In recent years, Turkey has been undergoing a dramatic socio-political transformation. The country’s constitution and system of governance have been formally changed from a parliamentary democracy to a presidential system that grants extensive power to the autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Along the way, the president and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have pushed through sweeping reforms of the judiciary, military, national police, media, and Directorate of Religious Affairs, which have included purging their political opponents from these institutions and replacing them with party loyalists. This has enhanced the AKP regime’s overall power and bolstered its political and ideological agenda.
These far-reaching changes in Turkish internal politics have also manifested in the country’s foreign policy, which was traditionally Western-oriented and used to prioritize strong relations with Europe and the United States. Instead, Erdogan has dragged the country in a different direction. He has significantly improved ties and pursued cooperation with the revolutionary Islamist regime in Iran and also with Russia.1 Meantime, since the 2011 Arab Spring and the Middle Eastern turmoil and wars that ensued, the AKP regime has attempted to enlarge its regional political and military influence—including by backing or directly sponsoring various non-state Islamist actors in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. Most recently, during the Turkish military incursion into northeastern Syria, Turkish soldiers crossed the Syrian border along with the Free Syrian Army, which consists of several factions of known jihadist groups.
This ongoing transformation that the AKP regime is pursuing in Turkish society and foreign relations is fundamentally revolutionary —it has aimed to subvert nearly a century of Turkish republican institutions, practices, and pro-Western and civil-secular values. In this, Erdogan and the movement that supports him have clearly taken some inspiration from the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. This paper aims to assess the ongoing “revolution” in Turkey and its change from a pro-Western republic to an autocracy that is, according to AKP officials, emphatically “pro-Islamic.” The paper looks at how the Iranian revolutionary model has impacted the Erdogan regime’s sympathies, ideology, and tactics, and what this has meant both for Turkey’s political life and its external conduct—including its support for Islamist extremism.
From Political Islam to Islamist Autocracy
Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officially identifies itself as a conservative democratic party with an Islamic identity. However, particularly over the last six years, the party has pursued policies and taken actions that are more autocratic, Islamist and also revolutionary in nature. Among other things, the Erdogan regime has used its power and control of the state apparatus to attempt to transform Turkish government and society for its own gain, including the advancement of its ideological agenda.2
When the AKP first came to power in 2002 under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he and his conservative party colleagues tried to cloak their political background as members of the Turkish Islamist movement in new pro-democracy narratives. Although most of the AKP’s founders had roots in the National Outlook movement—i.e., the Milli Gorus, a political Islamist organization created in the 1970s by Necmettin Erbakan—Erdogan claimed the new AKP had embraced democracy and taken off “their National Outlook shirt.”3 In fact, AKP’s principal founders had been members of Erbakan’s banned Islamist-oriented Welfare Party, which functioned as a grassroots Islamic organization and party with the goal of establishing an “Islamic” society and government in Turkey.4 Because of this, many Turkish observers were suspicious of the early AKP, and unconvinced by the party’s pro-democracy rhetoric. In those early days, many Turks questioned whether the party had a “hidden agenda” and had put on a “pro-democracy shirt” only to conceal its true ambitions. Indeed, as the AKP has grown more powerful, it has become more authoritarian and revealed its revolutionary agenda.
When Erbakan’s Welfare Party won the general election in 1995, it was the first Islam-based party to come to power since the establishment of the secularist Turkish Republic in 1923. Erbakan had been deeply influenced by Sunni revivalists like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood movement and, more importantly, the 1979 Khomeinist revolution in Iran. Pan-Islamism and anti-Westernism were the two defining themes of his political program.5 In its founding manifesto, the Welfare Party distinguished Turkish society into two groups—on one side were the members of the National Outlook, and on the other were the “imitators” (taklitciler) who emulated the West and betrayed the truly “national” and “Islamic” norms and values of Turkey. This core ideological distinction infused virtually everything the party did and said.
Erbakan strongly criticized the post-1991 global order and its neoliberal institutions. In their place, he championed the creation of an alternative Islamic order, one that Turkey itself would lead, and which included new and exclusively Muslim organizations that would deal with the Muslim World’s economic, political, and security affairs.6 He called the European Union a “Christian Club” and advocated “for the establishment of a Muslim customs union, an Islamic NATO, an Islamic United Nations, as well as a single Islamic currency.”7 As an alternative to the G-7, Erbakan created the “Developing 8” (D-8) organization of Muslim-majority countries which, importantly, included the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran—a country that Erbakan deeply admired.8 At home, his government proactively supported the growth of “Islamic” businesses—i.e., companies whose owners had close relations with the Welfare Party or were ideologically affiliated with the National Outlook movement. This formed the basis of a new “Islamic” economy in Turkey that included large holding companies, chain stores, and banks that supported the Welfare government. In turn, the government privileged these companies, including by helping them develop their enterprises with international partners in the Arab Gulf countries.9
When Erbakan’s self-declared “pro-Islamic” government was in power, the secular establishment—which subscribed to the pro-democracy and pro-Western principles of Kemal Ataturk—did not remain silent. Turkish institutions that were steeped in Kemalism strongly opposed him. Ultimately, that opposition led to the famous “post-modern coup” by the Turkish military on February 28, 1997. In the aftermath, the military effectively set about to re-engineer society, intervening directly and aggressively in the lives of Turkish citizens with the goal of minimizing Islamic influence in the public sphere. As a result, Erbakan’s Welfare Party was ousted in 1997 and in 1999, the party was banned from engaging in politics altogether.
Under the “February 28” secularist order, it became nearly impossible for Islamic parties to organize or contest for power. Instead, the Turkish Islamist movement was checked, and also directly challenged by strengthened and empowered secular institutions, including the military and the judiciary. Meantime, ordinary religious believers also faced an oppressive political environment, and were forced to keep their faith hidden. This led to resentment and frustration among Muslim conservatives and also liberals, which the Islamist leaders of the AKP would later take advantage of for its own purposes.
By 2001, Turkey was facing one of the worst financial crises in its history, and this was accompanied by surging frustration and anger among the wider public over the Kemalist military’s pervasive influence over public life. These circumstances paved the way for the rise of the Justice and Development Party in national politics. In their election campaign, Erdogan and the AKP’s platform and rhetoric seemingly abandoned National Outlook’s agenda and emphasized instead a “conservative” but, they claimed, fundamentally democratic agenda. In the general election a year later, the AKP won the vast majority of the parliamentary seats on the ballot.
The initial years of AKP government were indeed shaped by Western-oriented discourse and policies, with an emphasis on strengthening democracy and national economic growth. The Kemalist establishment, however, did not believe the AKP’s rhetoric about democracy was sincere; they continued to see the AKP as an offshoot of the Welfare Party with a hidden agenda that was antagonistic to democracy. The rallying cry “February 28th will last 1,000 years!” became a notorious slogan for Turkish secularists. It also reflected the challenges that awaited the AKP. With Damocles’ sword swinging overhead, the threat of being shut down and banned from politics always seemed inches away for the AKP.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, however, the AKP shrewdly avoided direct conflict with the secular establishment, especially with the military, during its early years in office. Instead, the AKP stressed its pro-democracy and pro-European Union agenda, and it used this to mobilize broad-based support among the public against the Kemalist “deep state” and its heavy-handed interference in society. Along the way, the AKP took essential steps to expand religious freedom and other essential human rights.10 They notably sought integration with the European Union by passing constitutional changes to meet the Copenhagen Criteria (i.e., the rules that define whether a country is eligible to join the European Union). While many Turkish liberals came to support the AKP’s agenda, the Kemalist establishment remained skeptical of the party, as many still suspected that its democratic and pro-EU rhetoric was merely a diversion to enable the AKP to stay in power.
After winning its third consecutive general election in 2011, the AKP held more power in its hands than ever before. It also faced fewer institutional checks and balances, as the executive body’s domination over the judicial and legislative branches had continued to expand. In effect, the party acquired a stranglehold on state institutions, and Turkey’s democratic gains, in terms of the rule of law, pluralism, and individual rights, started to decay precipitously.11
The AKP’s third term in office was a turning point vis-à-vis the Islamization of politics in Turkey. With its extensive power and confidence, the AKP returned to its “pro-Islamic” roots in the National Outlook movement. The party began to stress Turkey’s Islamic identity in opposition to its Western one, while its rhetoric about the two sides—i.e., the “Muslims” and the “imitators”—became ever-more intense and polarizing. Using its control of the state, the AKP augmented years of grassroots organizing and political infrastructure building by adopting a top-down Islamization model.12 Among other things, and as will be discussed later, the AKP has leveraged its control of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which includes government-funded mosques and imams, as an instrument for contesting long-held Kemalist and civil-secular norms and imposing the party’s own social preferences and political line on the public.13 Party leaders have justified these interventionist policies in society on the basis of their “pro-Islamic” principles; not only did they have a bone to pick with the upholders of the “February 28” order, but they have claimed to be correcting or rooting out what they deemed to be the errors and corruptions in Turkey’s westernized society.
The AKP government also became an outspoken supporter of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that enveloped several Middle Eastern countries. While some hoped the uprisings would lead to a more plural and democratic regional order, the Erdogan regime clearly saw them as an opportunity to expand its own influence and to foster a new Islamic order in the Middle East that would be led by Turkey. In particular, Erdogan personally championed the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi, the group’s candidate for president of Egypt in 2012. Meanwhile, he promoted the AKP as a role model for other Muslim countries. In his speeches, he explicitly addressed the transnational Muslim community (ummah), and he further expressed his pan-Islamist ideals in his diplomacy with other Muslim countries.14
Simultaneously, as anti-government protests enveloped Syria and the Assad regime violently suppressed them, the Erdogan government began to support and bolster militant opposition groups in Syria. The AKP government, for instance, provided support to militant Islamist groups, including the al-Qaeda affiliates Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, that were fighting against the Assad regime and also Kurdish groups.15 In Libya, meanwhile, Turkey involved itself along with Qatar in a proxy war by supporting Islamist militias and factions under the flag of the “Libya Dawn” coalition. The AKP regime has also been alleged to have links with Ansar Al-Sharia, the terrorist organization blamed for the 2012 Benghazi attack against the United States Consulate.16
In late May 2013, large-scale protests inside Turkey itself became a watershed in the AKP’s modus operandi and domestic agenda. The Gezi Park protests switched Erdogan’s attention—and his threat perception—from the Kemalist “deep state” to the Turkish people. He began to perceive dissident political groups as a significant threat to his own power. Instead of addressing the concerns of the protestors, Erdogan and AKP officials claimed Gezi Park represented a “street coup” against a “pious” government and the “rise” of a “New Turkey.”17 In fact, the Gezi Park protests represented a strong public reaction to what the protestors saw as their elected government’s increasingly autocratic, religious and chauvinistic policies and rhetoric.18 Since then, the AKP regime has only become more intolerant and anti-pluralist—and far harsher and violent toward its political opponents and critics.
Soon after, on December 17 and 25, 2013, two separate investigations by the Turkish National Police—i.e., Turkey’s national gendarme, akin to the U.S.’s Federal Bureau of Investigation—exposed massive corruption operations involving some of Erdogan’s prominent cabinet members, bureaucrats, and family members. Erdogan was incensed. Despite an abundance of solid police evidence, Erdogan declared the corruption investigations an attempted “judicial coup,” and then purged the investigators and prosecutors from their positions, arresting some of them.
On July 15, 2016, when the infamous failed military coup was launched, Erdogan was quick to act. He called the coup “a gift from God”19 —presumably because it revealed a vast conspiracy against his “pro-Islamic” government—and used the uprising as a pretext to initiate a sweeping crackdown. Erdogan declared a state of emergency, and then purged more than 170,000 public servants and detained more than 70,000 political dissidents—academics, journalists, judges, and military and police officers whom Erdogan viewed as a threat to his power. His government subsequently bypassed parliament and enacted controversial decrees that suppressed basic democratic rights.20 Simultaneously, the AKP pushed through a dramatic restructuring of the Turkish system of government. The constitutional referendum of 2017 granted President Erdogan sweeping new powers that undermine legislative and judicial independence and give the president unrivaled authority over state institutions, including military and law enforcement. All this has fortified Erdogan’s autocratic rule.
As the Erdogan regime has accumulated more power, its “pro-Islamic” agenda has become more and more manifest. Today, the AKP’s foreign policy strongly emphasizes the “unity of Ummah [i.e., the Muslim Nation]” and its officials routinely question the ability of secular states to govern anywhere in the wider Islamic World. Not only has the AKP’s rhetoric become more anti-Western, but Erdogan and others have deliberately fomented popular resentment and anger toward Europe, Israel and the United States to galvanize support for their program. This ongoing transformation has pulled Turkey away from its modern pro-Western orientation and toward a future that is emphatically both more authoritarian and Islamist.
Turkish Islamism and the Islamic Revolution
One of the most consequential geopolitical developments of the rise of Erdogan and the AKP regime has been Turkey’s increasing rapprochement with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Previously, the pro-Western Turkish regime and the Islamist regime in Iran had been diametrically opposed, and relations between the two countries were tense and rife with challenges.21 However, during the second half of the AKP’s rule, ties and cooperation between Turkey and Iran have significantly improved. Despite some divergent interests (in Syria, for instance) between the two, elements of Turkey’s ruling AKP are clearly inspired by and sympathetic to aspects of Iranian Islamism’s revolutionary agenda at home and in the region.
Since the 1683 Treaty of Qasr-e Shirin between the Ottoman Empire and Persian Safavid Empire, Turkey and Iran have never had any direct military conflict over territory. Nevertheless, the proximity of the two countries has meant that developments in one has important effects in the other. In addition to periods of cooperation and relative harmony, Turkey and Iran also have a long history of security competition and ideological rivalry. Given both countries’ multi-ethnic and multi-religious character, their rivalries have unfolded not just between the states that rule them but frequently also inside each country and at the sub-national level. As the scholar Nilufer Narli has observed, Turkey-Iran relations “have always been fragile and delicately balanced. Conflicts within ethnically or religiously divided groups in Iran or Turkey have had a reciprocal bilateral impact.”22
During the early years of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Reza Shah of Iran had a good and cooperative relationship due to similar worldviews and the Shah’s admiration for Ataturk’s sweeping efforts to reform and modernize Turkey. The Saadabat Pact in 1937, the Baghdad Pact, and the Central Treaty Organization in the 1950s, along with even further improvement in the bilateral relations during Adnan Menderes’ government and Muhammad Reza Shah’s reign led to an even deeper convergence of interests. Both Menderes and the Shah prioritized having a closer alliance with the West and the United States.23
This convergence fell apart after the 1979 Khomeinist revolution. This generated fundamental ideological antagonisms between Turkey’s Kemalist establishment and Iran’s new Islamist regime.24 Iran, for its part, increasingly saw Turkey as a rival because of the Kemalist establishment’s alliance with the West and also because of the country’s largely conservative (and anti-revolutionary) Sunni population.
Since then, Turkey has been a major focus of Iran’s efforts to export its revolutionary Islamist ideology and agenda, and this has included several components.25 First, revolutionary Iran sees Shiites, Alawites, and Nusayri communities—including those inside Turkey itself—as natural constituencies that give Iran a ready-made sphere of influence throughout the Middle East. Second, the Iranian regime also sees Sunni Islamist movements that have been inspired by the 1979 Revolution as political allies, and it has supported these groups in Turkey against the Kemalist establishment. Third, Iran’s efforts to export the Islamic Revolution also recognizes the utility of backing—financially, logistically, and politically—groups that may not share the regime’s own revolutionary goals but which still oppose its principal rivals. Thus, since 1979, Iran has used a variety of tactics to develop its influence and interfere in Turkish domestic politics, including by supporting a host of Islamist and other groups, allegedly playing a role in the assassination of several secular Turkish intellectuals, and by supporting Kurdish separatism.
Not surprisingly, Turkey’s pro-Western and secular political and military leaders quickly came to regard revolutionary Iran as a major security threat. However, in contrast to the Kemalist establishment, the reactions to Iran’s revolution among the wider Turkish population was decidedly more mixed. Turkish Islamists in particular were inspired by the Islamic Revolution in important ways.
Turkish political Islamism has long been influenced by revivalist movements and ideologists from elsewhere, including the pan-Islamic revivalist Cemaleddin Afghani (Jamal al-din Afghani) and particularly the leaders of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyed Qutb, as well as Syed Abul A’la Mawdudi, the founder of Pakistan’s Jamaat-e-Islami. Iran’s revolution had an electrifying effect on political Islam in Turkey, inspiring it with a new call to action and to seek greater organization against the secularist Kemalist order.
Significantly, fifteen years before the revolution, in November 1964, the Shah’s regime had exiled Khomeini to Turkey, where he stayed until October 1965. While in Turkey, Khomeini as a spiritual and revolutionary leader acquired a substantial following26—including Erbakan and others in his National Outlook movement. In 1972, they founded the National Salvation Party to encourage large-scale Islamist mobilization against “westernized” Turks and Western influence. Erbakan and his followers hailed the Islamic Revolution as a victory over secularism and the Western world.27
Most important, the Iranian revolution provided Turkish Islamists with a significant new model—a “comprehensive blueprint” and a “political theory”—for establishing an Islamic government and society in Turkey.28 Instead of gradually converting society to their aims through ideological outreach and grassroots organizing like the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkish Islamists began to focus more on seizing control of the state. After 1979, in fact, hundreds of Turkish university students traveled to Iran, where they studied the fundamental principles of the Islamic Revolution and developed revolutionary theories of their own. They also established extensive personal networks29 that have evolved and exist to this day. In short, the Iranian revolution triggered a deep transformation within Turkish Islamism, one that generated new discussions about Islamism’s goals and methods, including the need for more radical and effective measures—all with an eye toward realizing a successful “revolution” in Turkey itself.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Iran continued to expand and deepen its influence activities in Turkey through pro-Iranian groups30 and individuals, such as Nurettin Sirin and Burhan Kavuncu, who promoted Khomeinist ideals.31 In 1995, Burhan Kavuncu, the leader of the Yeryuzu Group, an influential Iran-affiliated organization, explained why his followers must support the Islamic Revolution’s spread around the world. He stated that while Turks should continue to embrace revivalists like Afghani, Qutb, Hasan al-Banna, and Mawdudi, they should also venerate Khomeini because of his superior teachings. For Kavuncu, Brotherhood ideologists like Sayyed Qutb neglected social problems, whereas Khomeini’s doctrine of Islamic Unity (Tawhid) and his revolutionary ideals dealt explicitly with social and economic issues and prioritized them.32 Moreover, Khomeini emphasized the transnational political unity of Sunni and Shia Muslims, a pan-Islamic aspiration that resonated deeply with not just Islamists but also Turkish religious conservatives who (unlike Wahhabis, for example) do not typically harbor strongly anti-Shia views.
Necmettin Erbakan, who died in 2011, and the political parties he created—including National Salvation, the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi), and later the Felicity Party (Saadet Partisi)—did more than anything else to build deep and staunch Turkish support for the ideals of Islamic Revolution. In 2007, on the 28th anniversary of the Khomeinist revolution, Erbakan stated that the “revolution was exemplary,” and expressed his hope that it “will be the core of the bliss to the whole world.”33 The links Erbakan established between Turkish Islamism and revolutionary Iran were substantial. In 2015, at a workshop convened in Tehran on the topic of Erbakan’s views on Islamic Revolution, Muhammedrıza Bagheri, one of Ayatollah Khamenei’s deputies, explained that Erbakan adored Iran and believed that Ayatollah Khamenei was the authoritative leader of the worldwide Ummah/Muslim Nation.34 Indeed, Khomeini’s doctrine on the “Unification of Ummah”—i.e., the unification of Shiites and Sunnis against the West—inspired not only Iran’s “export of revolution” to conservative Sunni countries, but, particularly since Erbakan, this pan-Islamic mantra has inspired Turkish Islamism. Like Khomeini before him,35 Erdogan has repeatedly declared, “I am neither a Sunni nor a Shia. I am a Muslim.”36
During the “February 28” secularist era, such Islamist and pro-revolution sentiments met with a lot of scrutiny from the Turkish authorities, and they remained largely on the periphery of political and intellectual life, embedded in National Outlook and Islamist party cadres. Now, with the rise of Erdogan/AKP, the old order has been turned on its head, and the pro-Iran and pro-Islamic Revolution views of Erbakan—once considered beyond the pale in a secular and religiously conservative society—are now far more common throughout Turkish life.
Indeed, official and public sympathy for revolutionary Iran became more visible during Erdogan’s tenure as a prime minister, and this has only deepened during his presidency. Today, there are many groups and organizations in Turkey which publicly promote pro-Islamic Revolution and/or pro-Iranian views, including Quds-Der (Quds Association), Conqueror Raiders (Fatih Akincilar), Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), the Akabe Group, Turkish Hezbollah37 and its political wing, Huda-Par.38 Moreover, under the AKP, pro-Iranian Islamists have also have acquired critical positions in government and the state apparatus.39 As Kemal Kirisci of the Brookings Institution has written, Erdogan’s own “Islamist roots and discomfort towards secularism has made him much less inhibited by the theocratic nature of the Iranian regime.”4 In 2014, when Erdogan visited Tehran, he said that “Iran feels like a second home”—a statement which sums up the president’s affections for the Islamist regime in Iran, and also one that reveals just how much Turkish politics have been transformed by the AKP.41
Enabling Iranian Power and Influence?
Despite some key areas of disagreement between the AKP regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran—most notably, over Syria—Erdogan’s government has, in fact, catalyzed significant improvements in Turkish-Iranian relations. This has included enhanced cooperation between the two governments in the energy, commercial, diplomatic and also military realms.42 Following his meeting with the Turkish Joint Chief of Staff Hulusi Akar on August 16, 2017, the Iranian Joint Chief of Staff Mohammed Baqeri observed, “There have been no such visits between the two countries for a long time, but considering regional developments and security issues—border security and the fight against terrorism—there was a need for such a visit.”43 The Iranian Joint Chief of Staff was accompanied by the head of the ground forces of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.44 During the visit, according to the Turkish daily Hurriyet, new cooperation deals were signed, including joint military training and exchange of students at military schools.45 These are quite significant and unprecedented agreements, considering the access that Iranian military agents might gain in Turkey and within the Turkish military structure.
This increasing Turkish-Iranian cooperation, it can be argued, has been partly driven by shared interests, such as preventing Kurdish independence from Iraq, as well as both Ankara’s and Tehran’s pragmatic calculations to deconflict and de-escalate while the wars in Syria are still raging. But it has also been driven by the AKP’s ideological affinities for the Islamist regime in Iran and many of its aims. Thus, instead of actively balancing against Iran’s Islamist regime, or at least keeping it at arm’s length (as Ankara tried to do for the first two decades of the Islamic Republic’s existence), there has been a clear pattern of the AKP enabling the growth of the Islamic Republic’s power and influence. In fact, Erdogan’s and the AKP’s many comments criticizing and questioning the U.S.’s military presence in the Middle East46 (including in Iraq and Syria)47 signal not just their fundamental disagreement with U.S. policy, but a potential convergence of attitudes between the AKP48 and the Iranian regime, whose “Islamic revolution” aims to roll-back all U.S. influence from the region.49 Could this resentment toward the U.S. become the basis for greater collusion or rapprochement between the AKP regime and Iran—all to the detriment of the U.S.’s interests?
For years, Turks and Turkey-watchers in allied Western countries have been alarmed by the increasing presence of Islamists, including some with alleged ties to the Iranian regime, in critical positions of power in the Ankara government. In the most notorious case, Hakan Fidan, Erdogan’s close confidante with well-established pro-Iranian sympathies,50 became the head of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, or MIT, in 2010.51 According to Israeli intelligence sources, Fidan “played a central role in tightening Turkish ties with Iran.”52 Another report claims that Fidan, who allegedly has “shared sensitive information with Iran,”53 was involved in deliberately blowing the cover of an Israeli spy ring working inside the Islamic Republic.54
Ankara’s policy choices have also revealed a pattern of enabling Iran. Among other things, elements of the Erdogan regime have pursued closer Turkish ties with organizations facilitating weapons shipments to Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, the release of members of pro-Iranian terrorist organizations as in the case of the Turkish Hezbollah, and the covering up of official investigations into Iranian-led groups operating inside Turkey itself.
When Erdogan was prime minister, his government enacted laws to facilitate the release of several high-profile members of Hezbollah in Turkey who had been charged with heinous crimes against Turkish civilians. For decades, Hezbollah in Turkey (a largely Kurdish Islamist movement) had targeted members of both the Kurdish separatist PKK movement and also Turkey’s secular government. Turkish Islamists care little about intra-Kurdish fighting, but they have displayed sympathy with Iran-backed groups that opposed the Kemalist establishment. In 2011, the AKP drafted an amendment to Penal Code Article 102 which led to the release from prison of several leaders and members of Hezbollah in Turkey before they had served their full sentences.55 Subsequently, several of these terrorists fled Turkey for Iran where they joined the leader of Turkish Hezbollah, Isa Altsoy.56 This same amendment to the penal code has since enabled other Iranian agents in Turkey who were charged and sentenced to terrorism offenses to have a retrial; they were released later on.57
Agents of Iran are known to be working under diplomatic cover in the Islamic Republic’s Embassy in Ankara and its consulate in Istanbul.58 They have been, according to a number of recent investigations by Turkish authorities, particularly successful in recruiting Turkish assets. In April 2011, an investigation launched by Istanbul’s Public Prosecution Office (case file 2011/762) uncovered an elaborate Iranian espionage network and covert operations in Turkey, including intelligence gathering and plans for carrying out attacks against a nuclear research facility, Israeli interests, and the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul.59 This is a unique case which reveals, among other things, Iran’s robust efforts to develop country-specific plans to expand its influence, clients, and power inside Turkey to challenge its pro-Western institutions and orientation.
For years, Iran has recruited Turkish nationals or used her own agents to coerce or assassinate not just dissidents who oppose the Islamic Revolution but also Turkish intellectuals who have defended Turkey’s secular pro-Western orientation. Significantly, the targets on which the espionage network collected intelligence were either foreign or critical Turkish entities, which could indicate long-term planning in terms of the timing of the attacks. If such attacks had happened, Turkish terrorists might have been blamed without the knowledge of a larger Iranian conspiracy. More importantly, such attacks could have put Turkey in a difficult position with Western countries which could have further isolated Turkey in favor of the Iranian regime.
In any case, in mid-2013, the Turkish National Police investigated “a cell structure” called Salam Tawhid (Selam Tevhid, or Islamic Peace and Unity) that led to the indictment of 251 individuals, including a number of Turkish nationals who had been recruited by the IRGC’s Quds Force.
One of the leading figures named in the indictment of the Salam Tawhid/Quds Force cell was Hakki Selcuk Sanli. In the 1990s, Sanli was sentenced to twelve years in prison for his involvement in the assassinations of secular Turkish intellectuals.60 He was released in 2004. An Iranian citizen, Ali Akbar Mir Vakili, was also a key figure in the Salam Tawhid organization. Mir Vakili had a history of smuggling weapons and coordinating activities for the IRGC’s Quds Force in support of Iran’s proxy wars in the Middle East. According to VsQuds, a website known for leaking sensitive information about Iranian war activities in the Middle East, Mir Vakili “carried out a series of special missions for Quds Force.”61 Importantly, Mir Vakili is also named on the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.”62 According to the Treasury Department, Mir Vakili was acting on behalf of a company that the U.S. government has accused of “providing material support, including weapons to [Lebanese] Hezbollah on behalf of the IRGC.”63
Another figure named in the indictment is Sefer Turan, who has a very interesting background. Once the coordinator of TRT Arabic, a state-run news outlet, and an advisor to then-Prime Minister Erdogan on Middle East affairs, he later became a chief advisor to President Erdogan. He has published columns in the periodical Tawhid (Tevhid) and the Salam (Selam) newspaper, both of which have been the primary publications of pro-Iranian groups in Turkey.64 According to the national police indictment, Turan had also met with Ali Mir Vakili during his visits to Turkey.65
Through all this, Turkey emerged as a major operational hub for illicit Iranian financial activities designed to evade U.S. sanctions imposed on Tehran because of its nuclear ambitions. The Iranian government has used Turkey’s financial and banking system for transactions with actual and fictitious corporations. A well-known 2017 court case in the United States revealed evidence that Erdogan and his government knew about the sanctions-busting scheme.66 In fact, the level of the AKP’s and Erdogan’s enabling of the Iranian regime was made clearer by the aforementioned National Police investigations of 2013. Both the December 17 and December 25 investigations uncovered in great detail a sophisticated bribery, money laundering, fraud, and gold smuggling scheme that involved critical figures in the AKP government and their family members. Furthermore, the December 25 investigations uncovered a more complex scheme involving Erdogan’s family, his most-trusted politicians, state officials, and businessmen. Both investigations also established close ties between these Turkish figures and Iranian agents.67 Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation of Defense for Democracies aptly described the illegal activity as “the biggest sanctions-evasion scheme in recent history.”68
Subsequently, with the leak of wiretaps that recorded Erdogan telling his son to dispose of money hidden at a family house, the stakes of the corruption case became even higher for Erdogan, his party, and his family, according to Jessica Michek and Selim Sazak of the Bipartisan Policy Center.69 Indeed, the December 17 and December 25 police investigations put Erdogan in a very difficult political position at home and internationally. The AKP’s diehard followers saw the party as an agent of a new Islamic order, and they saw Erdogan as the new leader of the Islamic world. The police investigations, however, uncovered that the Erdogan regime was not very different from other corrupt rulers in the Middle East. Erdogan’s inner circle had received bribes amounting to millions of dollars from a Turkish-Iranian dual national named Reza Zarrab in exchange for enabling and facilitating the evasion of sanctions against Iran.70
The evidence obtained by the Turkish police and prosecutors in these investigations was subsequently used in a federal criminal case in the United States. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York indicted Reza Zarrab (who was apprehended by U.S. authorities in Florida in 2016) and his associates Mehmet Zafer Caglayan, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, and Suleyman Aslan.71 The U.S. Attorney’s indictment charged them with “conspiring to use the U.S. financial system to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of transactions on behalf of the Government of Iran and other Iranian entities, which were barred by United States sanctions; lying to U.S. government officials about those transactions; and laundering funds in connection with those illegal transactions, including millions of dollars in bribe payments.”72 During his testimony in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2017, Reza Zarrab claimed that when “Erdogan was prime minister…the Turkish leader personally ordered transactions that would launder billions of dollars to Iran in violation of U.S. sanctions.”73 In a related and more recent indictment—published in October 2019 by the U.S. Department of Justice—Halkbank, a Turkish state bank, was charged for its participation in the scheme to bypass sanctions on the Islamic Republic. The indictment accuses the Halkbank of using illicit methods to transfer about $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds to Iran.74 And according to the indictment, the corruption scheme does not include dates before 2013. There are other corruption schemes—or rather a continuum of the same scheme—after 2014 through 2015, according to the indictment.75
Clearly, Erdogan and his inner circle have exploited the situation created by the anti-Iran sanctions—but, to what end? Is the AKP regime intent on enabling Iranian power? It is fair to argue that the Turkish officials who have received bribes may simply be petty “meat eaters”—i.e., corrupt officials who illicitly misuse their power for personal gain.76 In fact, Erdogan himself has been the subject of corruption investigations involving bribery, embezzlement, and misconduct going back to the time when he was Istanbul’s mayor.77 Thus, it might be argued that base greed, rather than deep sympathy for the Iranian regime, was the main motivation behind Turkish officials’ illegal activity. But, whether it is greed or ideological sympathy—or a combination of both—AKP corruption has not just enabled the Iranian government. It has also set in motion profoundly disturbing developments inside Turkey itself that have received far less attention.
Erdogan’s responses to the Salam Tawhid scandal and to the December 17 and 25 anti-corruption investigations were similar. He immediately halted further police inquiries and purged all the officials involved in the investigations. In fact, after firing police chiefs, prosecutors, and judges, Erdogan and his inner circle have not hesitated to take part in other corruption schemes intended to facilitate Iran’s evasion of sanctions, while they have also lobbied the U.S. Government for the release of Reza Zarrab.78 Erdogan and his most loyal politicians and media outlets have since blamed all these investigations on a conspiracy by the “Gulenists”—i.e., the followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric now living in self-exile in the U.S. who was formerly allied with Erdogan but has since broken with him. In the aftermath of the two 2013 anti-corruption operations, Erdogan declared all-out-war on the “Gulenists.”
Subsequently, after more politically-charged purges of the police and judiciary, as well as the enactment of new laws to restructure the Turkish internal security forces, the Erdogan regime has set about to transform the state apparatus. It has replaced all politically suspect groups or individuals with cadres that are more sympathetic and amenable to its goals.
Since then, Erdogan has appointed AKP-affiliated judges and prosecutors to the Chief Prosecutor’s Office in Istanbul. These individuals have not only closed the earlier corruption investigations, but have instead opened fictitious investigations against purged police chiefs and their lieutenants, who have been imprisoned since July 22, 2014.79 Despite the long efforts by law enforcement to uncover the Iranian espionage and terrorist network in their country, Erdogan and his ministers have relentlessly tried to discredit the investigators and to cover up the links between his inner circle and these criminal conspiracies. This has led, naturally, to allegations that Erdogan and the AKP are trying to keep something important to them hidden.80 In the view of journalist Abdullah Bozkurt, the investigations “exposed Erdogan’s secret ties to IRGC generals and uncovered how the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT), run by pro-Iranian figure Hakan Fidan, worked with the Iranian regime.”81
This is a compelling argument—but is it, in fact, the case? It is plausible that the Tawhid Salam and 2013 corruption investigations were, from the perspective of Ankara, separate. The purges of National Police and subsequent cover-up attempts may well have been simply about Erdogan’s own interests including regime self-preservation. In any case, a government committed to the rule of law would make it a priority to find out. The AKP, however, has responded by blaming all the investigations on a conspiracy. In this, the controlling regime’s clear goal has been to stop the investigations and to discourage anyone who might dare to engage in similar quests in the future. As a result of the government’s efforts, 251 suspects—twenty-eight of whom were alleged Iranian Quds Force operatives—were cleared of charges in the most comprehensive espionage and terrorism investigation in Turkish history. For any Turkish citizen—and their allies—committed to national security and rule of law, this is scandalous. However, Erdogan has shown disdain for the idea that the law applies to him, and he has since waved off the entire Tawhid-Salam affair as “fabricated”82 and “fake” news.83
Erdogan’s Establishment of an Iranian-Like Regime
The AKP’s transformation of state institutions and its implementation of authoritarian measures became increasingly apparent after 2013. But this only accelerated after the staged military coup of 2016, which was heralded by Erdogan himself as a “gift from God.” In a number of important ways, the evolution of the AKP’s oppressive regime since then has mirrored what happened in Iran after 1979, when the Khomeinist regime consolidated its power. Like Erbakan before them, it appears the AKP government has taken some inspiration from the revolutionary regime in Iran, which has managed to bend Iran’s society and state to its will. In any case, as Iran scholar Alireza Nader has observed, the massive purges of state institutions and the military that Erdogan ordered immediately after the coup do “suggest the Turkish state is moving toward authoritarian Islamist rule of the sort that Iran introduced in 1979.”84
In Iran, the 1979 revolution led to the mass executions of military officers who were loyal to the Shah, and the creation of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a force ideologically dedicated to safeguarding the Islamic Revolution. In Turkey, Erdogan used the 2016 coup attempt to justify the purge or imprisonment of pro-Western officers from the Turkish military. As of December 27, 2019, a total of 18,630 officers were purged from the Turkish Armed Forces, according to the Turkish Ministry of Defense,85 thus effectively ending what “once [had been] a mighty pillar of a secular [country].”86 In the meantime, the AKP regime has revamped formal “security structures to ensure loyalty and to maintain political control,” according to scholar Howard Eissenstat.87 Not only has it installed AKP loyalists88 in the military and national police, but it has fundamentally changed the way new officers are educated to emphasize ideological indoctrination in line with AKP’s own agenda.89
Simultaneously, as Eissenstat and other scholars have documented, the Erdogan regime has created a “network of informal security structures” inside Turkey that “include military contractors, political party clubs and [a] newly militant and mobilized AKP base.”90 This irregular and Iranian-like network of loyalists and paramilitary groups—what Mahmut Tanal, an MP of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), describes as a “party police force”91 — has since been further empowered and emboldened by government decrees.92 Today, the network effectively helps Erdogan and the ruling party to control the streets, intimidate and oppress the Turkish people, and carry out covert operations against dissident political groups.
This, too, mirrors what happened in post-1979 Iran, where the Basij, or people’s militia, was created as a civilian auxiliary unit of volunteers to protect the revolutionary regime. Since the establishment of the Basij, many of its members have been recruited to serve alongside the IRGC on behalf of the Iranian regime and its current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.93 Erdogan now appears to be moving in the same direction. After firing or imprisoning thousands of professional and well-trained police and military officers, he then started to replace them with new officers recruited from paramilitary forces, such as Ottoman Hearts and SADAT,94 members of AKP youth organizations, and different Islamic sects who are supporters of the AKP.
The founder and president of SADAT International Defense Consultancy, Adnan Tanriverdi, has recently resigned from his role as President Erdogan’s adviser95 amid a backlash due to his remarks at a conference in December, 2019 in which he said his company was “paving the way for the coming of the Mahdi.”96 (The Mahdi is a messianic figure that some Muslims believe will redeem mankind before the world ends.) This statement caused an uproar in parts of Turkey, and although the full reasons for Tanriverdi’s abrupt resignation are not clear, it could signal a tactical retreat by the Erdogan regime meant to ease pressure on it. In any case, as Erdogan’s chief military advisor, Tanriverdi has in recent times been actively involved in shaping AKP policy on the future of the Turkish military—including recruitment. According to Suat Cubukcu, purging thousands of police and military officers has enabled Erdogan “to recruit some members of pro-government paramilitary forces in state institutions and give them formal titles and ranks.”97
Meanwhile, the AKP regime has also virtually eliminated independent media in Turkey and has established instead an elaborate pro-AKP media network, which it has leveraged to advance its larger political agenda. The businessmen in Erdogan’s inner circle have purchased over 90 percent of the media in Turkey through an elaborate “pool” scheme—i.e., a bribery system—in exchange for lucrative future government contracts, including Istanbul Airport and other mega infrastructure projects.98,99 With these media outlets secured by party loyalists, the AKP regime has managed to manipulate the public and effectively silence the opposition.100
One clear consequence of AKP control over the media has been the resurgence of anti-Americanism in Turkey. The party media, for instance, has deliberately reported U.S.-related news in conjunction with emphatically negative, pejorative, and offensive editorializing about the United States, according to a recent study conducted by one of this article’s authors.101 Just as Khomeini adeptly exploited Iranian grievances against the United States to rally the masses around the Islamic Revolution, Erdogan and the AKP media have extensively and consistently whipped up Turkish grievances and fomented public animosity against the United States, the European Union, Israel, and other countries to galvanize broad-based support for his leadership and agenda.102 Again, like the Iranian regime, which portrays the U.S. as the “Great Satan” and the source of every evil affecting Iran and the Islamic World, the AKP and Erdogan in particular routinely blame and scapegoat the United States for Turkey’s internal and other problems.103
Given the AKP’s constant propagandizing, the increase in anti-Americanism in Turkey has been unprecedented. According to a BBC World poll in 2017,104 Turkey had the highest increase in anti-American sentiment in the previous three years and scored one of the highest levels of anti-Americanism in the world. Similarly, a 2018 poll from The Center for American Progress reported that 83 percent of Turks had unfavorable views about the United States.105 Another survey by the Turkish national newspaper Turkiye Gazetesi showed that 81 percent of Turks do not consider the United States an ally or friend of their country.106
Certain U.S. policy decisions, such as support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria (a decision that the Obama Administration came to after the AKP government failed to intervene against the Islamic State), or the more recent F-35 fighter jet crisis, have contributed to a general backlash in Turkey. However, Turkey’s AKP-controlled media has shown no mercy to the United States. At the same time, Russia and Iran have in fact been two of the major actors prolonging the conflict in Syria and pushing flows of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Yet, significantly, there is little critical news coverage, if any, about Putin or Russian policy in Syria, and very few reports in the AKP press about Iran’s role in the conflict.
In our judgment, the Erdogan regime’s incendiary anti-Westernism is motivated by both political opportunism and its Islamist ideological agenda.107 Like Erbakan before, the Erdogan/AKP regime is intent on dividing Turkish society between what it deems the “imitators” of the West and the “true Muslims,” and then exploiting the resulting polarization for its own gain. This strategy, too, appears to emulate the Iranian revolution’s playbook. The Islamist regime in Iran acquired popular support and consolidated power among the rural and religiously conservative poor by stoking their frustration with the Shah’s pro-urban and elite-centered policies.108 The Khomeinist regime then used the popular anger it helped to generate to further weaponize religious sentiment against the United States.
Likewise, Erdogan’s many-faceted strategy for philosophically transforming Turkish society—which has focused on rearing up and empowering a new “pious generation” that is loyal to the AKP’s agenda—seems ominously similar to the Iranian regime’s efforts. As mentioned earlier, reforming the Diyanet, or Directorate of Religious Affairs—a government body that oversees mosques and the appointment of imams—has been a central focus of the AKP’s “top-down” bid to impose its principles and politics on society. Under Kemalist rule, the Diyanet was effectively set up to manage Islamic affairs in ways that supported the secularist government. But under AKP rule, allies of Erdogan, including Diyanet’s former president, Mehmet Gormez, and his successor, Ali Erbas, have allowed the ministry and Islam itself to be politicized by the ruling party.109 The number of personnel in Diyanet has increased 29 percent, while the budget in the 2018 fiscal year exceeded the initial projections by 62 percent.110 A majority of new Diyanet personnel are graduates of Imam Hatip High Schools—which Erdogan considers the grassroots of his ideology—and they are organized around religious associations which have effectively become an extension of AKP regime structure. Erdogan, himself, describes the associations in the Diyanet as an army.111
In 2019, the Diyanet’s official budget, according to different estimates, was between $908 million and $1.87 billion,112 which is more than the budgets of several ministries. Nil Mutluer, in her article in The European Journal of Turkish Studies, argues “Diyanet has become one of the most important political symbols and representatives of the “__yeni milli__” (new nationalism) … that the AKP seeks to instill and implement.”113 Through Friday prayers, sermons and religious gatherings, the AKP’s Diyanet has come to act as an indoctrination agent, social control mechanism, and political propaganda machine, both domestically and regionally.
Moreover, the AKP regime’s plans for raising a “pious generation”114 have encouraged and incentivized parents to enroll their children in Imam Hatip (imam preacher) High Schools (though without the intended effect, according to a recent survey).115 On the other hand, some parents, the majority of whom were Alawites, according to Hurriyet Newspaper, claimed that they were forced to enroll their children in those schools against their will.116 The government, moreover, has provided millions of dollars in grants, municipal funds and lucrative tax exemptions to Islamist and Islamic foundations, and then has used these Islamist foundations for grassroots recruitment117 into state institutions. The goal of philosophical transformation among the country’s youth has led the Erdogan government to patronize a host of youth-oriented AKP-linked Islamist and Islamic foundations, whose programs are clearly opposed to secular democracy.118 These include the Social Solidarity Association, the Youth and Education Service Foundation (TÜRGEV),119 the Turkey Youth Foundation (TÜGVA),120 the Society for Islamic Knowledge, the Archers’ Foundation, the Women and Democracy Association, the Turkey Technology Team,121 the Ensar Foundation, and the Asitane Culture Arts and Education Foundation.122
TÜRGEV, as but one example, received almost $100 million donations from abroad, according to an AKP government official.123 Erdogan’s AKP has used these foundations to carry out grassroots recruitment for positions in the state.124 Hiring individuals in government and public institutions who are active in Islamist and AKP-affiliated Islamic foundations125 and associations has become a common practice.126
Meantime, the Erdogan government’s efforts to impose its ideological agenda have reached far beyond Turkey itself. The AKP government has engaged routinely in long arm operations among the Turkey-origin Diaspora in Europe using the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB),127 the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD),128 and the Turkish-Islamic Union for Cultural and Social Cooperation in Austria (ATIB). These associations have acted as propaganda machinery for the AKP as well as the long arm of Turkish intelligence.
For example, according to the German Minister of Interior,129 the imams in mosques registered under DITIB spied on Turkish-origin diaspora on behalf of the MIT. Investigations by Germany’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution in North Rhine Westphalia revealed that DITIB imams had reported 28 Turkish dissidents to the Turkish Embassy.130 German authorities also uncovered “increased attempts by the Turkish state to exert influence over…the Turkish diaspora…and attempts were undertaken by, Turkish diplomatic missions in Germany as well as by institutions like DITIB and UETD.”131
After 1979, Iran’s revolutionary regime rapidly became infamous for extensively targeting its opponents in other countries—including in Turkey. One example was the killing and kidnapping of anti-Iranian Revolution figures who fled Iran and sought refuge in Turkey.132 Previous governments in Turkey have accused the Iranian regime of assassinating secular Turkish intellectuals, including Cetin Emec (a journalist), Turan Dursun (a writer), Muammer Aksoy133 (head of the Ataturk Thought Association), Bahriye Ucok (a female lawyer who campaigned vigorously against requiring females to wear a veil), Ugur Mumcu (a prominent investigative journalist),134 and Ahmet Taner Kislali135 (a prominent intellectual). All of these victims had two things in common: openly defending a secular system in Turkey and criticizing the Islamic revolution in Iran. Iran used Turkish citizens to carry out all of these assassinations.136
Like the Islamist regime in Iran, the Erdogan regime has also been implicated in kidnappings, disappearances, and acts of torture on home soil—even in Ankara, the capital of Turkey. Moreover, abductions abroad137 by Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT)138 have become the modus operandi of the state. Under Hakan Fidan’s direction, extra-judicial operations such as abductions, intimidation, threats, and killings by the MIT have occurred frequently. A 2018 report in The New York Times revealed that more than 80 people had been abducted in 18 countries. According to the public prosecutor of Germany, in the last 10 years, MIT has been investigated 23 times. Seventeen of the investigations occurred in the last two years.139 The MIT has focused its efforts on targeting the opposition—including Gulenists, Kurds,140 and secularists—in Germany.141
Efforts aimed at targeting and spying on the opposition, however, are not limited to Europe. Significantly, the United States also has been the site of Turkish intelligence operations.142 Paralleling the AKP’s same policies in Europe and with Erdogan’s blessings, the TÜRGEV and Ensar foundations jointly established the TURKEN Foundation in New York City in 2014. Erdogan’s son, Bilal Erdogan143 is one of the co-founders of TURKEN and his daughter, Esra Albayrak144 is on the Board of Directors. President Erdogan has attended annual dinners organized by TURKEN when he also attended the United National General Assembly meetings. America is a free and open society, so the AKP’s cultural activities are permitted. However, given the Erdogan regime’s track record in Europe, Turkey’s long-arm intelligence and coercive operations might also increase in the United States.145
The AKP Regime and its Foreign Proxies
The Erdogan regime’s international conduct has paralleled revolutionary Iran in other disturbing respects—most notably, its evolving support of Islamist proxies, including armed militias in Syria and Libya. During the Kemalist era, Turkey deliberately tried to keep its distance from the Middle East and avoided entanglements there. The outbreak of the Arab Spring—and particularly the wars in Syria—fundamentally changed this. As discussed earlier, the Erdogan regime has provided direct diplomatic and other support to political parties (notably the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi in Egypt) and proxy groups during and after the Arab uprisings.
In Syria, what began as Turkish support for the anti-Assad rebellion has rapidly evolved in alarming ways. Now, in addition to providing arms to anti-Assad and anti-Kurdish Islamist militias, the AKP regime has also started sponsoring and directing jihadist groups to fight on its behalf in Syria (against Kurdish groups, for instance) as well as in Libya.146 Although Turkey’s network of irregular units is far smaller than Iran’s, still the Erdogan regime appears intent on replicating the Iranian “Quds Force” and on building a far larger Turkish network of proxies.
The Erdogan regime’s support for radical groups and efforts to develop proxies of its own is clearly driven by political opportunism as well as by a larger ideological agenda. Clearly, foreign adventures have been useful politically for Erdogan, allowing him to generate crises that rally nationalist support and justify strongman rule in the face of looming external threats. In 2019, for instance, the Turkish military’s incursion into northeastern Syria against PKK-affiliated Kurdish groups gave the Erdogan government a political boost with certain ultra-nationalist and anti-Kurdish constituencies at home. Ideologically, however, Erdogan’s rise to power has been substantially enabled by Islamist groups. Internationally, he has not only aligned with Islamist groups, but showed the ambition to create an Islamist network that would carry him to his own foreign goals.147 Turkey, according to its constitution, is still a secular country. However, that secularism is under threat, and the Speaker of the Parliament, Ismail Kahraman, has expressed that the principle of secularism should be removed from the constitution.148
The authors of this piece and their colleagues have conducted three different research studies on the political, social, and economic impact of the Syrian conflict on Turkey and the region, including one that was funded by the U.S. State Department.149 One of the main findings of these studies was that, starting in 2011, the AKP government deliberately turned a blind eye or failed to address several critical issues that enabled the free flow of foreign terrorist fighters (FTF) through Turkey to the Syrian conflict. Since then, the Erdogan regime’s relationships with armed Islamist groups has evolved, moving to tacit enabling, active support, and, most recently, direct patronage and command of armed proxies controlled by Ankara.
During the early years of the wars in Syria, thousands of foreign fighters, coming from more than ninety countries,150 transited through Turkey on their way to join al-Qaeda or Islamic State (ISIS) to fight—initially—against the Assad regime.151 With the help of Turkish recruiters and border facilitators, foreign fighters primarily entered Syria via the Istanbul airport through six crossing points on the Turkish border. These border crossings accounted for 93 percent of all entries into Syria of ISIS-affiliated foreign fighters, according to one study that analyzed ISIS personnel records.152
Although Turkey had itself experienced terrorism for decades, AKP officials exhibited a marked unwillingness to address the “jihadist highway” that was growing inside their country. As a result, jihadist groups expanded not only in Syria, but they were also able to establish inside Turkey organizational networks that began to recruit Turks from more than 60 cities in almost every region of the country. Our own research identified at least 17 different groups in Turkey headed by Turkish citizens who have recruited more than 2,200 Turks into ISIS or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups.153 These recruiting operations were named after their leaders or the locations where they were based. Some of the names of these networks are as follows: Samanpazari Group (a small district in downtown Ankara); Halis Bayancuk Group (aka Istanbul emir); Kemal Yasar Group; Murat Gezenler Group; Reyhanli Group (the largest district of Hatay on the Syria border); Eyup Baksi Group; Mustafa Dokumacı Group; and İbrahim Subaşı Group.154 These groups used certain front associations and organizations to recruit fighters, such as Islam Tea Coffee in Adiyaman, Islah-Der in Bingol, and IHH (__İnsan Hak ve Hürriyetleri İnsani Yardım__— Human Rights and Freedoms Humanitarian Relief Foundation) in Van and Kilis.155
As these Turkey-based terrorist networks established themselves and grew their operations, Turkish law enforcement understood it could not ignore the problem. However, the AKP-led central government actively intervened in attempts by law enforcement to disrupt terrorist organizations. Police did conduct some operations against individuals suspected of being members of ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Yet most of these suspects were released after only a brief detention.156 This led Turkish opposition parties, journalists, and academics to raise serious concerns about whether the police were merely conducting window-dressing operations against jihadist networks.157
Our own research lends credence to these accusations against the AKP government. According to police, military, and intelligence officials that we interviewed, as well as people on the Turkey-Syria border and in southeastern Turkey, AKP officials pressured them specifically not to conduct operations against individuals affiliated with al-Qaeda and ISIS. In fact, the former heads of the anti-terrorism and intelligence departments in Van—one of the largest cities in eastern Turkey—say they were fired by AKP officials simply because they conducted operations against al-Qaeda cell structures in the city. Since then, the AKP government has carried out since 2014 purges of thousands of experienced counterterrorism police officers; they were deemed to be “Gulenists.” Meanwhile, the government and its subsequent appointments of inexperienced officers, who are fully loyal to the party, have combined to significantly diminish the country’s ability to conduct counterterrorism operations.
By 2014, the Erdogan regime had moved from tacitly permitting terrorist recruitment and logistical operations inside Turkey to actively providing material support to jihadist groups battling the Assad regime in Syria. This included financial and military support to terrorist groups, opening its border to facilitate the mobility of foreign terrorist fighters, permitting illegal oil trade, and allowing wounded fighters to be treated in Turkish hospitals.158
According to our own research, the AKP government’s main conduit to these Syria-based jihadist groups was the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) led by Hakan Fidan. A provincial AKP-affiliated governor on the Turkey-Syria border whom we spoke to said that Hakan Fidan, the head of MIT, was responsible for delivering weapons and ammunition to the “wrong” people (a reference to ISIS and al-Qaeda).159 The governor also claimed that he had informed then-Prime Minister Erdogan about the MIT chief’s transgressions, but that Erdogan had not taken any steps to stop Fidan. These allegations appear to be supported by the infamous case in 2014 of “the MIT trucks.” In January of that year, Turkish national police and gendarmerie officers stopped and searched three trucks crossing the border from Turkey into Syria. The trucks were found to be carrying weapons and ammunition; they were also driven by MIT officers.160 AKP officials subsequently claimed that the military equipment was intended for Turkmens living in northern Syria.161
As yet, there has been no clear determination of the intended recipients of this materiel. However, evidence does suggest that the shipments were intended for extremist groups in Syria. Turkmen groups never received any arms and ammunition from Ankara, according to a Turkmen Ketiba commander whom we interviewed. What’s more, following the 2014 MIT trucks incident, the AKP government imprisoned the officers who stopped the caravan and the prosecutor who gave the order to do so.162
These Turkish-jihadist ties only deepened as the United States, first, made clear in 2013 that it would not intervene militarily to remove Assad from power and, then, in 2014 began to work with Syrian Kurds to fight ISIS. Increases in both the futility of the opposition cause and U.S.-Kurdish cooperation in Syria drove Erdogan to then prioritize the fight against the potential establishment of a PKK-aligned Kurdish statelet as his primary objective in Syria.
In 2014, Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister at the time, dismissed growing international concerns about ISIS and also al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliates as “just a group of angry men.”163 The overriding reasons for this official insouciance, it appears, were political and geopolitical. Erdogan, who had originally encouraged Assad to accommodate the demands of Syrian protestors, turned sharply against the Syrian leader once the civil war began, demanding his ouster. Later, when Assad’s security forces withdrew from the heavily Kurdish northeast to confront threats in other parts of the country, Ankara quickly grew alarmed at the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish enclave that was controlled by groups affiliated with the Kurdish terrorist group inside Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Erdogan saw arming radical Sunni groups inside Syria as a means to fight not just Assad but also the Syrian Kurds.
This was not, however, merely a security objective. Erdogan and his government officials saw their involvements in the Syrian war as an important political opportunity. In a leaked recording of a 2014 conversation between Ahmet Davutoglu (then the foreign minister), Hakan Fidan, and other high-level government officials, Fidan is heard saying, “Now look, my commander, if there is to be justification, the justification is, I send four men to the other side. I get them to fire eight missiles into empty land. That’s not a problem. Justification can be created.”164
Such a “false-flag” strike on Turkey from elements in Syria—if it happened—would have provided Ankara with the “justification” to send Turkish soldiers to occupy northern Syria. It would likely also have helped the AKP consolidate power at home and galvanize Turkish public sentiment around the need to protect the Turkish nation and heritage against threats inside Syria. Although Fidan’s scheme was never implemented, his leaked remarks did illustrate the intentions of at least some of the “revolutionaries” shaping AKP policy. Indeed, these intentions are not limited to the Syrian conflict. Fidan’s statement reflects the AKP regime’s long-term interest in enlarging its influence throughout the region. Recently, Turkey encouraged Syrian jihadists to become a fighting force in Libya. In this, it appears the AKP regime is intent on establishing its own ideological influence through a regional network of proxies, similar to what Iran has done in Lebanon through its sponsorship of Hezbollah.
As it happened, Erdogan did abandon an internal peace process with the PKK and restarted military operations against the PKK inside Turkey in 2015, just before parliamentary elections. In 2016, he then launched an offensive into Syrian Kurdish territory, declaring victory just before a constitutional referendum. The close timing between these military operations and critical elections is not coincidental.
By 2015, however, Turkey began to experience blowback from its enablement of terrorist networks along, and inside of, its own borders. One Turkish Salafi group, Dokumacilar, based in the province of Adiyaman, actively recruited fighters for the war in Syria. This group was responsible for the 2015 suicide bombing attack in Suruc, Turkey, where 32 people were killed.165 Another major incident, the double 2015 suicide bombings in Ankara, were the deadliest terrorist attacks in the history of the country with a death toll of more than 100 civilians.166 These attacks were perpetrated by two brothers, Yunus Emre Alagöz and Şeyh Abdurrahman Alagöz,167 who were both recruited by Mustafa Dokumaci, the leader of Dokumacilar group.
Foreign commentators began to blame the AKP’s refusal to take ISIS seriously as examples of “willful blindness.”168 Others believe that something deeper was at work. In fact, a classified report from the European Union’s official intelligence body (EUINTCEN) that was obtained by the independent Ahval News website169 speculates that elements in the AKP were complicit in the Ankara bombing attack. The report states that “the modus operandi of the attack (suicide bombers) points to Da’esh. Given the circumstances (arriving buses with demonstrators not searched, police almost absent at the huge demonstration), there is a reason to believe that in this case, forces within the AKP commissioned the Da’esh operatives.”170
In any case, after these attacks on Turkish soil and the dramatic spread of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the AKP government has faced increasing political pressure at home, as well as from the United States and the European Union, to do more against ISIS and other jihadist groups inside the country and out. As a result, the Erdogan government eventually joined the international coalition against ISIS in 2015, allowing U.S. air forces to use Turkish bases for their anti-ISIS operations and making efforts to close the border to ISIS transit and smuggling. Even so, the Erdogan regime’s engagement with ISIS and al-Qaeda-aligned forces inside Syria has contributed to greater distrust between Turkey and the United States. Revealingly, the 2019 U.S. Special Forces operation to kill the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took place very close to the Turkish border, but was launched from Erbil in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and not from the much closer Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.171
Indeed, even as Turkey was coming under Western pressure to join the fight against ISIS, the AKP regime was deepening its support for other radical movements. Starting in 2016, Ankara shifted from providing direct assistance for al-Qaeda-aligned elements within the Syrian opposition to recruiting these forces to operate under direct Turkish control and direction. In Syria, during the initial phases of the conflict, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) was established in July 2011 as a cohesive fighting force against the Assad regime forces. At the time, the FSA was being trained and equipped by the U.S.172 In the coming years, however, FSA became fragmented and decentralized. According to field interviews that Suleyman Ozeren and his colleagues conducted in 2013, the FSA did not have a centralized command structure back then. Later, however, when the Obama Administration decided to pull U.S. support from the FSA, some of the groups within the FSA became hired proxies, predominantly, for Turkey and Qatar.
Now, Turkey has created Syrian National Army (Ceys-ul Vatani), another version of the FSA. The SNA is actually composed of some of the groups formerly with the Free Syrian Army as well as former members of al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliates. Turkey supplements its sponsorship and use of irregular units with both its national military, primarily air support, and mercenary forces. Meantime, the recruitment of proxies has also been giving the Erdogan regime a new ability to exert regional influence—something that Erdogan has long desired, but which has largely eluded him.
In all likelihood, the AKP regime will want to continue to support the SNA because it has been very useful for Turkey in conducting military incursions during the Euphrates Shield operation in 2016; the Olive Branch operation in Afrin in 2018; and the ongoing Peace Spring operations in northeastern Syria. Just like Iran, the AKP regime appears to be intent on creating its own “Hezbollah,” similar to Iran’s proxy. Even after a potential deal in Syria, Turkey could keep these forces under its control as an alternative proxy group to use against the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has also supported Islamists in Libya by providing them with funds and arms. Recently, the Erdogan regime has encouraged foreign fighters in Syria to fight in Libya on behalf of AKP interests. It is argued that these fighters are being promised Turkish citizenship after six months of deployment.173
Against this backdrop, the AKP and Erdogan continue to use anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric,174 which aligns them with extremist groups’ narratives.175 Turkey’s younger population is especially susceptible to the nationalist and religious sentiments espoused by extremist groups. The AKP frequently accuses Western countries of illegal occupation of Muslim territories and blames those countries for every injustice that occurs in the region. This, in turn, encourages vulnerable Turkish youth to join the fight in Syria. The AKP government has done little to stem such rhetoric and its effects. Instead, it remains focused on its mutual interests with jihadist groups in the region. With its sponsorship of extremist groups, use of proxies to fight its battles, and radical rhetoric at home, the Erdogan regime is coming more and more to resemble the revolutionary Iranian regime. The more this deepens, the more the Erdogan regime will, like Iran, become a state exporter of regional jihadism, instability and misery.
Over his decade and a half in power, Erdogan and the revolution he has wrought inside Turkey has increasingly mirrored Iran’s tactics domestically and internationally. This transformation makes Turkey neither a better partner to the U.S. nor a more determined adversary of Iran. Instead, Erdogan—like the Iranian theocracy—has stoked instability. Turkish democracy is more fragile, its social contract more contested, and its security more precarious than in any time in earlier decades. As Turkey reaps the discord that Erdogan has sown, Erdogan’s project to transform Turkey is going to face ever greater challenges.
Erdogan promised more democracy and freedom in the early years of his governance; however, his prolonged tenure has brought an unprecedented and bitter revolution that has led in the opposite direction. Erdogan has undermined secular governing institutions by exploiting religious discourse and pursuing policies to attract both nationalist and religious popular support. To cement his control over Turkey, Erdogan transformed the entire state apparatus—including intelligence, military, police, judiciary, and religious authorities—through legislation, abolishing existing institutions, establishing new structures, purging civil servants and installing political loyalists in their place. While restructuring formal institutions, Erdogan formed an irregular and Iranian-like militia structure with private security contractors and paramilitary organizations, such as SADAT and Ottoman Hearts, that helps him to control the streets and silence opponents.
Turkey’s drift toward an Islamist-authoritarian system and alienation from democratic principles has had a huge impact on Turkey’s foreign affairs as well. As Erdogan became more authoritarian at home, Turkey has distanced itself from traditional Western allies and filled the void by improving relations with other autocratic countries in the region, namely with Iran and Russia. Turkey has also become a major enabler and sponsor of jihadist groups. Once a model country for its constructive foreign policy, Turkey, under Erdogan, has turned out to be a major sponsor and facilitator of jihadism in Syria and Libya.
As Erdogan moves further toward a national-Islamist and authoritarian revolution along Iranian lines, there are several critical obstacles before him. First, the social and political issues that elevated Erdogan to power—but that he has since failed to address—have become his Achilles’s Heel. Amid growing problems, such as high youth unemployment,176 poverty,177 authoritarianism,178 and corruption,179 Erdogan’s “silent revolution” is beginning to lose power, at least among the younger population. The deepening domestic crisis has bolstered the hopes of Erdogan’s political opponents—as seen in the 2019 Istanbul mayoral election, which the AKP lost, twice—as well as the rise of new parties formed by former AKP politicians.
Second, Turkey’s overextended and dangerous foreign policy initiatives including proxy warfare and military engagements in countries like Syria and Libya could backfire. Among other things, the Erdogan regime’s foreign adventures could, because they are driven in large part by ideological and political motives, turn out to be spectacular failures, which would diminish Erdogan’s power at home. More worrisome, they also risk importing the instability that rages along Turkey’s border, and which is stoked by Erdogan’s actions, into Turkey itself. Whether ISIS cells operating inside Turkey, increased PKK violence, or new refugee flows, Erdogan could become the victim of his own thirst for power and influence.
Meantime, Erdogan also risks increasing Turkey’s estrangement from its traditional Western allies, particularly as the United States considers a range of sanctions for Turkey’s pro-Russian and anti-Kurdish actions while the European Union grows concerned with Turkey’s Libyan gambit. Third, against all odds, people in Turkey still see the West and the European Union as an alternative hope. The belief that Erdogan will one day pass from the scene provides resilience to the many different segments of Turkish society. While Erdogan has sought to reach out to the new generation through grassroots youth organizations and aimed to generate his version of a “pious generation,” it seems that his message may not resonate among the youth. As we witnessed in Gezi protests, Turkish youth is more interested in being part of the free world.
However, as Erdogan runs into more challenges and loses his popular support, he will likely resort to more authoritarian measures to keep a grip on power. He may also double-down on the AKP’s revolutionary Islamist agenda—with disturbing implications for the search for order in the Middle East, for the security of Europe, and for the future of Turkey itself.