Erdogan’s Afrin incursion has a dangerous domestic logic
The objectives of Turkey’s incursion into the mainly Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria may seem confusing but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long-term strategy and domestic political calculations are perfectly clear.
Erdogan, his top general, Hulusi Akar, and the president’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalın, have all spoken of a continuing operation with an open-ended timetable and no change “until not a single terrorist is left in the area.” This means that Turkish forces will remain in the mainly Kurdish-populated, 900km-long strip on the Syrian side of the border for the foreseeable future.
It is futile to ask if the strategy is viable. The Turkish government’s focus is elsewhere. So long as the Afrin incursion appears to be a “sustainable conflict,” Erdogan will have the control he wants over the narrative of the triple election that lies ahead. Elections at the local, national and presidential level will define Erdogan’s political future, as well as his international legitimacy.
It seems unlikely that he will win big. Pollsters say that if Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) loses in major cities in local elections in early 2019, it may have a domino effect. Everyone knows that Erdogan can’t afford to lose any ground and might respond to unfavourable electoral verdicts by cracking down even further on democracy. There is also the fear that Erdogan might respond to reverses by consolidating power by undemocratic means.
In the June 2015 general election, Erdogan suffered the ignominious loss of his party’s parliamentary majority. The Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered parliament with 80 deputies, the same as the hard-line Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The inconclusive election allowed Erdogan to raise the stakes — and tensions — in the campaign for a second vote just five months later. His AKP swept back to single-party government.
Now, sensing trouble once more, Erdogan is using the same tools. However, the stakes are higher.
Having forged an alliance that can only be described as a “militarist-Islamist-nationalist consortium” and secure in the support of 90% of the media, Erdogan began an armed conflict across Turkey’s borders. In practice that means the current state of emergency has been upgraded to a de facto state of war.
The secular main-opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) wholeheartedly supports the incursion but the inherent dangers are obvious. While the conflict continues, Erdogan can use his constitutional powers to extend the state of emergency and dominate domestic political discourse until the elections.
Respected Turkish pollsters such as KONDA suggest Erdogan may postpone local elections to after the national polls. Almost everyone points to the danger of having elections while emergency rule is imposed on Turkey.
The conflict also provides grounds for further oppression of Kurdish political segments in Turkey. HDP and its approximately 6 million voters are in a bind; the more they take to the streets, the more support for Erdogan. It’s possible that the Afrin incursion will prepare the ground for the HDP to be stripped of its right to function as a legitimate, democratic political party. This would escalate tensions in the country.
With US policy in the region at a low point and Russia playing a shrewd game on the regional chessboard, Turkey appears to be entering a phase of dangerous vulnerability. For Erdogan, who is preoccupied with consolidating power, this seems to matter not at all.
So long as the Afrin incursion appears to be a “sustainable conflict,” Erdogan will have the control he wants over the narrative of the triple election that lies ahead.