Alon Ben-Meir: A portrait of a ruthless dictator
Turkey is a country that has unlimited potential, vast human and natural resources, and cultural riches that could rival any developed country in just about every walk of life. But Turkey’s President Erdogan has squandered it all by putting his self-interest and blind ambition before the country. His legacy will be of one who lost his way and left a shattered country in his wake. If he examines his legacy, he will find nothing but a traumatized citizenry, international condemnation, and shame. He has committed gross human rights violations, betrayed Turkey’s friends and allies, sullied Islam to promote his wicked agenda, engaged in costly foreign adventures, expended a fortune to buy influence in foreign lands, befriended adversaries of NATO, and never ceased his incessant hunger for power.
Committing gross human right violations
It is hard to exaggerate Erdogan’s appetite for gross human right violations. He used the failed coup attempt to lash out at his political enemies. He investigated 600,000, of whom many thousands are still languishing in jails without being charged, imprisoned nearly 100,000 innocent citizens on bogus charges, and fired 150,000 from their jobs, falsely accusing them of affiliation with the Gülen movement.
Erdogan removed 4,000 judges and prosecutors and replaced them with lackeys to do his bidding. He persecuted scores of academics, wrongly accusing them of spreading militant propaganda. He incarcerated 165 journalists for simply reporting the truth, discriminated against minorities, reined in social media, and used the coronavirus as an excuse for issuing draconian rules to stifle the opposition.
Lashing out at perceived domestic enemies
Erdogan polarized the country between the liberal opposition CHP and the conservative Islamist AKP, rebuffing municipalities run by CHP in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. He prohibited the distribution of bread even to the poor, fearing that mayors from the opposition would garner greater popularity than his government.
Erdogan views the Kurdish community (nearly 15 percent of the population) as a political threat, believing that they are seeking autonomy and attempting to suppress them maliciously. Instead of finding a solution to the 50-year-old conflict with the PKK, he abruptly abandoned negotiations in November 2015, which only intensified the violence. He vowed to kill the last standing PKK fighter, forgetting that they rose decades before he came to power and will outlast him for decades after he leaves office.
Betrayed the NATO alliance
Erdogan seems to think that he is an indispensable member of NATO because he has the second-largest standing military, failing to realize that NATO’s strength actually lies in its cohesiveness and unity of purpose. He violated one of NATO’s central tenets—its “found[ing] on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”, which he brazenly trashed in his country.
He compromised the alliance’s air defense technology by purchasing Russia’s S-400 missile system, and refused to support a defense plan for Poland and the Baltics unless NATO provides political support for Turkey’s fight against the People’s Protection Units (YPG). He threatens to unleash millions of Syrian refugees from Turkey unless the EU pays him “ransom”. Finally, he works closely with Iran and signed a religious cooperation agreement in December 2019, and continues to increase trade, defying American sanctions.
Engaged in costly foreign adventures
Being economically strapped does not seem to affect Erdogan’s foreign adventures. Since January he has deployed more than 3,000 Syrian rebels to Libya. He invaded Syria in his never-ending fight against the Syrian Kurds to prevent them from establishing autonomous rule, and, through his foray, materialized his long-held dream of establishing a permanent foothold in the country.
He established a military base in Qatar with 5,000 Turkish troops, which he calls a ‘symbol of brotherhood’. He leased an island in the Red Sea from Sudan, ostensibly for tourism, when in fact it is for building military installations close to Saudi Arabia, which he considers to be his staunch religious rival for leadership of the global Sunni community.
Buying influence in foreign lands
Turkey’s investments, financial aid, and expanded trade with the Balkan states are all designed to increase Erdogan’s influence. Turkish construction companies are building and operating 20 power plants in Serbia. Albania’s first national airline company was established as a joint venture with Turkish Airlines. Nearly 500 Turkish companies operate in Kosovo, with a total value around €340 million.
The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA) has renovated hundreds of historic sites in Kosovo while building Pristina’s International Airport and Energy Distribution network. Erdogan promised Bosnia that Turkey will invest €3 billion to construct the Sarajevo-Belgrade highway, while urging Turkish companies to expand their investment in the Balkans to make them increasingly dependent on Turkey.
Twisted Islam to promote his wicked agenda
Erdogan is masterfully using religion as a tool to advance his wicked Islamic agenda. He invokes the name of God to sanctify any program he chooses to promote, and invests heavily in building mosques and religious institutions throughout the Balkans. He has financed the building of scores of mosques, including the great mosque in Tirana at a cost of $30 million—the biggest mosque in the Balkans. Erdogan’s “gift” to Kosovo was to build a huge, Ottoman-style mosque in the center of Pristina. Meanwhile, he trains and dispatches Imams who extol him in their sermons for his ‘heavenly guidance’ and maintains close relations with religious parties to cement his influence.
He shamelessly uses his alleged “piety” as a devout Muslim guided by Islamic virtues and dedicated to the wellbeing of his countrymen. In reality, Erdogan is corrupt to the core, inexorable in his intimidation and threats against his political rivals, and is driven to revive elements of the Ottoman Empire by relentlessly pursuing his ambition to make Turkey the region’s hegemon.
In conclusion, the UN and every human rights organization should sound the alarm about Erdogan’s egregious human rights violations, demand accountability, and warn him that he will suffer dire consequences, including sanctions, if he does not end his grotesque human rights abuses.
The Western democracies must insist that Erdogan resume negotiations with the PKK and end the 50-year-old bloody conflict, and allow the Kurds in Turkey to enjoy their culture with freedom and equality; otherwise, they will declassify the PKK as a terrorist organization.
NATO should alert Erdogan that his violation of its charter and his collaboration with Russia, which is bent on undermining NATO, is unacceptable. Otherwise, the alliance will distance itself from Turkey, end sharing of intelligence and military exercises, and consider ousting it from NATO.
The countries where Turkey has a military presence, including Syria, Libya, Sudan, and Qatar, should be aware that Erdogan’s main purpose is to establish a permanent foothold and exert undue influence as a part of his hegemonial aspirations.
The countries that are open to Turkish investments and economic developments, such as the Balkan states, should know that Erdogan’s investments are nothing but a means by which he can manipulate these countries to fall into the Turkish orbit.
Imams and other leaders of Islamic institutions ought to put the brakes on Erdogan’s meddling in their affairs. The Balkan states in particular where Erdogan’s religious overtures are constantly on display should be wary of his uncanny religious manipulation.
Erdogan, to be sure, has shown the capacity and the will to do whatever it takes, regardless of how immoral it might be, to realize his menacing objective. Erdogan doesn’t realize that he is mortal, that his reign will inevitably come to a dishonorable end, and the creation of his imaginary empire is already doomed to vanish before the morning light.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.