Ankara’s Achilles heel or: what stands in the way of Erdogan’s dreams for Turkey and the Middle East

Erdogan’s success of bringing forward the referendum on the constitutional amendments that would extend his presidential powers suggests that his aspirations towards a ‘one-man rule’ in Turkey, are being fulfilled. Similarly, the goal of elevating Turkey to the status of leading regional and global power seems to be advancing, as underlined by Ankara’s involvement in the Astana talks on Syria – or the unprecedented rally in support of the constitutional reform led by Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim that was recently held in Germany. However, a closer look at recent developments in the region points to the fact that what Erdogan neglected is the reshuffle of foreign influence in the Middle East.

Coming unnoticed to Western observers at the time, the AKP’s election in 2002 was the beginning of substantial changes in the Turkish state of democracy. The party’s roots in the Islamist movement Millî Görüş pointed to the AK party’s Islamist characteristics, but they became overshadowed by its leaders’ vocal ambitions to liberalise Turkey and bring it into the EU. The new foreign policy of ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ went hand in hand with this ambition. The strategy of improving the relations with Middle Eastern countries was perceived as a part of a strategic plan to build up Turkey’s regional role as  intermediary between Europe and the Middle East, and thus to speed up its accession to the EU. However, Erdogan’s pick of Ahmed Davutoglu, the key proponent of the ‘zero problems’ policy, as a foreign minister in 2009 is not coincidental. In fact, by that time Ankara already shifted its focus away from the EU as it became clear that membership would not be feasible, also because Erdogan’s initial EU-oriented stance was driven by the desire to diminish the power of the military establishment in Turkish politics, in a country with a strong interventionist tradition of the military establishment also known as Kemalism. Once the policies of the EU Association Agreements kicked in and the military was brought under civilian control, Erdogan’s space for domestic political maneuver radically increased, which is even more evident with the upcoming referendum – that has little to do with the AKP’s initial support for EU’s liberal reforms.

However, Ankara’s regional interests currently diverge from those of NATO, its key western ally that boosts Turkey’s role in the international arena. The US support of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and its military wing in the fight against ISIS and the Syrian army is not welcome in Ankara, as it is facing a domestic Kurdish insurgency of the Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK). The Kurdish militant organisation in Turkey, regarded as terrorist by Ankara, is perceived as the main domestic security threat. That is why the Turkish government seeks to prevent the Kurds in Syria from gaining autonomy, feared to have a spillover effect over the Kurdish insurgency at home. In effect, once Ankara cannot uphold its interests through NATO, it is only logical that its cooperation preferences have shifted towards Moscow, whose relevance to the Syrian turmoil is unquestionable. What implications does this cast for NATO and the Middle East? So far the developments suggest that lack of agreement on a common strategy and interests within NATO, accompanied by the declining engagement of the US in the region (which in itself becomes even more questionable with Trump’s presidency), are reflected in an increased role played by Moscow in the Middle East: Ankara paves the way for Moscow’s influence in the Middle East.

Here comes the point where the reshuffling of the foreign power balance in the region clashes with Erdogan’s initial hopes, as Ankara’s regional vision comes under fire. While the shooting of the Russian ambassador did not significantly damage the Turkish-Russian relations, and, despite the odds, brought Turkey to the negotiating table in Astana to come up with the resolution of the Syrian conflict, Ankara has difficulties in promoting its interests. That is because the choice of Russia to include Turkey in the talks might be as pragmatic as Putin’s foreign policy in the past decades. Russia is seeking to form regional alliances revolving around the official plan of bringing the Islamist fundamentalist violence to an end, which appears to be an attempt to legitimize its foreign policy not only internationally but also at the national level. Therefore, it is not surprising that Ankara’s endeavours to block any progress in the Kurdish autonomy in Syria come short of results. Moscow, in its attempts to propose a new Constitution that would advance the resolution of the Syrian political disagreements, remains open to the negotiations with the Syrian PYD whose exclusion from the talks is  likely to undermine such efforts. In turn, Ankara remains sidelined. Washington’s support of the Kurdish militias in Syria is further pushing Turkey into an uncomfortable abyss. It is important to highlight that Russia’s reassertion of power in the Middle East comes at a time when Erdogan is facing several domestic issues. The polarisation between the Islamist and secularist population is growing, which affects the Kurdish population as well. With the crackdown of the HDP, the key pro-Kurdish party in the Parliament, the support of the PKK and its young militias could continue to grow amongst the Kurds in Turkey, even more so if the PYD in Syria were to succeed with their demands for autonomy.

In conlusion, what we see from Ankara’s foreign policy is a result of internationalisation of Turkey’s domestic security threats. While international support for the Kurds outside Turkey can embolden the PKK, it becomes even more unlikely that Ankara will solve its domestic security issues while on the path to authoritarianism. Instead, Turkey’s incursion mirrors the inconsistency of its foreign policy. In effect, as long as the PKK and the Syrian Kurds continue to bother Ankara and constitute a major driver of its regional moves, this will continuously prevent Turkey from being taken as a credible ally – and thwart Ankara’s ambitions to become a leading regional and global power.

Alexandra Gerasimcikova

MA in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies, University of St Andrews


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