Silk Road Paper
Since taking over from long-time President Islam Karimov in 2016, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev has pursued an aggressive policy to transform Uzbekistan’s decision-making processes, invigorate civil society, encourage political competition, address human rights and develop a civic culture consistent with the country’s status as a modernizing, forward-looking regional power in Eurasia with a steadily increasing majority of citizens under the age of 30. To declare significant these changes, which seem to take place daily, is to perhaps understate their potential in light of the last 30 years of history.
The transformation presently underway has its roots in the appointment of Mirziyoyev to the post of Prime Minister in 2003, after which he quietly worked to diversify the voices heard in national political discussions, though recognized the barriers that were preventing the country from using its vast human capital to meet the demands of an emerging power in the twenty-first century.
The various programs proposed by the new president and presently under implementation hold the promise of reshaping the domestic political landscape, changing the fundamental relationship between the citizen and state, and rebalancing the geopolitical order in a region long relegated as the domain of outside great powers.
Ahead of the December 2016 Presidential elections, Mirziyoyev campaigned on the principle of a government with a greater degree of openness and transparency serving the people – a novelty in the experience of independent Uzbekistan and most other post-Soviet countries.
To advance this agenda, President Mirziyoyev issued three key documents: A Program to Reform the Judicial and Legal System; an Action Strategy on Five Priority Areas of the Country’s Development for 2017-2021; and a “Concept” of Administrative Reform.
The Program and Action Strategy, which focus on ensuring the rule of law, reforming the judicial system, promoting economic liberalization, and the development of the social sphere, contains numerous sub-objectives which, if fully implemented, will fundamentally transform the relationship between Uzbekistan’s government and its people, and elevate independent civic advocacy organizations and informal institutions, such as Mahallas, to the status of partners of the government.
The Concept for Administrative Reform aims to result in an effective and transparent system of public administration capable of protecting the rights of citizens and bolstering Uzbekistan’s economic competitiveness globally. It defined six priority areas, among which are; “the improvement of the institutional, organizational, and legal framework of the executive authorities’ activities” and “the formation of an effective system of professional civil service, [and] the introduction of effective mechanisms to combat corruption in the system of executive authorities.”
The Concept was developed with the participation of academics, practitioners, representatives of both international organizations and civic advocacy organizations based in Uzbekistan. In developing both the Action Strategy and the Concept, the government worked to solicit participation from the general public in order to present the Concept and receive critical feedback on its further development and implementation.
There have also been steps to change Uzbekistan’s electoral system and the situation concerning political parties. Constitutional changes already in 2014, sought to redistribute power between the parliament and the executive, granting more decision-making power and control over the executive to the Parliament. Quite early on, President Mirziyoyev proposed to make governors and mayors directly elected by the people, as opposed to appointed by the President. In August 2017, legislation was amended by decree to allow for the direct election of Khokims of Wiloyats and the city of Tashkent, and set a date for Tashkent city elections, which took place on December 24, 2017.
In the coming months and years, one can expect further substantive changes to local and regional government, with the likelihood of many new faces in positions of authority, all of them popularly elected for the first time in Uzbekistan’s independent statehood. The new leaders will have to be closely watched to determine whether they are acting on behalf of citizens or are drawn back into regional or local loyalty networks. In the end, direct local elections are a necessary but not sufficient condition for progress: the elections also need to be professionally and fairly administered at all levels – particularly the often-compromised District and Precinct Election Commissions. Furthermore, they must be scrutinized by active, independent NGO monitors.
The President also called on the parliament to be much more active in legislation. He prodded parliamentarians to get out of their offices and travel around the country to meet people, especially the youth, hear their concerns and come back with proposals on how to resolve the problems identified by citizens. He urged them to analyze proposed legislation and propose improvements. The President also suggested that political parties connect with foreign counterparts, which had been the norm up until the mid-1990s but in more recent years had been seen in a more negative light.
This brought results: parliamentarians now regularly visit rural areas, where they have appeared in live talk shows, used social media, participated in focus groups, and tried overall to become more connected with their constituents. However, there is still a long way to go in order to achieve a strong, multiparty system that accepts and encourages diversity of platforms and programs, and does not perceive opposing policies as anathema to the state.
Expanded competition among the five legally-registered political parties is likely to stimulate them to refine their platforms, redouble efforts to support gender equality and inclusion, engage more of the country’s young and future voters, and seek diversity within their ranks. The emergence of a more open political system that embraces freedom of speech, association and assembly will offer an opportunity for all political actors to flourish.
Mirziyoyev’s reforms have also had important implications for civil society. Rather than an adversary, the government now seeks to view civil society as an ally in its reform agenda. This was manifested in numerous legislative amendments and initiatives to ease the ability of NGOs to operate in the country. Since Mirziyoyev took office as Interim President in September 2016, 685 local civic advocacy organizations have successfully registered with the Ministry of Justice, more than an 8 percent increase. There remains much work to be done until impediments to the work of NGOs are completely removed, but the progress is clear.
An overarching goal of the President’s reform program and Action Strategy is to root out corruption and inefficiency at the local and national levels of government. The translation of written objectives into demonstrable action has proceeded apace, as local administrators from a multitude of governmental departments have been called to answer for their actions in a very public way, resulting in presidential chastisements and numerous officials being sacked for a variety of offenses.
After Mirziyoyev criticized the performance of the Ministry of Finance, it fired 562 officials. After the President denounced officials who use vulgar language in interactions with citizens, a mayor was fined for insulting a citizen, a “first” in Uzbekistan. These moves put officials at all levels of government on notice and confirm that Mirziyoyev is serious about his pledge to make government accountable to the people. But most importantly, the President proceeded to remove the leadership of both the Prosecutor General’s office and the National Security Service, institutions that had been highly influential and feared in society. Reforms in these institutions will be key to the reform agenda as a whole, and particularly to the struggle against corruption.
Almost half of Uzbekistan’s population is under 25 years of age, and as such, the outlook of the young generation will determine the country’s future. The Action Strategy prioritizes education as the cornerstone of the government’s approach to the rising generation, calling for greater standardization of basic education and for gender equality. It is expected that economic growth and training provided by the country’s four-hundred vocational-technical “colleges” will go far towards creating the new jobs that are so urgently needed. These are also the cornerstones of the government’s program to reduce radicalization among Uzbekistan’s youth.
President Mirziyoyev nonetheless used a speech before the United Nations to argue that the provision of education and opportunities for young people is a global demand, and not purely national. Beyond these points, he has consistently underscored the need for tolerance, and calls for communicating what he calls “the truly humanistic essence of Islam both to young people and the world at large, where intolerance of Muslims is growing.” However, President Mirziyoyev has yet to stress the importance of a secular state with secular laws and courts as a sine qua non for a humane and open civic culture.
President Mirziyoyev has demonstrated a commitment to revisiting Uzbekistan’s human rights record on an international scale. One key step in this regard was the invitation extended to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The Uzbek government announced it would allow a permanent representative of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to be based in Tashkent, and invited Human Rights Watch to resume activities in the country.
Among tasks still to be faced are to implement reforms of local government, promote accountability and transparency, implement direct elections for regional and local Khokims, encourage Mahallas to cooperate with local government, and follow through on the democratization program, as set forth in the Action Strategy. None of these tasks will be simple or short-term. Both active and passive resistance can be predicted: the National Security Service and the Finance Ministry both initially resisted a number of key reforms and may have sought to check the President’s efforts. Such incidents may be signs of possible future concerns.
However, even if all key figures continue to firmly support the new president, implementing the governance reforms proposed by Mirziyoyev will pose a formidable challenge. Besides structural changes, they call for fundamental shifts in the political culture and even the mentality of ordinary Uzbeks. Public passivity and inertia can delay or derail reforms at many levels, as can the exercise of too much or too little force from above. This will be all the more complex when it is done in the context of the new president’s stated goal of broadening the political spectrum and promoting greater diversity of opinion.
Silk Road Paper
Since President Mirziyoyev assumed power as interim president in September 2016, a major agenda of reforms has been introduced in Uzbekistan. In this broader agenda, judicial and governance reform has been identified as key to the entire reform process.
The scope and speed of reforms outlined in this study are bold and unprecedented. Given the systematically negative coverage of developments in Uzbekistan prior to the transition of power, these reforms may appear to have emerged ex nihilo. But while little of a positive nature was reported, many of the reforms under Mirziyoyev trace their origins to developments in the past decade. Indeed, already in 2005, reforms in the judicial sector introduced habeas corpus and abolished the death penalty.
While change was slow, by 2010 the Uzbek government was convinced of the need for greater outreach to the international community. In subsequent years, reforms introduce the separation of powers, and strengthened the office of the Ombudsman. By 2014-15, a major effort was underway at the Ministry of Justice to reorganize and improve the legal system. The generational factor was important in this process: younger officials, often with foreign education, had begun to rise through the ranks and take on greater responsibilities. By 2015, the prior aversion to bring discussions on important issues to the public had begun to be overcome.
That said, when Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev assumed the position of Interim President, he rapidly sent a major jolt through the system and launched the country’s institutions on a path to rapid and comprehensive reform. Early on, he stated outright the principle underlying his actions: “It is time to end the period when people worked for the government. Instead, the government must start working for the people!”
Indeed, while still only the interim President, Mirziyoyev opened himself to direct access through the Internet via his so-called “virtual office.” During a later address to Parliament, he advised parliamentarians to start doing the same. Parliamentarians then began taking regular trips to the countryside to meet with their constituents. The Governors, though still appointed by the President, were instructed to hold periodic receptions in all regions. These are now obligatory in every region.
Mirziyoyev’s insistence on putting the people’s voice on the record appears to have shifted the political atmosphere in his favor overnight. It vastly increased the popularity of both his national and local policies, allowed for an evaluation of the results of his national and local policies, and it provided him with the support necessary to start introducing substantial reforms and changes. This was is a novel development in Uzbek political life, and offers citizens a new mechanism for influencing the administration’s performance, and serves as kind of watchdog, while at the same time allowing officials direct contact with citizens in a way that makes them more susceptible to their problems and concerns.
The Initial reforms came in the form of presidential decrees. These included substantial judicial reforms and strict anticorruption measures. An October 2016 decree sought to reform the judicial system and strengthen the protection off rights and freedoms. It called, among other, for a review of more than seven hundred legal acts spread over more than 90,000 pages. This was followed up by legislation that took measures to strengthen public trust in judiciary. A new Anticorruption Law was entered into force in early January 2017, and was followed by a state anticorruption program.
After being elected President in January 2017, Mirziyoyev announced a comprehensive “Five Point Development Strategy Plan” outlining policy priorities for a five-year period. This Plan focused on improving the system of state and social construction; strengthening the rule of law and the judicial system; developing and liberalizing the economy; developing the social sphere; and improving security and implementing a balanced foreign policy.
The main legislative role in coordinating reforms was assigned to the Ministry of Justice, now staffed by an entirely new set of young officials. It was tasked with implementing administrative reforms, assuring that other ministries meet deadlines, reviewing draft legislation and internal regulations to bring them into line with the Constitution; and assuring that new laws comply with international standards and conventions.
A crucial element of the overall reform process is the strong political support accorded to the younger generation. Many talented young officials have been promoted to responsible posts, including as ministers and deputy ministers, and a position of State Adviser on Youth has been added to the President’s Cabinet. The inclusion of the younger generation led the administration to begin to pulse with new ideas. Rigidly bureaucratic modes of official interaction were abandoned as communication began to catch up with worldwide practice.
Also in January 2017, a package of judicial reforms were introduced . These aimed at ensuring that the judiciary is truly independent; increasing the authority of the courts; and at democratizing and improving the judicial system on the basis of the best national and international practices. Also highlighted were the objectives of guaranteeing the protection of citizens’ rights and freedoms; improving administrative, criminal, civil and commercial law; fighting crime and advancing crime prevention, including anticorruption measures; and strengthening the rule of law and building public trust in the legal system through communication with the public and media.
A key step in this direction was Mirziyoyev’s handling of the previously all-powerful General Prosecutor’s Office. At a January 2017 meeting with prosecutors, President Mirziyoyev stated that the country needed to establish efficient public control over this body lest it again be perceived as a repressive and retaliatory institution. Sweeping changes were imposed on the internal structures and personnel of the Procuracy, designed to fundamentally transform what, along with the Ministry of the Interior and the Security Service, had long been the country’s most powerful institution. The newly appointed senior staff at the General Prosecutor’s Office appears clearly devoted to these reforms. The Ministry of Interior underwent similar reforms, including the screening and restructuring of its staff, while the Police Academy is undergoing an internal review as well.
A key area of reform has been the restructuring of legal education. A Presidential decree of April 2017 focused on the Tashkent State University of Law. As a result, the curriculum was updated, teaching methods modernized, and a credit system introduced. The old lecture-based approach was abandoned in favor of experiential learning. The university proceeded to hire many young professionals, some with foreign degrees. The University’s ambition now is to become the regional hub for legal studies in Central Asia. Along with these reforms, changes have been introduced also in continuing education. The Supreme Court is preparing to establish an Academy to train judges, candidates for judgeships, and other court personnel.
While these reforms during the past eighteen months would have been unimaginable only recently, much still remains to be done. One example is to devise a stronger role for defense counsels and the development of a road map on how to strengthen the independence and professional capabilities of those lawyers. Tight state controls over the licensing of defense counsels long ensured that these officers of the court would remain weak. While ongoing reforms correctly envision the role of defense counsels, little has been done to date to implement the changes that are urgently necessary.
By December 2017, President Mirziyoyev sought to further accelerate the pace of reforms. In a widely distributed speech to a joint session of parliament, he spoke of many areas in need of further reforms. This included the need to reform civil service law, and to delineate the scopes and functions of executive bodies. Another area of focus was to reduce administrative influence on economic life and transition to an economy dominated by market mechanisms. This will include transferring functions from the state to the private sector. Mirziyoyev also emphasized the anti-corruption struggle, and the need to strengthen the role of parliament. He addressed the need to improve mobility and reduce the prevalence of domestic checkpoints. But most importantly, he directly targeted the National Security Service, decrying its pervasive influence on all sectors of the state and society. Soon after, the President retired the highly influential Head of the Security Service, who had been in place for almost two decades, and launched an effort to modernize the Security Services as well.
While these reforms are a work in progress, and many remain at the declarative level, they have already had important implications. For example, the enlivened new leadership transformed Uzbekistan’s previously dull media environment almost overnight. News in Uzbekistan nowadays is meaningful, timely and critical. It is true that media still mask criticism behind quotes from political leaders, but they no longer speak with only one voice. The media have become more timely and trustworthy, with more reporting on international affairs as well. The government claims that it wants the media to be stronger. Still missing in the present media coverage, however, are analytical articles and editorials that critically review the ongoing reform processes around the country. The country’s media is yet to incorporate and engage in investigative journalism.
Going forward, the main challenge for President Mirzyoyev’s administration will be to deal with the country’s pervasive culture of corruption, a legacy of the past that for decades has been consuming the country’s resources like a dangerous cancer. New legislation is now in place that provides a solid basis for action. But the real test of the country’s leadership will be to confront the bureaucratic legacy that makes corruption possible.
The leadership’s moves to face down the law enforcement and security apparatuses of the past is positive and courageous. Only in this way can it erase the fear which for so long intimidated the population at large and government officials themselves. The new freedoms that have begun to emerge bring along a strong responsibility to act according to the rule of law as outlined in the Constitution.
To get all three branches of the government to act in accordance with newly reformed laws is one of Uzbekistan’s most urgent priorities. But for these reforms to truly take root, it is also important to provide political openings for civil society and the media to engage directly with the process of governing.
The American Interest
MIDDLE EAST AFLAME
The U.S. and Turkey: Past the Point of No Return?
With Ankara and Washington on a collision course in northern Syria, both sides will have to rethink their priorities if they want to salvage an increasingly hollow alliance.
U.S.-Turkish relations have deteriorated for some time. But until recently, no one would have thought that the American and Turkish militaries, closely allied since the 1950s, could end up confronting each other directly. Yet in northern Syria today, that is no longer unthinkable.
In mid-January, to forestall U.S. intentions to build a “Border Security Force” composed mainly of Syrian Kurdish fighters, Turkey launched a military operation in the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave in northwestern Syria. On January 24, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed his determination to move beyond Afrin into other parts of northern Syria, mentioning specifically the town of Manbij, where U.S. forces are deployed alongside Kurdish YPG troops. Turkish officials warned the United States to sever its ties to the Kurdish forces, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. This led President Donald Trump to tell Erdoğan to “avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”
The collision course Ankara and Washington are on is making any notion of a Turkish-American alliance increasingly hollow. If a point of no return is to be avoided, both sides will have to rethink their priorities, and begin to build trust. That process can begin with an honest appraisal of how we got to this point, with America and Turkey on the verge of coming to blows.
In the United States, much of the blame has naturally been laid at the feet of Erdoğan, the headstrong and authoritarian Turkish President. To American eyes, it is easy to see how Erdoğan’s growing intolerance of dissent goes hand in hand with an increasingly adventurist foreign policy that directly challenges American interests. Yet while Erdogan is part of the problem, its full scope goes far beyond a single individual. The real story of the past several years is how the Syrian and Kurdish issues have interacted with Turkish domestic politics to pull Ankara and Washington apart.
Turkey, Syria, and the Kurds: A Long Story
For a variety of reasons ranging from water distribution to border disputes, Turkey and Syria were archenemies during the Cold War. Even then, the Syrian and Kurdish questions were interrelated: Hafez al-Asad provided safe haven to the leadership of the Kurdish separatist PKK, which Turkey, the European Union and the United States all rightly considered a terrorist organization. After the Cold War, the threat hardly abated: From training camps in Lebanon’s Syria-controlled Bekaa Valley and bases in northern Iraq, the PKK mounted an increasingly sophisticated campaign of terror targeting the Turkish state and Turkish civilians in the early 1990s.
Herein lies the seed of Turkish-American discord: While Turks had no love lost for Saddam Hussein, Ankara and Baghdad had cooperated quite effectively against the PKK.
Herein lies the seed of Turkish-American discord: While Turks had no love lost for Saddam Hussein, Ankara and Baghdad had cooperated quite effectively against the PKK. By contrast, it was the American intervention in Iraq, and the subsequent creation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Iraq, that allowed the PKK to establish a foothold in the mountainous areas bordering Turkey. This generated frustration, but America was still helping Turkish efforts to fight the PKK. By the mid-1990s, Ankara had made numerous military operations on Iraqi soil to manage the problem. In 1998 Turkish threats of military action forced Assad to expel the PKK and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan. With the help of American and Israeli assistance, Turkey was eventually able to apprehend Öcalan in Kenya, and confine him to the prison island where he remains today.
By the time Erdoğan was redesigning Turkish foreign policy in the mid-2000s, Syria occupied center stage. It was Turkey’s conduit to the Arab Middle East, where Erdoğan wanted to play a bigger role. The objective was to turn Syria from an adversary into a vassal—essentially replacing Iran’s role for the Assad regime. Yet these plans came to naught with the onset of the Arab upheavals of 2011. Those events touched a sectarian and ideological nerve among Erdoğan’s Islamists: They saw in the upheavals the impending crumbling of the post-Ottoman order in the Middle East, and a historic chance to impose a new order led by the Muslim Brotherhood under Turkish tutelage. This led Erdoğan to support the opposition against Assad, and in particular to help arm the Free Syrian Army components that were close to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Lacking deep understanding of the regional dynamics, however, Ankara miscalculated. Evidently, Erdoğan and his then-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu thought the Assad regime would fall much like Qaddafi had in Libya. But they underestimated both Tehran’s commitment to the Assad regime and Assad’s ability to counter Turkish moves. In July 2012, the Syrian regime effectively ceded the northeast of Syria to the Kurdish Syrian YPG forces that are aligned with Turkey’s archenemy, the PKK.
This move had deep implications for Turkey. As the Syria conflict turned into a quagmire, the rise of a Kurdish entity emboldened Kurdish nationalism in Turkey itself, thus sabotaging Erdoğan’s attempt to negotiate with the imprisoned PKK leader from a position of strength. For Turkey, the biggest threats in Syria were the PKK-aligned PYD and the Assad regime. The Sunni jihadis fighting the regime were seen not so much as a problem as an asset: Turkey’s initial protégés on the battlefield had turned out hopelessly inept, leading Ankara to move to support increasingly radical factions, including domestic jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham and the Nusra front, while turning a blind eye for some time to ISIS’s use of Turkish territory as a rear base for its establishment of a caliphate in Syria.
Thus, American and Turkish interests began to diverge. Obama and Erdoğan had initially coordinated closely on Syrian matters, with Turkey calling for an American intervention to topple Assad, and planning to be America’s subcontractor in Syrian affairs. Disagreements were initially minor, as when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought a much more broad-based opposition coalition than the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated version boosted by Ankara. But gradually, America’s main objective shifted from overthrowing Assad to containing and combating the ISIS caliphate. This, in turn, pushed the United States into the arms of the Syrian Kurds, who had the only fighting force willing and capable of fighting ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile, Americans were growing increasingly suspicious of Turkish covert support for jihadi factions in the war.
Domestic politics now intervened to worsen matters: In 2013, the repression of the Gezi Park demonstrations that began in Istanbul but spread across Turkey wrecked Erdoğan’s international image. A disappointed President Obama now essentially stopped talking to Erdoğan. Meanwhile, the split between Erdoğan and his erstwhile allies in the Fethullah Gülen movement intensified into an open and direct conflict. Erdoğan, who was growing increasingly conspiratorial, saw an American hand behind both Gezi and the Gülen movement, whose leader he believed to steer a vast network of supporters from his home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
To counterbalance the Gülen network, Erdoğan now rehabilitated, then struck up an alliance with the neo-nationalist America skeptics within the Turkish military that had been purged in previous years. By 2015, this alliance led him to end talks with the Kurds and adopt the military’s preferred option: a renewed reliance on the military option to destroy the PKK inside Turkey. This had the added benefit of shoring up nationalist support for Erdoğan, making his transition to a presidential system possible. His new friends also happened to fervently buy in to the notion that America’s aims in Iraq and Syria included the promotion of Kurdish nationalism, and that this policy in the long term envisaged the breakup of Turkey itself. Unfortunately, it is increasingly clear that Erdoğan himself bought into this conspiracism.
It goes without saying that America’s dithering in Syria has been a major factor in the growing suspicions in Turkey concerning America’s intentions. As noted, Turkish suspicion of American intentions started with the creation of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in the early 1990s. It intensified with the Iraq War in 2003. And it has reached a boiling point with the conflict in Syria. In all three cases, Turkey has entertained the notion of partnering with America, but ultimately seen America take steps that undermine Turkey’s interests and security.
Americans frequently look back to the Presidency of Turgut Özal as the golden age of Turkish-American relations. Özal, indeed, supported America’s war against Iraq, provided America with the use of the Incirlik base in southern Turkey, and closed pipelines delivering Iraqi oil to Turkey. But he did so at great cost: In 1990, both the chief of general staff and the foreign minister resigned in protest against Özal’s Iraq policies. In subsequent years, the economic costs to Turkey were estimated in the billions of dollars, not counting the rising PKK insurgency, which would hardly have been as intense had Baghdad remained in control of northern Iraq.
These matters were very much on the minds of Turkish leaders in late 2002, when the George W. Bush Administration came calling to enlist Turkey’s help to invade Iraq once again. Immense pressure was brought to bear on the newly elected AKP government—formally run by Abdullah Gül, because Erdoğan had yet to rid himself of a ban prohibiting him from political activity. The Turkish military remained far from enthusiastic, and a parliamentary vote in March 2003 failed to approve the use of Turkey’s territory for a U.S. land invasion. This debacle sent Turkish-American relations into a tailspin, fostering lingering resentment between what had been the core of the relationship: the respective military leaderships of the two countries. While Turkey’s various power brokers mishandled the matter, there was enough blame to go around: U.S. officials largely failed to provide Turkey with an incentive to support American plans in Iraq.
From Ankara’s vantage point, the main consequence of America’s invasion was that the PKK, sensing an opportunity, broke a long-standing ceasefire and began operations on Turkish soil again. America, preoccupied with Iraq, did little to mitigate this, and even went as far as apprehending Turkish special forces officers in northern Iraq, generating fury across the Turkish political spectrum. Meanwhile, Iran was actively cooperating with Turkey in cracking down on the Iranian PKK affiliate, PJAK. Ironically, to most Turks Iran now seemed a better ally against terrorism than the United States.
Against this background, it may seem surprising that Erdoğan actively encouraged an American intervention against Assad, while his population and much of the Turkish elite were largely opposed. But at the time, Erdoğan thought he could use American cover to implement his vision of a “moderate Islamist” order in the Middle East under Turkish leadership. This is how Erdoğan interpreted Obama’s support for the Arab upheavals.
Yet over a few months of 2013, Erdoğan came to revisit this assumption. The starting point was the Gezi protests of May and June, followed in early July by the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood regime in Egypt, in which Erdoğan had invested heavily. Turkish fury at America’s equivocation on the coup (which Turkey’s Islamists equated with the Gezi protests) was exacerbated only weeks later by Obama’s Syria red line controversy. It was now clear that the United States was not going to play along with Erdoğan’s regional plans. Instead, due to a combination of domestic and foreign factors, U.S. actions in the Middle East came to be viewed as directly antithetical to Turkey’s vital interests.
Indeed, the trigger for the current crisis was the American decision to create a largely Kurdish “border security force” of over 30,000 personnel in northern Syria. There is no question that when the Pentagon developed that plan, Turkey was not the main motive. It was at least as much about establishing a foothold in Syria to contain Iranian hegemony, and to ensure that ISIS was unable to regroup. But to the Turks, none of those factors are relevant: American actions are viewed against the background of the events of the past three decades, and through the prism of the leadership’s particular penchant for conspiracy. American officials are aware that Erdoğan blames Washington for involvement in the failed July 2016 coup against him, and are equally cognizant of the vehemence with which Turkey opposes America’s intimacy with the Syrian Kurdish forces. Erdoğan has lately even come to speak obliquely of America as the force behind ISIS, echoing Russian propaganda to that effect. Erdoğan’s reaction should have been quite predictable: To Turks it all follows a clear pattern of America working over three decades to establish a Kurdish vassal entity in the Middle East that undermines the security and integrity of Turkey itself.
Is There a Way Out?
Whether or not the current crisis is overcome, the longer trajectory of U.S.-Turkish relations is alarming. The leadership of a close NATO ally has effectively become a cheerleader of anti-Americanism; its leadership views America as its primary adversary, accusing it of scheming to undermine its very statehood. And unfortunately, as this analysis has sought to demonstrate, this is not due solely to the idiosyncrasies of an erratic leader. Erdoğan’s perspective on America’s role in Syria and Iraq is shared by broad segments of Turkey’s political spectrum.
The Turks have a point: American policies in Syria and Iraq have had the effect of undermining Turkey’s interests.
The Turks have a point: American policies in Syria and Iraq have had the effect of undermining Turkey’s interests.And it borders on the absurd for the United States to “train” a PKK affiliate in Syria, while hoping that this will not affect relations with a country it terms an ally. Any Turkish government will see this as a hostile act; Erdoğan enjoys the support of over 80% of Turks on this issue.
But the United States, too, has a point. The growing anti-Americanism of Turkey’s leaders—Erdoğan first and foremost—is not primarily a result of America’s Syria policy, or even of any of America’s actions. Rather, it is a result of an ideologically grounded, conspiratorial mindset that sees America as a force for evil in the world. It is not America’s fault that Erdoğan now appears to view everything from protests in Istanbul and coups in Cairo and Ankara to campaigns against his Qatari friends as efforts to undermine Turkey’s prestige and his own position of power. If this is what Turkey is becoming, why should America defer to Ankara on matters of regional security in the Middle East?
The problem is, effectively, on two levels. First, American and Turkish objectives in the region have come increasingly to diverge. Were there trust and goodwill between leaders on both sides, this divergence could be overcome, or at least managed. Defense Secretary James Mattis has expressed understanding for Turkey’s security concerns, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu seeks to convince Americans that his country is a better partner for America than the YPG. Left to their own devices, these leaders and others like them would probably be able to work things out. For example, Washington and Ankara could agree to the creation of a Turkish security zone on the Syrian side of the border. That would significantly calm tempers in Ankara.
But on another level, America lacks a strategy for either the region or for its relationship with Turkey. Without such a strategy, U.S. officials will likely bounce from crisis to crisis, seeking to contain the damage while being unable to take on the underlying problem. And similarly, as long as Erdoğan and important forces in the Turkish leadership continue with their anti-American pronouncements, the likelihood of anyone making a serious effort to rescue the relationship will diminish by the day.
In the final analysis, U.S. officials would be well-advised to take a long view: How important is Turkey for American interests in Europe, Eurasia, and the Middle East in a 20-year perspective? If they determine that it continues to maintain the immense strategic value that many assume, they should focus on ensuring that the average Turks find no reason to buy into the loony conspiracies peddled by some of their leaders, and instead view America as a reliable and positive force. That will require adjustments to the Administration’s Syria policies. In the meantime, Erdoğan’s government can be treated in a transactional way—as a troublesome force that needs, somehow, to be managed with that broader objective in mind.
Published on: February 1, 2018
Svante E. Cornell is Director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, a co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm, and a Policy Advisor to JINSA’sGemunder Center for Defense and Strategy.