Exclusive Interview with Resat Kasaba

Interview with Resat Kasaba, Anne H. H, and Kenneth B. Pyle Professor of U.S. Foreign Policy  and former Director of the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle; Conducted by THO Fellow John Simpson; April 14, 2021. 

Professor, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. To get started, I’d love to hear a brief snapshot of your work and your research. I know that you’re quite experienced in the region. The questions I have today range from common misconceptions that students have about Turkey to U.S.-Turkish relations, human rights, NATO, etc., but I’d love to hear a few words about your background, your research interests, and maybe some questions that are keeping you curious these days about Turkey.

I grew up in Turkey and I came to this country [the U.S.] for my graduate work in 1977 after completing my undergraduate studies in Turkey. My undergraduate degree was in economics and I was interested in issues that had to do with social and economic development at the time. To continue my studies, I enrolled in the graduate program at the State University of New York in Binghamton; now called the Binghamton University.   Initially I was in Economics there but I moved in an interdisciplinary direction after realizing that a lot of the answers to the questions I was asking about Turkey, could not be answered from the perspective of a single discipline or specialization.  I did historical research but also studied political science, sociology, and economic history all in order to shed light on contemporary problems. 

Since my graduate school days, I have worked on three major research areas: First of these was  the impact of increasing trade, migration, investment in the 19th century on what was then  the Ottoman Empire.  This period of expansion is sometimes referred to as the first period of globalization.    My first book was an economic and social history of the port city of Izmir, today in western Turkey during this time period.  I then became interested in human mobility; movement of pastoral nomads, migrants, and refugees in an around Turkey in the 19th and 20th centuries.   My main interest here was the clash between the institutions of the Ottoman Empire and the mechanisms of control established by the new nation states in the Near and Middle East in the early twentieth century.  This was the subject of my second book.  Most recently I am researching economic, social, and political aspects of urban-rural divide in Turkey.  This is a question that has relevance not only for Turkey but many other places in the world including the United States.

In Turkey’s case, it is very interesting to observe the transformation of the Islamic Ottoman imperial organization into the militantly-secular, western-oriented Turkish state.  Turkey  has been  a member of NATO since the early 1950s and trying to enter the European Union since its inception in the late 1950s.  Turkey’s transformation was largely implemented by leaders who had a vision of what modern Turkey should be like. They imposed that vision but they were mostly urban and small group.  Their vision excluded most of the rural and deeply religious segments of Turkish society.   The resentment of these groups became the basis for the increasingly powerful Islamist political parties in Turkey including the Justice and Development Party under Erdogan.   Today, Turkey is seen as losing its secular edge and becoming more eastern or more religiously oriented, and I think there is a lot of truth in this. But more recently the ruling party under Erdogan’s leadership has also been moving in an authoritarian direction. Religion continues to be a part of its ideology but it is not the only part anymore.  

From what I understand, NATO is weakening or is rather weak at the moment. How would you say this impacts or will impact security in the region around Turkey, given the turbulence in Syria, unrest in Kurdish-dominated areas, and general instability in the region?

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a huge uncertainty in the security of the Middle East.   Initially, the US was ambivalent as to how to use its might as the sole superpower. After 9/11,  the US embarked on a misguided war in  Iraq which made things a lot more uncertain and dangerous for everybody in the Middle East .  Today, Russia, China and regional powers like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Israel are trying to position themselves, both to protect themselves  and  to advance their respective  interests in the area. 

In each one of these countries, foreign policy has become closely linked to internal, domestic politics. For example, President Erdogan is using foreign policy frequently to improve his standing domestically.  Throwing Turkey’s weight around the region, talking about Turkish influence in history, etc. make him popular at home.   And he also realized  that, because there was so much uncertainty in the Middle East,  he had some space to  play Russia and the U.S. (and NATO)  against each other. He appeared to be getting closer to Russia, without cutting Turkey’s ties to the United States or to NATO; or assuming positions that were not always in agreement with the U.S. during the Arab Spring or the Syrian Civil War.  For a while, things appeared to be moving in a favorable direction for Turkey but that is no longer the case.  For example, the Syrian regime, which Turkey opposes has won the Civil War and looks like it will be there for the foreseeable future.  In addition, COVID hit Turkey quite hard and worsened the economic crisis the country was already suffering.   As domestic difficulties mount, Erdogan may take steps in international arena to distract people’s attention and reinforce his standing at home.  This makes the situation around Turkey very dangerous.   Things can easily get out of control and Turkey (and the region) can find itself in the middle of serious conflicts.  This is especially the case since the Biden administration has, for very good reasons, given priority to domestic problems and prefers not to be too directly  involved in the Middle East.

One scenario which is not that bad, actually, considering everything, is that this may end up strengthening NATO, because unlike Trump, I think Biden will be more interested in working through international organizations. And that may both increase NATO’s power and influence and   clarify Turkey’s relation to it.  So that’s where we are – everything is in flux and continues to be very uncertain. 

Continuing with a regional focus, we talked a little bit about the presence of refugees in the region, certainly coming from Syria, Iraq – even as far as Afghanistan. Turkey was and still is a migration route to Europe. What would you say Turkey’s role is in the current refugee crisis?

There are 4  million refugees in Turkey,  3.5 million of whom are  from Syria. No other country in the world hosts as many  refugees as Turkey.  Most of the refugees in Turkey do not live in camps.  They live in cities and towns, often with little to no protection.  They are vulnerable to being exploited and trafficked.  There is also, in Turkey, a significant number of what we can describes as middle-class Syrians, who have arrived with some money.  They buy property, start small businesses, etc.  

Inevitably, arrival of such a large number of refugees had a all kinds of effects on social dynamics in Turkey.  Turkish government has done quite a bit in absorbing them but at the same time they have been turned into a leverage or a bargaining chip, in Turkey’s relations with especially the European Union.  Europeans are trying not to anger Turkey too much, provide financial aid etc. because they don’t want Turkey to open the borders and unleash hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe. Meanwhile Turkey is using its military to build a buffer zone in northern Syria where some of the refugees can be resettled.  

There are security implications, but to me the most important and the saddest part of the Syrian refugees story is what is happening to the Syrians themselves. A country that used to be fairly well off and prosperous in some ways has been devastated. Fully half of Syria’s pre-war population is displaced internally, or externally.  We have learned to look the other way and then hope that somehow somebody will take care of this problem. It has been ten years since the Syrian War started which means that a new generation of Syrians is growing up in horrible circumstances in Syria, surrounding countries, and elsewhere.  And no one seems to have any ideas about what to do except for appeasing the Syrian regime and hoping that it will change its ways.  

If we shift the conversation a little bit to the U.S.-Turkey relationship going from a Trump presidency to a Biden presidency, keeping in mind these security concerns such as the refugee crisis – what do you think the future of U.S.-Turkey relations looks like? What do you think some of the most contentious issues will be between our two countries going forward?

There are a number of issues where Turkey and the United States are not seeing eye to eye. You can debate whether these concerns are valid but the fact is that there are serious differences in how the two countries perceive several important issues.  One of them is related  to the Syrian conflict. The U.S., for its own reasons, has armed and worked with the Kurdish communities in northern Syria to fight ISIS. Kurds in the Middle east are scattered across several countries but of all them, the ones in northern Syria are historically closest to the Kurds in Turkey. And Kurds in Turkey have been involved in an armed struggle against the Turkish state for a very long time. From the Turkish government’s perspective, this has put the U.S., which was supposed to be a NATO ally, in the position of arming a group that is also fighting against the Turkish state. 

The other is that there is a perception, again, on the part of the Turkish government, that the U.S. was not sufficiently supportive of Turkey when there was a coup attempt in 2016. Furthermore, Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish government thinks was behind this coup attempt, lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. Under the Obama and Trump administrations, the US has refused to extradite Gülen, which has given ammunition to some conspiracy-minded people in Turkey who believe  that the US had a hand in orchestrating the coup. 

The third area is related to Turkey’s improving ties with Russia including its purchase of S-400 defensive missiles which has led the US congress to impose sanctions and Turkey being excluded  from the F-35 program.  .  

In the meantime, the Turkish government under Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian – jailing journalists, closing down political parties, arresting parliamentarians, and increasingly limiting people’s freedom of speech and organization.   Trump was willing to ignore these trends and maintain a good relationship with Erdogan, and through him, with Turkey.   Biden administration is paying closer attention to human rights violations and is less willing to tolerate Turkey’s drift toward Russia. It is likely that Erdogan will find it more and more difficult to assert an independent foreign policy while maintaining  a good  relationship with the U.S. I expect NATO to become much more important regionally and in Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe. Compared to Trump. I think Biden will adopt a less personal and more systematic and institutionalist approach in managing its relations with Turkey while protecting its long  term interests.  

Human Rights Watch recently released a report saying that “The government of President Erdoğan is dismantling human rights protections and democratic norms in Turkey on a scale unprecedented in the 18 years he has been in office. The government took further dangerous measures over the past week to undermine the rule of law and target perceived critics and political opponents. On March 19, the president issued a decree suddenly withdrawing Turkey from the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, a groundbreaking treaty strongly supported by the women’s rights movement in Turkey.” What do you think is driving this? Why do you think we are seeing this in Turkey now?

I think some of this is a sign of weakness on the part of Erdogan. Domestically, his party by itself doesn’t have a majority in the parliament, so he has to work with the nationalist National Action Party. The agenda that comes out of this alliance tends to be very conservative on all kinds of issues including anything that has to do with LGBTQ communities, women, or ethnic minorities. Alliance with NAP is very important for Erdogan to stay in power. Hence, he is moving in a conservative and authoritarian direction. 

Some people argue that Erdogan was never a true democrat but was doing a good job of hiding his true intensions.  Others see this more as a gradual shift.  I think the truth is somewhere in the middle and you can’t deny that some things have changed over time.   For example, the convention to halt violence against women was signed in Istanbul in 2011; accordingly, it is called the Istanbul Convention.  Erdogan was very proud that Turkey was taking the leadership in this issue then.  Whereas now, he has made a very big show of quitting the “Istanbul Convention”!   

In general, Erdogan has become less tolerant and not comfortable about being questioned or opposed.  His priority seems to be to protect himself and his regime. Also, he has been in power for over 20 years.  Now, he has surrounded himself with a group of people who owe their good fortune to him.  So, that is the power structure that he controls, deals with, and works through. There was a time when there were fairly competent bureaucrats and technocrats around Erdogan, but this circle has shrunk to include only those who are very close to him and to his family.   This is dangerous because Turkey is a big and complicated country in a complex part of the world. You need real expertise and experience to be able to administer it properly.  

You mentioned in the beginning of our conversation the shift from empire to nation state and a lot of the change in that shift being top-down. Do you think that top-down paradigm will continue – especially given these new conversations and issues around human rights and LGTBQ issues – or do you think there might be any shift toward any movement from the bottom-up? What do you think that might look like?

I think we’ve come full circle.  Erdogan’s original appeal was to present himself, his background, and his Muslim sensibilities as an alternative to the top-to-bottom model that Turkey had followed in the early decades of the twentieth century. Based on this, even people who were not particularly religious supported him at that time because they saw his vision as a possible broadening of democratic participation in Turkey. But recently, for reasons that we have talked about, Erdogan has come to a place where his approach to government is similar to those earlier nationalist leaders.  Except, he uses this approach to push a more closed, conservative, and religious vision for Turkey. 

In your tenure at the Jackson School at the University of Washington, talking about Turkey and the region – if we shift the conversation a little bit to your students – what would you say are some of the greatest or most common misconceptions that you’ve seen from your students over the years regarding Turkey, regarding its role in the region as an actor of stability or instability, and how have you seen student’s perspectives change over your tenure as a professor in the field?

In the second half of the twentieth century, people’s perceptions of Turkey were shaped primarily by its close alliance with the U.S. There were Peace Corps volunteers, diplomats, aid officials, and teachers and students in American Schools, who saw and presented Turkey as a successful example of a country that was becoming western oriented and democratic. For those of us who were born in Turkey, this was obviously an incomplete perception because it ignored many tensions and problems that may not have been visible.  9/11 brought a tectonic shift in how Turkey and all the countries in the Middle East and South Asia were seen in the U.S.  When President Bush declared, “you are either with us or against us” at the time, there was no gray area left.   It was very hard for countries like Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, etc.– to see themselves as being either for or against the U.S. government at the time. Such countries certainly were not supportive of or sympathetic to Al Qaeda or terrorism, but they also very much belonged to the region.  For them, it was very hard to support an all-out war against a country like Iraq, which they knew would be extremely destructive.  Now it’s all come true, unfortunately. 

I am still frustrated with the superficial thinking that shapes people’s approach to Turkey and to the Middle East.   For example there is still a tendency to see these countries only through the lens of their leaders; so Turkey becomes Erdogan; Saudi Arabia, Crown prince  Mohammad Bin Salman; or Jordan,  King Abdallah.  Such an approach misses much of the deeper reality.  If we continue ignoring these, we will be surprised repeatedly by what happens in places like Turkey.