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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan points toward the city center on a balcony in Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, points toward the city center as he speaks with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during a meeting in Ankara, May 6, 2019 (Presidential Press Service via AP Images).

How Many Bridges Can Turkey’s Erdogan Burn?

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

With his sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system in 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to cement his near-total control over the country. But an electoral setback in the Istanbul mayoral election in June 2019, the worst of Erdogan’s career, pointed the way to a potential rebirth of the political opposition, even as it highlighted Erdogan’s willingness to destabilize Turkey’s democracy to maintain his grip on power.

The victory by Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, in June came after the Supreme Election Council sided with Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to overturn an earlier ballot in March that was also narrowly won by Imamoglu over the AKP’s candidate. The Supreme Election Council’s decision underscored how severe the erosion of democratic institutions has been under Erdogan and the AKP. And Erdogan’s interference with the initial outcome points to a potential future in which the regime may no longer even look for institutional cover when it decides to subvert democratic norms.

Brussels and Washington both publicly criticized the court’s decision at the time, but their options are limited when it comes to exerting pressure on Erdogan. Turkish cooperation is critical to the European Union’s goal of blocking Syrian immigrants and refugees from reaching Europe, and Erdogan is very much aware of the trump card he holds.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system has highlighted the degree to which its ties to the U.S. and NATO have frayed. Washington has suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation fighter plane program over fears that deploying the U.S.-designed stealth fighter alongside the Russian system will make it more vulnerable to Russia’s air defenses. But Ankara insists it will go ahead with operationalizing the Russian system.

More recently, in October 2019, the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria targeting Syrian Kurdish militias became the latest irritant to bilateral relations with the U.S. It also highlighted the disconnect between the U.S. Congress—which fiercely defended the Syrian Kurds, America’s principal partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State—and U.S. President Donald Trump, who seemed oblivious to their plight and subsequently received Erdogan at the White House. Meanwhile, Turkey’s presence in northwestern Syria is increasingly putting it in the line of fire of Syrian government forces, as well as the Russian forces that support them, heightening fears of a further conflagration in the Syrian civil war.

WPR has covered Turkey in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What are Turkey’s goals in Syria, and can it achieve them without being drawn ever further into the quagmire of that country’s civil war? Will Ankara continue to drift into Russia’s orbit, or will tensions in northwestern Syria derail efforts to improve ties? Will Trump and Erdogan overcome their differences, and congressional opposition, to reach a U.S.-Turkey detente? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

After the U.S., Turkey Should Be Next to Leave Syria

Turkey’s military campaign in northwestern Syria risks a conflict with Russia, protects radical Islamist rebels and prolongs the civil war, all at the expense of the civilians Turkey claims to protect. Washington, which provides military aid to Turkey both bilaterally and through NATO, should stop underwriting Turkey’s recklessness. Instead, it should withdraw support and encourage a settlement that helps end Syria’s nearly decade-long conflict.

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Domestic Politics and Erdogan’s Autocratic Tendencies

Though the 2017 vote to reform the constitution and concentrate extensive power in the presidency solidified Erdogan’s hold on power, he had already leveraged a 2016 coup attempt to crack down on journalists, opposition leaders, academics, judges and members of the security forces. To build popular support, Erdogan has fanned Muslim nationalism and drawn criticism for undermining Turkey’s secularism. Cracks in his electoral coalition are beginning to show, but it’s too soon to know whether or not they represent a serious challenge.

Turkey’s Role in Syria

Turkey positioned itself as a primary backer of opposition forces in the Syrian war, but it also used the conflict to launch attacks on Syrian Kurds. Ankara says they are allied with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the political and military movement involved in a decades-long conflict with the Turkish regime. Turkey is now using its incursion in the northeast to create a buffer zone along the border with the Syrian Kurdish region, with an eye to preventing the Syrian Kurds from solidifying their territorial gains in the post-conflict period. Meanwhile, its efforts to protect client rebel militias in northwest Syria are raising the risk of all-out conflict with Syrian government forces and their Russian backers.

Ties With the U.S. & Europe

Ankara’s ties with the EU continue to deteriorate, and Erdogan has taken to calling European leaders “Nazi remnants” and “fascists.” Relations with Washington have also frayed over Ankara’s purchase of the advanced Russian missile system, the arrest of U.S. citizens in Turkey and disagreement over the Iran nuclear deal. But Trump’s soft spot for autocrats like Erdogan could present an opportunity to mend ties.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.