Erdoğan’s Blowback: How Personal Ambitions Plunged Turkey into Crisis

The Turkish president played with fire in Syria and undermined democracy at home. And he’s not done yet.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is surrounded by security personnel as he leaves a building in Istanbul, October 13, 2016
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is surrounded by security personnel as he leaves a building in Istanbul, October 13, 2016 (!Koss)

Recep Erdoğan has come a long way. The president of Turkey, Erdoğan has been clawing upward since becoming mayor of Istanbul in 1994. His political road has been riddled with mines: Turkish generals, side-switching Islamist allies, Kurdish politicians and secular-minded Turks. His accomplishments are impressive. Serving as prime minister from 2003 until 2014, he shepherded real democracy into what was once a military-dominated republic.

But all great movements run out of steam. Erdoğan’s political shakeup of Turkey is starting to ossify into authoritarian thuggery and habits meant to be banished by democracy.

Worse, his policies are getting Turkish citizens killed.

The shadow of November 2015

This was the last Turkish general election. Marred by accusations of media manipulation, violence and electoral fraud, it reversed the results from four months earlier, when Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP in Turkish, lost its majority in parliament.

Like all political parties, the AKP was running out of steam in 2015. Like all political parties, its ideology and approach to politics had a shelf life. Turkey’s economy had slowed; its foreign policies hadn’t produced as grand of breakthroughs as Turkish citizens would have liked to see.

By then, Erdoğan had been challenged by a combination of former allies in the Gülen movement, secular-minded Turks in the major cities and a rebellion in Turkish Kurdistan supported by Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. This would wobble any movement.

Were Erdoğan a true democrat, he would have accepted those losses and moved on, preparing for the next election.

Instead, he called a new election and embarked on a wave of repression and manipulation that saved the AKP’s majority.

It turned out Erdoğan’s overriding interest in democracy was to use it as a vehicle to restore lost Turkish pride and glory while entrenching himself deeper into the state.

Finishing his term as prime minister in 2014, he swiftly took over the country’s ceremonial presidency. Now he aims to abolish the prime ministry altogether and concentrate power in his hands alone.

That requires political capital. Erdoğan’s AKP won election after election in the early 2000s thanks to a booming economy, a crackdown on coup-prone officers in the armed forces and a peaceful blossoming of Islamist values in Turkish public space, the latter long sought by the country’s conservative interior.

Since the beginning of 2014, however, the economy has barely moved; the coup-prone officers have been purged and pandering to Muslim values found its political ceiling. So to continue his entrechment as Turkey’s political center, Erdoğan had to find successes elsewhere.

Bashing the Kurds

Erdoğan’s favorite target has been the country’s hard-pressed Kurdish minority.

From 2012-15, a peace process seemed to be making headway. But when the Islamic State in next-door Syria besieged the Kurdish city of Kobane in 2014, Turkish forces watched from the border and did nothing, leaving American planes to bombard IS until it withdrew and Kurdish militias relieved the city.

Erdoğan may have been hedging his bets, testing to see how much America was willing to fight the Islamic State.

He may also have calculated that IS would be a better neighbor than yet another Kurdish enclave.

Either way, the calculation backfired.

Kurds in Turkey rebelled in the summer of 2015 and the peace process collapsed. This served two purposes for Erdoğan:

First, it created an emergency not directly of his making, buying him precious political capital in time for the elections.

Second, it allowed him to call fresh elections that November and use the military emergency as an excuse to repress Kurdish parties that had done so well in June.

It worked. Kurdish parties lost 21 seats. Erdoğan’s AKP won seats from the far-right National Movement Party, whose voters were happy to see Erdoğan wage war on the Kurds.

Playing with fire

Erdoğan also hoped to win points by meddling in Syria and overthrowing Bashar al-Assad. This also served multiple purposes:

First, it would have restored Turkish influence in one of its former Ottoman provinces.

Second, it would have tossed out a secular Arab dictator, allowing Erdoğan to claim he was in favor of both democracy and Islam to curry favor with Sunnis worldwide while placating his NATO allies.

Finally, it would be a testing ground for Erdoğan’s new state, discovering how capable Turkey’s post-Kemalist intelligence services and military could perform.

This backfired spectacularly.

Rather than cleanly overthrowing Assad, Turkey ended up backing increasingly radical Sunni Arab forces. When the Islamic State burst onto the scene in June 2014, Erdoğan took no hard line against it — unlike the rest of NATO — calculating that the self-proclaimed caliphate would continue to focus its energies on Assad and not Turkey.

Worse, the longer the war went on, the stronger the local Kurds grew. The Americans only trusted the Kurds, especially as the Free Syrian Army dissolved and IS gained ground. This put Erdoğan at loggerheads with his allies in Washington while Moscow deployed bombers and tanks to Syria in the fall of 2014 to bolster Assad’s tottering regime. Faced with a possible confrontation with Russia, Erdoğan’s Syrian gambit had failed to tick any of his geopolitical boxes.

So Erdoğan pivoted. Rather than knock out Assad, he decided to bolster his reputation at home by waging war on Syria’s Kurds and repair his reputation with NATO by attacking the Islamic State.

The invasion of Syria in August 2016 gave him an opportunity to do both things and created yet another military emergency to shore up his regime back home.

If he could not deliver economic growth, he would instead lead armies to victory.

A coup, bombs and blowback

This all cost Turkey deadly. While its army defeated Kurdish and Islamic State forces, IS irregulars slipped into Turkey and launched mass-casualty attacks on Istanbul’s airport and, most recently on New Year’s Eve, a nightclub.

Kurdish militias in the southeast also bombed Turkish military installations and police.

By July 2016, Erdoğan’s nemeses in the army decided the time had come to oust him and gain power for themselves.

Possibly in league with Erdoğan’s erstwhile allies in the Gülen movement, the coup plotters sought not to restore democracy nor roll back Islamist gains but simply to switch stewards to Fethullah Gülen, who must have sensed Erdoğan’s rule was wobbly.

The coup failed; Erdoğan flew into Istanbul and restored order, despite a possible kill order against him.

He then used the coup as an excuse to purge the entirety of the state of the Gülen movement; up to 110,000 have lost their jobs or been arrested. This left Erdoğan far stronger than before.

This shows the Erdoğan pattern: provoke or allow disaster, declare an emergency and take more power. Each emergency builds upon the last and each step toward authoritarianism entrenches Erdoğan further.

It costs Turkish lives, but those are cheap in Erdoğan’s calculations.

Now what?

We can safely assume Erdoğan will continue to manufacture or capitalize on disasters until he gains his ultimate objective, which is a one-party state under his rule.

His economic model has run its course: Turkey is too developed to boom through one-party rule now and needs multiparty democracy to iron out economic inefficiences and combat corruption.

That leaves only the route of continuous confrontation, fearmongering and repression. Erdoğan will have plenty of opportunity.