Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Goes for Broke

The bomb that exploded in the centre of Istanbul on 13 November 2022 gave President Erdoğan a pretext to crack down viciously on the Kurds in view of his coming bid for re-election seven months from now. But the incumbent president seems to have gained nothing by this. Political and economic uncertainties prevail today in Turkey and his geostrategy have his allies and partners worried.

Unity, Will, Victory" rally of members of the AKP presidential party at the Galatasaray Nef stadium in Istanbul, 27 November 2022
Yasin Akgul/AFP

The tragedy on Istiklal Street which killed six and injured 81 offered the president an opportunity to blame the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – the key political component of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Both organisations immediately denied any involvement in this terrorist action, and the accusation soon proved false. It is now presumed that the guilty party was an Arab woman connected with the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS). Besides which, her mobile phone contained the number of a leader of a radical right-wing Turkish political party.

None of which prevented Ankara from unleashing a deluge of iron and fire on the Kurds, Turkey’s eternal scapegoat. F-16 fighter planes bombed Rojava in (Syrian Kurdistan), especially the towns of Tell Rifaat and Kobanî. Strikes which destroyed hospitals, schools, corn silos, oil installations and caused many casualties to civilians. The press agency Hawar News, based in Rojava, reported that the Turkish army’s mortars and tanks bombarded the districts of Shera and Sherawa and the townships of Afrin and Shehba where refugees from the 2018 Turkish invasion are located.

On 18 June 2023, the Turkish people will be called to the polls to elect a new parliament and President. The incumbent president will be seeking re-election. His opponent is Ekrem Imamoğlu, the mayor of Istanbul and a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP, Kemalist, centre left, former president of its local chapter) who is currently outdistancing him in the polls. Erdoğan is credited with 36% voting intentions according to the polling institute Metropoll, but he must also deal with the stand taken unanimously by all six opposition parties: the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Welfare Party (RP), the Future Party, founded by Ahmet Davutoğlu, former Prime Minister and presidential fellow traveller, the Felicity Party (of Islamist tendency) and the People’s Democratic Party (HDP). All came out in favour of a return to a strengthened parliamentary system.

Sizeable increases in the minimum wage

To these political difficulties must be added a paradoxical economic situation. Notwithstanding the galloping inflation (85% according to official sources, 5 points higher than in September), the collapse of the country’s currency which has lost 28% against the dollar since January 1st, plus a general impoverishment of the population except for the privileged few, Turkey’s gross domestic product (GDP) and its rate of growth have both increased, making it the world’s 17th economic power. Growth and exports remain the President’s two mantras and he is convinced that at the end of the day, his economic choices will bear their fruit.

In order to placate the working classes, he has already raised the minimum wage twice, by 50% in January and by another 30% in July. A further rise has been promised for the beginning of next year. At the same time, to replenish the coffers of the Central Bank, two generous donors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have proposed to deposit large sums, 5 billion dollars from the former and twice as much from the latter. In order to justify this unorthodox set of approaches, the finance minister, Nureddin Nebati, explains that his policy “represents an epistemological break with neoclassical economic theory and is backed up by the behavioural and neuro-economic sciences.” A rationale which will be hard-pressed to reassure people who have seen their food budgets skyrocket by 99%, their housing costs by 80% and their transport by 17%.

If he wants to be reelected, Erdoğan must convince many more voters than those already committed to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) or to his ally, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the votes of his henchmen in its paramilitary branch, the Grey Wolves. To do this, he has again resorted to nationalist rhetoric and anti-Kurdish racism. In this context, the Istiklal Street bomb in Istanbul (assuming it was not planted by the Turkish secret service) was a divine surprise.

Pulling out all the stops against the Kurds

So now the President’s priority is to “rally round the flag” all those who have frightened memories of the 2015–2017 terrorist attacks. And single out for public condemnation those enemies who resist him: the PKK in the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq and the PYD in the Rojava region in Syria. Enemies against whom he has launched many military operations, using Bayraktar TB2 drones for targeted assassinations of PKK and PYD leaders, and with three invasions of Northern Syria.

In this connection, Hisyar Özsoy, a Kurdish MP in the Turkish parliament, reminds us that the government has resorted to a series of attacks during the run-up to every election: “Prior to the 2015 elections, there were cross-border operations. A military operation was launched at Jarabu-lus before the 2017 referendum, at Afrin before the 2018 parliamentary election, and at Serêkani-yê and Girê Spî before the local elections in 2019.”

After the Istanbul bombing, Erdoğan spelled out his threats, the bombings of Rojava were meant to be the prelude to a new military operation aimed at creating within Syria a “zone of security” along the border 30 km deep. Thus far, however, he has come up against a two-fold reluctance, on the part of Russia and the USA.

Russian and American apprehensions

The US has declared itself especially worried over the consequences of such an eventuality when 900 of its soldiers are collaborating on a daily basis with the Syrian Democratic Forces (FDS), an alliance of Kurds, Arabs and Syrians confronted with a worrying resilience of ISIS, a force of be-tween five and ten thousand jihadis. The mere idea that the FDS, who are guarding some 50,000 Islamist prisoners in a camp at Al-Hol should pull out of there to go up against the Turkish in-vaders is enough to send cold shivers down Pentagon spines. The example of Al-Hasaka in the North-East, where the jihadis, after six days of bitter fighting against the FDS backed by forces from the coalition, succeeded in freeing several hundred of their comrades, is a stark reminder for US troops.

As for the Russians, if they are worried about a Turkish attack, it is because of the support they provide Bachar Al-Assad. A Turkish invasion followed by a long-term occupation of the con-quered territory would add to the country’s fragmentation and further weaken the already uncer-tain situation of the Raïs in Damascus, who though he claims to control 70% of his country, con-trols only 15% of its borders. Moreover, Vladimir Putin and Bachar Al-Assad suspect Erdoğan, in the event he was to conquer Tel Rifaat and Manbij, of wanting to lay his hands on Aleppo.

In order to counter US reluctance, the Turkish president holds one potent card, he could veto the admission to NATO of Sweden and Finland. And for Moscow, he remains an indispensable “hon-est broker” between Ukraine and Russia. Are these two bargaining points enough for him to win the day?

As can easily be seen, nothing is certain, but the threats are becoming clearer. The Rojava Kurds, with their plans for a society at odds with those dominant in the West, are in terrible danger.

Expanding his zone of influence in Syria

If in the end, his military adventurism turns out to be a dead end, it will not only be a slap in the face for the Turkish president, but it would also be a major curb on his neo-Ottoman expansion-ism. Because in addition to his hopes of re-election next year, he wants to extend his influence in Syria. Gaining control of Tel Rifaat and Manbij to the West of the Euphrates and Kobanî, Aya Issa and Tell Tamer to the East of it, continuing the ethnic cleansing begun in Afrin, driving out the Kurds and replacing them with exiled Syrians, all of this would mean rounding off his initial set of victories until something better comes along. The “sultan of Ankara” already has complete con-trol over the Idleb region (and its three million inhabitants) thanks to Hayat Tharir Al-Cham (Or-ganisation for the Liberation of the Levant) headed by one Mohamed Al-Golani, who has indebted him.

In Iraq, a military defeat of the PKK would enable him to maintain the presence of his 120 bases there, connected by roads built by the Turkish army and, despite the repeated demands of the Baghdad parliament, he could keep the one located 30 km from Mossul, a city which he claims for Turkey because it once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. This implicit challenging of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which set the borders of Turkey has led him to utter unambiguous threats di-rected at Greece: “The fact that you occupy the Aegean Sea islands near Turkey creates no ties between us. When the time is ripe, we will do what is required. We can land suddenly, in the middle of the night.”

An outdated warmongering rhetoric which served to justify Turkey’s poking its nose into the Lib-yan civil war on the side of Tripoli. And as for Cyprus, Erdoğan remains intractable, refusing any negotiation which might lead to the island’s reunification.

This greedy appropriation of neighbouring countries’ land and this determination to influence oth-ers has also been recently evident in the Caucasus when, to the annoyance of Iran, he backed Azeri President Elham Alivev on the issue of his country’s eventual annexation of the Azeri-speaking region of Iran. It will be remembered that the Turkish president, at the time of the armed clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2020, declared “one nation, two States” to legitimise his aid to Baku in the name of “Turkishness.” This solidarity took the concrete form of arms shipments and the sending of 1,500 Syrian mercenaries, proxy forces consisting of survivors of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or Jihad groups sent to the front in place of the regular Turkish army.

In this context of the “re awakening of Empires” Erdoğan has also reactivated the concept of Pan-Turkism invented by an early twentieth century identarian movement, the Young Turks, in order to suggest the existence of a linguistic unity and to sign economic and security agreements with the former Soviet Republics of Central Asia (Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan). An initiative which seriously riled Moscow.

Were Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to be re-elected it would not only mean the reinforcement of an au-thoritarian regime which has impoverished the country, arrested thousands on trumped-up charges and driven many into exile (over 20,000 Turks applied to the EU for asylum in 2022). It would also be giving a despot carte blanche to satisfy his territorial appetites.