Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan presents his latest cross-border operation into northeast Syria as a move against “oppressors and terrorists.” He also claims that he “targets not the Syrian people, or the Kurds there, but terrorists.” Upon scrutiny, however, the primary target of Erdogan’s Syria campaign appears to be Turkey’s newly energized opposition. Policymakers around the world should recognize the self-serving goals behind the Turkish president’s Syria machinations.
For over a decade, Erdogan owed his rule as much to shortcomings and divisions among Turkey’s opposition parties as to his own prowess. That seems to have changed with the local elections in March. Turkey’s opposition created a big-tent bloc by uniting the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with other leading opposition parties. This big-tent bloc won a stunning victory, grabbing Turkey’s leading cities from Erdogan. This opposition alliance is now poised to defeat him again in the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections and bring his two decade-tenure to an end. The Turkish president, however, is not willing to let go, and will continue to fight for his political survival not only on the campaign trail in Turkey, but also on Syria’s battlefields.
Erdogan knows that the easiest way to dismantle Turkey’s promising, but delicate, opposition bloc is to fuel ethnic tensions between Turks and Kurds. He rightly calculates that driving a wedge between the HDP and the rest of the opposition parties would prevent a repeat of his embarrassing defeat earlier this year. A cross-border operation into northeast Syria, the Turkish president hopes, will suffice to trigger ethnic and political fault lines that run deep not only in the country but also within the opposition.
Erdogan has also been watching with great anxiety the splits within and defections from his own Justice and Development Party (AKP). Turkey’s democratic backsliding, rampant corruption, and economic downturn have driven almost a million members away from the AKP ranks within the last year. To make matters worse, two of his prior colleagues, former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu and former deputy prime minister Ali Babacan, have recently left the AKP as they prepare to establish two splinter parties, which are sure to attract further defections from Erdogan’s ranks. The fact that former Turkish president Abdullah Gul is lending his support to Babacan makes the threat even more dangerous.
Erdogan’s rise to power in 2002 came on the heels of an economic crisis that pushed all existing political parties out of the Turkish parliament. His successive wins at the ballot box owed more to the AKP government’s economic performance and service delivery than the appeal of its Muslim Brotherhood ideology. The Turkish president knows best how pragmatic the Turkish electorate is. His 17-year attempt at social engineering has failed miserably to inculcate and popularize Brotherhood teachings. Turkish voters have proven in Istanbul, not only once in the March election but again in the June rerun, that they –even the ones in the most religious districts— are willing to jettison AKP’s bankrupt policies by switching their support from Erdogan’s lethargic candidates to the emerging generation of dynamic leaders among the opposition.
There is very little hope, if any at all, among the AKP circles that Erdogan and his son-in-law Berat Albayrak —who currently serves as the finance and treasury minister— can turn around the economic slowdown. During April’s IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington, investors slammed Albayrak’s presentation as “the worst ever.” Given that Turkey now has its highest unemployment in over a decade, Erdogan’s prospect of stopping defections and regaining voters is nonexistent. Albayrak didn’t dare to show his face at the IMF-World Bank meetings, now underway.
Make no mistake. Erdogan is not willing to let go without a fight, literally. If there is one lesson all his political opponents have learned the hard way over the years, it is that Erdogan is a political survivor with great instincts. He demonstrated this yet again with his cross-border operation into northeast Syria, which he called in an Orwellian fashion, “Operation Peace Spring.”
The rally-round-the-flag effect of this latest military campaign into Syria allowed Erdogan to boost his nationalist credentials and stifle dissent. He also hopes that his recent vow to resettle up to three million displaced Syrians from Turkey to northeast Syria will allow him to convert the rising anti-refugee sentiment among the Turkish electorate into votes. Meanwhile, he is busy criminalizing Turkey’s pro-Kurdish HDP and any others who dare to call for peace and reconciliation with Kurds at home and abroad. This, he hopes, will pull to pieces the big-tent opposition bloc by pitching Kurds against Turks and hawks against doves. The Turkish president and his son-in-law are equally thrilled that their financial mismanagement and the ensuing economic downturn have stopped making headlines or topping political debates in the country.
As Erdogan’s interlocutors in the United States and European Union try to address his talking points, which revolve around security and counterterrorism, they would fare better to realize there is nothing, short of another presidential mandate, that would get the Turkish president to end his diatribes. The Turkish president savors the spectacle of a military operation. It would be naïve to expect Thursday’s “ceasefire” deal brokered by Washington, which delivered Erdogan a “near-total victory,” to bring his intervention to an end. After all, the Turkish president’s Syria campaign is as much an election campaign as it is a military one.
Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @aykan_erdemir.