A fairytale gone bad – a flummoxed Turkey in a chaotic region

  • From Istanbul, reports Sebastian Franzkowiak

Fans of Game of Thrones or House of Cards are used to incredible turns and twists in the series’ plots. Violence, intricate power games and cold-blooded calculations are constant features of those shows and shed a negative light on politics. What is going on in Ankara might be increasingly seen as one of the latest episodes developed by writers for HBO or Netflix. Taken to the extremes, Turkish politics are also a game, with an aspiring Sultan trying to impose his rule over his realm. Let’s take a look at an anecdote from last week to clarify:

The leading article in Günes, one of the most government-friendly Turkish newspapers, blamed the recent bomb attack in Istanbul on Germany, which had allegedly not been able to ‘cope with the harsh Turkish reaction’ to the Bundestag’s recent resolution acknowledging the Armenian genocide. Subsequently, President Erdoğan announced an ‘action plan against Germany’, publically denouncing the members of German parliament of Turkish origin as co-conspirators with terrorist forces in Turkey. When most German newspapers criticised Turkey’s reaction and direct attack on the parliamentarians, the Turkish narrative went so far as to present this as a clear proof that press freedom in Germany was under threat.

Conspiracies like this are as recurrent as is the public bemoaning of officials of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), who feel notoriously disadvantaged and discredited by alleged ‘enemies’ from both within and outside Turkey. We are not in the realm of fictional TV series, but paradoxically it appears that as the discourses by Turkish politicians become increasingly unpredictable and absurd, the AKP rules the country as unchallenged as never before. What is going on in Turkey, a country that was cherished as the rising regional force in the Middle East, a growing economic power and as some tend (or would like) to forget, which is still an official EU accession candidate?

A self-inflicted predicament

Part of Turkey’s current predicament is self-inflicted. Take the Kurds. One year ago, the pro-Kurdish HDP landed a major election success by entering Turkish Parliament. For the first time since thirteen years, the AKP had failed to win an absolute majority in the legislative elections. Observers were hoping for a more peaceful Turkey that could leave the past violence behind it. Instead of a continuous armed conflict between the militant Kurdish wing (PKK) and the Turkish army, Turkey’s Kurds would get the chance to use Parliament as an arena to assert their political rights. What an illusionary thinking.

One year on, HDP-Parliamentarians have a hard time in Turkey. Erdoğan did have two choices when the Kurdish party won a considerable number of votes in summer 2015: accommodating them in a coalition government or re-launching the conflict and scheduling new elections. The AKP managed to regain its absolute majority in the newly held November 2015 elections, and is now stronger than ever before: recently, the immunities of Kurdish parliamentarians were lifted and Erdoğan replaced the too critical Prime Minister Davutoğlu, with a less critical figurehead (Yildirim). The establishment of a semi-presidential system with a strong presidential mandate for Erdoğan seems to be a palpable vision. The Sultan-like personal empowerment strategy however happened at the expense of the peace process with the PKK and the conflict resumed increasing levels of violence.

Turkey in 2016 is a different country than it was only a year ago. You can literally feel that something is in the air when strolling through the streets of Istanbul. On Istiklal Street, the major shopping avenue, a suicide bomber had blown himself up in March 2016, inflicting the death of five tourists and many more wounded. It was another heavy blow in a chain of deadly attacks throughout the country that had started in autumn 2015, and already the second one in Istanbul including foreign tourists in 2016. Although life in a metropolis like Istanbul must go on, people are anxious about Turkey’s fate – as the country now faces the threat of both the Islamic State and Kurdish extremists willing to use bomb attacks for their political goals.

Failing in Syria and beyond

Turkey’s foreign policy failure in Syria is the major factor behind the Turkish predicament. While Turkey does a great job hosting more than two million Syrian refugees, Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in the Syrian conflict is constrained by opposing any solution involving Al-Asad. Moreover, uneasiness with the growing autonomy of Syria’s Kurds has put Ankara at odds with the United States, who favour the Kurds as effective fighters against ISIS. Ankara’s preferred solution – regime-change, will most probably not manifest itself in the near future. Too many things are at stake in Syria, and the global repercussions of the proxy-war mean that any final solution is beyond Turkey’s capacity to act. Furthermore, as long as Ankara does continue targeting PKK positions instead of decisively fighting ISIS, rumours about ties between ISIS and the AKP will not cease. Some officials speak of Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’ in the Middle East, as Turkey would arguably benefit from having stood with the people that rose against autocratic regimes in the region in the long run. Realistically speaking, this is a strategy to mask failure to the Turkish public, particularly in Syria.

Arguably, the aspiring Sultan has to be careful that the wind does not blow too harshly from all sides. Despite Erdoğan’s conviction to ‘fight terrorists until the end’, and despite the apparent stability of the governing AKP, the actual prospects of a stabilisation of the situation are very unclear. Turkey appears to be in a flummoxed state. Usually, cordial ties with allied countries should be a top priority for Ankara. Messing up the relations with major international players – Russia, the US and now Germany to name a few – is not in the long-term interest of the government. Because finally, while there is some truth in the idea that especially the EU needs Turkey to manage the refugee crisis, Turkey also depends on its allies in terms of trade and investment relations. At worst, disenfranchising allies and purporting absurd discourses might reveal that the apparently stable house of cards can be knocked down. If Erdoğan does not recalibrate his risky posturing, a very long winter might be coming for Turkey.


cover image: flickr_cclicense

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