The U.S. must recognize the risk a NATO ally may become a safe haven for al Qaeda as Erdogan consolidates power.
The failed coup attempt by elements of the Turkish Armed Forces on July 15 will enable President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to establish himself as an authoritarian ruler in Turkey. His priorities in the next few months will be to solidify the loyalty of the Turkish military establishment and complete the constitutional reform necessary to replace Turkey’s parliamentary democracy with an executive presidency, his longstanding goal. A post-coup Erdogan is much less likely to submit to American pressure without major returns. Erdogan immediately demanded the extradition of political rival Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., accusing Gulen of plotting the coup and condemning the U.S. for harboring him. Erdogan will likely deprioritize the fight against ISIS, undermining the counter-ISIS mission in Syria, as he focuses on consolidating power. He may even revoke past concessions to the U.S., including permission to use Turkey’s Incirlik airbase for counter-ISIS operations.
Erdogan has more dangerous options now that his rule is secure, however. A partnership with al Qaeda could grant him a powerful proxy force to achieve national security objectives without relying on the Turkish Military. American policymakers must recognize the dangerous possibility Erdogan will knowingly transform Turkey into the next Pakistan in pursuit of his own interests.
Erdogan’s purge will be severe. He declared that the coup attempt was “a gift from God … because this will be a reason to cleanse our army,” in a victory speech on July 17. Turkish security forces immediately arrested over 3,000 soldiers, dozens of colonels, and four high-ranking officers as they reestablished control starting July 16. The subsequent purge has removed approximately one third of all general officers. Erdogan will try the coup leaders and participating rank and file soldiers for treason and approve the reinstitution of the death penalty if passed by Turkish Parliament. He will eliminate political rivals and dissenters and consolidate social control. He is already using the allegation against Gulen to justify a broad crackdown against the judicial establishment and civil society elements allegedly linked to Gulen, including the dismissal and arrest of nearly 3,000 members of the judicial establishment. He has also dismissed at least 8,000 police. His consolidation phase will require significant time, attention and resources for the next few months. He must meanwhile balance national security concerns, including domestic threats from ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as a tenuous détente with Russia.
Erdogan may turn to non-state militants for security solutions while he lacks a strong military force behind him. Non-state militants can either supplement a Turkish military or serve as an interim partner while Erdogan rebuilds. Erdogan provided support to al Qaeda and associated groups in Syria even before the coup. He has allowed senior al Qaeda leaders to operate relatively freely in Turkey, although a small number of Turkish raids have targeted al Qaeda elements. He is also a primary patron of Ahrar al Sham, a Syrian Salafi-jihadi group with close links to al Qaeda. A closer partnership with these groups could enable him to:
1. Dampen the domestic ISIS threat while purging the military. ISIS continues to use its support networks in Turkey to generate attack nodes targeting Turkish tourist sites. It intends to conduct mass casualty attacks in order to destabilize the Turkish state, similar to its attack on the Ataturk international airport in Istanbul in June. Al Qaeda likely already possesses intelligence regarding the identity and location of ISIS elements in Turkey. A partnership between al Qaeda and Erdogan could facilitate intelligence-driven raids to neutralize ISIS attack cells. Al Qaeda can also coopt ISIS members by offering an attractive option for defection as counter-ISIS operations in northern Syria continue. These measures would not eliminate the ISIS threat to Turkey, but could reduce it to a manageable level while Erdogan focuses on other priorities.
2. Address his Kurdish problem. Erdogan regards the Syrian Kurdish YPG as a primary national security threat because of its links to the PKK, which is waging an active insurgency against the Turkish state. Syrian Salafi-jihadi groups have fought against the YPG in Syria and could be willing to do so again in return for higher levels of Turkish support.
3. Set conditions in Syria for the rise of a Sunni Islamist government. Erdogan seeks to promote the formation of Sunni Islamist governments in the Middle East in order to legitimize his own rule and reestablish a quasi-imperial sphere of influence. Al Qaeda and its allies already govern large areas in northwestern Syria, setting conditions for an Islamic Emirate in opposition-held terrain in the long term.
4. Prevent outright regime and Russian victory in Syria. Erdogan will continue to support the war against the Assad regime despite rumors of back channeling over shared opposition to the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Pro-regime forces encircled and besieged Turkish- and US-backed opposition forces in Aleppo City July 17, fulfilling Assad’s promise that “Aleppo will be the graveyard where the dreams and hopes of the butcher Erdogan will be buried.” Erdogan also must preclude an outright Russian victory in Syria in order to maintain leverage in the Turkish-Russian relationship.
5. Retain leverage over the U.S. Erdogan opposes American focus on ISIS in Syria and will continue to use his involvement in the anti-ISIS effort as leverage in negotiations with the U.S. He will also continue to leverage his gatekeeper role in the flow of migrants to Europe. These forms of leverage are significant, but they have not enabled Erdogan to affect American policy in the way he desires. After consolidating his rule, he can and likely will increase the scale to which he utilizes these sources of pressure. He may also seek alternate sources of leverage. A partnership with al Qaeda could enable him to disrupt counter-ISIS operations in Syria by attacking the YPG, positioning him as a powerbroker in the anti-ISIS fight independent of the anti-ISIS coalition. It would also inextricably link American success against al Qaeda in Syria to American relations with Turkey, forcing the U.S. to subordinate its strategy against al Qaeda to the requirements to manage its diplomatic relations in Turkey.
Erdogan can establish closer partnership with al Qaeda through a number of simple steps. He can provide covert support to increase the effectiveness of counter-Assad operations, including increased funding and equipment in addition to intelligence and campaign design. He can ensure freedom of movement for al Qaeda and its allies in Turkey and enable the relocation of formal headquarters into Turkish territory. He has already proposed granting citizenship to Syrian refugees in Turkey, likely in order to counter rising Kurdish birth rates in Turkey by adding millions of Arab citizens to the population. Naturalizing Syrian refugees could also enable him to obscure his support to Salafi jihadis in Syria by channeling that support through new Turkish-Syrian citizens. Finally, he can also allow or facilitate new flows of foreign fighters to al Qaeda in Syria.
These steps would take Erdogan much deeper into a partnership with al Qaeda than his current support to al Qaeda’s war against the Assad regime. A reliance on al Qaeda to accomplish Turkish security objectives, and the resulting freedom of maneuver it would provide to al Qaeda, would transform Turkey into a state sanctuary for terrorism. The scale of the problem could be similar to Pakistani harboring of militants fighting American and allied forces in Afghanistan, including the Afghan Taliban. A permanent Turkish safe haven would protect some of al Qaeda’s critical capabilities and critical requirements from direct targeting, increasing the requirements to destroy the group in Syria. It would also provide an ideal launching point for a future wave of attacks.
An empowered al Qaeda with a durable safe haven in Turkey will pose an even greater threat to Europe and the American homeland than ISIS in the long term. Al Qaeda prioritizes cultivating local support among Sunni populations in Syria and the Middle East, but intends to conduct spectacular attacks in the West and is developing the capability to do so. The future war against al Qaeda will be more difficult to win even without direct Turkish backing because of how al Qaeda is embedding itself into the local population. A partnership with al Qaeda is not the most likely option for Erdogan to take because of its severe implications for NATO and American national security. It is a much more dangerous future scenario for the U.S. than even the loss of Incirlik as a base for anti-ISIS operations, however.
American policymakers must make it a priority to prevent this most dangerous future from occurring. A victorious Erdogan poses a difficult challenge for conventional diplomatic instruments. A partnership with al Qaeda would not strictly violate Erdogan’s NATO obligations because the alliance’s mandate does not extend to terrorism. NATO does not have a formal mechanism for ejecting member states, making it difficult to coerce Erdogan by threatening to revoke NATO protections anyway. It is unclear that Erodgan would respond to such a threat even if credible. The Foreign Policy Chief of the European Union (EU) stated that the restoration of the death penalty would forfeit Turkey’s chance for EU membership in a similar attempt to constrain Erdogan’s behavior on July 18. He is unlikely to submit. The U.S. must abandon presuppositions about how a democratically elected leader will behave in order to explore policy options that engage with Erdogan's calculus. Achieving American objectives in the region – and preventing a more dangerous future from emerging - will require creative thinking about how to incentivize Erdogan to choose policies that favor or do not undermine American interests while serving his own.