Erdogan’s Multiple Political Challenges

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Events in the Middle East are moving at a dizzying pace, and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in the midst of all these movements like a medieval juggler pulling tricks out of his sleeves to the amazement of his audience. All the observers wonder when his tricks will fail, but in the meantime, the master magician is still at center state, busy churning out tricks.

All along, pundits believed that Erdogan will run out of tricks and fall flat on his face. One reason that the anticipated fall is being delayed is that Middle Eastern politics are fueling his game with new developments every day.

Domestically, he is engaged in a massive purge and witch hunt, eliminating suspected army and police officers, jailing academics and journalists at an alarming rate, accusing them of being the spies of Fetullan Gullen, an Islamic cleric living in exile in the US. Many not under arrest are worried about the prospect and are thus leaving their homeland. Allies and enemies in the West believe that Turkey will come to a grinding halt with the loss of its intellectual capital. But Erdogan is not worried; he knows that he does not need academia, an independent judiciary or press, because they will be asking questions, which the Sultan is in no mood to answer. He is solely depending on the 51 percent of the population who supported his referendum, and who are ready to waive the flags and follow the instructions of the mullahs loyal to Erdogan. They are Erdogan’s power base as he persecutes the intellectual elite and slaughters the Kurds.

He believes that once he has the backing of that fanatical constituency, he can deal with foreign threats and international and domestic challenges.

Thus, Turkey last week detained Metin Topuz, a US consulate worker on charges of having links to Fetullah Gulen’s organization. An American pastor, Andrew Brunson, has been in a Turkish jail for more than a year, following the massive arrests that took place after the botched coup attempt in July. He has been arrested on trumped up charges and remains a hostage to be exchanged with Fullen if and when the US authorities extradite him. As a reprisal, the US cancelled the non-immigrant visa regime, to which Turkey reciprocated. And the tension continues rising.

These arrests have been reckless politically, as they taunt a longtime ally, and yet they are deliberate, as Turkey wants to thumb its nose at the US. In addition, Turkey, the NATO pivot, has struck a deal for military hardware with Russia, giving rise to louder voices to abandon the Incirlik base in Turkey. The German fleet did just that, leaving for Jordan, following the restriction of access imposed on them in Incirlik.

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Erdogan does not miss any opportunity to fling caustic remarks at the US administration for providing military support to regional Iraqi Kurdistan and to the Kurds fighting in Syria to establish autonomy on the Turkish border.

Adding insult to injury, the Turkish government has aligned itself with Iran and Iraq to fight the Kurdish referendum for independence, right at the moment when President Trump is considering scrapping the Iran nuclear deal, which will result in new sanctions against Tehran.

Erdogan is also in the global political focus; while tit-for-tat diplomatic sanctions are flying between Washington and Moscow, Turkey is not only thumbing its nose at NATO allies by buying defense systems from Russia, it has joined forces with Russia and Iran to wade into the war in Syria. The Astana meeting between the three parties was an attempt to steer Washington out of the game in Syria.

When Iraqi Kurdistan held its referendum on September 25, Israel was the only country that supported the move openly. Frozen relations between Turkey and Israel had only just begun to thaw, when Erdogan threatened to refreeze them as a response to Israel’s stand. However, Israel issued a stern rebuke suggesting that the country is not in the habit of formulating foreign policy under duress from a third party.

At this time, Turkey, Russia and Iran are in the process of implementing the Astana agreement, which calls for creating safe areas for the civilian population.

As always, Turkey is pursuing its own interests, under the guise of implementing the agreement. It has moved its forces near Idlib, first and foremost preventing a move from the Kurds. “When we don’t go to Syria, Syria comes to us,” says President Erdogan. “We will never allow a terror corridor that begins in Afrin and goes to the Mediterranean,” continued Erdogan, referring to the stretch of Turkey’s southern border that is controlled on the Syrian side by Kurdish fighters and Tahrir al-Sham.

Reuters comments that Turkey has been one of the biggest supports of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the six-and-a-half-year war, but its focus has moved from ousting him to securing its own border against jihadis and Kurdish groups.

Turkey is waging a three-pronged war against the Kurds; slaughtering PKK militants within its borders, opposing the formation of a Kurdish enclave in Syria and joining forces with Baghdad and Tehran to undermine the independence move in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Erdogan has global ambitions, which can only be achieved through long-lasting and permanent relations with other nations, while he has been resorting to ephemeral deals keeping moving targets on the horizon.

It will take some time for his tricks will fail and his fall will be spectacular as his rise.