The past year has witnessed a series of u-turns in Turkey’s cross-border and overseas endeavours, such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria. These retreats were as much in line with the imperatives imposed by the regional balances of military power as with the Biden administration’s global call for stability to its allies. Ankara had been party to many regional turmoils, during the four preceding years under the Trump administration.
Donald Trump’s anti-establishment stance in domestic politics was also reflected in foreign policy as a deterioration in international balances. Seizing the opportunity, Erdogan ordered most of the Turkish cross-border operations in Syria, Iraq and Libya during the four-year Trump term. He tried to get a share of energy resources with gunboat diplomacy in the Eastern Mediterranean waters, which caused serious frictions with the European allies. Erdoğan would go so far as to purchase Russian S-400 air defence systems, which even the Trump administration could not tolerate and imposed sanctions, including the expulsion of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet programme.
It is known that Joe Biden does not have a high opinion of Erdoğan. The new boss of the White House has frequently criticised the Turkish president’s authoritarianism and irredentism during the election campaign. Nevertheless, Erdogan considered it necessary to make adjustments in his regional interventions in line with the new administration in order to maintain relations with the United States. Over the past year, Turkish military activity in Libya has dwindled, seismic survey ships and accompanying naval forces have withdrawn into Mediterranean ports, and the long Syrian border has been kept relatively quiet. While working towards rapprochement with former regional rivals, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, steps were taken to re-normalise relations with Israel.
But Erdoğan’s Turkey has two problems with realigning to the US line. First, the fate of the S-400 air defence system has not been resolved, and Russia has been pushing for more missile sales. Second, Biden is probably aware that Erdogan cannot meet his demand to return to democratic standards after going this far in an authoritarian direction.
Over the past year, the American establishment has proclaimed its commitment to “defend, strengthen, and renew democracy in the world,” embracing a new perception of a world split between democracies and authoritarian regimes. This new concept of geopolitical polarisation is, in fact, the politico-ideological expression of the escalating Sino-American trade war, which includes economic and military competition for world domination. In this context, the frequent mention of Erdogan’s name in the international press, along with Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, as the world’s prominent autocratic figures, does not help Turkey’s efforts to adapt to the Biden administration. And there are good grounds for this opinion.
Since the termination of the so called ‘Kurdish opening’ in 2015, the Turkish political system has lost its credibility for its commitment to democratisation, not only internationally but also domestically. As the crackdown on Kurdish politics intensified, the government lost its popularity, and as electoral support waned, the repression intensified and expanded to include all forms of opposition.
The ‘persona non grata’ affair in October revealed Turkey’s anti-democratic course internationally, when Erdoğan denounced ten ambassadors in Ankara of prominent western countries as ‘personae non grata’ for collectively demanding that Turkey abide by the ECHR ruling on the immediate release of rights defender Osman Kavala. The crisis was pacified through diplomatic efforts but Turkey’s reputation has been radically damaged and Kavala is still in prison.
A potentially grave consequence of these events has been the exclusion of Turkey from the US led Summit for Democracy, which took place in the last month of 2021.
Caught in a vicious circle of authoritarianism, Erdogan could overtly instruct the judiciary to break Turkish laws and international agreements and recklessly mobilise the pro-government media to demand the closure of the main opposition party CHP. Threats of prosecution have recently focused on the local government of Istanbul in an effort to knock out the city’s mayor, Ekrem Imamoğlu, who is Erdogan’s most likely rival in the upcoming presidential election.
If the conventional, multiparty electoral political system is to continue, cross-border conflict seems to be the only way for Erdogan to regain popularity. During two brief meetings with Biden over the past year, and during a visit to Russian President Putin in September, he sought their consent for a Turkish military operation, possibly around Syria’s Idlib province and in the Kurdish region of Rojava in northeastern Syria. But it was not given the green light by the Americans or the Russians, who share control of Syrian airspace.
Erdogan nevertheless finds the means to attack the Kurdish presence in northern Syria, such as with drones manufactured by his son-in-law’s firm, Bayraktar. In October, three Kurdish youths were killed in a Turkish drone strike in Kobane.
The only cross-border region where Turkish warplanes are allowed to fly is the Kurdistan region of Iraq. There, the army and air force have been conducting operations against PKK guerrilla bases and the Makhmur refugee camp for a year. These interventions in Iraqi territory were made possible thanks to good relations with the KDP-dominated Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities. The Turkish state has taken advantage of intra-Kurdish hostilities to establish military bases in Southern Kurdistan.
One such event was the Gare debacle. In February, thirteen Turkish citizens, including soldiers, police and secret agents, were killed when Turkish soldiers attacked the Gare base in northern Iraq. The exact death toll remains unclear, but Turkish troops have withdrawn. Also, for the first time, the parliamentary opposition refused to accept the government’s account of a cross-border operation. Later in October, the CHP voted against the Syrian military mandate for the first time in parliament. At the same time, CHP leader Kılıçdaroğlu announced that his party intends to resolve the Kurdish issue and that the main interlocutor will be the pro-Kurdish HDP.
The end of the year in Turkey is accompanied by hopes for the end of Erdogan’s rule. His health was heavily questioned in early November. Erdogan then returned to the scene intact and began lowering interest rates, declaring that it was ‘God’s will’. Since then, exchange rates have fluctuated and the prices of food, oil, and basic consumer goods have risen significantly. Bread prices, a reliable economic indicator, doubled in two months. 2021 ended with this series of economic shocks.
Looks like the shock will last.
The problems of democracy, the rule of law and the economy not only remained unresolved, but worsened throughout 2021. Decreasing cross-border and overseas military adventures is a hopeful development, but it must be accompanied by democratic developments. Resistance against the appointment of a rector from Ankara continues at Boğaziçi University. Democratic defence continues in HDP closure cases. In October, lawyers succeeded in overthrowing the pro-government administration of the Union of Bar Associations, despite many anti-democratic obstacles.
Early elections or not, 2022 will no doubt be a year of the rise of democratic struggles across the country.