecting the
Turkish invasion as unacceptable offers an encouraging basis for action. It
suggests that Americans can join with others to restrain the rogue Turkish
president and help his country avoid becoming another Venezuela. But unless
tough action is taken quickly, starting with American leadership to end the
Turkish occupation of northern Syria, it will be too late to stop Turkey from
becoming a premier international trouble spot.
Mr. Pipes is
president of the Middle East Forum.