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Instability in Turkey stokes Islamist extremism


If Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose nation is crucial strategically in the fight against Islamic extremism, wants to shore up his position after the military insurrection that almost toppled his government, he should use the uprising as a catalyst for reform. While he controls NATO’s second largest army and its largest in Europe, early indications are that he has responded in the worst possible way, by scaling back Turkey’s reluctant role in fighting Islamic State. In the upheaval following the failed coup, Turkey halted all coalition combat flights from its Incirlik air base near the Syrian border. The base is crucial to the US-led coalition, including Australia, which has been launching successful, around-the-clock air strikes on Islamic State strongholds. For now, Turkey’s naval patrols that have almost halted the flow of Syrian and other migrants venturing across the Mediterranean to Europe are continuing.

At a time when France’s top intelligence chief, Patrick Calvar, has warned that growing tensions between the “extreme right and the Muslim world” have pushed his country to “the verge of civil war”, Turkey’s pivotal role in the front line against Islamic terrorism has never been more important. Mr Calvar’s remarks took on added significance after last week’s atrocity in Nice, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility. It again underlined the gravity of the crisis facing Europe and raised questions about what measures, which would inevitably compromise civil liberties, need to be taken to deal with the jihadist threat.

In Turkey, Mr Erdogan must act to restore stability if it is to be a bulwark against terrorism, rather than a nation that fosters it through political dissension and ethnic conflict. In beating down the insurrection Mr Erdogan, ironically, was assisted by social and other media which have been the butt of his ruthless autocratic crackdowns. When usual television outlets were closed off by the coup plotters, he was able, with the help of social media, to broadcast a message that brought Turks flooding onto the streets in their tens of thousands to defy the military. He benefited, too, from the support of opposition political parties, including the Kurdish HDP whom he had threatened with jail and death. As Mr Erdogan sets about reasserting his authority, he should remember that the Kurdish HDP drew people en masse on to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul to repel the military plotters.

Predictably, he has adopted his usual iron fist tactics, threatening death to the conspirators. About 3000 soldiers are reportedly under arrest and warrants have gone out for more than 2700 judges regarded as opponents of the regime. Such a purge is invariably the consequence of failed coups. But Mr Erdogan has something to learn from the plotters’ only statement. However destabilising and brutal their actions, in denouncing him for his increasing authoritarianism and for threatening Turkey’s secular traditions, they pointed out the truth.

Mr Erdogan’s pursuit of hard line Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism, like that which led to the military overthrow of president Morsi in Egypt, has precipitated the crisis Turkey now faces. So has his repression of even the mildest opponents. In April, his regime seized the last six Christian churches, some of them 1700 years old, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir and declared them to be state property.

After coming to power in 2003, Mr Erdogan won admiration for liberalising the economy and fortifying democracy and secularism. He has since strayed far from that path. His recent foreign policy, in which he worked clandestinely with Islamic State to facilitate the flow of foreign jihadists into Syria, smacked of the dangerous duality of political Islam. He was, for example, determined to see Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad removed, even at the price of working with Islamic State. And even as President Obama and US Secretary of State John Kerry declared support for him and Turkish democracy at the weekend, Mr Erdogan blamed the US for complicity in the uprising, pointing to the alleged role of his arch enemy, exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. But while demanding that the US extradite Mr Gulen, Mr Erdogan produced no evidence of his complicity in the attempted coup.

Instability in Turkey plays into the hands of Islamic extremism. Recent terrorist bomb blasts like that which killed 41 people and injured more than 200 at Istanbul Airport were unleashed by Islamic State to create as much chaos as possible. Regardless of its motivation, the coup attempt will destabilise the situation further. From the Turks’ response to Mr Erdogan’s call to defy the military he clearly retains considerable support. He should use it now to support the country’s secular, democratic institutions that were targeted by the insurrectionists and create the unity Turkey needs to stand against Islamic extremism for its own sake and that of the world.

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