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After The Terror Attack, Erdogan’s Tough Choices – OpEd

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By all accounts, the deadly terrorist attack in Ankara that killed and wounded hundreds of people at a peace rally was a major shock to the Turkish society as well as its political system, in light of the approaching parliamentary elections in November and the deep political cleavages that prevented a solid result at the June round. With the polls suggesting that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) unlikely to gain a majority, the big question is, of course, whether or not the twin bombings will cause a further erosion of popular support for the party and its leadership headed by President Erdogan?

Calling for unity and national determination to face the challenges wrought by terrorism, Erdogan now has an excellent opportunity to make up for some of the recent errors, such as shunning a coalition government with the rival parties, and heal the Kurdish-Turkish divide instead of fanning the flames of ethnic polarization. Deeply impacted by the regional crises, Turkey’s internal politics is rapidly sliding toward a crisis of national disunity that can be staved off only through a more pragmatic realist approach at the top that would implement the prescriptions of inclusion rather than exclusion.

The problem, however, is that the country’s growing instability and festering security problems, which are partly due to the spill-over conflict in neighboring Syria and also partly due to the Kurdish ethnic strife, will likely fuel a greater centralization and even autocratic tendency, particularly if there are more similar attacks in the near future, which might result in the postponement of the elections for security reasons. Unleashing the national security apparatuses in the hunt for the terrorists and internal stability is likely to exact a price on the Turkish democracy, and a segment of the population will nod to the trade-off between liberties and security.

The other alternative is,of course, a more ceremonial presidency and Erdogan’s willingness to step back from the present pattern of political paternalism that has been a staple of his political style, that is somewhat in sync with the traditional Turkish authoritarianism. The ‘hands-on’ presidency has its multiple advantages after all, as many Turks look to Russia’s president Putin as an example, which is why it is highly unlikely that a diminution of Erdogan’s authority will ensue in the aftermath of the twin bombings.

But, Erdogan and his policy circle will now have to make tough choices among an assortment of alternatives both internally and externally. They could, for instance, align themselves with their neighbors — Russia, Iran, Iraq — who have formed an alliance to save the embattled Syrian government and beat back the armed opposition to it, which is supported by Ankara, save the Islamic State, which is now targeted by both NATO as well as the Turkish army. This dualistic approach of battling ISIS while acting as an accomplice of anti-Damascus front by, among others, seeking a “no-fly zone” that would definitely embroil Turkey deeper in the Syrian imbroglio, is a recipe for disaster. No matter what the carrots from the Saudis and other conservative oil-rich Arab states, Turkey must prioritize its “zero problem” approach with its (eastern) neighbors, particularly Russia and Iran that are key to Turkey’s energy security.

Fortunately, Turkey has as of late adjusted its disastrous Syrian policy by allowing its bases to be used for American air raids on ISIS targets in Syria, which might be carrying costs of reprisals by the brutal terrorists, yet this is inevitable if Turkey really wants long-term stability at its long borders with Syria. The hitherto schizoid approach that has focused on regime change in Damascus is no longer viable and must be shelved, otherwise it spells more trouble with Turkey’s neighbors who are now in alliance with each other.

Sadly, the Syrian theater has the potential to deteriorate even further by turning into an “east-west” rivalry if Washington opts to create a quagmire for Putin instead of heeding his UN call for a WWII-style anti-terrorist alliance. In that case, Turkey will be somewhat destined to play a junior partner role in a US-Russia “new cold war” involving NATO. As a NATO member, Turkey’s freedom of action is constrained and Ankara is bound to follow the American marching orders on Russia and Syria. This, in turn, raises the question of what exactly is NATO plotting for the future of Syria, given the tsunami of refugees that has rocked the European Union? The signs of a growing rift in Europe over this question can now be found aplenty, e.g., France’s recent backing down from Assad’s removal as a precondition for the diplomatic track on Syria, and the US is also sending contradictory signals about its intentions.

Indeed, much depends on US’s stance on Syria and whether or not the current bilateral talks between Moscow and Washington on Syria will yield any positive results? In his UN speech, Obama left the door a jar open for cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria, but the weight of anti-Russia considerations may ultimately trump that possibility, in which case Turkey would have a subservient role to play in the “Russian quagmire” prescriptions by Washington and its NATO allies. A certain de-coupling of Turkey’s policy from NATO’s and American policy on Syria might be called for, otherwise Turkey will have its hands full with several of its key neighbors, instead of “zero problem” advocated by the government it will end up with ‘zero problem solution’, i.e., a self-undermining proposition. The Turkish ‘security dilemma’ however consists of the fact that it imposes contradictory demands on the government, one of which is greater NATO dependency, which is rather unhealthy when that translates into greater friction with Turkey’s eastern neighbors.

Hypothetically speaking, Ankara can make peace with Damascus, stop its support for the Syrian opposition, intensify its anti-ISIS efforts, create a government of national unity by embracing the political opposition, and avoid any further deterioration of Kurdish-Turkish rift by continuing with the present approach of collaboration with the mainstream Kurdish party that has won seats in the parliament and is also represented at the cabinet level. The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has wisely cancelled its political rallies in the wake of the Ankara bombings and should refrain from blaming the government for the insecurity that is rooted in foreign-induced terrorism. On the other hand, the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP), might see a political windfall as a result of the new terrorist-generated crisis in Turkey, which remains to be seen only a precious few weeks from now. In that case, Turkey might be better inclined to scrap its hitherto dysfunctional Syrian policy by adopting a nationalist posture that prioritizes strictly national interests in normalizing relations with Damascus. For the moment, however, with Mr. Erdogan in charge, Turkey’s Syrian policy is in a state of destructive flux.

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi, Ph.D. is an Iranian-American political scientist and author specializing in Iran’s foreign and nuclear affairs, and author of several books.

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