Erdoğan blinked. Turn up the heat on Turkey

Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blinked in the face possible economic sanctions when he saw that Germany means business by finally deciding to take some concrete actions as opposed to a long-running policy of appeasement that played into the hands of this dictator who has turned Turkey into an open prison for Turks and foreign nationals.

That said, this is certainly not the time for easing up on the pressure on this cowardly man who loves to play the game of chicken with his adversaries only to turn the steering wheel at the last minute to escape a collision that may seal his fate. If he gets away with the damage he inflicted on Turkey and the nation’s relations with long-time allies and partners, Erdoğan will definitely go through another round of the game at the first opportunity he gets with the hope that he would win this time around, too. Taking an aggressive stand on issues with Turkey would send an unambiguous message to him.
The trade, tourism and investment-dependent economy is the lifeline for Erdoğan’s rule, and he knows that very well. He wants to have all the economic perks without paying the required price tag in insuring the rule of law, checks and balances in governance, accountability and transparency, a competitive environment and respect for freedoms including the right to free enterprise and freedom of the press. Facing huge legal troubles down the road, from corruption to aiding and abetting jihadists, Erdoğan cannot politically afford to restore these crucial tools that are necessary to sustain business and an investment friendly market economy.

He tried to bully Germany by threatening its companies and foundations operating in Turkey and arresting its nationals on trumped-up charges. But he backed down when Germany turned up the heat on him by signaling it would adopt serious actions. The Turkish government rushed to drop fabricated terror charges against hundreds of German companies that were submitted via Interpol, and Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım summoned the senior managers of German companies to his office to allay any concerns and assure the safety of their investments. Nevertheless, this is nothing but a stop-gap measure by Erdoğan, who wants to gain some time, only to hit back again, when the time comes, to serve his interests.

This is a classic pattern of the behavior of Erdoğan, who adopted similar policies with respect to the US, Russia and China and played his own double game in the end, betraying commitments made at the table when the issues came up for discussion at summits and intergovernmental meetings. I think Russian President Vladimir Putin read him like a book better than anybody else on how to tackle this Islamist thug. Erdoğan’s belligerent talk right after shooting down a Russian warplane on the Turkish-Syrian border on Nov. 24, 2015, quickly faded away when Russia came down hard on Turkey by adopting series of economic and political sanctions. Erdoğan formally apologized, met Russian demands including the reopening of the Sputnik Turkish website, which was shut down by the Turkish government.

Yet, Putin kept Erdoğan at arm’s length, never fully lifted sanctions and never trusted him because Moscow knew Erdoğan would want to play his own sinister game by keep supporting radical religious groups in Turkey and abroad that threaten Russian security interests. It turned out that Putin was right all along when a Turkish police officer who was radicalized by Nureddin Yıldız, a radical, hate-preaching cleric who is very close to Erdoğan, killed Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in the Turkish capital on Dec. 19, 2016. Despite the fact that the killer and preacher Yıldız were linked to al-Qaeda jihadists in Syria, Erdoğan hushed up the probe, derailed the investigation that implicated his inner circle and scapegoated for the murder the Gülen movement, which had nothing to do with the assassination at all.

Now it appears to be Germany’s turn to take a shot at Erdoğan, who also hushed up the case of the murder of 12 German nationals at a historic site in Istanbul on Jan. 12, 2016 that was blamed on the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Most of the 26 suspects named in the 88-page indictment by the Istanbul prosecutor under case number No.2016/2357 have been released in hearings, confirming the long-held view that the Erdoğan regime is not really willing to crack down on radical Islamist groups because they are proxies for Erdoğan’s long reach.

By the way, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a grave mistake by letting Erdoğan’s henchmen off the hook when the Turkish president’s personal aide, Muhammed Taha Gergerlioğlu, and other operatives were detained in 2015 on espionage charges in Germany. The resulting court case that appeared to be based on solid evidence was halted by what appeared to be a result of a political deal between Merkel and Erdoğan. The case was dropped and Gergerlioğlu was released to Turkey. Now Erdoğan is playing his own game with two German nationals, Deniz Yücel and Peter Steudtner, by bringing espionage and terror charges against them. The problem, however, is that Erdoğan’s case against the German nationals lacks any evidence and is based on fabricated charges.

All these frantic moves by Erdoğan suggest he is running out of moves in this game of chicken and is resorting to desperate measures. It is high time to turn up the heat on him rather than letting him off the hook by striking a deal that will not hold no matter what promises he would make to save himself and buy some precious time. If Erdoğan’s actions get read as a pattern of deliberate escalation followed by further negotiation, that would have been a huge mistake on the part of Turkey’s allies because it would certainly raise the political and human costs while missing the window of opportunity to make a difference for Turkey.

Every week around 1,000 people are arrested in Turkey on false charges, on top of the 51,000 who were thrown in jail without a trial or conviction. The blatant abuse of the criminal justice system to hunt down Erdoğan’s critics and opponents would further spill over to other countries as seen in the espionage, terror and interference allegations made against Turkey by foreign governments. Erdoğan would make moves that do not make any sense from a strategic point of view of Turkey’s national security interests such as blocking NATO allies and non-NATO partners from cooperating, siding with Qatar against Gulf and Arab nations and trying to destabilize countries in the Balkans with Islamist projects.

Let’s not forget that Erdoğan would also mobilize proxy groups in which his intelligence and clandestine parallel networks have invested for some time in Europe to try to gain leverage in his spoiler game. This is not a question of “if” but rather “when” he feels backed into a corner. He would use whatever time he had left to consolidate his backers among Turkish Muslim communities abroad. Hence, it is crucial to take preventive and counter measures while making absolutely clear to Erdoğan that there would be a serious price to be paid when that happens.

To put it bluntly, the Turkish president is no longer behaving like a rational actor and statesman but rather a like criminal syndicate boss who orders the abduction of hostages, unleashes murderous thugs and threatens and blackmails to get what he wants. Perhaps even the Mafia has its own code of conduct in its own peculiar and twisted way. Erdoğan and his cronies, on the other hand, have no decency and lack basic human values. Time to treat him the way he deserves…

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