Miliziani filo turchi in Siria (LaPresse)

The operation in Syria has earned Erdogan a few more months in government

Turkey’s military operations in Syria continue, while the army of Syrian President Bashar al Assad is heading for the border to support the Kurds in defending the north-east of the country. Many have deemed the Turkish head of state’s decision to attack the Rojava region as a political move, with the aim of distracting public opinion away from his country’s internal problems and to regain lost voter support. In fact, once a “safe zone” along the border has been established, President Erdogan’s plan is to resettle two million Syrian refugees who have arrived in Turkey to escape the war, and whose presence there has alienated a large part of his AKP (Justice and Development Party) electorate.

However, as explained to InsideOver by Ertuğrul Kürkçü, honorary president of the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party), this strategy will not necessarily give the desired result. “Domestically, Erdogan may have gained two to three months of government, but internationally he has lost almost all the credibility he had managed to achieve among regional and international powers. Not all members of the NATO Security Council, for example, are in favour of the president’s actions and the Arab League itself described the military operation as an invasion that violates international law. Norway, Germany, France, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands have suspended arms sales to Turkey, and Russia, Iran and China said they were concerned about what is happening, and the US establishment itself, with the exception of Donald Trump, does not approve of the intervention in Syria.”

But the biggest problems are on the home front. “The costs of war, combined with the education of foreign investment,” and the economic crisis that has long affected Turkey, “are getting Erdogan in trouble.” According to Kürkçü, the Turkish president’s plans for the period post-invasion are too ambitious: “Erdogan wants to relocate two million people to the safe zone and invest in rebuilding the area.” This objective would require an economic commitment that the Turkish government would not currently be able to support, given the state of its finances. “If Erdogan does not go to the polls in the next three to four months, he will lose the next election. For this reason, among others, he has started the military campaign [in Rojava].”

The Turkish political landscape

The start of military operations in Syria has also had an impact on the balance of internal politics, and in particular on relations between the HDP and the Kemalist CHP (Republican People’s Party). In local elections, the pro-Kurdish HDP had encouraged its voters to support the CHP candidates in order to deny victory to President Erdogan’s AKP. This was not a real alliance between the two parties, instead a political manoeuvre by the HDP.

However, with the election of Ekrem Imamoglu as mayor of Istanbul, it finally seemed that position of the CHP towards the Kurds had changed, but its decision to vote in favour of armed intervention in north-eastern Syria has cooled relations between the parties again. “Our hopes were disregarded due to the internal complexity [of the CHP]”, which was “formed by a conservative and nationalist wing opposed to a progressive one.” Support for the military operation was actually no surprise. “As far as security issues are concerned, the CHP leadership has always stood in favour of the military, each time supporting the sending of troops to Iraq and Syria that the government wanted. The vote supporting the operation [was merely] a repeat of what happened during the incursion into Afrin. This is nothing new, which is why we must look to the future, and, most importantly, rely not so much on the leaders of the CHP as on its grassroots.”

According to Kürkçü, these grassroots are starting not to support the party leadership’s line in matters of security and foreign policy. However, a change at the top of the CHP in the near future does not seem likely. “There is no real challenge to the current leadership, nor any candidates who can take its place. Imamoglu seems to have aligned himself with the party’s position regarding the incursion into Syria. There are divisions within the CHP on other points, but certainly not on the military. If the operation in Syria were to take a turn for the worse, if it did not succeed and if there were large losses, then public opinion would change, and a change at the top of the CHP could be feasible. But for now this is just speculation.”