Opinion |

In the Battle Against Tsar Putin, Don't Trust Sultan Erdogan

Russia's Putin and Turkey's Erdogan share similar brutish ambitions. The West should oppose Erdogan's stunningly hypocritical blackmail over new NATO members with the same force as it rejects Putin's invasion of Ukraine

Akil Marceau
Akil Marceau
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia: Alike in many respects
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia: Alike in many respectsCredit: UMIT BEKTAS/ REUTERS
Akil Marceau
Akil Marceau

From the top of his one thousand and one room palace, the Turkish president declared that he would oppose the entry of Finland and Sweden as new members of NATO. The reason: they are guesthouses for terrorists.

Hannah Arendt, referring to totalitarian regimes, said we don't know when we should laugh and when we should take them seriously.

Has the Turkish president forgotten, or is he just trying to take for a ride, the research centers and intelligence agencies who know full well that Istanbul is a hub for jihadists, from Hamas to the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement that is the ground zero of all contemporary Islamist terrorism?

In 2009, the very same Recep Tayyip Erdogan opposed the appointment of Anders Rasmussen as NATO’s Secretary General unless Denmark closed a Kurdish TV station. The Turkish media close to Erdogan's AKP party also accused Zuhal Demir, the current Flemish Minister of Justice, Energy and the Environment, of being a terrorist. She is doubly at fault: very critical of the Islamist movements in her native country, Belgium, and openly affirming her Kurdish origins.

Indeed, the Nordic states, with their great democratic tradition, have welcomed many citizens of Kurdish origin, who have gone on to become active participants in their new homes’ democratic values, as members of parliament, journalists and influencers, criticizing authoritarian practices in Turkey and elsewhere in the world.

Why should the Nordic countries, far ahead of other major European democracies, such as Great Britain and France, on human rights, gender parity and feminism, debase themselves by trying to convince the Turkish Islamo-fascist authoritarian regime? This same regime which, according to the testimonies, documented evidence and videos of brave Turkish journalists, has allowed ISIS to infiltrate its border with Syria, in convoys loaded with weapons and jihadists from around the world. Today, these brave Turkish journalists are either in prison or in exile.

Erdogan trades like a merchant in the bazaar, with both goods and principles. He kicks the West’s soft belly, while tickling the most conservative and nationalist wing of his base, like he did with the American pastor Andrew Brunson, also accused of being a terrorist, jailed for two years and then expelled. He also receives billions of euros from Europe to shelter Syrian refugees whom he then instrumentalizes for political gain.

The Turkish president is now trying hard to oversell the role that his country could play within world politics and security. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, neither Tsar Putin in the Kremlin, nor Sultan Erdogan on the Bosphorus, have been able to adapt to the new geopolitical context. They both share the same revanchist ambition to restore an imperial past, working against Western interests, invading neighboring countries by brute force, and prosecuting territorial conquests which are presented to the rest of the world as a fait accompli.

In many respects Putin and Erdogan are alike. They both started out as young hoodlums. In a fight you have to strike first said Putin, without batting an eyelid, when talking about his childhood.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin hold hands as they mark the launch of a phase of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline carrying Russian natural gas to EuropeCredit: Pool Presidential Press Service

The young simit (Turkish bagel) seller in the streets of Istanbul, a leading actor during his university years in the extraordinarily antisemitic play "Masons, Communists and Jews," has long held a visceral hatred of the West and a hidden agenda: to come to power by all means. His Trojan horse: the instrumentalization of religion and the mass of poor Muslims around the world, crushed by authoritarian regimes, in search of a piece of bread and a little hope.

But whereas Erdogan’s Muslim leadership ambitions are globalizing, at home his conception of national identity is small-minded and punitive.

The Turkish president never hesitates to accuse Israel of apartheid towards the Palestinians, but he removed parliamentary immunity from the Kurdish MPs who represent Turkey’s own 20 million Kurds, and has sent them to prison. Since the 2019 municipal elections, the mayors of 48 out of 65 municipalities won by the pro-Kurdish HDP party have been replaced by state-appointed administrators.

There are more than two million Kurds in Europe today. The vast majority are from Turkey. They have fled war, political repression, and economic misery. The second generation, well integrated thanks to a secular identity, do not deny their origins.

Kurdish protesters attend a demonstration against Turkey's military action in northeastern Syria, in Stockholm, SwedenCredit: Fredrik Sandberg/TT /AP

They have become speakers of the Norwegian and Israeli Parliaments - Masud Gharakhani (Kurdish from Iran), Mickey Levy (Kurdish from Turkey), the UK Minister of Education, Nadim Zahawi (Kurdish from Iraq) as well as many members of other European parliaments.

I myself am a proud French citizen born in Syrian Kurdistan. When I first achieved the right to vote in the 1994 European elections, I voted for the list for which I myself was standing as a candidate. A beautiful revenge on history, and a lesson to all the authoritarian regimes in the world who are blind to multiple identities and multilingualism as a source of pride and wealth.

When welcoming the Finnish President and the Swedish Prime Minister to the White House, American President Biden quoted the Musketeers’ motto: "All for one, one for all," in the spirit of Article 5 of the NATO pact.

But Turkey has not complied with this spirit with its NATO allies. Take the S400 system, bought from his friend Putin, followed by his aggressive maneuvers in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Turkish troops and allied Islamist militias have occupied Kurdish areas since the defeat of ISIS in Syria, committing war crimes and displacing populations. The Turkish air force, in its 40-year war against the PKK, has been bombing Iraqi Kurdistan since the beginning of April, killing civilians and emptying villages.

Turkey uncomplainingly has shared its border with ISIS-controlled regions of Syria. Worse still, thousands of foreign terrorists crossed this border to fight the Kurds who are allied with the West in the war against terrorism. Other terrorists crossed in the opposite direction to commit murder in the streets of European capitals. And today the Turkish occupying troops control the Syrian province of Idlib, along with Al-Qaida affiliated Ahrar-al-Sham.

So when Erdogan tries to bargain with NATO over the accession of Finland and Sweden, should we be tempted to laugh, à la Arendt’s dictum, or take him seriously? Can the West and NATO oppose the Kremlin Tsar’s conquests in Europe on the one hand, and concede to Bosphorus Sultan’s blackmail in the Middle East on the other hand? Following this path is not only unethical and hypocritical: It would be an ill-fated strategic mistake.

Akil Marceau graduated in history and humanitarian law and has worked for French media outlets and the Japanese NHK television network. He is a researcher and former director of the Representation of the Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan in Paris

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