by Burak Özpek
Turkey’s democratisation efforts and economic performance indicators were regarded as promising when the Arab Spring reverberated around the region in 2011. It was a candidate country for European Union membership and seen as a model for progress within the Middle East. That all changed as the Syrian Civil War erupted across the border, negatively affecting Turkey’s domestic stability and its economic and political development. In the last decade, Turkey has turned into a populist authoritarian regime, society has been further polarised and the economy has slowed dramatically.
Any optimistic expectations have given way as a result of two developments that took place in 2011. Firstly, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the national elections in June in a landslide victory, successfully marginalising military influence within the political sphere. In the absence of the military, the AKP has guarded against sharing any power with opposition parties, gradually centralised the system and established authoritarian rule. Secondly, in 2011 it decided to support opposition groups in Syria with the intent of toppling the Ba’athist regime. This policy has since necessitated the use of hard power instruments and close cooperation with the US. This was a sharp U-turn for Turkish foreign policy because until that point, since the start of AKP rule in 2002, Turkey had opted to use diplomatic platforms, commercial ties and soft power to deal with regional issues.
However, both the AKP government’s authoritarian shift and the US’s reluctance to intervene in Syria have strained bilateral relations. Furthermore, the peace process with the Kurds has resulted in a loss of domestic political hegemony for the AKP. The peace process firstly helped the predominantly Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) to be perceived as a normal and legitimate party in the eyes of Turkish secular, liberal and left-wing groups. In the 7 June 2015 national elections, the HDP received 13 percent of the total vote and gained 80 seats in parliament. Conversely, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) became a magnet for the discontents of the peace process and received 17 percent of total votes. With the rise of pro-Kurdish and Turkish nationalist parties, the AKP lost its majority in parliament. The peace process had been encouraged and appreciated by the US who regarded it as a necessary step to induce Kurds in Syria to help undermine the Assad regime. In a nutshell, the AKP’s partnership with the US resulted in political losses both domestically and in Syria – it lost its parliamentary majority and failed to topple the Ba’athist regime.
AKP leader, and Turkish President, Erdoğan’s strategy to recover his party’s popularity has changed since then. The peace process ended and the PKK and its extensions in Syria were once again recategorised as a national security threat. Furthermore, he has adopted nationalism and militarism to restore his hegemony in the domestic realm. This has helped him to create a new coalition. His anti-PKK campaign has attracted nationalists while his rapprochement with Putin has convinced pro-Russian circles, who approve of both closer ties with Russia and a renewed anti-American discourse in his public speeches. In the final analysis, Erdoğan has managed to justify his authoritarianism with the support of Russia and gain territories populated by the Kurds inside Syria through Russian acquiescence. This has boosted Erdoğan’s popularity and allowed him the opportunity, through mobilising nationalism and national security concerns, to intimidate his political rivals. In return, Turkey – a NATO member – has purchased the S-400 missile system from Russia and its relations with NATO and the US have consequently deteriorated.
This accord between Turkey and Russia began to disintegrate in February 2020. Russia demanded that Turkey withdraw its soldiers from Idlib in order to allow the Russian and Syrian militaries to target jihadist groups. Turkish soldiers’ deployment in Idlib was the product of an agreement signed by Turkey and Russia in September 2018, in return for Turkey’s promise to control jihadist militants. However, with the breakdown of this agreement came an offensive by Russian-backed Syrian troops to retake Idlib. This has threatened both Turkey’s military presence in Syria and Erdoğan’s domestic reputation, in addition to triggering another refugee crisis.
Some scholars and columnists view the confrontation between Russia and Turkey as an opportunity to restore Turkish-American relations. For them, Turkey could limit Russian influence in Syria through increased support for the US mission there. Moreover, they argue that a conflict with Russia would be an opportunity to eliminate pro-Russian circles from Turkish bureaucracy, media and academia. In so doing, pro-American figures could take the helm and Turkey’s axis could again shift from Eurasia to the Atlantic.
The vector upon which both pro-Russian and pro-American figures converge is that they raise no objection to Turkey’s military involvement in Syria and the AKP’s authoritarian rule. While pro-Russians support Turkey’s fight against the Kurds by virtue of their nationalist sentiments, the pro-Americans encourage Turkey’s fight against the Assad regime due to their Islamist motivations. They both imply that Turkey’s foreign relations should be value and norm free and its foreign policy orientation should be determined by geopolitical realities, military alliances and strategic calculations. This is why they view Turkey’s military presence in Syria, and a strong leader who can easily initiate such military involvement without domestic constraints, necessary for the continuation of Turkish-Russian or Turkish-American relations.
The similarity between these two rival camps explains why Turkey has become a populist authoritarian regime, with a polarised society and weak economy after nine years of the Syrian Civil War. The militarisation of foreign policy has made norms and values in foreign relations insignificant and enabled the AKP government to establish close relations with the Western states through strategic calculations. Nevertheless, as happened after 2015, the absence of ideas and norms in foreign policy has forced the AKP to pragmatically seek close relations with Russia in order to save its domestic hegemony. That is why policy-makers in Western capitals should not rely on Turkey’s commitment to the Western security system so long as the Syrian War continues, Turkish foreign policy remains militarised and Erdoğan exploits foreign policy as a tool to intimidate his political rivals.