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Canada’s response to Turkey is fraught with risk

Michael Nesbitt is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Calgary; Christina Hough has conducted anthropological research on Kurdish and Turkish nationalist identities at the University of Texas at Austin

By dint of geopolitical circumstance, Canada has come to see Turkey as one of its most important military, security and even economic allies. Turkey's huge population and large economy splice through the dividing-line between Europe and Asia.

Turkey is the front line for the fight against Islamic State, hosting the Incirlik Air Base from which the U.S. and Turkey launch their aerial attacks on Islamic State in Syria. It is by far the most powerful regional NATO ally against creeping Russian aggression and a key player in countering Middle East instability. It is seen by Europe as an indispensable agent in responding to the refugee crisis that has been caused by the flow of terrorized civilians fleeing Syria. Turkey is a relative stalwart of democracy on the edge of a region long bereft of it.

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ANALYSIS: A new Turkish nightmare set to begin

All of this means that when Canada and its Western allies publicly responded to Friday's attempted coup d'état, their diplomatic reaction had to hit all the right notes. In some ways it was a remarkably easy balance to achieve – a rare situation where democratic morality and realpolitik both called for the same diplomatic tone. Publicly, they succeeded. Canada and its allies in the U.S. and Europe called for restraint, stability, respect for democratic government, institutions, and the rule of law. They supported the legitimately elected government. It was a moral position because it was based on the democratic assertion that military overthrows of elected governments should not be condoned; and it was a reaction based on a realpolitik understanding of the situation because it pandered to the government that remains in power, one the West knows it needs as a stable and dependable partner in its fight against terror. To read Canada's reaction is to hear relief at a near miss coupled with hope – and a touch of anxiety – for a return to a democratic calm.

Except that nothing is ever so simple in the Middle East. Diplomats and security experts will be sweating what comes next. That's because while Turkey is a crucial ally, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan it has rarely been a co-operative or dependable one.

It is Turkey's perennial fear of Kurdish separatism – even at a time when its most influential Kurdish organizations had renounced the goal in favour of greater rights and autonomy within Turkey – that has often made it a problematic ally in addressing the Syrian conflict. For too long IS passed relatively freely across Turkey's southern border, not outright supported by Turkey but not impeded either from launching their attacks on Kurdish targets. When aerial bombardments began against IS, Turkey focused on the Kurds instead. The day of the coup, it was reported that a Brampton, Ont., man arrested in April over concerns he would travel through Turkey and into Syria to support IS, had agreed to a peace bond to prevent such activity. This was another reminder of the most common – and easiest – path for converts seeking to travel for terrorist purposes. As much as Turkey is a necessary ally to Canada, it is equally an uneasy one.

Neither has Turkey been particularly democratic as of late. Turkey remains a nominal democracy in that it held popular elections and the winner clings to power, but the institutions that uphold its democracy have been increasingly gutted. Mr. Erdogan has amended the constitution to keep himself in power in a Putin-esque manner, attacked freedom of the press and journalists, attacked the judiciary, jailed academics, and increasingly threatened minority groups like the Kurds and the LGBTQ community. Its recent attacks on Kurdish militant camps in Iraq ended a two-year ceasefire and sparked violence in Kurdish-majority regions of Turkey on a scale that hadn't been seen since the 1990s.

The coup might might make Mr. Erdogan feel vulnerable. In so doing, it might be an opportunity for Canada and its allies to press for greater co-operation and a commitment to democratic institutions in exchange for international moral, political and security support at a time that Turkey's government could use the help – and the legitimacy it would bestow. But the attempted coup might – and likely will – also be Mr. Erdogan's opportunity to purge from the ranks of Turkey's public institutions, not just his political enemies but all those who dissent. We have already seen the dismissal of a reported 2,400-plus judges. Historically, purging the judiciary has too often been the first crucial step in appropriating unopposed power.

Canada and its allies do have an opportunity here, but it is one fraught with risk while Turkey remains on edge. Push too little and we are complicit in Turkey's march toward authoritarianism; push too much and we endanger our own national security; and in the end it might not matter what we do.

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Canada needs Turkey, of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, it's increasingly clear that the partner we have in Turkey is not the partner we want.

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