Surprised by Erratic Erdogan

In a volatile world, predictions are a risky business. But they are required in the intelligence community where analysts are called on not only to assess what happened but to anticipate what will happen, a process that ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller continues as he assesses his last year’s accuracy.

By Graham E. Fuller

Prediction on Turkey: (I was considerably off base on this one)

2015 Prediction: President ErdoÄŸan in Turkey will find his influence beginning to crumble in 2015. After a brilliant prime-ministership for the first decade of AKP power, he has become mired in corruption charges and has lashed out in paranoid fashion against any and all who criticize or oppose his increasingly irrational, high-handed, and quixotic style of rule. He is in the process of damaging institutions and destroying his and his party’s legacy. I continue to have faith that Turkey’s broader institutions, however weakened by ErdoÄŸan, will nonetheless suffice to keep the country on a basically democratic and non-violent track until such time as ErdoÄŸan loses public confidence, which could be sooner rather than later.

2016 Assessment: Instead of politically declining as I believed he would, ErdoÄŸan went on to hold a plurality in the June 2015 elections, and, dissatisfied with that, quickly maneuvered to call for yet new elections in November in which he managed to win back enough of a majority to enable him to form a single-party government. I did not anticipate that.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

In the process ErdoÄŸan increased intimidation of his opponents, and went on to arrest or detain large numbers of journalists, close down newspapers, and to manipulate and pressure the judiciary. He continues to act on the assumption that an electoral majority has given him carte blanche to rule arbitrarily with virtually no obligations of consultation with the rest of the political spectrum.

Most dangerously, after having done more to resolve the Kurdish situation than any other Turkish leader in the past decade, faced with an uncertain electorate this time he went on to create an atmosphere of insecurity in the country, and stepped up confrontation with the armed Kurdish movement inside Turkey (PKK); this policy of fear-mongering led to an increase in terrorist acts and stirred increased domestic anxiety that strengthened his party at the November polls.

ErdoÄŸan, meanwhile, still persists in following his ruinous and failing quest to overthrow the Assad government in Syria, even as both Washington and the European Union are retreating from that policy, finally coming to understand that a victory by opposition jihadi forces in Syria poses greater dangers than the continued rule of Assad.

In his zeal, ErdoÄŸan had been willing to indiscriminately support (directly or indirectly) all armed opposition against Assad, including elements of al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Russia’s arrival on the Syrian scene with military power proved to be a major turning point in the Syrian civil war. Moscow has used its air power to take on all armed opposition in a campaign that has essentially rescued the Assad regime.

In doing so, Russian President Vladimir Putin has left ErdoÄŸan’s strategy in tatters and dealt a major blow to Turkish influence on all fronts within Syria. In recently shooting down an errant Russian fighter aircraft on the Turkish border, ErdoÄŸan unleashed a sharp diplomatic and economic riposte from Russia in which he will inevitably emerge the loser.

Flailing around in desperation for alternative tactical measures, he has had to defer more to U.S. concerns (for the moment), even seeks a nominal rapprochement with Israel (to please Washington), and aligned himself with Saudi Arabia’s essentially meaningless new “counter-terrorist” coalition of 34 countries.

ErdoÄŸan’s relations with Iraq and Iran have seriously deteriorated. Thus, although ErdoÄŸan has managed to gain domination over the policies of the Turkish state, it has been marked by poor judgment and dangerous tactics. Mr.  ErdoÄŸan, you have reversed nearly all the successful foreign policy principles you innovated in your first ten years of office; would you go back to them please?

I’m going to go out on limb and say that ErdoÄŸan’s losing game will increasingly undermine his authority, but not his power, over the next year. When the Turkish electorate will decide that he is a danger to the country is unpredictable, but his party is not up for reelection until 2019. If he continues to seek to amass power and rule in arbitrary and quixotic fashion, the damage to Turkish institutions could be grave.

Internal tensions in Turkey will rise, demonstrations and movements against him will increase. He will not lose power, but growing autocracy and heavy-handed treatment of all opposition is rapidly destroying his legacy and guarantees Turkey a very tense year to come. At this point he is virtually without foreign allies, except perhaps Saudi Arabia and Qatar which may be able to provide some investment support, but little political support.

My 2015 Prediction on IranThe role of Iran as an actor in the region will grow. Despite all the hurdles, I feel optimistic about U.S. negotiations with Iran. Both parties desperately need success in this regard. Normalization is ludicrously long overdue and necessary to the regional order.  Furthermore, Iran and Turkey are the only two “real” governments in the region today with genuine governance based on some kind of popular legitimacy, for all their faults. Turkey is democratic, Iran semi-democratic (presidential and parliamentary elections are real, while not fully fair, but they really matter.) These two states espouse many of the aspirations of the people of the region in ways no Arab leader does. The Gulf will be forced to accommodate itself to the reality of a normalized Iran; the two sides have never really been to war, despite all the occasional bellicose noises that have emerge from them periodically over the past century. Iran is post-revolutionary power with a vision of a truly sovereign Middle East free of Western domination none of the Arab states truly are. Iran’s influence in the region will also grow in supporting growing regional challenges to Israel’s efforts to keep the Palestinians under permanent domination. 

My 2016 Assessment: U.S.-Iran relations indeed did take a stunning step forward this year with the signing of the international nuclear agreement with Iran under U.S. leadership, Obama’s virtually sole (but impressive) success in the Middle East arena in eight years.

Rear-guard actions are underway by hard-line conservatives in both the U.S. and Iran to destroy the agreement, their ideological fervor mirrors each other. Israel and its Israel-firster allies in the U.S. are equally committed to undermining the agreement.

My guess, however, is that these reactionary Iranian and American elements will not succeed in reversing the treaty, but they will set up lots of roadblocks complicating its implementation. There is still much room for military incidents in the Gulf, but as long as Obama is president such incidents will likely be handled with restraint. (There are no guarantees on this score with any next U.S. president.)

Saddest of all, opposition to the treaty essentially undermines the prospect of more serious (and potentially valuable) cooperation between the U.S. and Iran in other areas. Cooperation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria will thus be harder to attain. But the treaty will hold and gradually take on greater significance and importance. It has already shifted the balance of power in the region in unpredictable directions.

The Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia of course loathe the return of Iran to a significant role in the region, but they will not publicly or explicitly oppose the treaty. In fact, they are condemned to live with it, as they have accommodated themselves countless times in the past to Gulf realities. (More on Saudi Arabia next time.)

The conservative establishment in Iran, while seeking the lifting of the sanctions, are determined to hold the line against any additional cooperation or warming of relations with the U.S., and to crack down against social and ideological looseness in Iran.

These efforts to maintain the status quo will continue, but in the end they are a losing game: the new political and economic emergence of Iran will inexorably begin to weaken the hard-liners and their control over the life of the nation. They indeed sense such trends, hence the struggle to freeze the internal scene. It’s not about nukes but about maintenance of conservative clerical domination of the nation.

Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) . [To read Part One, click here.]

9 comments for “Surprised by Erratic Erdogan

  1. David Smith
    January 12, 2016 at 17:45

    Mr. Fuller, The Game Of Predictions is interesting indeed, the raison d’etre of the CIA’s cadre of analysts. May I propose a Game? The billion dollar question for 2016 must be, as the US president seems prechosen, where will the Syrian Arab Republic be in its heroic war against the terrorists? By years end, several mutually exclusive outcomes should emerge. One, the terrorists in the population centers of eastern Syria will be facing defeat. This would lead to securing borders and finishing ISIS. Two, the terrorists begin to win. Three, the terrorists hold, neither wining nor losing, forcing Russia to increase air support, even add ground troops. Four, Russia decides to get out. Five, a ceasefire, with national elections. Six, ceasefire, with Syria partitioned. My apologies, the list could be very long, meaning a Game Of Predictions could be very interesting.

  2. January 12, 2016 at 01:59

    Erdogan’s actions since the audio tape exposure of his criminal activities are all aimed at retaining power in order to avoid jail. Without the ability to crush any and all investigations and prosecutions, Erdogan knows his fate. Sure, he’s crazy and a Muslim Brotherhood adherent but the core he is an exposed criminal.

    Even bigger than his financial crimes is his theft of the most recent election.–Elect-by-Michael-Collins-Fraudulent-Elections_Kurd_Recep-Tayyip-Erdogan_Syrian-Situation-151102-103.html He made sure the run up to the theft and any post election controversy was squashed by literally taking over independent media companies. How much more obvious could he be.

    The complicity of the U.S. and NATO in the affair is the only reason Erdogan isn’t pilloried for his strong support of ISIS. He is both an integral player and an expression of our current decline.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 12, 2016 at 02:44

      What surprises me about leaders such as Erdogan is why or how did they not learn from the U.S. the art of plausible deniability? Didn’t he read his NATO leader manual? If he had read the book he could have placed the blame for the Russian Jet shoot down on some artillery battery private, and went about his way. Anything more would be considered a conspiracy theory, and life goes on. Erdogan is too stupid to belong to NATO. Oh and btw NATO is too stupid to be even NATO…disband this dinosaur war machine now, and save the children.

      • January 12, 2016 at 23:36

        I couldn’t agree more regarding NATO. A survey by the University of Maryland a few years ago showed 50% of Americans saying it’s time to leave. As for Erdogan, he’s too smart by half. Imrali Island is the best possible outcome he can hope for.

  3. Abe
    January 12, 2016 at 00:20

    Sibel Edmonds of Boiling Frogs Post discusses the hypocritical coverage of Erdogan’s abuses, and how and why this narrative is converging now to finish the US/NATO task of removing him from office to usher in a more pliable puppet.

  4. Abe
    January 11, 2016 at 23:05

    Syria: It’s Not a Civil War and it Never Was
    By Ulson Gunnar

  5. Ian
    January 11, 2016 at 16:37

    On Turkey.
    Sir, you make the mistake, although the actual realism of your piece is accurate, of continuing to refer to Erdogan – president of Turkey as if it is he ruling the AKP and not the current prime minister. Presidential powers in Turkey at the moment are supposed to be controlled so as the president (Erdogan) keeps neutral and above party politics which obviously he does not and his growing irrationality and antagonism to non islamist pursuits is largely due to his aspiration to push through extending his presidential powers in part to save himself from being brought before the relevant courts for his many and various disgusting antics.
    If and when the western imperialist powers actually get the balls to do the right things (and they know what they are) things might start to make a change for the better.

  6. Intellectualist
    January 11, 2016 at 16:32

    Here’s a prediction; in 2016 nobody cares about Fuller because they see right through his juvenile agenda. Intelligence analysis requires intelligence worthy enough to extrapolate from. Dribble like this shows the obsolesence of Fuller.

    • January 17, 2016 at 05:22

      Here a prediction for 2016 and following years : with the exception of this response, no one will care about posts by someone hiding behind the pretentious sobriquet «Intellectualist», as that person has shown her/himself incapable of rational argument…. ;-)


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