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Ten things you need to know about Turkey

Here are ten things you need to know about Turkey.

1. On March 27, the government of Turkey blocked YouTube, less than a week after blacking out Twitter. Ostensibly, this was to prevent the spread of videos that are said to feature the voices of Turkey’s foreign minister, intelligence chief, and a top army general proposing to send the Turkish military into Syria to protect the tomb of Suleiman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Dynasty.

2. If these tapes are real, Turkey has been considering staging an attack on itself as a pretext to intervene in Syria. Turkey is a member of NATO. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty establishing the alliance states that members will treat an attack against one member as an attack against all and respond accordingly—up to and including the use of armed force. Were NATO to provide assistance to Turkey, the consequences could be apocalyptic. Among other things, Russia would certainly see this as a NATO aggression.

It is unsurprising that many in Turkey are warning of the possibility of electoral fraud.

3. Turkey’s ruling AKP is facing a disaster in Syria. Turkey’s battle with the radical Kurdish-separatist PKK has claimed as many as 40,000 lives since the 1980s. 

When Assad pulled his forces away from the border, the PYD (the Syrian analogue to the PKK) assumed control over the Kurdish majority regions, prompting Ankara to attempt to counter them by arming radical Islamist groups and opening its borders to foreign fighters. 

The Turks presumed Assad would be toppled quickly, which proved false. 

As a result, Turkey now faces both an infuriated Assad and a serious threat from groups like Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). 

Following the seizure by ISIS of the Azaz border gate, Ankara reversed course, freezing Al Qaeda bank accounts and shelling ISIS strongholds along the border. But the damage can’t easily be undone. 

In conjunction with a vast influx of Syrian refugees, this is now by far the most serious security problem Turkey faces. Since Turkey is in NATO, this is NATO’s problem, too.

4. Of late, Erdoğan’s struggle for power with Fethullah Gülen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric who leads a powerful transnational Islamist movement and is a major player in the American charter school movement, has become increasingly vicious. It has recently taken the form of a massive corruption probe into government officials, with wiretaps leaked daily that appear to incriminate the prime minister and everyone around him in a three-ring circus of malfeasance, skullduggery, and theft. 

The leaks are widely, and for good reason, understood to be a form of retaliation by the Gülenists, who are well represented within the police and judiciary. 

Erdoğan has countered by stifling journalists, firing or reassigning thousands of police officers, consolidating his control of the judiciary, and shutting down social media sites in a vain attempt to plug the leaks.

5. Gülen presides over a huge informal network of schools, think tanks, businesses, and media across five continents. His network in Turkey until recently worked in close alliance with Erdoğan as he neutralized the opposition, particularly in the military. 

Gülen’s enthusiasm for illegal wiretapping and leaking didn’t bother Erdoğan when it worked in his favor. Nor did Erdoğan’s demagoguery and propensity to suppress speech bother the Gülenists.

6. The leaked recordings (which have not been independently verified) feature a voice, purportedly Erdoğan’s, dictating news headlines, choosing guests to appear on news shows, telling a media executive to reduce his coverage of the opposition, upbraiding another for using the word “corruption” in a news report, and calling his justice minister to discuss reversing a legal judgment in favor of a critical media firm.

7. One of the most explosive tapes, published on February 25, features conversation between voices alleged to be those of the prime minister and his son, Bilal. They are heard discussing how best to hide tens of millions of dollars in cash stored in the family home. The prime minister instructs his son to get rid of all the money, preferably after dark. His son says he has moved all but $41.6 million.

8. Erdoğan has accused foreign forces of inventing the corruption charges. As the corruption scandal broke, a newspaper known as a government organ splashed a photograph of the U.S. ambassador on its front page with the headline, “Get the hell out of this country!”

9. Local elections, on March 30, will be followed by Turkey’s first direct presidential election in 2014, and parliamentary elections in 2015. There is no reason to think these elections will bring stability, whatever the outcome. 

The Gülenists will not be satisfied until Erdoğan is imprisoned or dead. A significant portion of the population will not believe the election results nor recognize any mandate Erdoğan claims.

10. There is good reason to be concerned about the fairness of the elections, and if not the fairness, the public’s perception of their unfairness. Given the new technology to be employed in the voting booths, the stakes, and the release of wiretaps suggesting Erdoğan’s willingness to break the law to suit his personal ends, it is unsurprising that many in Turkey are warning of the possibility of electoral fraud. 

Should the elections be tainted by any hint of malfeasance, we should expect protests on the scale of those following Iran’s 2009 elections, and we should expect that they will be suppressed in much the same manner.

Claire Berlinski is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal magazine. She is an investigative journalist, travel writer, biographer, and novelist. She is a former resident of Istanbul.