It has now been 18 years since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party shocked Turkey’s secular establishment and swept to power. That Islamists won a supermajority in Turkey’s parliament reflected less the religious orientation of Turkey’s electorate at the time and more Turks’ disgust at both establishment corruption and incumbent politicians’ financial mismanagement. Over the previous 18 months, Turkey had hemorrhaged foreign reserves and then, in a single day in February 2001, the Turkish lira declined about one-third of its value against the U.S. dollar.
Fast-forward to the present: Whereas once the secular middle class saw in Erdogan an anecdote to endemic corruption, today the president-billionaire has the ignoble honor of becoming the most corrupt politician in modern Turkish history. Turks might ignore that if they were not suffering: The Turkish lira’s recent decline marked its worst weekly performance in more than two decades. Whereas once Erdogan could blame the establishment for stagnation and recession, his dictatorial stranglehold means he can no longer deflect personal accountability. Much of his effort to spark regional conflict appear calculated to wrap himself in a nationalist flag and distract the Turkish public from the failure of his leadership. Certainly, Erdogan is aware that his party’s 2019 election loss in Istanbul coincided with a previous decline in the lira’s value.
As he lashes out against Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Israel and Armenia, Erdogan joins a long list of dictators who provoked conflict to distract from domestic economic failure and corruption: Certainly, that was the case with Siad Barre who, in 1977, ordered Somali forces to invade Ethiopia. Economic turmoil also preceded Argentine President’s Leopoldo Galtieri 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands. In 1990, Saddam Hussein ordered troops to invade Kuwait in order to loot its reserves and create a quick fix to the economic hole in which he had dug himself. Each of those leaders ultimately ended their careers in exile, prison, or on the gallows.
Erdogan would be wrong to believe himself the exception to history: The business community has largely abandoned him. While Kurds once found common ground in Erdogan’s religious conservatism, Erdogan’s cynicism and ethnic animus has led that community also to withdraw its support. Erdogan’s Sunni Islamism forces Turkey’s minority Alevis, perhaps 25 percent of the population, into opposition. Nor can Erdogan expect the family members and friends of the 100,000 plus political opponents he has imprisoned to lend him any support. Pressure is building and, absent any meaningful release, Turkey will explode. It behooves those victimized by Erdogan, both inside Turkey and outside, to plan for that day. In 2009, Erdogan came to the defense of Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir who had just been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court because of his regime’s slaughter of civilians in Darfur. “No Muslim could perpetrate a genocide,” Erdogan quipped. That, of course, is nonsense but reflects Erdogan’s belief that slaughter and ethnic-cleansing of non-Sunni Muslims is permissible.
It is this belief and the actions that resulted from it that could form the basis of Erdogan’s own International Criminal Court indictment. While the world lambasted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in Aleppo, satellite photos and witness accounts show Erdogan did much the same thing in Cizre, Nusaybin, and Sur. Outside Turkey’s borders, ample evidence exists of ethnic cleansing in Afrin and other areas of northern Syria: Destroying cemeteries and Kurdish cultural monuments has no place in counter-terrorism. Then there is the legacy of Turkey’s support for the Islamic State. In December 2019, I visited Sinuni, a largely Yezidi town in northwestern Iraq just ten kilometers from the Syrian border, as a guest of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Yezidis and Arab intermediaries spoke of receiving proof-of-life from Yezidis girls still held in slavery not only in regions of Syria controlled by Turkish proxy forces, but also inside Turkey itself. Recent crimes perpetrated against Armenians simply add to the potential indictment list. So too might be recent Turkish moves to complete the ethnic cleansing of Varosha, in northern Cyprus.
Both domestically and internationally, Erdogan is motivated by revenge. Rather than learn from the 1997 ouster of his Islamist mentor Necmettin Erbakan or his own subsequent 1999 prison conviction, Erdogan has dedicated his rule toward seeking revenge on anyone whom he believes slighted or disrespected himself or his intellectual allies. On the international side, he sees himself as righting the supposed wrongs not only of the Lausanne Treaty, but also the Ottoman Empire’s prior centuries-long decline.
The European Union arose from a desire to end perpetual conflict. To hold Erdogan to account would not further a cycle of revenge because the next generation of Turkish leadership—those in prison now—embrace the post-World War II liberal order which Europe holds dear and Erdogan treats with contempt. Rather, an Erdogan indictment would demonstrate that the rule of law and the liberal international order will always triumph over the ambition of corrupt dictators seeking their destruction. The time is now.