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Erdogan re-election threatens further instability in Middle East

This article originally appeared in The Irish Times.

The re-election of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a new five-year term in office poses a serious threat to the stability of the Middle East. Having won the top job and a majority in the national assembly, Erdogan is determined to not only change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system of governance but also pursue transformative domestic and regional agendas.

He seeks to turn Turkey into a faith-based state and extend its regional reach and influence through military means and export of the Salafi fundamentalist brand of Islam. His dream is for Turkey to reclaim its Ottoman politico-military-religious heritage with himself as sultan. He intends to accomplish this project by 2023, the centenary of the founding of modern Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Ironically, Ataturk was a militant secularist who erased the country’s Ottoman past and relinquished Ottoman possessions. He could turn over in his grave if Erdogan achieves his vision.

In 2003, soon after Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party took power and he became prime minister, Ankara adopted a policy of “zero problems with neighbours” and cultivated good relations with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Iraq’s Kurdish region and Israel. This policy, however, clashed with Erdogan’s missionary Ottoman vision to which he gives precedence.

“Zero problems” faltered in 2009 when Turkey criticised Tehran for cracking down on protests against the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In 2010 Ankara condemned ally Israel when its naval commandos stormed a Turkish ferry carrying activists bound for Gaza, killing 10. In 2014, Erdogan castigated Israel’s war on Gaza and adopted the Palestinian cause as a means of courting Arab public opinion and securing for Turkey a role in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Destructive action

He followed up verbal interventions with destructive action on the ground, creating problems with all Turkey’s neighbours. He has every intention of continuing on this destructive course.

Since 2011, Erdogan has supported Syrian rebels and foreign jihadis seeking to oust Syria’s government and occupied towns in the north of that country. The Turkish army has deployed a surrogate force of largely jihadi fighters in Turkish-held areas along the Syrian-Turkish border and in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. Erdogan claims he seeks to prevent Syrian Kurds from connecting with rebellious Turkish Kurds in the southeast of his country but he is, in fact, creating Turkish-protected jihadi bases in Syria, ensuring the survival of extremists, using them to strike outside these bases, and giving them opportunities to migrate.

He is determined to reclaim former Ottoman possessions in both Syria and Iraq. His efforts in Syria are likely to risk clashes with Moscow and Tehran which are fighting to restore Damascus’s sovereignty over the entire country and could lead to conflict with Baghdad’s ally Iran and, perhaps, the United States in Iraq.

Erdogan has stepped up air raids on Turkish Kurdish militants based in the Qandil mountains in northwestern Iraq and threatens to attack Kurdish fighters in the Sinjar district in northeastern Iraq. There the Kurds have prevented the return of Islamic State to the region where it slaughtered, raped and enslaved thousands of non-Muslim Yezidis.

Determined to export political Islam and pay an imperial role through neo-Ottomanism, Erdogan seeks to use the pan-Arab Muslim Brotherhood to promote his regional goals. He prepared for this mission by offering sanctuary to Egyptian Brotherhood fugitives and providing them with a radio station to broadcast to supporters following the 2013 overthrow and arrest of Egypt’s president Mohamed Morsi, a senior Brotherhood figure.

This has alienated Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have outlawed the Brotherhood as a threat to their security. Erdogan has exacerbated tensions with these countries by siding with Qatar, another Brotherhood backer, in its dispute with them and dispatched troops to Qatar. Erdogan has also sent troops to Somalia and Sudan and plans to deploy 60,000 in the region to give Turkey strategic reach.

Syrian refugees

Erdogan has adopted three approaches to the 3.5 million Syrian refugees settled in Turkey. The majority have been warehoused, educated and skilled refugees offered citizenship, and thousands have been transferred to Turkish-occupied territory in northern Syria. He intends to increase their numbers as his military takes more territory.

Ankara’s clients administer these areas which are connected to Turkey’s power and communications grids, depend on Turkish trade and teach Turkish in local schools. Damascus has threatened to liberate these areas, opening new fronts in the multi-front Syrian civil and proxy wars.

Erdogan is certain to continue blackmailing the European Union by demanding billions of euro in exchange for preventing Syrian, Afghan and other refugees from transiting Turkish territory en route to Europe. In response to the deal, migrants have adopted new routes through the region and North Africa to reach the EU, risking their lives and creating problems for transit countries and European destination states.

Michael Jansen is based in Cyprus and writes on the Middle East.

This article was originally published in The Irish Times.

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