Erdogan's domestic wars trump foreign battles

Erdogan's domestic wars trump foreign battles
Comment: In seeking to consolidate power into an executive presidency, Erdogan recognises there are limited numbers of fronts on which he can fight, writes Tim Eaton.
6 min read
21 Jul, 2016
Turkish intelligence services have struggled to manage the burden of monitoring so many enemies [Getty]

For external observers, Turkey President Recip Tayyip Erdogan's power struggle with the adherents of Fethullah Gulen - a US-based cleric - is the perhaps least significant of the president's many wars.

Turkey is engaged in conflict on several fronts. Erdogan and his government are once again fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the southeast of the country. Also on the southeast borders, Turkish authorities are directly involved in the Syrian conflict and are committed to resisting the growth of Kurdish-autonomy within Syria. 

The Islamic State group, while fighting Kurdish and Syrian regime forces, has increasingly come into conflict with Turkey. 

Last month’s attack on Istanbul's Ataturk airport, which killed more than 40, was the latest in a series of high-profile bombings. Among all these battles, it is, however, the domestic power struggle in Turkey that seems to be the most defining for the president.

Yet, the pursuit of the "Gulenists" will come at the expense of state institutions, at a time when the Erdogan administration is already under fire on too many fronts.

Erdogan's finger-pointing at Gulenists in the wake of the failed coup attempt is one illustration of how domestic wars trump foreign wars for the president. Erdogan has been relentless in his pursuit of Gulenists - whom he claims have formed a parallel state.

Gulen and Erdogan were once allies, with the former a key figure in supporting the president's rise to power. But they broke up for good in 2014, after Erdogan claimed that Gulen was seeking to unseat him. Erdogan asserted that it was Gulen who was behind an investigation into corruption within the government; considered a pretext for overthrowing Erdogan's administration. 

Among all these battles, it is the domestic power struggle in Turkey that seems to be the most defining for the president

A warrant for Gulen's arrest was subsequently issued for allegedly running a "terrorist group". Erdogan has since sought to purge the police and the judiciary, and it was claimed he was preparing to purge the military next month. 

The media has also become a key battleground. In November 2015, following a ruling from an Ankara court, police stormed the offices of the Gulen-linked Koza Ipek media group, cutting the live broadcasts of the Bugun and Kanalturk channels. The Millet and Bugun newspapers, also part of the group, were closed. 

All were to reopen with pro-government editorial lines.  Bank Asya, a Gulen-affiliated bank, was taken over by the Turkish banking watchdog, while Erdogan also sought through the courts to close thousands of Gulen-funded schools.

While the dust is yet to settle on the ugly events of the attempted coup on Friday 15 July, Erdogan wasted little time in blaming Gulen, immediately calling for his extradition from the US and vowing to "clean all state institutions of the virus" of Gulen's movement. Ankara has moved with lightning speed to detain or suspend tens of thousands of personnel across the country, raising questions over how long the list of those set to be removed from office had existed.

Many fear that Erdogan will now use the failed coup as a foil to complete his capture of the state and institute the executive presidency that he has been seeking. Opponents fear that the president will emerge stronger for this near miss. Yet he will fail to do so if he continues to fight on so many fronts.

Turkish intelligence services have clearly struggled to manage the burden of monitoring so many enemies. The degree of scrutiny the Gulenists were supposedly under begs the question of how they could have retained the capacity for such action, if indeed they were its cause.

There are signals that Erdogan has understood the need to reduce the number of his foreign adversaries in order to focus on his enemies at home. 

In recent months, the Turkish president has sought to return to the "zero problems with neighbours" foreign policy of Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister that he jettisoned.  While seen as successful prior to 2011, Turkish foreign policy has been derided for generating zero friends since.

Erdogan has moved to soothe a damaging rift with Russia and to reopen diplomatic channels with Israel. Hints were even made about returning to "normal relations" with Syria. 

Erdogan has made U-turns on issues before - most recently in striking those deals with Israel and Russia - and could do so again. But a volte-face on Syria to strike a deal with the regime in order to better confront Kurdish forces would be much more difficult to institute, particularly given Erdogan's strong personal enmity towards Assad.  

Once seen as the man to negotiate a peace with the PKK, Erdogan's continued drive towards an executive presidency and his embrace of the nationalist right to reinvigorate the conflict makes resolution less likely there, too. The pro-Kurdish People's Democratic Party's (HDP) support for the government as the attempted coup unfolded is unlikely to change that calculus.


Ankara has moved with lightning speed to detain or suspend over 20,000 personnel across the country, raising questions over how long the list of those set to be removed from office existed

So far in 2016, Turkey has suffered attacks at the hands of the PKK and IS, engaged in urban warfare across swathes of the south-east and has now seen its own armed forces fire upon the Turkish parliament building. 

The outpouring of popular support for Erdogan in the wake of the failed coup is therefore telling: there is a broad coalition of Turkish citizens who see Erdogan as the man to restore stability, despite its erosion under his watch.  

But the question is how sustainable this position remains in the long run.

The Turkish president will continue to fight on many fronts while seeking to bring his struggle with Gulen to fever pitch. This is hardly a recipe for stability. Eviscerating key institutions of the state during a time in which Turkey is engaged in so many battles is a risky endeavour.

Following the attempted coup, Adem Maduti, the commander of the second army - which patrols Turkey's borders with Iran, Iraq and Syria - was detained, illustrating how national security has already been directly affected. Some have suggested that Erdogan will now turn his ire to the US and Europe for their lack of support in responding to the coup attempt.  

Yet the reality is that Erdogan will need all of the friends that he can get. He would be wise to recognise this.

Tim Eaton is a Middle East analyst for Chatham House's Syria and its Neighbours Policy Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @el_khawaga

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.