That Turkish Prime Minister Tayyp Erdogan is seriously ill is gradually trickling through the curtain of secrecy surrounding his condition.
Monday, Dec. 19, for the first time since taking office, he failed to turn up in parliament to deliver a major speech. No explanation was offered for his absence.
However, the next day, the liberal Turkish journalist and commentator Mehmet Al Birand, let the cat out of the bag in his column in Hurriyet:
“Remember how Prime Minister Erdogan used to be castigated by the opposition before he fell ill, and how all his speeches would come under fire; how everyone with a score to settle in the opposition camp, led by hard-line secularists and neo-nationalists, would speak about the prime minister and plot scenarios for his downfall? Then one day news came of his illness. To make matters worse, nerves were stretched even further when it turned out he had undergone surgery. No one could understand what was going on.
"Moreover, the prime ministerial team, once so proficient in managing public relations, committed a huge mistake this time round and divulged no information whatsoever. The curtains came down just as transparency was in dire need, leading to massive public speculation. Rumors began to circulate that the prime minister had fallen severely ill and he was no longer going to be able to work and, after a while, that he was pulling out of politics. Everything (in Turkey) changed after this.”
Turkey's ruling party is beset with a succession struggle
debkafile first broke the story of Erdogan's illness on Dec. 18 from its intelligence sources, reporting on the impact it would have on current and imminent events in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, including Iran. Western intelligence sources were quoted as diagnosing him as suffering from rectosigmoid cancer.
They declined to say what stage the disease is at and what medical treatment he was receiving – first at an Istanbul hospital in Istanbul and now at Hacettepe Hospital in Ankara.
Questioned by DEBKA-Net-Weekly this week, high-ranking officials in Ankara refused to confirm or deny this information but stressed, "Erdogan’s condition is not good and we are not talking about a minor event.”
His cancellation of a speech in parliament speaks volumes about his condition, said those officials.
From the domestic perspective, most of the 70 million Turks who have not been informed of their prime minister’s illness are also unaware of the succession battle which has flared in the ruling Justice and Development Party-AKP.
As long as Erdogan was on his feet, he had a deal going with President Abdullah Gul whereby they would emulate the Putin-Medvedev model in Russia and switch roles at the end of their terms, the prime minister moving into the presidential palace and Medvedev taking over as prime minister.
Erdogan's illness has scuttled the deal. The AKP is now ranged between Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.
Arinc goofed badly when, during a recent party debate on a bill governing the rules for electing its candidates, he referred to the prime minister's absence. He later apologized, but it was too late.
Obama may lose his prime policy mover in the Middle East
US President Barack Obama is undoubtedly the biggest loser from Erdogan's possible eclipse, having backed him as the prime mover for promoting his Middle East goals.
Obama holds the Turkish premier up as the model for the Muslim Brotherhood to emulate of a pious Muslim ruler who nonetheless follows the West in his policies and espouses Western-style democracy in his country. US sources have characterized their relations as marked by “intimate trust.” They have communicated intensively by phone in recent months.
But now the White House is also deeply concerned about the serious downturn of the Turkish economy. Presented to the world as a modern Islamic success story, Obama is receiving intelligence reports that the Turkish economy is in free fall and approaching the same sort of crisis as Britain, Italy, Greece and Spain.
The economic collapse looming now would bankrupt Ankara and the Turkish banking system.
So not only is Obama's best friend and ally in a bad way, so too is his model Muslim state.
The US president stands therefore at a Middle East crossroads. If Erdogan goes now, it happens at a bad time for US relations in the Arab world with dim prospects for finding a replacement.
The Saudi royal family, for instance, makes no bones about its disenchantment with Obama's policies. The Syrian uprising backed by the US and Turkey in close association is at a delicate point.
President Gul and Turkish generals will most certainly continue Erdogan’s drive to rid Syria of President Bashar Assad, but it is a political truism that a change of leaders inevitably results in changed policies.
The US president also counted on his Turkish ally for help in stabilizing Iraq and the situation of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq. His illness leaves all these US administration policy objectives hanging fire.