Downward Spiral: Erdogan's Radical Makeover of Turkey
WASHINGTON -- From Harry Truman to Barack Obama, U.S. administrations have long viewed Turkey as a key ally and force for moderation in the Muslim world.
In recent years, however, Turkey has moved in a radically different direction: journalists thrown in jail, Twitter and YouTube shut down, and political opponents threatened with prosecution.
It's the kind of repression usually found in places like Iran and Syria -- only now it's happening in Turkey, a NATO country with aspirations of joining the European Union.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AKP party, Turkey has made clear that it is setting a new course -- one that places its interests far from those of the West.
"You have to remember that the AKP -- the Justice and Development Party in Turkey -- is a spinoff of the Muslim Brotherhood," explained Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). "This is an organization that is founded on Islamist principles."
Schanzer calls Erdogan's path a "downward spiral."
"Mr. Erdogan sees himself as an Islamist and a Turk first and foremost," he told CBN News. "And so he's synthesizing Turkish nationalism with the Muslim Brotherhood."
Erdogan and Hamas
Schanzer recently wrote an extensive report for FDD outlining Turkey's role in financing terrorism.
A key component: the Erdogan government's relationship with Hamas.
Although designated a terror organization by the United States, Hamas leaders regularly meet with Erdogan.
Schanzer says that includes top Hamas operative Saleh al-Aruri, who enjoys safe haven in Turkey.
"He's a military operative and he's based in Ankara," said Schanzer. "And he's met with Erdogan. He's met with [Hamas leader Khaled] Meshaal. And he continues apparently to be involved in fundraising and logistics on the part of Hamas."
Erdogan's support of Hamas -- which is committed to Israel's destruction -- aligns with his own fiery anti-Israel stance.
He's called Israeli President Shimon Peres a "murderer," and in 2010, allowed a flotilla of ships to sail from Turkey in an attempt to break an Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Violence broke out when terrorists aboard one of those ships attacked Israeli soldiers.
Since that incident, relations between Turkey and Israel have been severely strained -- with Erdogan even vowing to visit Gaza to meet with Hamas leaders.
And Hamas isn't the only questionable friend of Erdogan's Turkey.
According to Schanzer, al Qaeda financier Yasin al-Qadi, a designated global terrorist, has visited often.
"We're seeing reports that [al-Qadi] has been meeting with senior Turkish businessmen, Turkish officials," he said. "That's he's been traveling in and out of Turkey without a visa and without a passport."
A Hub for Jihad
Turkey has also become a key support hub and transit point for global jihadists traveling to neighboring Syria to battle the Assad regime.
"There are now multiple cities along the southeastern border of Turkey that appear to be safe havens for various jihadi groups," Schanzer told CBN News.
"We understand that there are Gulf financiers who are operating there out of hotels, dispersing cash to some of these jihadis as they travel through."
These activities have caught the attention of U.S. officials.
"We have seen multiple visits by Undersecretary of the Treasury [David S.] Cohen to Turkey," said Schanzer. "You don't visit Turkey if you're the undersecretary of treasury for terrorism finance unless there's a problem."
Strained US Ties
President Barack Obama has enjoyed a close relationship with Erdogan.
Yet the Turkish prime minister's radical turn has led bipartisan members of Congress and foreign policy experts to demand the White House hold Erdogan accountable for his anti-democratic actions.
More journalists are in jail in Turkey than in any other country. And Erdogan violently put down anti-government protests in Istanbul last year.
He also recently shut down YouTube and Twitter after political opponents posted a series of recordings claiming to expose Erdogan's corruption.
Such measures are unheard of for a NATO member country today.
"We've got early warning radar systems in Turkey, we've got Patriot missile batteries, we've got massive airbases, we've got investments," said Schanzer. "And look, more broadly, the Turks have served as an important ally for us. If we lose that, I think it would be very detrimental to American foreign policy."
Although Erdogan denies any wrongdoing, corruption charges continue to swirl around his government. Among the alleged misdeeds is a multi-billion dollar gas-for-gold scheme in which Turkey helped Iran evade sanctions over its nuclear program.