Geopolitics on the rocks

Daniele Santoro

Why Erdogan is now weaker, hence more dangerous

Middle East and North Africa

The controversial outcome of Sunday’s referendum has paradoxically curtailed Erdogan’s power. But feeling squeezed between domestic oppositions and stalemate on the Syrian front, the sultan might adopt an even more antagonizing attitude toward the West.

The outcome of the referendum on the presidential system held in Turkey on April 16 – which resulted in a slim victory for the “yes” – has a huge geopolitical dimension. Extremely interesting, in this sense, are the electoral dynamics in Turkey's southeastern region, where turnout was relatively lower than the national average. This allowed the “yes” front to gain the upper hand in the region, as in several Kurdish-majority provinces the “yes” percentage has been higher than the percentage obtained by the Ak Parti in the general election of November 2015.

Apparently, this means that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan managed to strike a sort of deal with the Hdp and the Pkk. A small but sufficient number of Kurds could have purposely boycotted the vote in order to facilitate the victory of the “yes”. Or they could have voted “yes” themselves. “It may be that it was Kurdish voters who allowed Erdoğan to secure the presidential system he has been longing for, as there was a swing away from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (Hdp) in the southeast”, writesHürriyet Daily News' columnist Barçın Yinanç. By contrast, it is reasonable to maintain that the overwhelming majority of Mhp's voters have disregarded Devlet Bahceli's instructions and voted “no”. While the Grey Wolfs – who make up the bulk of Mhp's ranks – refused to make Erdogan their başbuğ (chieftain).

A few days before the referendum, Şükrü Karatepe, chief advisor to Erdoğan, penned an essay on a magazine of the Ankara municipality advocating for the strengthening of local administrations and even hinting at the possibility that the transition to the new presidential system could go hand-in-hand with the shifting to a federal structure. Karatepe's words triggered a last-minute row between Erdoğan and Bahçeli, who accused the Turkish President of deceiving those supporters of the unitary structure of the Turkish state. According to the Ak Parti, the debate on federalism held with the Mhp ended up costing a 2 percent loss to the “yes” vote. In any case, the result of the referendum laid bare the weakness of the “National Front” and the impracticability of a Ak Parti-Mhp alliance.

On the other hand, the electoral behavior of the Kurds could imply the resumption of the “solution process” (also known as the Turkish-Kurdish peace process), freezed by Erdoğan immediately after the general election of June 2015. Speaking in Diyarbakır just two weeks before the referendum, Erdoğan made it clear that he is ready “to meet with anyone who is not carrying weapons in his hands”.

Obviously, the resumption of the “solution process” would have spillover effects also on the Siraqi battlefield, where the primary aim of Ankara is to prevent the unification of the three cantons of the so-called Rojava and the establishment of a “Stan” of the Pkk along the Turkey-Syria border.

“We will knock them out of Manbij, west of Euphrates, (but) we are not going to touch them east of the Euphrates”, İlnur Çevik, a senior adviser to Erdoğan, was quoted as saying by the New York Times back in February. Çevik hinted at the possibility that Ankara may tolerate some sort of Kurdish entity at its southern borders, and expressed the hope that Turkey will establish ties with the Syrian Kurds as excellent as those it has established with the Iraqi Kurds. It could well be dismissed as wishful thinking, but Turkey doesn’t have many others playable moves in the Siraqi chessboard. Ankara's obsession with the Syrian Kurds is driving it in a Zigzag position: it must make a move, but it cannot move without undermining its already weak position.

Shifting to the big picture, the result of the referendum will likely strengthen the geopolitical dynamics triggered by the July 15 coup attempt. As well as on July 16, on April 17 Russian President Vladimir Putin was the only world leader to stand by President Erdoğan. U.S. President Donald Trump did congratulate Erdoğan on his win, but his message stands in stark contrast to the statement issued by the State Department, which made a reference to the “irregularities on voting day”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for its part, adopted a very controversial stance.

The Turkey-Russia axis is getting stronger, and it could quickly gain a prominent military dimension. On April 13, Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Işık said that the deal with Russia on the purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems is to be finalized soon. Interestingly enough, Işık made this remark just after meeting his U.S. counterpart James Mattis at the Pentagon. In March, Işık had also pointed out that Russia's missile systems will not be integrated into the NATO system. A further evidence of the fact that Turkey, a NATO member, is slowly distancing itself from the West and getting closer to Russia. But this is a reversible trend.

Paradoxically, the referendum result has weakened Erdoğan. In the next few months, the Turkish president will have to keep dealing with a boiling domestic front. The oppositions feel they have been deprived of their “democratic victory” and have been accusing the government of electoral fraud since last Sunday. Everything points to the fact that Erdoğan's opponents do not intend to let him get away with it, even if until now only a few hundred people joined the protests staged in Istanbul, Ankara and İzmir.

Thus, even a symbolic concession on controversial issues such as the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, regarded by Turkey as the mastermind behind the July 15 coup attempt, or the extradition of those Gulenists who fled to Germany after the failed putsch, could revitalize the faltering relations between Turkey and the West. Erdoğan never fails to shout his anger at Europe and the U.S., but he is actually waiting for a gesture from his so-called Western “allies”, as clearly shown by his enthusiastic reaction to the U.S. cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base earlier this month.

To play it safe, late on April 16 Erdoğan said that he would approve the return of the death penalty if the parliament passes such a law. The crowd roared its support. The day after, adding insult to injury, he shouted that “either Europe keeps to its words (on the negotiation process and the lifting of visa requirements for Turkish citizens), or it will pay the price”. Barking dogs seldom bite. Erdoğan, right now, is simply not strong enough to carry out his threats. He is just trying to raise the bar. He is fully aware that the risk of being sandwiched by Russia has never been higher. That's why the West, especially the Europeans, should try to embrace the Turkish President, instead of antagonizing him. Before it is too late.

For the Turks, the Europeans have always been “the Others”, and the other way round. Thus, when Erdoğan accuses the Europeans of being “crusaders”, does not say something alien to the Turkish collective imaginary. When he says that Western powers are working day and night to divide Turkey, he affirms what is an obvious truth for the majority of Turks. Therefore, by supporting the Pkk in Syria – and by extension, even if indirectly, in Turkey – and hosting scores of Gulenists, the U.S. and the Europeans risk not only to loose Erdoğan, but above all the Turks. As the Pkk is not Erdoğan's enemy, but Turkey's Enemy. Left-wing Kemalists would not exactly roll out the red carpet in Diyarbakır for Kurdish terrorists. Fethullah Gülen was Erdoğan's closest ally. He has always been the nemesis of the secularists. If Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had been alive, he would not have thanked the Americans for granting him a comfortable stay in Pennsylvania. Neither he would have applauded the Germans for hosting scores of his guys.

Erdoğan's shift of axis is reversible. Turks' shift of confidence is not.