Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute and author of The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey.
From the West’s perspective, the Turkish government is the equivalent of a close relative with a substance abuse problem: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become addicted to authoritarianism. The effects on the family — in this case the NATO alliance, which has included Turkey since 1952 — are devastating. It’s time for President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron, two leading NATO heads of state, to have a clarifying conversation with Erdogan about his country’s self-destructive impulses.
Wednesday’s phone conversation between Trump and Erdogan, which subsequently triggered a public disagreement between Erdogan and the White House on what was discussed, is precisely not how this should be done. Interventions can be embarrassing, and when Trump and Macron — two leaders of the alliance Erdogan is likely to listen to — speak forcefully to Erdogan about the state of Turkish democracy, it should be done in private.
Trump has shown patience with Turkey’s ongoing military operation against Kurdish militias in northern Syria, which Erdogan considers an existential threat. This should make the Turkish leader more inclined to listen to the U.S. president.
Erdogan, however, has a problem. Despite his best efforts to build a stable majority as the foundation of his new regime, his policies of demonizing the opposition have created a deeply polarized society. Half of Turkey despises him and will never accept him as its leader. But Erdogan has failed to grasp this fact, becoming even more authoritarian since the 2017 referendum that granted him sweeping presidential powers. Erdogan’s current trajectory will deepen Turkey’s crisis, potentially even triggering civil conflict.
Turkey has a history of right-left street fighting going back to the 1970s. The greatest risk facing the country now is that parts of Erdogan’s opposition, especially on the hard left, will conclude that voting is useless, give up on democracy and radicalize. Left-wing radicalization would trigger retribution from the pro-Erdogan camp, including conservatives and radical Islamists. During the failed coup of 2016, hundreds of Erdogan supporters gave their lives to defend him.
Russia, which has historical ties to Erdogan’s opposition, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a terrorist group, will undermine Erdogan. Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want to replace Erdogan; he merely wants to exacerbate Turkey’s crisis. Moscow’s overarching goal is to weaken NATO. A paralyzed Turkey, violently split between pro- and anti-Erdogan camps, reinforces that goal. This trend is clearly not in U.S. interests.
Washington and its NATO allies need to engage Erdogan, while investing more broadly in Turkey’s future and stability. Erdogan is president after all, but Turkey is bigger than Erdogan.
Hence the need for a family intervention.
Trump and Macron should bring Erdogan, who has good personal chemistry with each of them, into their confidence. They should have a candid conversation with him, the way family members do with troubled kin. Trump and Macron should make the restoration of democracy a vital precondition for good ties with Erdogan in the future. They should tell him that they consider Turkey family, that they are worried about Turkey’s stability, but also that they are willing to listen to his concerns and help him turn around.
The incentive here should be that Trump will promise to support Erdogan against Turkey’s adversaries, particularly Russia and Iran, which are undermining Turkey’s interests from Syria to Crimea.
Even more importantly, Trump and Macron should vow to distance themselves from the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia affiliated with the PKK that France and the United States have relied on to defeat the Islamic State. Before committing to this, Trump would need to align his generals. Some in the U.S. military, including Central Command, differ from White House policy on the YPG, envisioning a long-term relationship with the group. Trump would need to issue a clear directive across the government that this will not be the case.
Turks are almost universally opposed to any collaboration between the YPG and Ankara’s NATO allies. The defeat of the Islamic State provides an opportune moment for Trump and Macron to move away from the group. This stance would allow the American and French presidents to demonstrate their sincerity in reaching out to Erdogan while building bridges with broader Turkish society.
NATO needs to be a better friend of Turkish democracy. This is not a call for a cumbersome democracy-building project, because Turkey is already a democracy. Turkey’s allies need only to support the political space in Turkey in remaining open and competitive, and to help protect freedoms of association, assembly, media and expression.
NATO countries need not worry about Erdogan’s reaction: He is too scared of Russia, Turkey’s historic nemesis, to contemplate a break with the alliance. In the run-up to the 2017 referendum, which Erdogan won by a narrow margin, the Turkish-language version of Sputnik, Russia’s main online disinformation outlet, far outdid other foreign media in Turkey in spreading its own versions of the news — it campaigned almost exclusively against Erdogan.
By helping Erdogan to break his authoritarian habit now, Trump and Macron can prevent the nightmare scenario of a Turkey crippled by its own self-destructive tendencies. That, as the family of any addict can tell you, is a far worse scenario to deal with.