When Sunni Arab-led protests against
dictators in Cairo and Damascus broke out several years ago, Turkish government
leaders unhesitatingly sympathized with the protestors. Recep Tayyip Erdogan,
his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and their sycophantic media
immediately identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamist opposition
groups and their grievances towards secular dictators. In the case of Libya,
the identification with anti-Ghaddafi forces was not nearly so immediate –
although many ascribed this to the many business dealings the Ghaddafi regime
had with Turkish companies. Ghaddafi was also not a secular dictator but fairly
Islamist in his style and rhetoric.
This past week’s protests in Iran clarify
the outlook in Ankara further, however. One would normally expect a long-standing
member of NATO, a self-styled leader of the Sunni world, a traditional rival of
the Persians to the East, and a state with a Western-style secular electoral
system to sympathize with the protestors in Iran. The Iranian protesters decry
lack of democracy in their country, regime corruption, poor governance and
Tehran’s expensive involvement in proxy wars across the region. What’s more,
those proxy wars all involve Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces helping Shiite
clients against Sunni opponents in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Instead of siding with the protestors or
at least expressing sympathy for them, President Erdogan instead called Iranian
President Rouhani to express his support for Iranian government authorities. As
Mustafa Akyol explains in Al Monitor,
the regime in Ankara and his pliant media chose to view events in Iran as an
American-Zionist plot to overthrow a “defiant Muslim nation”:
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in a
statement to the press on Jan. 2…. [stated that] “It is said that other forces
are behind the events…. One is [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, the
other one is [US President Donald] Trump.” Meanwhile, the pro-government media
— which now constitute the majority of Turkish media — had already mapped out
the plot: The Iranian protesters were merely the tools of outside powers that
were trying to bring a defiant Muslim nation to its knees.
Among the dozens of columns that conveyed this
point of view, one was by Ibrahim Karagul, the editor-in-chief of daily Yeni
Safak [a stridently pro-Erdogan paper]. Accordingly, Iran was being “stirred
up” by America and Israel. Moreover, if these two forces succeed in taking over
Iran, the “next step” would be none other than Turkey itself. Talking heads on
the pro-government news channel A Haber repeated the same line. These protests
were taking place because “a new Middle East map" was being designed by
the West. There seemed to be a "CIA-Mossad finger" behind the unrest.
And if Iran did not stay robust, “the Syrian scenario” could well be repeated.
In short, the pro-Western Turkey that
joined NATO in 1952 no longer exists. The first reflex of today’s leaders in
Turkey is to view events in the region as American-Zionist plots and to peddle
these conspiracy theories to their constituents.
This was also the predictable response in
Ankara to the recently concluded trial of former Halkbank executive Mehmet
Hakan Atilla and Iranian-Turkish gold trader Reza Zarrab in New York. That
trial found both Atilla and Zarrab guilty of helping Iran evade US sanctions
and unearthed accounts of high level bribes paid to Erdogan’s inner circle and
of Erdogan himself ordering Zarrab to help Iran evade sanctions. Mr. Erdogan
and his ministers’ response was to accuse the US judicial system of being in
league with the Fethullah Gulen movement and to claim that Washington is intent
on besmirching and weakening Turkey and its government.
The electoral democratic system that
Turkey used to have, although never liberal or problem-free, is now also a
thing of the past. President Erdogan has removed the essential columns
supporting any real democratic system: a free media, an independent judiciary
and state security organs that answer to parliament rather than one man. It
seems unlikely that a free or fair election will occur again in Turkey any time
Turkey and its governing system,
including the presence of an unassailable supreme leader, rigged elections, a
shackled media, and a sort of devout Muslim nationalism, has thus come to
resemble Iran more than any other neighbor in the region. It thus makes sense
that AKP elites in Turkey readily identify with governing elites in neighboring
Iran – despite the Sunni-Shiite divide. Both states have chosen, in Mustafa
Akyol’s account, an “authoritarian revolutionary path.” In the Middle East,
this is the path that blames all domestic shortcomings, government wrongdoings and
public disturbances on American-Zionist plots.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the
Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University
and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily
reflect the position of Rudaw.