Will mounting casualties weaken Erdoğan politically? No, and here’s why
There are good reasons to question the wisdom of the Turkey’s Afrin campaign: it endangers the relationship with the United States, puts its troops at the mercy of the short-term political calculations of Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow, empowers Salafi-Jihadi movements whose long term goals and ambitions are at odds with those of the ruling AKP, and further embitters the roughly half of Turkey’s Kurds for whom Kurdish identity is central and armed groups have at least some emotional sway.
In the long term, the strategic risks are high, but in the short term it has had at least some success, primarily in forcing the United States to take seriously Turkish concerns regarding the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin and pushing Washington to get better control over its own decision-making process in Syria.
Politically, of course, the campaign has been a stunning success. It has given new strength to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s purge of dissidents, while consolidating his own political brand. Vigor in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and facing down the United States are perhaps the two most popular things any Turkish political leader can do; Erdoğan has fully taken command of the nationalist banner. Presumed rivals can do little.
Meral Akşener, who has attempted to run to Erdoğan’s right, can do little more than suggest that Erdoğan should be even more foolhardy: calling on him to close U.S. bases in Turkey and attack Manbij immediately. She now sounds like one of the rabid columnists in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) press.
The main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) also supports the campaign. On social media, veneration of the troops and, especially, of those killed in action, “martyrs,” in the lexicon of Republican discourse, crosses political boundaries (the small anti-war movement, is of course, rendered virtually silent, both by the lack of press freedom and by a new wave of arrests that have already resulted in more than three hundred prosecutions).
Some have wondered, however, whether mounting casualties in the Afrin operation might change this calculus and make the operation a political loss for Erdoğan. The answer is, almost certainly, no.
This is true, firstly, because Turkey is no longer a country where issues of national concern can be debated publicly. Erdoğan’s control over media – and particularly broadcast media – means that the government will be able to manage how any rise in casualties are seen by the public. The alacrity of the government’s purge of anti-war commentary this past two weeks is a grim reminder of how readily it can and will target dissent. Given the state of emergency, and the government’s own record of successive purges, one can hardly imagine a context in which it could not crush dissent over a military operation.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the evidence points clearly to the fact that military casualties do not bear political costs and may even accrue political benefit to Turkish governments.
In the 1990s, when I first lived in Turkey, I was amazed by the disconnect between most people in the large cities and the war that raged in the East. Even then, discussion of a “negotiated solution” was among the many “taboo subjects.” Families who were personally affected by the conflict largely mourned in silence; the rest of the country focused on other things.
One might point, more concretely and recently, to the broad public response to the resurgence of conflict with the PKK since 2015. In that short time, the International Crisis Group counts more than three thousand people within Turkey who have died in the conflict, including at least 437 civilians and over one thousand members of the state security forces. For the most part, the Turkish public has accepted this awful toll with grim stoicism.
An important on-going project by political scientist Resul Umit, notes that the government even accrues some political benefit from the burial of “martyred” security service personnel, though this benefit may decrease as the number of casualties increase. Of course, the purge of the pro-Kurdish HDP – and now of anti-war protestors - has helped silence dissent. But the hard truth is that the acceptance of this purge by the rest of the opposition speaks to a larger and more depressing reality: the “national consensus” behind pursuing a military solution remains strong, despite decades of failure and tens of thousands of deaths.
There is no reason to believe the Afrin campaign will be an exception to this pattern. Whatever the wisdom of Turkey’s latest incursion, there is no question that it has been a net political win for President Erdoğan. Mounting casualties will not change that.