Turkey’s Wag-the-Dog Election

Erdogan is fighting a military battle to win a political one.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar (L) attend the funeral of a soldier killed in a helicopter crash at Ahmet Hamdi Akseki Mosque in Ankara, on June 1, 2017.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar (L) attend the funeral of a soldier killed in a helicopter crash at Ahmet Hamdi Akseki Mosque in Ankara, on June 1, 2017. (ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

On June 24, Turkey will hold dual elections for both the presidency and the parliament. While still the favorite, current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing the greatest groundswell of opposition since his first election victory in 2002. Now, with less than a week to go before election day, Erdogan has discovered a newfound interest in draining “the terror swamp” in northern Iraq. It comes at a strange time and a decade too late. Erdogan, who for years turned a blind eye to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) camps at the Qandil Mountains, is now making a show of attacking them. The problem is that the PKK is not there anymore. There is little for Turkey to gain militarily by bombing barren mountains but a lot for Erdogan to gain politically by waging a war of distraction.

On the night of June 11, the Turkish military conducted airstrikes against at least 11 targets in PKK bases in the Qandil Mountains. The news of the strikes came just in time for Erdogan’s campaign rallies that evening in Nigde, a nationalist stronghold in Central Anatolia, and Bursa, a populous industrial powerhouse 60 miles away from Istanbul. Erdogan’s sway in these areas, which were once his strongholds, is now looking increasingly precarious. In the November 2015 elections, for example, he won Bursa with over twice the vote of his closest rival, yet this time around, his campaign rally in the city was half-empty.

Lately, such scenes have become commonplace for Erdogan. The alliance of secular front-runner Muharrem Ince, renegade nationalist Meral Aksener, and dissident Islamist Temel Karamollaoglu is chipping away at his political fortunes, as is the country’s economic downturn. In a recent survey by one of Turkey’s leading polling firms, 51 percent of the respondents named the economy as their primary concern; security was a distant second, with only 13.4 percent.

If Erdogan is going to win, he knows he needs to change the public’s calculus. If he can bring security to the front of voters’ minds, he can both win back the economic-minded voters he is losing to the opposition and thwart the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party from a strong showing, which would almost certainly cost his party the parliament and might even oust him from the presidency. This is what he stands to gain from a diversionary war: fending off the opposition, winning back the voters he is losing, and thus holding on to the imperial presidency he so passionately coveted.

[Elsewhere on Foreign Policy, Ozgur Ozkan argues that whoever wins the election must avoid turning Turkey’s military into a political tool]

The Qandil operation is also a dramatic display of how Erdogan has turned NATO’s second-largest army into a tool of his political ambitions. In June 2015, after a surprise electoral upset, Erdogan’s truce with the PKK collapsed, and the renewal of hostilities helped him to an easy victory in rerun elections held five months later. In July 2016, after the failed coup believed to have been staged at the behest of his ally-turned-enemy, Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan pulled himself out of one of the worst crises of his political career with a military excursion into Syria, Operation Euphrates Shield.

In January 2017, three months before a presidential referendum, Erdogan pulled the same trick with the capture of Bab in Syria. Now, he is doing it again. This is not to say that none of these operations had any merits for Turkey’s national security — they did. Their timing and execution, however, seem to have been determined more by Erdogan’s political calculations than military necessity.

Considering Erdogan’s longtime efforts to control the military, none of this should come as a surprise. Starting in the late 2000s, Turkey launched a mass purge with the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, in which an alliance of top military officers and secular power brokers stood accused of plotting to overthrow the country’s elected government. From early on, critics pointed out the travesties of justice in these Soviet-style show trials. Legal and forensic experts assailed them as tainted by dubious evidence. Yet hundreds of Turkey’s prominent secular citizens, including officers such as the outgoing chief of general staff, Ilker Basbug, were sentenced to years in prison in over a dozen different indictments. The generals next in line to take over the army, navy, and the air force were either jailed or forced out.

As many critics, including the authors of this article, pointed out at the time, Gulen and Erdogan were in it together. Erdogan’s campaign against the secular military establishment never could have succeeded without Gulen. Detectives loyal to Gulen ran the investigations. Gulenist prosecutors and judges wrote the indictments and decided the cases, and media loyal to Gulen cheerfully reported the verdicts. Erdogan, who has recently made a habit of calling his every critic a Gulenist, was in those days Turkey’s Gulenist-in-chief.

It was only in late 2013, after prosecutors — the same ones who presided over the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials — issued arrest warrants for dozens of suspects in multiple corruption cases, indicting a who’s who of Erdogan’s inner circle including his children, four of his Cabinet ministers, pro-government billionaires, and the executives of a state-owned bank, that he changed his tune. When they were going after his secular allies, Erdogan was the Gulenists’ best friend. When they came for him, he became their worst enemy. Erdogan now speaks of his past alliance with Turkey’s public enemy No. 1, Fethullah Gulen, with feigned naiveté. He offers mea culpas, apologizing for being duped. In reality, Erdogan could not have benefited more from it.

None of this happened in secret. There were many who tried to warn against it. In 2011, the entire Turkish high command — Gen. Isik Kosaner, chief of the general staff, plus the commanders of the army, navy, and the air force — quit their posts over the trials. Two years later, Adm. Nusret Guner dramatically resigned in protest only weeks before his promotion to the top post in the navy, as did many other naval officers, including one of us.

Outside the barracks, the likes of former police intelligence chief Hanefi Avci and the journalist Ahmet Sik published exposés on how Gulen and Erdogan were colluding to eliminate their secular rivals, only to find themselves behind bars. All these warnings fell on deaf ears. Foreign publications, including this one, published odes to the duo taming Turkey’s military. Both at home and abroad, many observers kept cheering for Gulen and Erdogan in the false belief that they were merely pushing the military out of politics. In fact, their goal was to make the military an instrument of their political preferences.

Erdogan’s patronage had allowed the Gulenist officers to thrive as never before. When Gulen and Erdogan fell out, the officers faced a dilemma: Stay loyal to Gulen or side with Erdogan? If the post-coup purges are any indication, the Gulenists’ takeover of the Turkish military was pervasive. Sixty-three of the 123 generals arrested for involvement in the failed coup had been promoted thanks to the vacancies opened by the purge of secular officers. These numbers are only the tip of the iceberg: There are many other officers affiliated with other Islamist groups, loyal to none other than Erdogan himself, or whose careerism muffles their criticism.

Islamist officers fought secular officers for control of the Turkish military, and they won. Then, they turned on each other, and Erdogan came out on top. Now, what’s left behind is a military so wholly beholden to Erdogan that its top commanders are running his political errands, as was the case last month when he summoned the chief of general staff, Hulusi Akar, to talk former President Abdullah Gul out of a potential run in the elections.

Only a few weeks ago, another three-star general stirred controversy after he was filmed at a campaign rally joining the applause as Erdogan lambasted his rival, Muharrem Ince, from the stage as an “amateur” and “apprentice.” Such scenes, once unthinkable, have since become routine. With Turkey’s national security apparatus politicized to a pulp, it is difficult for any general to make decisions solely based on facts and battlefield calculations. No general can judge what’s best for Turkey without also considering what’s best for Erdogan — not unless they are looking for an early retirement.

That’s why the military is going along with Erdogan’s plans. The Qandil Mountains, Erdogan’s target in his latest strike, is no longer the PKK’s headquarters. Its presence there is minimal at best. Most of the PKK’s fighting force long since moved eastward, either to the territories of its Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), to the territories of its People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria, or to the Sinjar Mountains on the Iraqi-Syrian border. Some of its units are also said to have retreated into Iran.

There is also the additional factor of the United States. In Syria, the Kurds were at the forefront of Washington’s fight against the Islamic State. The Trump administration talks tough about ceasing support for the Kurdish fighters, but it is not so easy to cut them off. Many of the United States’ strategic goals remain unachieved, and the Kurds are still an integral part of Washington’s plans for achieving those objectives. This is not to endorse America’s handling of the civil war in Syria or to say that Ankara’s concerns about the PKK, the growing strength of its Syrian affiliates, and the implications of an autonomous Kurdistan on Turkey’s southern border are not well-grounded. On the contrary, it was tone-deaf for the United States to expect Turkey to cast its lot in with the Syrian affiliates of a movement that has taken tens of thousands of lives in its campaign for secession from Turkey. No politician, not even Erdogan, could make that pitch to the Turkish public without also signing his political death warrant.

At the same time, one needs to face the facts: Washington is not going to walk away from the Kurds just because Ankara asked it to. Nor will Syrian Kurds abandon their aspirations for statehood when they already enjoy de facto autonomy in more than a quarter of Syria’s territory and control many its major oilfields such as Tanak, Omar, Shaddadi, and Suwayda.

Furthermore, the government had been so boastful about its impending operation on Qandil that even if the PKK’s entire force had been in the Qandil Mountains, they would have had enough advance warning to move out. It has been more than a week since the prime minister, Binali Yildirim, first raised the possibility of a military operation. In weeks past, Erdogan himself, as well as numerous other Cabinet ministers, have publicly weighed in on the topic.

Had Erdogan been serious about getting tough on the PKK, he would have struck their allies where it really matters: in their Syrian territories to the east of the Euphrates River. Instead, he has taken to bombing barren mountains while making sure that word spreads as far and wide as possible that he’s attacking Qandil, a name still synonymous with the PKK in many minds. That’s because the success he seeks is political, not military. Erdogan cares far more about winning at the ballot box than on the battlefield.

Turker Erturk is a retired rear admiral in the Turkish Navy. In 2010, he resigned as the superintendent of the country’s naval academy in protest of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s purging of secular officers. He has since been working as an author and commentator on national security issues. Twitter: @Orsatramola
Selim Sazak is a doctoral student in political science at Brown University. Twitter: @scsazak

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