Erdogan and the making of the new state through war

The aftermath of the Turkish operations is the more worrying aspect.
Saturday 12/10/2019
A Turkish military vehicle in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha near the border with Turkey. (AFP)
On the warpath. A Turkish military vehicle in the Syrian village of al-Hashisha near the border with Turkey. (AFP)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is fighting for his own political survival by beginning a war in Syria with the Kurds.

Escalating tension in Syria is the only option Erdogan has because he is no longer able to win support through peaceful means, such as a building the economy, providing welfare, the rule of law and a free society.

In the last three years, Erdogan has attempted to regain support with extraordinary economic measures, such as the distribution of cheap credit and aggressive public infrastructure investment. Though some of those populist tactics worked for a while, none provided a solution to structural economic problems such as unemployment and inflation.

Erdogan’s economic failures cost him this year’s mayoral elections in Istanbul, Ankara and other big cities, suggesting he might lose a general election.

Keenly aware of this, Erdogan adopted a strategy of taking extraordinary measures. The Kurdish issue, deeply entwined with the Syria crisis, now seems to be his favourite.

The strategy helps Erdogan in three ways domestically: First, it weakens the anti-Erdogan coalition, particularly putting pressure on the nationalist opposition Iyi Party. A tenser atmosphere regarding the Kurdish problem is likely to push the Iyi closer to Erdogan’s position. An escalated crisis over the Kurdish issue could even change the position of the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party, which has been reaching out to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The second and more critical effect is structural. Erdogan has benefited from the polarisation of politics along the Islam versus secularism fault line. He knows that a political fault line over the Kurdish problem might also help him. Erdogan could convert tension over the Kurdish problem into a new line of polarisation through which he can consolidate a large constituency.

We are observing the early fruit of this policy. Until the breakdown of the ceasefire between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, the official narrative on the Kurdish issue was to encourage Kurds to embrace party politics as the only route of political expression. The narrative also aimed to persuade Turks that there was a big difference between Kurds and the PKK.

Now Turkey has changed its official stance on the Kurdish issue and the government does not differentiate between the PKK and Kurdish politicians. Thus, the HDP is also the target of government attacks. The new strategy changed the public view of Kurds and many Turks now imagine all Kurds belong to the PKK.

Finally, given that Erdogan is in a process of creating a new regime, the securitisation of politics through crises such as Syria is an opportunity to consolidate his grip on power.

Erdogan used his fight with the Gulen movement to transform state institutions such as the army and judiciary. His fight with the Gulen movement, which he blames for the 2016 coup attempt, was sometimes backed by secular groups and helped Erdogan to restructure the state apparatus to do his bidding.

Erdogan wants the Kurdish problem and the Syrian crisis to consolidate his state according to his ideological preference. After having reorganised the state, the Kurdish problem could provide him with opportunities to fuse the Erdoganist state and the people.

It is much like the motto “war made the state and the state made war.” Prolonged tension with the Kurds, extended into Syria, would provide Erdogan time and leverage to consolidate his new regime.