Turkey’s ongoing offensive against the Kurdish militias in Syria is a turning point in the history of Europe and the Middle East. It is not just another episode of Turkey’s developing authoritarianism; it also reveals a global brotherhood of authoritarianism. Trump allowed Erdogan to attack the Kurds in Syria, and the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban vetoed the EU protest against Erdogan. Emboldened by this support, Erdogan threatened the EU with sending 3.6 million Syrian refugees to Europe unless the EU stopped calling the Turkish military operation “an invasion.” Trump and Putin together blocked a statement condemning Turkey’s operation in Syria at the U.N. Security Council.
Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey, which is likely Trump’s way of both appeasing the opposition in the GOP and indirectly supporting Erdogan, as, in their current scope, the sanctions were not an effective instrument to deter Erdogan from going further. Furthermore, Trump accused Kurds of releasing the ISIS-related prisoners, while there is strong evidence that Turkish-backed forces are the ones freeing Islamic State prisoners. In effect, Trump’s decision benefits Putin the most, as the Russian leader extends his influence in Syria without firing a shot after the Kurds were abandoned by Trump and, thus, had to settle with the Syrians. No matter what happens militarily, Erdogan will continue to consolidate his power in domestic politics. Authoritarians are therefore supporting each other in this way, as pro-democracy forces weaken. There are multiple facts and unknowns that make this a critical moment in this struggle.
Things we do not know
Let’s start with things we do not know:
1. We do not know what Trump and Erdogan promised to each other.
Rumor has it that Erdogan was pleasantly surprised by Trump’s move. On the one hand, it seems that Trump did not give any guarantees to Erdogan about the next steps and Erdogan took the initiative right after ending his phone call with Trump two weeks ago. The sanctions by the Trump administration on Turkey supported the argument for the limited nature of the deal between Trump and Erdogan. On the other hand, the nature of the so-called ceasefire agreement suggests that Trump still is, intentionally or unintentionally, in effect backing Erdogan.
2. We also do not know about the motives of Trump and Erdogan when they made this deal.
Erdogan needs this military campaign as a spectacle to divert attention from his diminishing popularity. Further, he and more generally, Islamists, have an insatiable need for an enemy. In the 2000s, the enemy for the Islamists was the Turkish military. Even though anyone with a sober understanding of Turkish politics knew that the Turkish military was a paper tiger, Islamists convinced a large portion of the electorate and the intelligentsia that they were in an epic struggle as old as the Turkish Republic itself. In 2016, with the failed coup (or Turkey’s Reichstag Fire), the paper tiger was removed from the equation. As Erdogan has substantially consolidated his power, he still has needed an enemy. Only with an adversary defined as an existential threat can he define himself and mobilize his support base. As there is no significant rival against Erdogan within Turkey, the proxy enemy is the Kurds beyond the borders of Turkey, and the implicit message for the Turkish audience is that he is also fighting the big powers.
In short, this is a happy day for Erdogan, but we do not know why Trump let Erdogan go. Trump did not need another politically uninteresting ordeal. If Trump wants to deflect the attention from the impeachment process, this will not . Why did he do this? To save American taxpayers’ money? I don’t think it’s that simple.
To answer this question, it is important to understand the current political situation in the United States, as Erdogan does. Erdogan has been persistently successfully playing the United States against Russia. The last time a Turkish politician tried to do this, it was Adnan Menderes, the prime minister in the late 1950s. Menderes was removed from power and later executed after the first coup d’etat of the Turkish Republic in 1960.
Erdogan, however, is in a good shape in this regard, given that he has strong control over the military and has tamed the opposition. This power makes him one of the architects of the global brotherhood of authoritarian leaders. Thus, to date, neither Trump nor Putin wants to lose Erdogan and both vetoed the U.N. Security Council statement condemning Turkey’s operation in Syria. Erdogan knows that playing the United States against Russia does not mean playing Trump against Putin. He knows both Putin and Trump still need him in Syria despite Russia’s new and indirect deal with Kurds, because he can still play the powerbroker between Putin and Trump. Trump’s motives are embedded within this matrix of relations among strongmen.
3. Lastly, we also do not know how far Erdogan will go with this invasion. There are three aspects that need some attention.
The first aspect is the “national interest” of Turkey. Erdogan has been working for a while to move some of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to the area the Turkish military is now invading. According to the plan, not the Turkish military but the Syrian refugees, will make up the buffer zone between the northwestern and northeastern part of Syria that will divide the Kurdish-controlled region (i.e. Rojava) into two separate zones. This would invalidate the Kurds’ claims to control a united territory on its way to political autonomy within Syria. The Kurds’ recent deal with the Syrian government, may stall Erdogan’s plan, yet what Erdogan is really interested in is not the size of the territory under Turkey’s control, but the number of Syrian refugees that Turkey could push back to Syria. The control of even a small territory will be enough to challenge the Kurds’ claim to northern Syria, if that area is populated by tens of thousands of Syrian re-refugees.
The second aspect is Turkish domestic politics. If Erdogan succeeds in achieving his military ends, he can expel a significant portion of the Syrian refugees in Turkey, and, thereby, address the anti-refugee sentiment among his electoral base, while another sizable Syrian population remains in the country as a source of cheap labor for use by his business supporters. Yet, some of the ISIS militants will come to Turkey and, if necessary, some “dark forces” can later use them for suicide attacks and other paramilitary activities, as happened in 2015 in Ankara.
Third, another interesting dimension is the construction sector, which has been the engine of the debt-ridden economic growth since the 2008 crisis. Stock prices of the Turkish cement makers have been going up since the markets realized that the invasion would likely be followed by construction projects in the invaded area for the Syrian re-settlers, valued at as much as $50 billion.
In this regard, Erdogan’s argument in his recent Wall Street Journal letter that it was Kurds, who did not let the Syrian refugees go back to Syria, is darkly comical. Only a tiny fraction of these refugees came to Turkey from northern Syria. This is not just a military operation, but a major forced resettlement campaign of the Syrian refugees within Syria.
Things we do know
Now, let’s focus on what we do know:
1. The Turkish invasion has disproved the Kurdish independence movement’s strategy.
In the early 2010s, the movement both negotiated with Erdogan for a limited Kurdish autonomy within Turkey and expanded its influence in northern Syria. When Erdogan left the negotiating table, the Turkish army began to kill Kurdish civilians within Turkey in 2015. Kurdish militias fought back and lost. Thereafter, the Kurdish movement’s main goal was to achieve an internationally recognized political status in Syria. The movement optimistically expected to garner the international community’s support this time, because they defeated ISIS and because they believed the international community would fulfill its moral responsibility to back the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation state. However, these two factors were not good enough for Trump, as he gave Erdogan the green light. Now, Kurds have to reluctantly ally with the Syrian governments and Russia, because, in the words of Mazloum Abdi, the Kurds’ commander-in-chief, they “have to choose between compromises and the genocide of [their] people”.
2. The non-Kurdish opposition in Turkey supports the invasion .
Erdogan managed, again, to line up the non-Kurdish opposition behind him and further consolidate his “Fuhrer” status (people have been calling him “Reis” [i.e. Fuhrer] in Turkey for a while). Why does the non-Kurdish opposition support the invasion? To address the question, we now need to consider how the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, thinks.
Kilicdaroglu keeps giving Erdogan as much support as he needs, whenever he defines what he wants in terms of “the national interest.” Kilicdaroglu does so, anticipating an economic decline that would take its toll on Erdogan’s electorate. In theory, this is not a bad strategy, because Kilicdaroglu is aware of how difficult it is for him to mobilize his own electoral base. His supporters account for one fourth of the electorate, who will vote for his party no matter what. Yet, it is not just about the numbers at the ballot box. It is also about the limited extent and kind of support the main opposition can muster. Furthermore, the anti-Kurdish racist sentiments are strong among a large portion of the electorate. Kilicdaroglu needs to appeal to this vocal group.
In short, being aware of the limitations of his support base, Kilicdaroglu gives unconditional support to Erdogan with the hope that the economic crisis will do what his party cannot. What he overlooks is that Erdogan’s plans include new investment in Syria that may bring about economic growth, albeit debt-ridden. Stock prices for cement companies in Turkey go up for a reason. In this sense the military operation has a political-economic aspect as well.
3. To break the new anti government alliance is one of Erdogan’s motives in his decision to invade Syria.
In contrast to his unconditional support for Erdogan’s foreign policy, Kilicdaroglu managed to bring his party together with different factions of Turkish ultranationalists and Islamists in an alliance.Kurds strongly supported this alliance’s candidate for Istanbul’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoglu, who is a Turk from Trabzon, a city with strong anti-Kurdish sentiments. A former Minister of Finance, Ali Babacan, and a former Prime Minister under Erdogan, Ahmet Davutoglu, will soon establish two new parties that will likely take part in this alliance. Erdogan had to take action to boost the disagreements within this alliance and to distance these two new parties from it. The military operation in Syria serves this purpose, because it raises anti-Kurdish sentiments among the non-Kurdish electorate supporting this alliance, which will paradoxically have a chance against Erdogan only if Kurds continue to support it.
Things to do
Independent of the military result of Turkey’s ongoing invasion of Syria, one thing is clear: Turkish democracy is taking another major blow. We now see the clear pattern Erdogan deploys to stay in power. When the opposition in Turkey finds a way to challenge Erdogan, he attacks Kurds and uses different forms of aggression in the international arena to deflect attention from domestic politics, making his opponents look trivial, and presenting himself as the great leader of the nation.
Like Trump and Putin, Erdogan capitalizes on the instability in the Middle East and Europe. The instability empowers them to undermine democratic institutions. This is the gist of the global brotherhood of authoritarianism. If Erdogan leaves the office, Putin and Trump will lose an important facilitator, who helps them to disguise their will-to-power as the national interest. Thus, the question is beyond the immediate security concerns for Europe. It is about what this brotherhood will do in the coming decades unless it is stopped now.
Thus, the lethargy of the international community is deeply concerning. Its relative disinterest in Erdogan’s political fate may be based on the belief that he can mobilize his electoral base no matter what, but this is not true. I believe there are two steps that the international community can take that can produce meaningful results before Turkey moves further away from democracy.
1) Domestic politics: Erdogan is a product of the pact that Islamists made in the 1980s with small-sized business owners in light industries and construction. The kleptocratic political networks these businesspeople established in this decade are essential for Erdogan to control the ground. Thus, carefully tailored economic measures that micro-target these roughly 400,000 entrepreneurs can encourage them to pull their support from Erdogan and finish him at the ballot box.
2) Foreign politics: the Kurds now have to ally with the Syrian forces in the face of what they see as genocide. This reluctant pact will not give the Kurds what they have wanted for decades; an internationally recognized status. The most realistic way to achieve this goal today is to have autonomy in Syria. Thus, the Kurds have to work with the international community in the near future no matter what is happening today. Similarly, I believe that the same pact should not deter the international community from working with Kurds, because Kurdish autonomy in Syria is a necessary step to save democracy in the region and across the globe.
As a Turkish scholar on the government’s blacklist (along with roughly 2,000 other scholars) because of my reaction to the killings of Kurdish civilians by the Turkish army in 2015, I believe it is time to move against the global alliance of authoritarian leaders and end the indecent aggressiveness that has been defining the Turkish ethnos for a long time. I believe Kurds deserve autonomy in Syria, and with autonomy, the ISIS threat would be moved away from Turkey’s and, hence, Europe’s borders. Turks may come to their senses. Erdogan’s downfall would begin. And democracy would have a better chance in Turkey and beyond.
Utku Balaban is a visiting associate professor at Amherst College’s Anthropology and Sociology Department.