Turkey’s policies handling terrorism over the last few years have been severely criticized by Western states and those in the region. Atop these foreign policy problems are the domestic issues of corruption and increasing authoritarianism that are exacerbating the situation, especially as they are occurring in combination with an ever-gloomier economic picture.
Since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, jihadists have been flowing through Turkey into Syria. It is believed by many, and testified to by some defectors of the Islamic State (ISIS), that Turkish intelligence abetted this flow of terrorists into Syria in order to assist Turkey’s policy of toppling Bashar al-Assad’s regime and to block Kurdish expansionism. There is no doubt that Turkey chose some Islamist allies, Ahrar al-Sham most prominently, who opened space for Al-Qaeda and similar groups.
There has been considerable “blowback” for this policy inside Turkey, with an ISIS bombing campaign beginning in 2014 that seriously escalated in 2015, creating political tension between the Turkish government and the Kurdish population. This was made worse by the electoral situation in Turkey that year, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost their majority for the first time in a decade and then called a snap re-election.
ISIS has long had a presence in Turkey, partially a result of networks set up by Saddam Hussein’s regime to smuggle oil and otherwise avoid the sanctions in the 1990s; those networks came under ISIS’s control as the Ba’thists and tribesmen that controlled them joined the jihadists. Over the last five years, ISIS has gained a more robust presence in Turkey, establishing deep-rooted recruitment and facilitation networks. And as the “caliphate” collapsed, many ISIS jihadists have taken shelter in the country.
The purges of the state bureaucracy after the attempted coup in 2016 have weakened the Turkish security forces’ capacity to tackle the ISIS crisis, and the diversion of resources to fighting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Gülen movement have weakened this capacity further.
Beyond the complexities of the ISIS situation, the Turkish government has offered safe harbour to Muslim Brotherhood operatives from Egypt and the Gulf states, considered terrorists by their home countries. In Turkey, they are free to broadcast propaganda and incite.
There is also the issue of HAMAS, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian offshoot and a globally-designated terrorist group, whose operatives are honored guests in Turkey. Saleh al-Aruri is a notable case: he directed a terrorist attack on the West Bank in June 2014, which murdered three teenagers, one of them, Naftali Fraenkel, a dual U.S.–Israeli citizen, and precipitated a war with Israel.
Turkey has been backsliding on democracy for some time and in the wake of the coup attempt a more stern authoritarianism has taken hold. Though some aspects of petty corruption have been reduced, the grand corruption at the state level, the cronyism, has endured, and the economic elite has become increasingly dominated by political allies of Erdogan and his ruling party.
This intimate link between corruption and state policy has been seen time and again. Erdogan is believed to be worth more than $50 million, despite a salary that does not come close to justifying this wealth. Then there was the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey violated the sanctions on Iran. In December 2013, it was revealed by leaks that Erdogan and his son, Bilal, were plotting to hide cash to evade a corruption probe. Bilal Erdogan is accused of corruption outside Turkey, too, having been caught up in a money-laundering case in Europe.
An increasingly important aspect of the corruption in Turkey is nepotism. When the AKP came to power, it was in an alliance with the Gülenists, who provided the human resources for the state apparatus, particularly in the police and judiciary—the lead instruments that took apart the old secular order in Turkey. After the split in late 2013, and even more so after the coup attempt, the AKP has pushed the Gülenists out and had to rely on its own shallow bench of candidates to replace them. Prizing loyalty over competence, this has led to an overall decrease in institutional effectiveness.
This is perhaps most notable with the appointment of Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak as Finance Minister in July 2018. There were grave concerns from economic experts when Albayrak took the post since he appeared blatantly unqualified to hold it. These concerns have largely been vindicated. Albayrak held a meeting with investors in Washington, D.C., last week, organized by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and those present told Axios it was “the worst they’ve ever had with a high-ranking government official”. “I’ve literally never seen someone from an administration that unprepared,” one investor said.
With signs that Turkey is on the brink of another round of financial trouble, Albayrak being the man at the top is deeply concerning, as is the political trouble brewing with the Americans.
Last year, when Turkey refused to release the American pastor Andrew Brunson, U.S. President Donald Trump imposed sanctions that caused a collapse in the Turkish currency. U.S. officials have already said that if Turkey takes delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system it has ordered, it will be sanctioned again under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).
Turkey is beset with serious security and economic challenges, most of them of its own making and all of them compounded by the activities of Erdogan and the AKP. Even where challenges are not created by Ankara, the increasing authoritarianism and corruption of the Turkish political system is making it less able to respond effectively. This seems likely to remain true for the foreseeable future.