Operation in Syria, Manoeuvres in Turkey: Crisis as an Opportunity for Erdoğan

29 October 2019
Operation in Syria, Manoeuvres in Turkey: Crisis as an Opportunity for Erdoğan - © Randy Tarampi/Unsplash

What happened two weeks ago, from the Turkish operation in the Northern Syria to the rapid cease fire after the visit of American delegation to Ankara, remains quite a puzzle for me, as it does for most of ordinary Turkish citizens for whom puzzles are no longer something unusual since being governed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, probably one of the most idiosyncratic leaders of his time. Indeed, can you think of any other political actor who survived a serious social uprising (Gezi Movements in the summer 2013), a major political corruption scandal (winter of 2013-2014), a domestic armed conflict (summer of 2015) and a military coup (summer of 2016).

Governing by — and perhaps thanks to — such crises has become his political style. After the honeymoon period, during which Justice and Development Party (AKP) was the bearer of liberal, civil and pro-European values and policies, the authoritarian tone of the government has been gradually accentuated, showing no mercy for opposition. Needless, perhaps, to remind ourselves that all leaders of the pro-Kurdish HDP, along with one of the most respected businessman and activists of the country (Osman Kavala), have been jailed for years without any convincing accusation and even sometimes legitimate juridical grounds. Erdoğan is adept at covering up these inequities and socioeconomic problems by manipulating the agenda. What took place last week was perhaps another episode of his governing by crisis, as it seems to represent the lightening of some his burning political burdens.

First of all, as its official justification also indicates, Erdoğan seemed to prevent the empowerment of Kurdish forces believed to be preparing the foundation of an autonomous Kurdish region at the borders. He considers them as a terrorist organisation that threatens Turkish unity. This message is clearly in harmony with the Turkish establishment, according to whom Kurdish separatism is still the most serious threat to the state.

Playing on such nationalist grounds of unity, he managed to line up all political parties and groups behind the endeavour, as none of them dared to express their opposition. Even the leaders of the social democrats had to express their support and give a green light to the operation, albeit being down in the mouth as they did it. They were obviously afraid of being blamed for backing the separatist treason. The consequent loneliness may represent the end of a political coalition between the Kurds and the social democrats. The former is once again left alone on the political arena, both on national and international scales. Yet, it was this coalition that made possible the first major electoral defeat of Erdoğan.

In the last local elections, Erdoğan lost the metropolitan municipalities of Ankara and Istanbul, with whom his party has held power for a quarter of century. The defeat in Istanbul was further devastating, as the Supreme Committee of Elections annulled the Istanbul elections based on unconvincing arguments. Social democrats won the second election by far. Therefore, the disintegration of the opposing coalition represents a deep breath for the president, as was the aftermath of the first electoral defeat: both the political opposition and the ex-loyal actors have found courage to reclaim power.
Another opportunity for Erdoğan is the chance to respond to the growing reactions to the Syrian refugees by implying that they will be settled in this security zone controlled by the Turkish army. One of the reasons for the local elections defeat is considered to be the anti-refugee sentiment that has been growing gradually with the worsening of the economy. Right after the elections, the government started sending back some of these refugees to Syria and now this Turkish controlled territory is presented as the future destination of these groups.

On the same subject, the operation gave Erdoğan a chance to renew his threat to Europe, if they did not back the operation, when he stated the possibility of opening the gates for the refugees so that they can move on in their escape towards Europe. In short, Erdoğan as a master of crisis management seems to create an addiction in his government to crisis as a way of political survival. The last operation in Syria seems to represent a new episode in these necessary crises. And most probably not the last one…

Ulaş Bayraktar was an associate professor of political science until he was expelled from university with hundreds of colleagues for being among the petitioners of a call for peace. He has then founded a café-library (Kültürhane) with other expelled scholars in Mersin, Turkey. Since then, they have organised talks, meetings and social events to sustain their relationship with the public and continue to read, reflect, write and publish for the public good.


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