Consumed by the need for grandeur, despots tend to share their monstrous plans, then execute them. Running to be reelected in a race warped in his favor, Turkey’s President Erdogan campaigned by demonizing minority Kurds to create a common enemy—as tyrants do.
In troubled times, people worship self-assured leaders, and Erdogan sees himself as the anointed vessel of Ottoman resurrection. He allowed Islamic State to murder Kurds and unleashed his army on them. He must and can be stopped.
Kurds, formerly referred to as Mountain Turks, constitute more than 20% of the country’s citizens. Many want independence, but in 1999, the inspirational, formerly separatist Marxist leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, urged peace after being captured and jailed. Most obeyed, but many still dream of uniting with Kurdish enclaves in Syria, Iraq and Iran to re-establish historic Kurdistan.
In 2013, Erdogan promised to recognize Kurdish identity and language, and increase Kurdish liberties. A truce followed, but hostilities resumed in 2015. Erdogan said he was responding to PKK terrorism. The PKK claimed Erdogan destroyed the ceasefire by building dams and security stations in Kurdish regions. In either case, a war was on. Erdogan attacked with helicopter gunships, artillery and armored divisions, murdering thousands and displacing 335,000 mainly Kurdish citizens. A UN report described destroyed villages as moonscapes.
Erdogan perceives Kurdish nationalism as an existential threat.
Recalling the Armenian Genocide, Turkish Nobel Prize winning novelist Orhan Pamuk lamented Erdogan’s mass killings of Kurds. Pamuk was prosecuted for insulting “Turkishness,” and public Pamuk book-burnings followed. International outcry spared Pamuk imprisonment, but he sees his once democratic moderate Muslim country heading towards “a regime of terror.”
The coup attempt on Erdogan long over, he ended his two-year-old state of emergency but keeps Turkey in his grip. He accuses American Pastor Andrew Brunson, who for more than 20 years has served a small community in Izmir, of “Christianization,” attacking Islam while supporting the coup and the PKK.
Seeking to overthrow Syrian President Assad, Erdogan allowed a highway of jihadist foreign fighters to transit Turkey, creating the incipient Islamic State and unleashing barbarous terrorism against any who were not fundamentalist Sunnis. With the Turkish military lolling, ISIS devastated Kurds in Syrian Kobani.
With U.S. air support, Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) liberated Kobani and led the fighting that defeated the Islamic State. Erdogan sees the PKK and YPG as one, and accused Assad of allowing the PKK to maintain camps near Turkey’s border, formerly a safe haven for refugees. Emboldened by Washington’s earlier decision not to protect its Kurdish allies in Iraq, Erdogan attacked Kurdish Afrin in northern Syria, killing, terrorizing and ultimately creating a massive refugee crisis.
He is now changing Afrin’s demographics by shipping in anti-Assad Syrian refugees from Turkey. He threatened to attack Kurds of Syrian Manbij, boasting that he would confront U.S. troops there. Instead of standing strong, Washington stood down, a grave mistake with autocrats. The YPG had to withdraw, and Turkish media celebrated a victory over America.
With Kurds of Syria under his Sunni Ottoman thumb, Erdogan wants to join equally hegemonic Shia Iran in killing eastern Kurdish nationalists in the Qandil Mountains bordering Iran and Turkey.
Despite his alliance with Shiite Iran, Erdogan sees himself as the vanguard of Sunnis. He supports the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and its Palestinian terrorist wing Hamas, offending Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, which is in deadly conflict with Hamas. He promotes Muslim agitation at the Temple Mount/Nobel Sanctuary, offending Jordan, the guardian of the mosques there. He declares Jerusalem the primary city of Islam, offending Saudi Arabia, custodian of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites.
He is intent on buying the F35, America’s stealth fighter, while playing off the purchase of NATO’s missile defense system against the best Russian one, which will become even better if Moscow gets its hands on an F35. At the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) meeting last week, Erdogan professed his desire to join those economic competitors of the West.
If all this sounds irrational, that is because it is.
Turkish citizens abroad, like NBA player Enes Kanter, have spoken out against Erdogan’s repressive regime. They must be united in a campaign to turn the Turkish people against Erdogan.
The free world must not appease tyranny. America, as the planet’s most powerful nation, can offer crucial help. The U.S. should join the 29 countries that have recognized the Armenian Genocide. Acquiescing to Ankara’s false denial encourages a related attack on the Kurds.
Turkey’s current economic problems will prove useful in containing Erdogan. However, if political purges and attacks on Kurds intensify, the West should stop lending to Turkey and place economic sanctions on key functionaries including him and his family.
The sooner the free world acts against Erdogan, the safer our world will be. Turkey must be transformed.
Jonathan Wachtel served as Director of Communications and Spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. As a journalist he covered global conflicts for ABC, Fox and Worldwide Television News. Albert Wachtel, a professor at Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges, has written for many national journals and newspapers. He has four books out.