With Erdogan declaring victory in the April 17th referendum, we see his vision become a reality; consolidation of power within him and his party setting up the future for an autocratic Turkey. The AKP party and Erdogan claim this is needed for a stronger future and to develop economically as well as “For a strong Islamic state, for a strong Middle East, Turkey had to switch to this executive presidency system”, to quote Aysel Can, a member of the AKP’s women’s branch. Are these promises a reality? Are they achievable? With the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East shifting considerably Erdogan may have found that he has isolated himself considerably, making him the king of state that has very little room to grow and restricted options for regional projection, as seems to be his ambition.
Regionally, Turkey is in competition with the other regional powers – Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey is the only regional power with no close great power ally, Saudi Arabia has the United States who provides significant armaments, trade and houses American troops; their partnership, while recently rocky, is still solid, especially with the recent trip that Trump has made to repair relations since the Obama administration. The Iranians have Russian support. While the Iran-Russian dynamic is not the most friendly partnership, their interests align significantly and they are both heavily invested in the success of the Assad regime in Syria. Some would point to NATO, but this would make little sense as NATO is a treaty of Mutual Defence, not a projection or offensive unit. The ability to appeal to NATO states to contribute to a fight without sound defensive logic is low, as demonstrated by the very limited contributions of NATO member states to the American adventure in Iraq.
Turkey is also the regional power with the least cultural appeal. Shi’a and Sunni populations appeal to Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively. Recently, Erdogan and the AKP party has been positioning itself as a strong Sunni Islamist state, a move that would technically appeal to the same support base as Saudi Arabia, hence an antagonizing move. They also have very little appeal to Shi’a for obvious reasons. If we keep in mind the memory that most of these groups have of the Ottoman empire little over a century ago, then most groups also do not wish to see a rise in Turkish power or influence.
This has yet to touch on the immediate power-play interactions between these states in Syria. This complex conflict has seen Turkey position itself relatively uniquely: absolutely alone. It supports the Free Syrian Army in the North of the country, with probably the most direct support out of all their allies involving ground deployments in the Al-Bab area. This positions them directly against the SAA, Iran, and Russia. Their reasoning for this deployment is also quite evidently selfish: they are not there to defeat ISIS or tear down Assad, but to damage and hopefully destroy Kurdish influence and power along their border. Yet, the Kurds are also the group bearing the brunt of the fighting against ISIS ranging from their desperate battle in Kobani in 2014 to their current operations to retake Raqqa, the capital of the so called ISIS caliphate, with significant American support and SOF units fighting alongside them. While no regional state really wants to see Kurdish influence grow, directly fighting with the group that is viewed globally, for the most part, favorably, and is supported by the U.S is not the best diplomatic move. Their deployment, yet again, pits them against the GCC states, competing for influence over the FSA rebel groups, which are really a conglomerate of different militias groups rather than a uniform fighting force.
As is illustrated, they are opposed to every group in the Syrian conflict, with many states suspicious of the intent of their deployments. This includes the Americans and the Russians, the two major powers influencing the region. Turkish relations with Russia have been at a low since Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015. Their positioning against the SAA also highlights this collision of interests. Nothing highlights this more than the recent deployment of Russian troops in the Afrin area of Northern Syria to hinder any Turkish attacks against the Kurdish-administered zones. The Americans have followed suit, deploying forces alongside Kurdish units in support of their Raqqa operations, but also making a point of having them seen in border towns to discourage Turkish action against their YPG allies. These troop movements to the borders seriously limit any Turkish operations inside Syria: there only avenue to attack their main objective, Manbij, is through a narrow front roughly half-way between Jarabalus and Manbij. While doing so is possible, it would be in clear defiance of what the Russians and Americans are signalling to them.
While their influence in these regional conflicts has been constrained, limiting Erdogan’s vision, what about internal growth? They are a regional power with a sizeable population of roughly 80 million people. They have experienced trade growth and ranked in the top 20 economies of the world. Yet, since the Lira hit its peak in January, it has steadily declined with an especially sharp drop on the day of the referendum itself, showing investors hesitation to get involved in an economy filled with political uncertainty. As the future looks questionable and the nationalist, autocratic movements take shape, investors are becoming hesitant to put money into the country.
A further constraint is the diplomatic damage they have done to their relationships with the EU. 44.5% of Turkey’s exports go to the EU, and 38% of imports are from the EU. Yet they have decided to involve themselves in a diplomatic sparring match with these countries, including the withdrawal and expulsion of diplomats from the Netherlands. Erdogan has done this before, sparring verbally with allies to gain domestic support by looking strong, but now his allies are getting tired of the act, especially as it is to achieve objectives that are counter their values. This, combined with the referendum win, has condemned any chance of Turkey achieving its ambition of joining the EU, while also damaging relations with its largest trading partner. Hence, they have also limited chances for foreign investments and economic strength.
So what does this mean for the future of Erdogan’s Turkey? They are in direct competition with their regional powers. The EU and other western states want little to do with them as they represent right wing nationalism that brings back horrid memories of the past conflicts that gripped Europe, and have displayed they will throw their allies reputations under the bus for selfish domestic rationales. They have damaged their economy and diplomatic relations with their largest trading partners and have a questionable relationship with Russia. What options do they have to grow and become the regional power Erdogan has envisioned? The answer is not many. They cannot pursue military operations in Syria without seriously opposing every other actor. They cannot force investors to invest in them either. Erdogan has effectively isolated Turkey in his quest for power and made it very difficult for him to deliver on his promises. How will the Turkish people react when they realize his promises were lies and they have empowered a man who will take the state and its people backwards to empower his own ambitions? The world can only hope that Erdogan does not continue down this path and blame the problems that Turkey will most probably face; a slowed down economy, a powerful Kurdish presence on its borders, a new Shi’a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean, and no friends in sight, on outsiders like most typical autocrats do, further stirring nationalism, and ostracizing the outside world.
The one surprising development in the past couple of weeks has been Russian cooperation. Russia has a long habit of a utilitarian approach to alliances, as long as it maintains utility they will be part of it. One of the major points of this will be the maintenance of ‘safe zones;’ to de-escalate the Syrian conflict. Why would the Russians work with Turkey on this? It seems that the Russians are trying to extricate themselves from a conflict that has proven expensive and longer than expected. They have achieved their objective of propping up the Assad regime and gaining their ports on the Mediterranean in Tartus. They have countered American influence and introduced themselves as a player in the region. Are they trading some influence in the Syrian conflict to extricate themselves as long as it doesn’t damage the Assad regimes position? Most probably, yet this does not offset the Kurdish problem nor provide enough geopolitical gains to pay off the costs of the way they have positioned themselves.
All in all, Erdogan seems to have sacrificed the long term future of Turkey for his own short term ambitions, leaving them alienated and alone in a dangerous region of the world still being crafted. It will be curious to see how he manages domestic aggravation in response and whether the Turkish people will accept his manipulation as foreign aggravators or see the trade for what it really was.