This week Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while addressing a crowd of supporters at a rally, made two hand gestures that should tell the West what they need to know about the new Turkey.
By now, most Erdogan observers are used to his usual hand gesture, the four-fingered “rabia” associated with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. This week Mr. Erdogan added a second symbolic gesture, however: the fascist hand signal of the Turkish grey wolves, formed by holding up the forefinger and little finger while the middle two fingers link to the thumb.
This hand gesture, intended to resemble a wolf, alludes to the ancient legend of Asena. Asena was a she-wolf in the mythical valley of Ergenekon in the central Asian steppes, from where ethnic Turks are said to have originated. The gesture is associated with the extreme Right in Turkey, which New York Times reporter R.W. Apple Jr. describes as a “xenophobic, fanatically nationalist, neofascist network steeped in violence.”
Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, no head of state or prime minister used this gesture in public – until now, that is. If President Erdogan’s hand movements appear to marry extreme neo-fascist nationalism with Islamism, his actions back up his symbolism.
Readers of this newspaper will likely all be very familiar with all the violations of civil liberties and the destruction of democratic institutions and safeguards that occurred under Mr. Erdogan’s writ. These need not all be repeated here.
In any case, Mr. Erdogan has been ruling Turkey under a state of emergency for nearly two years now, allowing him unchecked powers to go after dissidents. The Turkish government modus operandi thus increasingly resembles the Egyptian regimes the original Muslim Brotherhood railed against for so long, in fact: under Sisi, Mubarak and others, never-ending states of emergency render the constitution and any checks on autocratic power moot.
The West could live with Egyptian dictators such as Mubarak because at least they combined their autocratic home rule with a moderate and cautious foreign policy. In the new Turkey under Erdogan, hardly a day goes by without a few fiery, irredentist proclamations about reviving past Ottoman glories. Whether threatening Greek islands, invading Syria to the south, supporting jihadis in Syria, calling European politicians “Nazis,” talking of targeting American troops in Syria, or threatening Europe with refugees, the new Turkey appears ready for anything.
Americans and Europeans must therefore ask themselves: How long before the same country that recently shot down a Russian MIG moves on to sink a Greek or Cypriot ship? How long before incitement within Turkey brings on the assassination of an American ambassador, like the Russian one killed by a nationalist-Islamist police officer in 2016? How long before Turkish support for various jihadi groups creates the next “Islamic State” menace? How long before another neighboring country sees a Turkish military incursion, perhaps codenamed “White Dove” to match the current “Operation Olive Branch in Syria?”
American and European leaders under such circumstances had best prepare various contingency plans. Germany and America have already warned their citizens against travel to Turkey. Germany also went an ethical step further and placed sales of its Leopard tanks to Turkey on hold, due to concerns over the targeting of civilian areas by Turkish forces in Afrin. Britain, the Unites States and other NATO members might think very carefully before selling ANY further military hardware to their NATO “ally.”
If Western leaders really wish to nip things in the bud before Turkey truly blooms into the next rogue menace of the region, they should look for any excuse to levy sanctions and ostracize Mr. Erdogan’s regime. This would cost them business, of course, but likely save the West more sudden and intense problems further down the road. Besides the never-ending crackdowns in Turkey itself, the invasion of Afrin could provide a rationale for such a strategy.
If the Americans and Europeans have any realpolitik
acumen left in them, they should also realize that it is in their interests for Mr. Erdogan’s Afrin invasion to go badly – just as it was in Iranian interests for the Americans’ occupation of Iraq to go badly.
All the while, European and Western leaders should make clear that a return to more democratic practices within Turkey and a less bellicose Turkish foreign policy will quickly mend relations with the West. Until then, it seems obvious that democratic Western states should want nothing to do with peddlers of fascist and Islamist hand signals….
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.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.