By Dr. Adam McConnel
Turkey is the region’s most democratic and industrialized Muslim nation, making it an example not only locally, but also for the world’s one billion Muslims.
“We must be the great arsenal of democracy. For us this is an emergency as serious as war itself. We must apply ourselves to our task with the same resolution, the same sense of urgency, the same spirit of patriotism and sacrifice as we would show were we at war.” — US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “The Great Arsenal of Democracy,” 29 December 1940
In late May, as Libya’s United Nations-recognized government, with Turkish aid, reclaimed large sections of the country’s west from Khalifa Haftar’s mercenaries, the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) released a statement accusing Russia of transferring military fighter jets to Libya.
Those following developments in Libya had been aware for several days that Russian jets suddenly appeared in warlord Haftar’s airbases after his recent battlefield reverses.
The US statement included remarks from US Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of the US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. Harrigian reportedly said, “If Russia seizes basing on Libya’s coast, the next logical step is they deploy permanent long-range anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities… . If that day comes, it will create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank.”
Harrigian’s statements naturally beg the question of whether the US intends to take concrete steps to prevent Russia from accomplishing such an end. Russia is simply continuing on the same course it has charted over the past decade as the US, during three separate administrations, failed to show serious resistance. South Ossetia. Ukraine. Crimea. Syria. Now Libya.
In the past month, statements from Turkish officials indicated that the US was considering some sort of cooperation with Turkey in Libya, but what exactly that would entail remains unclear. US officials, on the other hand, have provided many statements during the same time frame that showed little evidence of an intent to cooperate with Turkey in Libya.
Europe’s southern and southeastern flanks, in reality, have been under direct threat for the past seven years. The US has slapped on sanctions, uttered plenty of tough-sounding rhetoric, drawn red lines, and launched a Tomahawk or two at Moscow’s proxies. In Syria, the US even allied itself with an organization designated as “terrorist” by the US State Department.
But at no time have any of the recent US administrations shown the will to pursue real deterrence towards Vladimir Putin. Barack Obama, infamously, even chose to clink champagne glasses with him.
Instead, the task of meeting Russia face-to-face on the battlefield has been left to Turkey.
Turkey becomes a regional power
Turkey’s effort to confront Russia, unfortunately, has not found the necessary support in European capitals or in Washington D.C. Incomprehension, denial, insults, self-righteous indignation, and confusion summarize the reactions displayed by Western politicians, pundits, think-tankers, and journalists over the past four years to Turkey’s growing military capabilities, assertive policies, and confidence.
Rather than trying to understand the forces pushing Turkey’s resurgence as a military power, those same groups respond to their bewilderment by assaulting the Turkish government verbally.
In the end, they sink deeper into self-delusion and prolong the inability of those they inform to understand the political dynamics both inside Turkey and in Turkey’s region. The number of Washington D.C. think tanks or foreign policy commentators that have escaped this mindset can be counted on one hand.
That mixture of prejudice, hatred, and ignorance has left most Western observers astonished by the Turkish military’s performance since the failed 15 July 2016 coup attempt, instigated by the Fethullah Gulen cult’s (FETO) civil and military adherents. The exposure of thousands of high-level FETO military members, and their consequent removal from positions of responsibility, sparked a nearly incredible improvement in the Turkish military’s performance.
Little more than a month after the failed coup attempt, Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield against Daesh, and each operation since, along with the ongoing effort against the PKK, witnessed improvements in the Turkish military’s ability to carry out complex operations in difficult terrain, provide security to regions taken under control, and then rebuild infrastructure and facilitate resumption of normal civilian life.
Here, I want to emphasize what the removal of FETO cultists from Turkish state institutions has meant. From the time I moved to Istanbul in 1999, until January of 2017, the city was plagued by frequent incidents of violence with overt political tones. Pipe bombs exploding in distant Istanbul suburbs. Unsolved or poorly investigated assassinations.
Mafia-esque murders and kneecappings. Nighttime arson attacks on parked vehicles in random neighborhoods. Series of mysterious “suicides” or “accidents” among technicians working on important state projects. The Istanbul truck bombings in November 2003 should not be forgotten because a prosecutor, later understood to be a powerful FETO member, was given responsibility for investigating those attacks.
But in 2013, that low-level violence turned into a wave of vehicle bombings, suicide attacks, and other shocking acts of urban bloodshed that took the lives of hundreds of Turkish citizens, culminating in the 15 July 2016 failed coup attempt. Since the last spate of attacks in December 2016-January 2017 — which, I should add, was predicted by Gulen’s zealots and people close to the cult — all such violence has ceased.
That’s more than three years now. The effort to extirpate Gulen’s brainwashed, murderous followers from Turkish state institutions is clearly the reason.
FETO was facilitating and/or collaborating with the perpetrators of the aforementioned attacks, and sometimes committing the acts themselves. Yet the US government continues to allow Gulen to reside in his Pennsylvania mansion without even a hint of possible extradition proceedings.
Nearly four years have elapsed since Euphrates Shield was launched. Those who did not comprehend how Turkey’s military could carry out such operations have had ample time and plenty of new data with which to examine their own assumptions, admit their mistakes, and formulate a more calm, fair, and objective assessment of the Turkish government and military. But few have made use of the opportunity. Prejudices die hard.
Great arsenal of democracy
While Washington struggled with the intense cognitive dissonance triggered by Turkey’s growing international profile, Ankara became the major actor confronting Russia across a swath of the Eastern Mediterranean abandoned by the US and the EU to a brutish, Moscow-dictated fate.
Eighty years ago, as the Second World War’s hostilities intensified, Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave one of his most famous radio addresses, generally known as “The Great Arsenal of Democracy” speech. Speaking on Dec. 29, 1940, nearly a full year before the United States would enter into active combat, Roosevelt urged US citizens to recognize their responsibility for arming themselves and others in defense of democracy.
In the following four years, the US did exactly that, and emerged from the conflict as the greatest military and economic power in human history. The Marshall Plan, however, illustrated that the US was more than just power; its ideals and resources could also be utilized to promote democracy and political openness for other societies.
The result was a massive surge in democratic political systems worldwide, culminating in the former Soviet Bloc’s post-Cold War transition from single-party, command economy systems to democratic, liberal or mixed economic systems. Today citizens across the globe hold democratic aspirations largely based on the American model. One of the societies strongly affected by that US model was Turkey.
Turkey and forces of democracy
Turkey now faces a developing situation in the Eastern Mediterranean that, though on a smaller and more localized scale than the Second World War, will also determine the political future for all of the region’s societies. Simply put, democracy is struggling to put down permanent roots throughout north and northeastern Africa, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Arabian Peninsula, and other regional societies.
Turkey is the region’s most democratic and industrialized Muslim nation, making it an example not only locally, but also for the world’s one billion Muslims. Whether Americans or Europeans realize it or not, Turkey has been in this position for at least fifteen years now, and should be seen as a main inspiration for the Arab Spring.
Since the First World War, the world’s Muslim societies have been ruled mostly by hereditary monarchs or military dictators, and the states that emerged from the territories once ruled by the Ottoman Empire were no exception. After 1950, when its elections became democratic, Turkey began to chart its own course towards industrialization and democracy.
No matter how many times the military intervened, the Turkish people democratically restored the representatives of their choice to power. Progress occurred first haltingly, but then, especially in the past 40 years, with increasing rapidity. Now, Turkey has emerged as a regional, industrial and democratic power that the citizens of other regional and Muslim societies would greatly like to emulate, if only their rulers would allow them to.
The Arab Spring should be understood from that perspective: societies dominated up to this point by oppressive, autocratic, and often violent political systems rose to express their democratic will. As Eric Hobsbawm stated, while explaining late 19th-century European political events in The Age of Empire: 1875-1914, “The masses would march on to the stage of politics, whether rulers liked it or not. And this is indeed what happened.” We can tweak Hobsbawm’s words to the current situation, and state that the Arab peoples will march on to the stage of politics whether MBS, MBZ, Abdulfettah es-Sisi, Bashar al-Assad, Khalifa Haftar, and several others like it or not.
Turkey is the most socio-culturally appropriate democratic model for its entire region. Because the US has abrogated its responsibilities in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey must step into a new security role in order to preserve space for the sprigs of regional democracy that emerged during the Arab Spring to continue to grow, develop, and eventually flower.
The Eastern Mediterranean’s new reality
Turkey, because its NATO partners repeatedly proved unreliable or downright inimical over the past 60 years, has greatly developed its domestic weapons design and manufacturing capacities. From drones and combat helicopters, to machine guns and mobile artillery, to naval vessels and submarines, Turkey now independently manufactures weapons and uses them to support the forces of democracy in its region. This, in reality, is what Turkey does in its effort to eliminate the PKK, to protect civilians in Syria, and to support the UN-recognized government in Tripoli.
Equally important, Turkey’s role is not limited to exercising military or political power. As the US did for Europe after the Second World War, Turkey provides massive amounts of technical and humanitarian aid to many regional societies. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, Turkey has even provided aid to countries around the globe. Russia, still in the grip of a ruler who prefers the physical elimination of his political rivals, can only watch sullenly as Turkey wins the hearts and minds of peoples that Moscow has long desired to dominate.
This is exactly why the rulers listed above, for the past decade, have devoted billions of dollars to subverting Turkey’s democratically elected government: Turkey’s example means the dawn of democracy in its region.
The days of North Africa’s and the Eastern Mediterranean’s non-democratic regimes are numbered, their rulers know it, are frightened out of their wits, and have no qualms about killing thousands of their own citizens in a desperate attempt to save their own skins. But in the end, they will not be able to stem the democratic tide forever.
In Syria, Turkey is now the guarantor for several regions along its border where Syrians can shelter, safe from the bombs of the dictators or terrorists that are trying to kill them. In the past eight months, Turkey has taken on the same role in Libya, where the rogue general Haftar — who is supported by the same dictators and monarchs propping up the Syrian regime, plus France — wants to impose his personal rule on the country, a Muammar Gaddafi for the 21st century.
Since the late 18th century, international actors from outside the Eastern Mediterranean became used to operating there as they wished. The main results were political chaos, extended conflicts, and violent trauma for almost every society in the region. The era of outside powers freely meddling in the Eastern Mediterranean has come to an end, and the sooner that the US, the EU, and others accept this, the better. What they must recognize is that Turkey is the primary force and inspiration for democracy in its region.
Just as importantly, Turkey does not simply moralize to others about democracy and then do nothing to — as Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman put it — “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” or to “assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” Turkey is the new Great Arsenal of Democracy.
Dr. Adam McConnel – A writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul.