Analysis by Jotam Confino.
Erdogan isn’t wasting his time. Since the referendum last week, Turkish authorities have arrested more than 1000 people accused of ‘infiltrating the police’ on behalf of the US based cleric, Fethullah Gülen. Since the coup attempt last summer, more than 40.000 people have been arrested and around 120.000 have been fired or suspended from their professions. The arrests include teachers, soldiers, police, and public servants. The media have suffered severely, with the authorities closing 160 news organizations.
Needless to say, the nationwide purge which Erdogan launched in the aftermath of the coup helped him push through the constitutional change, and gave him what he wanted; a divided Turkey where he is the supreme authority. By polarizing the country even further, he continues to rely on a number of influential people that are willing to continue a witch-hunt to eliminate the remains of the opposition.
The question is for how long he can continue to crack down on the opposition in the name of fighting terrorism. Roughly, half of the Turkish population have already shown their contempt for Erdogan, both in his hometown Istanbul, and certainly in the Kurdish areas. Erdogan’s future is therefore filled with a number of obstacles, both domestically and regionally.
A Turkish spring or a civil war?
Erdogan and his supporters quickly handled the failed military coup last summer, where his supporters took to the streets to protect him. Three years before, mass demonstrations erupted in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, and spread all over the country like a wildfire. It all started as a peaceful demonstration against the government’s decision to remove Gezi Park and rebuild military barracks from the Ottoman era. When the police began cracking down on the demonstrators, it quickly transformed into massive demonstrations like the one in Taksim square. The subject was no longer the protection of a park, but rather a general protest against political marginalization and dissatisfaction by roughly half the Turkish population.
Fast forward to the aftermath of the coup and the wave of terrorist attacks in 2016. Erdogan quickly saw the potential in the growing fear from terrorist attacks, and decided to launch a purge against Kurds and Fethullah Gülen supporters, who he claimed was behind the coup attempt. The incitement convinced some that Erdogan was right but at the same time further alienated large segments of the country. It would be naive to think that the millions of enemies, who Erdogan are now facing, will accept a Turkey where critics are jailed or silenced.
It is also naive to think that his critics will suddenly change their mind and start supporting him, despite his control of mass media. It is more likely that the critics will once again try to organize mass demonstrations via social media, recalling the days of the Arab spring. There is no doubt that Erdogan will do what it takes to remain in power, even if it means cracking down on demonstrations as he did in 2013.
Although Erdogan has installed loyalists in the army, it’s no guarantee against civil unrest, especially in a country like Turkey. The critics continue to report on human rights violations from within Turkey, in spite of the risks it entails. If critics of Erdogan manage to organize themselves throughout the country and resist the pressure from Turkish authorities, they might stand a chance in toppling him. However, if Erdogan continues to alienate and incite against half the country, the polarization will only contribute to the possibility of an actual civil war, given his supporters will take to the streets as they did during the coup attempt.
On the regional arena, Erdogan has actively fought the Kurds on the border to Syria, doing all he can to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish state. He has also stationed troops in Iraq, despite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s demand that Turkish forces withdraw from Iraqi territory. Since the rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara, Erdogan has tried to avoid any clashes with the US and Russia. That might very well change soon, especially on light of the recent attack on Kurdish fighters in the Sinjar Mountains in northern Iraq and the Karachok Mountains in northeastern Syria.
Erdogan claimed the attack was meant to hit PKK fighters, but evidently, at least 18 YPG fighters were also killed. The Kurdish YPG group is part of the US backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is why the US State Department expressed ‘deep concerns’ over the Turkish air strikes. Erdogan also said the air strikes were coordinated with both Russia and the US, which the US State Department denied.
The timing of the air strikes is quite interesting as well. Trump’s congratulating phone call to Erdogan couldn’t have come at a better time. Erdogan faced massive criticism during the referendum from international election observes such as the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), which only underlined the growing tension between Turkey and the EU. Erdogan’s decision to launch an attack on US backed forces in Syria is therefore a risky move, which could bring him at odds with Trump whose behavior has been unpredictable.
The air strikes might be part of Erdogan’s regional plan to increase Turkey’s influence in the Middle East, but Moscow and Washington will not let him undermine their interests. The last time Erdogan decided to test Putin by shooting down a Russian warplane, it culminated with sanctions against Turkey and an official apology.
Erdogan’s vision of a greater Turkey was revealed when he criticized the Treaty of Lausanne for leaving Turkey too small. The treaty from 1923 officially dissolved the Ottoman Empire and created modern day Turkey. So far, Erdogan’s critique of the Lausanne Treaty and Turkey’s historic claim to Mosul has remained rhetoric used to gain domestic support. However, Ankara hasn’t given in to Baghdad’s demand that they withdraw from Iraqi territory.
Turkey is navigating between the interests of the US coalition, Russia, Iran and the Kurds, which will require a much more diplomatic behavior than the recent uncoordinated air strikes. If Erdogan continues to act unilaterally without coordinating with Russia and the US coalition, he will end up being punished again. He might have ascended to a self-created Sultan throne, but the domestic and regional challenge facing him will not make his life easy in near future.
Jotam Confino is the editor of Republic Paper and has written extensively about the Middle East in the Danish media. He holds a BA in International Relations and an M.A in Security & Diplomacy.