Two days ago, rumors spread like wildfire on the internet that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan died from a sudden heart attack and that his death was being concealed from the public. The report came at a particularly opportune time; Erdogan was on vacation and inaccessible. The incident made people wonder what might happen if Turkey
It should be noted that Erdogan’s vacations have frequently been accompanied by politically turbulent events. In 2017, Erdogan collapsed while on vacation during the Ramadan period. Erdogan claimed that the incident was due to a minor blood pressure issue but rumors abounded, claiming he was battling cancer. Other rumors speculated that he had a brain tumor removed, suffered from epilepsy, or that collapse was due to the wide range of drugs he was taking in order to cope with the pressure of leading the country. During the same vacation, a large and violent attempt to overthrow his government was suppressed. Both the illness and the coup attempt left outsiders with more questions than answers about what was really happening in Turkey.
Though the Turkish government dismissed the rumors, Erdogan’s sole public appearance in the last ten days was when he surprised reporters by greeting Malaysian Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister of Malaysia, after his arrival in Turkey. Though the meeting was not available n video, a photograph showed the two together.
Rabbi Ken Spiro, a historian and Senior Lecturer and Researcher for Aish HaTorah Yeshiva, emphasized that in order to understand possible future scenarios, it is important to understand the past and what type of player Erdogan was.
“Erdogan is an Islamist and basically undid everything Ataturk accomplished,” Rabbi Spiro told Breaking Israel News.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk served as president of Turkey from 1923-1938.His government carried out a policy of Turkicisation trying to create a homogeneous and unified nation. His presidency played a key role in shaping modern Turkey, transitioning from the religious Ottoman Empire and abolishing the Caliphate, separating state affairs from religion. Due to his efforts, Turkey was modernized and connected with the Western World.
“Westernized Turkey had relations with Israel,” Rabbi Spiro said, noting that this went so far as military cooperation and joint-training. “Erdogan has slowly been Islamizing Turkey. He is kind of like a Putin in the Middle East. Putin is trying to re-establish the former glory of the Russian Empire and Erdogan is trying to reestablish the past glory of the Ottoman Empire.”
“Turkey has a massive military and is a large country with a large economy, that is not doing so well,” Rabbi Spiro said.
The Turkish Armed Forces collectively rank as the second-largest standing military force in NATO, after the U.S. Armed Forces.
“It is a huge player in the region, playing a key, but a complicated, role in Syria,” Rabbi Spiro said. As a NATO member, Turkey is an ally of the U.S. but some Turkish interests conflict the those of the U.S. This tension is most pronounced in respects to the Kurds who have frequently worked with the U.S. but whom Turkey considers an enemy. Turkey opposes the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad who Russia supports. Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the U.S. has attacked Assad forces twice in response to their use of chemical weapons.
“They are neighbors with Russian and this has occasionally led to war,” Rabbi Spiro said. “At the same time, Russia is selling them the S-400 anti-air system designed to down NATO air assets.”
“Religiously, Turkey perceives itself as a leader in the Sunni world,” Rabbi Spiro said. “Egypt is vying for the role. But they are a large and poor nation. Saudi Arabia has Mecca and sees itself as the leader of the Sunni world.”
Rabbi Spiro explained a general rule that described the process of radicalization of Islamic governments.
“The more the government becomes more radically Islam, the more pro-West the people are in the streets,” Rabbi Spiro said, noting this seems to be the case in Iran. “After the coup attempt, Erdogan suspended a lot of the freedoms and civil liberties. He consolidated his power, transforming one of the only functioning democracies in a Muslim country to the point where it is almost a dictatorship.”
Rabbi Spiro emphasized the disproportionate role Turkey has in a volatile region and any change in leadership would surely be felt around the world.
“Turkey, like Israel, is historically an important land bridge. It is not a major player in itself but it is important for how it fits into the global picture: Turkey is the wild card.”
He referred to the Crimean War, fought in the then Ottoman Empire in 1853. It pitted France and England against Russia to prevent them from achieving a port in the Mediterranean. Under Obama, Putin was able to achieve influence in the region to a greater degree than they had in the previous two centuries. They now have a warm water port in Latakia Syria, as well as an airbase. It is a huge win for them they achieved without firing a shot.
“Anything that takes Turkey towards being more Western and less Islamic is good for everyone,” Rabb Spiro concluded. “For Israel, for America, for the free world, it is a win if Erdogan is out of the picture, either dead or incapacitated. This, of course, under the condition that no one more extreme gets in power. And he has crushed all of the opposition, even the more extreme Islamists.”
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, a prolific end-of-days author, had a similar, though more prophetic understanding of Turkey’s role in the world.
“Turkey themselves have never actively been a problem,” Rabbi Winston told Breaking Israel news. “They have never attacked Israel or even seriously threatened us. Erdogan is Islamist but the country is secular. They don’t spew the normal Islamic rhetoric.”
“But they have a lot of indirect influence,” Rabbi Winston noted. “The country bridges between Europe and Asia but it also acts as a political, cultural and religious bridge. Any change of leadership would have a dramatic ripple effect.”
“And given the role Putin is taking these days, he would swoop in like a vulture if he saw an opportunity caused by a vacuum in the leadership of Turkey. There is no way America could stand by and let that happen.”
Rabbi Winston emphasized that this scenario was described in a teaching from the 18th century Rabbinic sage known as the Vilna Gaon who singled out Russian aggression against Turkey as a precursor to the Messiah.
“When you hear that the Russians have captured the city of Crimea, you should know that the times of the Messiah have started, that his steps are being heard,” the Vilna Gaon told his followers just before his death in 1797. “And when you hear that the Russians have reached the city of Constantinople (today’s Istanbul), you should put on your Shabbat clothes and don’t take them off, because it means that the Messiah is about to come any minute.”
Rabbi Winston noted that geula (redemption) will come from nations that are considered minor characters.”
“That is how geula works; it comes from the fringe and works its way into the center,” Rabbi Winston said. “Turkey is on the fringe but they are in the position to be the linchpin that will set things rolling.”