Omaha, NE (Informed Comment) – Turkey is a country where the status of democracy and human rights has never been isolated from international developments. Turkey became a multi-party democracy only after it was threatened by Soviet Russia and put under the NATO defense shield. As I examined elsewhere, when Turkey improved the status of its religious minorities between 2002 and 2012, it was European Union pressure that facilitated the reforms. Again, it was the developments in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab uprisings that catalyzed Turkey’s authoritarian shift in the 2010s.
Turkey started an operation in northern Syria on October 9 and declared that it has two strategic goals: to dismiss the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey) and YPG (People’s Protection Units in Syria) from the region, and to create a protected zone in the Turkish/Syrian border for the relocation of up to 2 million of more than four million Syrian refugees living in its lands. Turkey considers YPG as an offspring of PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by several countries including the United States. Turkey aims to address the increasing domestic dissent against the hosting of millions of Syrians in Turkey by creating a safe zone to relocate some of the refugees in northern Syria. We don’t know yet whether Turkey will achieve these goals but the agreement between Turkey and the US on October 17 shows that Turks gained some of what they wanted.
How will the Turkish military’s recent operation in northern Syria influence domestic politics, especially Erdoğan’s authoritarian consolidation, in Turkey?
Nationalism and Authoritarian Consolidation
The operation provides Erdoğan a nationalist push that he could exploit politically. Being involved in a war will be probably be used to tame the opposition as the security concerns make it easier to repel the criticism of the government.
The former AKP (Justice and Development Party) members such as Abdullah Gul, Ahmet Davutoglu, and Ali Babacan, who separated from the party to establish their own political platforms, will have less space to express their differences from the government when all are asked to support a “national cause.”
The government’s aim to relocate Syrian refugees in a protected safe zone in northern Syria will increase the nationalist sentiment and help Erdoğan consolidate his popular support. The public support for the hosting of Syrian refugees dramatically decreased in the last couple of years and Erdoğan is looking for opportunities to use this backlash.
The lack of international support for Turkey in its war in Syria can further be utilized by the government in portraying the West as anti-Turkish. Particularly, the lack of support from the Arabs to Turkey could be used to boost nationalism and contribute to discriminatory attitudes toward Syrian refugees.
Dividing the Opposition
The opposition in Turkey had serious gains in the local elections in 2019. They were able to coalesce against the candidates supported by Erdoğan. In places like Istanbul and Ankara, some nationalists, secularists, and Kurds came together in defeating Erdoğan’s mayoral candidates.
However, the operation in Syria has the potential to divide the alliances among the opposition. The nationalist bloc within the opposition is supportive of the operation in Syria wholeheartedly. The secularist politicians made public statements supporting the operation even though a few members of the CHP (Republican People’s Party) expressed their dissent against it. The Kurdish party, the HDP (People’s Democracy Party), which supported the CHP’s candidate in the Istanbul elections, is against the operation and considers it as an invasion to exterminate the Kurdish existence in northern Syria.
Considering that the opposition against Erdoğan is not based on a strong ideological denominator, these differences can threaten the dissidents’ ability to coalesce against him in the future.
Impunity for the Economy
More importantly, the operation and the international reactions against it, especially the possible sanctions against Turkey, help Erdoğan get impunity for his mismanagement of the Turkish economy. Many in Turkey, including Erdoğan’s loyal supporters, have been complaining about the government’s incompetence in economic policies. Many supporters of Erdoğan raised eyebrows when he appointed his son-in-law, who has no formal educational background in economics, as the minister of economy.
The operation in Syria serves as a lifeboat to dispel these criticisms. The new environment will provide Erdoğan to find a patriotic excuse for the mismanagement of the economy. Considering that the derailed economy has been a major blow against Erdoğan’s strength in the recent elections, this excuse will help Erdoğan regain popular approval.
While the war on Syria offers Erdoğan opportunities to consolidate his power and deepen his authoritarian rule, it is not devoid of political risks.
The war and the sanctions against Turkey can deepen the economic crisis in Turkey. Although Erdoğan will justify the economic situation with the excuse of “Western intervention” in the Turkish economy, the deteriorating conditions will hunt Erdoğan in the medium to long run.
His ambitious aim of relocating some of the Syrian refugees in the proposed safe zone in northern Syria can create more problems than it solves. Relocating the Syrians back to a place that is in the midst of conflict is not an easy task. It will create lots of resistance and tension. The tension around relocation will possibly undermine Erdoğan’s popularity among Arabs and jeopardize his populist-Islamist discourse through which he gained popularity among his base.
Further, although Erdoğan considers the nationalist wave that comes with the Turkish incursion in Syria as an opportunity to consolidate popular support behind him, the nationalist wave actually may backfire and cost him lose power. Although Erdoğan’s move will bring some nationalist vote, it may also make him lose the conservative Kurdish support that he enjoys. Erdoğan’s nationalist shift can jeopardize the considerable support that he gets from the religious Kurds.
Additionally, while Erdoğan wants to divide the opposition by forcing the secular and nationalist parties to draw a line with the Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), this strategy may also backfire. Having the choice of Erdoğan and someone else, the HDP base may still support Erdoğan’s opponents in national elections despite its disapproval of these actors’ stance on Syria incursion. Turkish politics is more polarized than ever around the figure of Erdoğan. Even a war may not be enough to divide the coalition against Erdoğan.
Opinions are the author’s and do not represent the views of the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
About the Author
Ramazan Kilinc is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Islamic Studies Program at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of Alien Citizens: State and Religious Minorities in Turkey and France (Cambridge University Press, 2019) and a co-author of Generating Generosity in Catholicism and Islam: Beliefs, Institutions and Public Goods Provision (Cambridge University Press, 2018). HIs most recent articles appeared in Comparative Politics, Political Science Quarterly, Politics and Religion, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and Turkish Studies. See ramazankilinc.com for more information.