Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his million-strong supporters at a rally August 7 that if parliament voted to reinstate the death penalty for Turkey, he would support the move.
Speaking at the mass gathering, dubbed the Democracy and Martyrs' Rally, Erdogan vowed, "If the nation makes such a decision (in support of death penalty), I believe political parties will abide by this decision.
"It is the Turkish parliament that will decide on this (death penalty) given the sovereignty rests with the nation…I declare it in advance, I will approve the decision made by the parliament."
The declaration is more than a statement of policy. Reinstating the death penalty is a strategic decision for Turkey indicating with whom the “Islamist democracy” has decided to align. After years of trying to enter the European Union, but falling short of the EU’s requirements — especially on the sticking point of adherence to international human rights standards — it appears Turkey has decided to snub Europe and throw its alliance elsewhere.
It was a calculated decision by Erdogan based on his new post-coup political reality. While no one really knows who was behind the July 15 attempted coup, Erdogan has taken his new-found political strength to get rid of what he has, for many years, considered a fifth column inside Turkey – the Gulenists and their Hizmet network.
Hizmet (“Service”), a Turkish movement created by wealthy exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, began creating a parallel state inside Turkey through a network of schools, media outlets and businesses and recruitment of supporters in the military, justice department, police, government and more. In 1999, Turkish television aired footage of a secret sermon given by Gulen where he told followers to surreptitiously infiltrate the institutions of power and wait for the right time to take over.
Although Gulen maintains the tape was doctored, he fled to the U.S. that same year when the Turkish government planned to prosecute him. Gulen is widely credited with paving the way for Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AK Party) to take power in 2002 and, under AK leadership, was acquitted of the charges against him.
However, Gulen and the AK Party have since had a falling out.
Now Erdogan holds thousands of potential Gulen supporters arrested after the coup. In addition, he dismissed 8,500 officers and soldiers, including 44 percent of the top commanders of Turkey’s military. He also purged the justice and education system of those he suspected of being Gulenists. Clearly, he was prepared and waiting for the opportunity, with lists of those he considered his enemies appearing almost immediately after the coup attempt.
Popular support for Erdogan appears never to have been higher. In fact, it was this support that most likely saved him from his demise, when the public rallied in the street for him and was able to stop the coup. Whether Erdogan staged the coup from the beginning, was tipped off beforehand or was incredibly lucky that attempts to assassinate him failed, his popular support from an increasingly-radicalized public was the very factor that saved him and assured the survival of his Islamist government.
Clearly, now is not the time that Erdogan wants to be concerned with Western concepts such as human rights. Erdogan figures that the West’s support for Turkey is expendable.
The West presently needs Turkey more that Turkey needs the West. Turkey’s bases are crucial in the fight against the Islamic State – ironically, a fight that has not been won primarily because of Turkey and its willingness to facilitate travel through its territory by Islamic-State fighters and to buy ISIS oil, the organization’s life blood.
Moreover, Turkey has the upper hand with the EU having made a deal with the Europeans to stop the flood of migrants entering Europe. At present, that deal is on the verge of collapsing as the EU is stalling on making good its promise to grant visa-free travel to Europe for Turkey's 78-million citizens.
Turkey also has the upper hand with the United States, which depends on Turkey’s stability to maintain its 24 NATO bases, where 50 nuclear weapons are reportedly stored. Erdogan, whose belligerent rantings against the U.S. blamed Washington for the coup, hopes to force America into extraditing Gulen.
However, even though Erdogan and his government are publicly popular, the coup has left him considerably weaker. Purging close to half of his military’s upper command means he needs support from a real strong arm.
The United States clearly does not fit the bill at present.
Recognizing this reality, Erdogan has (not surprisingly) turned to Russia, where a meeting to normalize relations between the two countries will take place August 9. After Turkey shot down a Russian military plane November 24, 2015, relations between the two countries were frozen, with Russian imposing harsh economic sanctions on the Turkish republic.
Although Erdogan has since expressed regret to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as Turkish analyst Burak Bekdil writes, “Normalization, unfortunately, will not come at the price of Turkish ‘regrets’ alone. For full normalization, Turkey will have to digest the Russian-Iranian-Syrian line in Syria's civil war.”
Not only will Turkey have to “digest” that line, it will have to join it, entering into a pact with Putin and the ayatollahs. Clearly, this is where Erdogan has decided is the best place to pledge his allegiance.
And a dangerous alliance it will be at that.
Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org