Recep Erdoğan is a wily operator. Playing Ukraine off against Russia, he is positioning Turkey on the global stage, and targeting the Kurds.
Turkish President Recep Erdoğan is a canny leader, of that there is no doubt. There is much of the Viktor Orban and Vladimir Putin in him. He is also an authoritarian leader who has looked to solidify a continued rule in Turkey by curtailing freedom of speech and press. Much like Orban and Putin (whom he still calls “dear friend”), he has unduly influenced the judiciary and the rule of law with purges of the system.
Turkey is a historically secular country, but Erdogan has sought to undo this tradition in his appeal to the rural heartlands and assault on the judiciary as a means of separation of powers while appealing to religious conservatives in the rural heartlands. Such a movement away from the secular credentials instilled by Atatürk at the nation’s founding has worried both Western governments and secularists alike.
Now, Erdoğan, President of Turkey since 2014, is looking to continue his rule by flexing his muscles on both the international and domestic stages.
Turkey and the Russia-Ukraine War
Turkey, and Erdoğan in particular, have found themselves wedged in the middle of the Russia-Ukraine war, both politically and geographically. The more that Ankara can position itself as the go-between in the conflict, the more it can preserve and expand its regional and international influence. This isn’t just about Russia and the US, or the old West and China; Turkey can establish itself as a global player. Erdoğan is doing his level best to make this happen in a flurry of opportunistic moves.
Turkey’s pivotal role was expressed almost straight away in this present war, at the dawn of the Russian invasion. Due to the Montreux Convention, an agreement that stretches back to 1936, Turkey has the right to shut down access to the Black Sea via the Bosporus Straits in the event of a war. In the present context, this has stopped Russia’s fleet from entering the Black Sea, meaning they only have the ships and submarines that were in the Black Sea at the beginning of the war at their disposal to attack the Ukrainians.
That Erdoğan invoked this was incredibly important and alone could have been a decisive element in the conflict. The entire Russian fleet would have made short shrift of the Ukraine defenses.
But aside from that, the Turkish leader has had one foot planted firmly on each side as he sits atop the bellicose fence. From here, he can expect both Zelenskyy and Putin to shine his boots while simultaneously kicking them both. On the one hand, Erdoğan condemned the aggression of Putin and Russia, but on the other, he has bent over backward to keep Roubles swapping hands and trade flowing between the two nations.
This is Erdoğan at his most wily. He knows he holds more power now than he ever has and probably ever will. First, Turkey’s membership of NATO has afforded Erdoğan a veto in the vote (which must be unanimous) for Finland and Sweden’s accession to the organization. Given how desperate both they and the rest of the organization were for their membership in light of neighboring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan has had considerable political potency.
Turkey also has a fairly newfound but very important and innovative defense industry. At the beginning of the conflict, their Bayraktar drones that Ukraine possessed were given incredible PR boosts that actually outweighed their real effectiveness. With slow-drip, cunningly released footage of Bayraktar drones blowing up Russian equipment all over social media, including a song about them, Turkish defense manufacturing was thrown into the international consciousness in a way they never could have predicted.
With these drones and various other examples of military aid, Turkey has been able to show to their Western “allies” that they were willing to throw their lot in with growing support for Ukraine.
Playing both sides of the conflict
But Erdoğan is fluent in speaking out of both sides of his mouth. For every expensive drone and armored vehicle Turkey has provided to Ukraine, Erdoğan has also further oiled the wheels of Russia’s threatened economy. According to the Kennan Institute (a US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia), Turkey’s “partnership has been transactional yet solid and stable for many years.”
Throughout the war, Turkey has been the only country in Europe to welcome Russian business with open arms. Tourism is a huge sector in the country, and Russia provides the biggest proportion of tourists, with 4.6 million visiting in 2021, a year-on-year increase of 120.5%. Ankara has not imposed sanctions on Russia and neither did it cancel flights between the two nations. Indeed, it has continued to cooperate very closely with Moscow on many issues.
In the light of sanctions and a decimation of trade with Europe, Turkey presents itself as a “semblance of an anti-Western alliance that could compensate for Moscow’s total rupture with the West.” In this way, Turkey can edge its way closer to countries such as China, India, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, and the economic benefits that this can bring about.
Erdoğan has always claimed he wanted to be the mediator between the two warring nations and, in this position, has sought to play them both advantageously. Most famously, Turkey’s head was the broker for the grain deal (and its extension) that finally allowed the backlog of mountains of Ukrainian grain to be exported out of the Black Sea without fear of being sunk by the Russian navy. This was all for the good of the world, especially poorer nations requiring the grain.
And it was Erdoğan’s stock that rose.
It seems clear that Erdoğan’s position as mediator between Russia and Turkey has been more about positioning Turkey at the forefront of geopolitical machinations to its advantage than it has about solving a moral dispute.
Smoke and mirrors
Ankara knows that nothing gets pro-Ukraine advocates as excited as providing vital offensive weaponry to the beleaguered nation. The most famous example of this has been the HIMARS—high-mobility artillery rocket systems that can fire a range of weapons. At the moment, Ukraine has 20 of these “game changers,” but the rockets provided have a range of only 84 km. Good, but not the best. These have been pivotal in playing merry havoc with Russian logistics, command and control centers, ammo dumps, and depots. But a greater range missile could easily be provided, such as the US ATACMS.
Ukraine, and many of her supporters, have been screaming for the West to provide longer-range missiles. These, in essence, really could change the game.
Part of the reason these have not been provided, so countries like the US claim, is that they could be escalatory, that Ukraine could use them to hit targets within Russia (which they could do anyway with any of their munitions), or that the technology could be exploited by Russia if they were captured.
Enter stage right Erdoğan and some superbly timed opportunism.
Within the last week, Turkey have announced a new selection of armaments that they will provide for Ukraine. In and amongst this announcement was something that caught a few experts’ eyes. The TRLG-230 MLRS is a multiple-launch rocket system with a range of 150km.
Suddenly, the Turkish are the golden boys. Quite how many of these systems and rockets will be or have been provided (when any country announces weapon donations, it usually means they are already in Ukraine) is perhaps unknown. Yet one can bet it is not enough to invoke a lasting Russian ire, but certainly enough to please the West and Ukraine.
These rockets provide the smoke to Turkish mirrors as Erdoğan embarks on talking out of the other side of his mouth again.
But what about the Kurds?
The Kurds are an ethnic Iranian group whose home territory of Kurdistan reaches from southeastern Turkey to northern Iraq, and northern Syria to northwestern Iran. The history of the ongoing conflict between the Kurds and the Turks is complex. The Kurds were an oppressed people in Turkey, with the government outlawing the use of the word “Kurds,” “Kurdistan,” and “Kurdish” in the 1930s and 40s, instead calling the people “Mountain Turks.”
With Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and names being banned in Kurdish-inhabited areas in the 1970s, a group of students created the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, in 1978 with the intention of creating linguistic, cultural, and political rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. In 1984, the group announced an uprising. This started a conflict in which 40,000 mainly Kurdish civilians have died, though both sides have been accused of whole rafts of human rights abuses. This is one of those geopolitical situations where both sides have dangerously spiraled into an intractable tangle.
Though both sides are almost certainly not innocent in this conflict, in 2016, after a failed attempted coup against him, Erdoğan ramped up persecution of the Kurds inside Turkey. This conflict is always at the forefront of Turkish domestic politics.
The Syrian civil war
Erdoğan’s campaign against the Kurds is not limited to within Turkey’s borders. In the geopolitical nightmare that has been the Syrian civil war over the last decade, the Kurds have played a major role. Again, in short for a very complex matter indeed, the Syrian Armed Forces of ruler Bashar al-Assad—and its allies of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah—comprise the Syrian Arab Republic.
They have been fighting against the Syrian Interim Government, made up of an eclectic mix, an alliance of nationalist and Sunni-led opposition political groups (with defense forces of the Syrian National Army and the Free Syrian Army).
Then there is the Syrian Salvation Government, a third locus of power consisting of a coalition of Sunni Islamist rebel groups.
Independent of all of these is the de-facto autonomous territory of Rojava, relevant to the readership here as being “a self-governing Kurdish region…making a radical attempt at gender equality”—see this fascinating New Humanist article for further description of this political experiment. The region advocates for universal democratic, autonomous, pluralist, equal, diversity-focused, and feminist policies. It is officially secular and even argues for ecological and environmental sustainability.
This is where a host of acronyms comes into play. The main political party for this area is the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which was created as the Syrian version of the Turkish Kurds’ PKK. The armed wing of these Syrian Kurds is the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the Syrian Kurdish militia called the People’s Protection Units (YPG). The YPG has seen a lot of media coverage over the years, with their close affiliate the Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) seeing much TV time, including a Clinton-produced mini-series.
To confuse matters even more, there are further competing factions, including Islamic Jihadist organizations such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other Al-Qaeda affiliates. Thrown into this mix was the US, fighting against the Assad regime, but also against fundamentalist Islamist groups. And this played merry havoc with the notion of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
And then there is Turkey. Turkey has fought most of the groups here from SDF and ISIL to the Syrian government. Erdoğan views the YPG (the major part of the SDF) as a terrorist organization, claiming it is merely an extension of the PKK back in Turkey, though the groups claim they are separate entities. Turkey’s border with Syria, and the Kurdish territory beyond it, has been seen as fair game for the Ankara government.
Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds
Back in 2019, Donald Trump (as US President), after being lobbied hard by Erdoğan, pulled out all the US troops stationed in Syria, troops who were supporting the Kurds in their fight against ISIL. The clear winner of this decision, which incurred the wrath of many (including Republican lawmakers and even Fox & Friends), was Turkey, who could set about driving out the Kurdish presence along the Turkish-Syrian border straight away.
This was widely seen as one of Trump’s weakest moments in the international political arena. As GQ reported at the time:
A National Security Council member told Newsweek that Trump got “rolled” on Sunday afternoon’s call; was “out-negotiated” by his counterpart; and “only endorsed the troop withdraw to make it look like we are getting something—but we are not getting something,” the source told Newsweek. “The U.S. national security has entered a state of increased danger for decades to come because the president has no spine and that’s the bottom line.”
Turkey launched a series of airstrikes against the Kurds, who had been protected by the United States armed forces less than 24 hours earlier. The Kurds had been used by the US to carry out a huge amount of the gritty work in Syria and had now been hung out to dry.
This was despite Trump’s impotent bluster at the time in his Tweets: “As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!).”
That never happened before or after.
This is where we need to circle back to the war in Ukraine, with some added reference to the aforementioned Finland, Sweden, and of course Turkey. Sweden’s government has shown support for the PYD (the Kurdish political party in Syria) to the point that Turkey’s ambassador to Sweden called for a Swedish MP to be extradited back in May—this politician being Amineh Kakabaveh, an MP and a former fighter with Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Iran. Both Finland and Sweden have been supportive of Kurdish groups. Erdoğan, in order to remove his veto for the two countries’ accession to NATO, demanded that they both complied with Turkey’s cracking down on what Ankara sees as terrorist groups.
A deal was reached in June that saw, as one of its points, a commitment by Sweden and Finland “to address Türkiye’s pending deportation or extradition requests of terror suspects expeditiously and thoroughly.” Kurds in Sweden and Finland were now rightly panicking.
As Kakabaveh said of the ten-point compromise deal with Turkey: “This is not just about the Kurds, this is about Sweden not bowing to a regime like Erdoğan’s.”
But Turkey did make the two countries bow to pressure, pressure from other NATO countries to have the hugely militarily proficient Sweden and Finland (whose armed forces are impressively well placed to help against Russia) join the organization’s ranks.
Now with Sweden and Finland giving concessions to Turkey (and with their membership not really affecting Turkey’s relationship with Russia since Erdoğan appears to be in the power position), Erdoğan has played a so far very competent game of geopolitical chess. On the international stage, to both domestic and foreign audiences, he has looked strong and resourceful.
On the domestic stage, things are a little different: The President is facing an election year in 2023. With the economy showing wild inflation at a staggering 85%, the Turkish leader will have to play a clever hand to win continued internal support. The Kurds, however, are providing the “ideal scapegoat,” as France24 explains:
The closer we get to next year’s presidential elections, the more Erdogan will need to unite his supporters by singling out an enemy that threatens Turkey’s security, stability and national cohesion. This will allow him to present himself to the electorate as Turkey’s saviour, distracting attention from his shoddy economic record. Hence he has designated an enemy in the Syrian Kurds…
The defense industry in Turkey, at a time of economic doom and gloom, is a jewel of increasing shine. African nations are lining up to buy Turkish military hardware at the same time that nearly 30 Turkish companies have showcased their tech at a Pakistani military expo. And as pro-Ukraine analysts and politicians might be fawning over the provision to Ukraine of long-range missiles and other pieces of kit, Erdoğan is diverting international attention away from an objective that fits in much more closely with his long-term goals. While helping out Ukraine might arguably be more a case of stimulating the economy via the military-industrial complex rather than providing moral assistance, it also acts as political cover.
The international community is starting to have too many plates to spin: Ukraine and Russia, China and Taiwan, energy and cost of living, inflation and interest rates. And now, Turkey’s imminent military campaign against the Kurds in Syria. Erdoğan simply couldn’t have picked a better time to launch an almost certain major offensive, justifying the attack by blaming the Kurds for a bombing in central Istanbul.
The offense has really already started: A base in northeastern Syria used jointly by Kurdish forces and the US-led coalition was hit in a Turkish drone strike on Tuesday, according to the Kurds. Airstrikes have hit targets in both Syria and Iraq. Operation Claw-Sword, as the Turks have called the initial phase, has already killed 184 fighters and destroyed 89 targets.
Those previously powerful events and images, shown so dramatically on our TV screens from 2014 to 2015, appear to have crumbled as memories into mental rubble not unlike the buildings of the town.
The US and Russia are united
In an odd twist, both the US and Russia have come out to request considered restraint from Turkey. On the one hand, this is Turkey carrying out military incursions in line with their own agenda into Syria, who are Russia’s ally. On the other hand, Erdoğan is seizing the moment to strike against the US’s allies, the Kurds, who had fought so hard and valiantly against the forces of Islamic fundamentalism.
But in a sign of Turkey’s increased international standing, and its leader’s sense of power and importance (or perhaps out of an existential need in light of an election), it looks like Erdoğan will ignore them both.