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Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

The Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Project Director, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

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Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.