Yavuz Baydar
Jan 29 2018

Erdoğan's range of vision extended by Afrin incursion

However confusing the military objectives of Turkey’s incursion into the Kurdish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin may be, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s long-term strategy to capitalise domestically on the offensive is crystal clear.

The idea is to establish the need for the 'continuity' of his leadership.

Erdoğan, his top general and his spokesman have all said the timetable of the operation is open-ended. The operation will go on, they all said, 'until there is not a single terrorist left in the area' - meaning, of course, along the full 900 kilometres of the mainly Kurdish-populated Syrian side of the border.

Any comment on whether or not this is achievable is futile. The real focus is elsewhere: As long as Turkey’s Afrin incursion remains a 'sustainable conflict' - and the divided U.S. administration is a major help to that - Erdoğan will have greater control over the realisation, timing, scope and overall engineering of three elections due in Turkey next year.

All three polls - at local, national and presidential level - will define his political future and his long-sought, but fading legitimacy on the international scene.

The prospects of another sweeping victory for Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are however at best unclear. Pollsters point out that if the AKP loses the major cities in the local elections due in early 2019, it may hurt his chances in the parliamentary and presidential polls later in the year.

Everyone knows by now the Turkish president cannot afford to lose at all, because the risk of punitive action against him is too high if he does. That gives weight to the prediction that he may, in the end, choose not to leave power by democratic means.

Erdoğan came close to seeing the ground disappearing from under his feet in the general election of June 2015. That resulted in the pro-Kurdish party entering parliament with 80 deputies and 13 percent of the vote, and the AKP losing its outright majority.

But the president chose a hard-line path and overturned peace talks with the Kurds. Pushing the country into new elections after a series of cunning moves, and a massive escalation of violence, Erdoğan came out victorious in fresh elections four months later.

Now, sensing trouble once more, Erdoğan is applying the same tactics, but now the stakes are higher. Having forged a sort of 'militarist-Islamist-nationalist consortium', including the 90 percent of the media around him as a political shield, he has taken the armed conflict outside Turkey’s borders. In practice, that means upgrading the current state of emergency into a de-facto 'state of war'.

By and large, the secular main-opposition party, CHP (a member of the Socialist International), which wholeheartedly supports the incursion, does not seem aware that as long as the conflict goes on, Erdoğan may - and probably will - use his constitutional powers to extend the state of emergency, and will be the sole leader in the country to decide the upcoming elections.

Respected pollsters in Turkey, such as KONDA, say the president may therefore postpone local elections until after the national elections, and others argue that all polls risk being held under emergency rule.

The state of war, and the widespread, pro-war sentiment in Turkey, also allows for an escalation of the oppression of the country’s large Kurdish minority. The HDP and its roughly 6 million voters are at an impasse: the more they take to the streets to protest the Afrin operation, the more Erdoğan gains support from the rest of population.

It also prepares the ground for a prosecution to close the HDP, leading to a loss off a democratic representation, and even more tension in the country.

So, with the U.S. policy in the region nearing a collapse, a shrewd Russian chess-game making Turkey more vulnerable, and a secular main-opposition lacking direction altogether, Erdoğan is mastering his rise to absolute power, passing hurdle after hurdle.

It is amazing to see the conjuncture of all these elements falling into place.