The domestic and foreign policies pursued by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, may seem wayward and full of inconsistencies. But as William Shakespeare so appositely puts it: “though this be madness, yet there is method in it.”
It was on June 10, 2014 that the magnitude of the threat posed to regional and western interests by the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL or ISIS, as it was then known), became apparent. That was the day they captured Iraq’s largest city, Mosul, to be followed by the surrounding province of Nineveh. On the following day Tikrit, another major city north of Baghdad, fell to them. Two weeks later their leader. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, changed the name of his organisation to Islamic State (IS), declared a cross-border Islamic “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, and crowned himself caliph of all Muslims. This series of events precipitated the formation of a coalition of anti-IS interests, headed by the US. Shackled by a strict “no boots on the ground” policy, the coalition concentrated on provided training to anti-IS forces in Syria and Iraq, and backing their ground operations with massive air-strikes.
From all this, Turkey stood aloof. Erdogan – a Sunni with Muslim Brotherhood attachments – was at daggers drawn with Shi’ite Iran and its lackey, Syrian President Bashar Assad. As regards Syria, there was no way Erdogan would join the US’s unofficial alliance with Iran, which – both directly and via its puppet Hezbollah – was battling against IS in support of Assad.
As far as Iraq was concerned, the predominant factor from Erdogan’s perspective was the Kurdish dimension. Kurdish Pashmerga troops were by far the most effective fighting force, scoring notable successes against IS. But the subsequent boost to Kurdish popularity within Turkey, to say nothing of the Kurds’ territorial gains, was far from Erdogan’s liking. Despite his earlier tentative steps towards some sort of accommodation with the substantial Kurdish minority within Turkey – an initiative which had faltered by the end of 2014 – Erdogan and much of the Turkish establishment remained deeply opposed to Kurdish demands for greater autonomy.
Erdogan’s opposition to the Kurds, together with the fact that IS is unequivocally Sunni, led to suspicions that he was surreptitiously aiding IS by permitting foreign recruits to their ranks to enter Iraq by way of Turkey, and was actually funding IS by facilitating the sale of the oil they were extracting from fields captured during their territorial expansion.
So when a fierce battle developed between the Kurdish Peshmerga and IS for the town of Kobani on the Turkish-Syrian border, it was no surprise that Erdogan refused to engage against IS. He was doubtless disappointed when the Kurds finally captured the town, for by then a political aspect to the game was looming domestically.
This Kurdish success came just before Turkey began gearing itself for the general elections that were then central to Erdogan’s political aspirations. He was placing his hopes on a sweeping victory for his Justice and Development Party (AKP), to be followed by a new constitution that would vastly increase the power of the presidency. In anticipation of enhancing his popularity among his committed electorate, Erdogan turned his back on the peace pact he had made when prime minister with the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation, and pushed through a security bill granting sweeping powers to the police.
His ploy failed. The June election saw his AKP lose its overall majority, and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) win 13 percent of the vote and gain parliamentary representation for the first time. The result has been a hung parliament, and eight weeks later the AKP has still not managed to form a coalition government. If no coalition appears before August 23, Turkey will have to hold an early election, most likely in the second half of November.
Early elections will give Erdogan, who has been dubbed Turkey’s neo-Ottoman sultan-in-waiting, a renewed opportunity to achieve his ambition of one-party rule headed by an autocratic president. The HDP, on the other hand, would hope to consolidate, and improve on, the gains it made in June.
It is against the backdrop of this internal political struggle that recent dramatic shifts in Erdogan’s foreign policy must be viewed.
Erdogan had long been at the receiving end of US requests to use Turkey’s Incerlik air base near Syria’s northern border to facilitate its air-strikes against IS, and indeed for Turkey to join the US coalition. On July 22, choosing a singularly opportune moment, President Obama contacted Erdogan directly by phone. Two days earlier an IS suicide bomber killed 32 people in an attack in the Turkish town of Suruç, near the Syrian border. Intense pressure was building on Erdoğan to hit back.
So the intra-presidential telephone conversation ended in an agreement that Turkey would stem the flow of foreign fighters to IS, secure Turkey’s border with Syria, join the air-strike operations, and allow the US the use of Turkey’s Incerlik air base near Syria’s northern border. But as with other arrangements involving President Obama, the deal was far from watertight. To change metaphors, the elephant in this particular room were the Kurds, the stalwart allies of the coalition.
In Erdogan’s eyes, however, the Kurds present as large a threat to his long-term political ambitions as IS – probably larger. With an eye on early elections and the impact on his own AKP constituency, Erdogan is set on curtailing growing Kurdish power along Turkey’s southern border. He wants to ensure that Kurdish gains in Iraq and in Syria do not encourage the revival in Kurdish fortunes demonstrated in the last election.
So from the start Erdogan has combined Turkish air strikes against IS forces in Syria with attacks on the PKK in northern Iraq and its forces in south-eastern Turkey. Since the Kurdish Pershmerga troops have proved themselves IS’s most formidable opponents, the US and its coalition partners are justified in asking whose side Erdogan is really on. He attacks IS; he attacks IS’s most formidable opponents. The truth is, he wants to punish both – IS for its terrorist attacks inside Turkey; the Kurds for their resurgence in self-confidence and recent electoral success. So in effect, as a recent media comment has it, Erdogan is fighting for Erdogan and against anyone who puts him in a bad light.
What game is Erdogan playing? The game of power politics – a game he dare not lose, for if he does his grandiose ambition to turn himself into a latter-day Ottoman Sultan, or Islamist Kemal Ataturk, will become nothing more than a footnote in the history of modern Turkey.