Will Waging War in Syria Save Erdogan?

Turkey’s president appears to be betting on conflict to bolster his political prospects in 2023.

By , a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.
Turkish army members of 1st and 3rd Border Regiment Commands guard the border near Gaziantep, Turkey on Nov. 20.
Turkish army members of 1st and 3rd Border Regiment Commands guard the border near Gaziantep, Turkey on Nov. 20.
Turkish army members of 1st and 3rd Border Regiment Commands guard the border near Gaziantep, Turkey on Nov. 20. Mehmet Akif Parlak/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In Syria, the United States, Turkey, and even in Russia, fears are mounting that Turkey could launch a full-scale military operation on its embattled neighbor at any moment. On Nov. 27, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told military commanders on the Iraqi border that Turkey was ready to “complete the tasks” of his government’s operation against the People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, indicating Turkey’s readiness to launch a ground offensive in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself said his forces would “come down hard on the terrorists from land at the most convenient time,” reiterating his conviction to building a “security corridor” in Syria along the Turkish border—something he specifically mentioned in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last weekend.

Tensions turned to escalation on Nov. 13 when a bombing on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street, a popular shopping area, killed six people and reportedly injured 81 individuals. The Turkish government blamed the bombing on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group and livestreamed the arrest of the Syrian woman responsible for the attack; the PKK, for its part, denied involvement in the bombing. One week later, Turkey launched Operation Claw-Sword, a series of missile attacks on Kurdish bases across northern Syria and Iraq.

In Syria, the United States, Turkey, and even in Russia, fears are mounting that Turkey could launch a full-scale military operation on its embattled neighbor at any moment. On Nov. 27, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told military commanders on the Iraqi border that Turkey was ready to “complete the tasks” of his government’s operation against the People’s Defense Units (YPG) in Syria, indicating Turkey’s readiness to launch a ground offensive in Syria.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself said his forces would “come down hard on the terrorists from land at the most convenient time,” reiterating his conviction to building a “security corridor” in Syria along the Turkish border—something he specifically mentioned in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin last weekend.

Tensions turned to escalation on Nov. 13 when a bombing on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street, a popular shopping area, killed six people and reportedly injured 81 individuals. The Turkish government blamed the bombing on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group and livestreamed the arrest of the Syrian woman responsible for the attack; the PKK, for its part, denied involvement in the bombing. One week later, Turkey launched Operation Claw-Sword, a series of missile attacks on Kurdish bases across northern Syria and Iraq.

The following week saw violent retaliation from both sides that killed dozens of people. On Nov. 23, Erdogan described Turkey’s strikes on Kurdish targets as “just the beginning” of a larger operation, suggesting that a full-scale invasion of Syria could be imminent.

Given Turkey’s broader geopolitical interests, an invasion of Syria might seem contradictory. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government is backed by Putin, for whom Turkey’s Erdogan has emerged as somewhat of a diplomatic conduit, especially since the beginning of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Recent missile strikes have also created an awkward—likely incidental—alliance between Iran and Turkey, long on opposite sides of the conflict in Syria.

However, approached from a domestic angle, a Turkish invasion of Syria begins to make sense. Erdogan and the entrenched government and security apparatus he’s built over two decades of rule are facing presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2023 that they could lose.


Current polling puts the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) alliance neck and neck  with the opposition Republican People’s Party-led alliance. Turkey is also in the midst of a desperate economic crisis, with inflation around 84 percent and a currency buoyed by government foreign exchange swaps.

Basic goods have become too expensive for many people in Turkey, and affordable housing is nearly impossible to find due to an influx of foreign currency from tourists, people buying up housing to shore up against the economic crisis, and a flood of Russian citizens fleeing their country. This has challenged Erdogan’s support among voters, leaving him particularly vulnerable.

Furthermore, Erdogan has long faced criticism about his handling of the country’s Syrian refugee population. The country hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees—mostly as a result of a March 2016 deal between Turkey and the European Union to control the flow of refugees from the Middle East into Europe. The opposition coalition has seized on anti-refugee sentiment, with recent campaign posters promising that—if it wins—it would oust refugees from Turkey within two years.

A conflict would provide a rallying cry for more nationalist elements of the Turkish population.

In this context, a war in Syria could be a useful electoral tool for Erdogan to maintain control over an increasingly unfavorable political environment. First and foremost, it would signal to his base—a population with growing frustration toward Syrian refugees in the country—that he and his party are “doing something” about Syria and the refugees, which he says he will return to Turkish-controlled areas. Second, a conflict would provide a rallying cry for more nationalist elements of the Turkish population. Erdogan, at the helm of an invasion of Syria, could project himself as the protector of the country from Kurdish terrorists in the lead-up to the elections.

This tactic, which he has utilized many times before, is an embodiment of devlet baba (or the Turkish concept of the state as a father). Under this logic, the head of state can be flawed, corrupt, or make extreme decisions and still be trusted because he is believed to be doing so in the name of the family—the Turkish populace. Finally, in the most extreme of circumstances, a Turkish-led conflict in northern Syria and Iraq could trigger a state of emergency in parts of Turkey or the whole country. This could greatly expand Erdogan’s ability to control the election and its outcome, and in the worst-case scenario, it could enable him to postpone or cancel the vote altogether.

During Erdogan’s rise to power, he received critical support from some Kurdish voters—support that has disintegrated since 2015’s electoral violence and his alignment with the ultra-nationalist MHP in 2018. Instead, Kurdish voters have increasingly turned to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has been excluded from both electoral blocs. Many analysts believe that Kurds and the HDP will be the kingmakers for whichever side manages to curry favor.

Given this dynamic, a Turkish ground assault in Syria would also put Turkey’s opposition bloc in an uncomfortable situation. Critiquing the invasion would invite Erdogan to label opposition members as pro-Kurdish or supporters of terrorists. Yet supporting the invasion could both alienate the Kurdish vote that is crucial for either side’s electoral victory come June and it could come across as hypocritical to the rest of the electorate given that the bloc has crafted itself almost entirely in opposition to Erdogan and his policies.

Predictions about Erdogan’s machinations are not mere speculation; rather, these potential outcomes have a strong basis in recent Turkish history. Over two decades of rule and particularly in recent years, the AKP and Erdogan have honed their ability to channel violence and conflict into political influence. And they likely won’t hesitate to do it again to keep power.

The turbulent political period from 2015 to 2017 is particularly illustrative in this respect. Turkey’s 2015 parliamentary elections, in which Kurdish voters denied Erdogan’s AKP a parliamentary majority, broke open Turkey’s fragile peace. The subsequent months saw bombings, protests, and large-scale civilian clashes. In November 2015, the police killing of a human rights lawyer named Tahir Elci marked the beginning of a full-scale war that leveled Kurdish cities and killed hundreds of civilians.

This was a critical turning point in Erdogan’s rhetoric toward Turkey’s Kurdish populations as well as toward dissent writ large. Erdogan seized on the violence and chaos as an opportunity to present himself as a protector of the true Turkish people—a leader who would safely shepherd his nation through a grisly conflict against dissidents. The years of widespread violence that followed only legitimized this narrative and helped Erdogan further strengthen his rule.

In July 2016, a failed coup by defecting army officers offered Erdogan another useful narrative for his crackdown on dissent. Now, not only did he have to protect the country from the PKK and the Islamic State but also from allegedly malevolent forces inside his own government. Erdogan seized upon this rhetoric and doubled down further on authoritarian levers of control at almost every level of civil society.

In the aftermath of the coup, more than 110,000 people were detained, and nearly 50,000 of them were formally charged and arrested. The police and military were gutted by the thousands. The government declared a state of emergency (or OHAL), which per the Turkish Constitution, allows for “the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms [to] be partially or entirely suspended” and gives the president near-total power to determine exactly what suspension of rights and normal functioning of government the state of emergency requires.

Erdogan will likely put the Syrian conflict—and the threat of terrorism it represents—at the center of his reelection campaign.

Under this OHAL declaration, the judiciary was gutted and replaced with AKP loyalists willing to hand out sentences to those who opposed Erdogan and his supporters. In total, around 179 media outlets were shut down, more than 2,700 journalists were dismissed from their posts, and dozens of journalists were jailed. Prominent members of the opposition and civil society—including HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, and later, philanthropist and businessman Osman Kavala—were arrested and jailed on charges of terrorism and sedition. Under the violence and coup-induced state of emergency, Erdogan and the AKP centralized and cemented their rule.

On April 16, 2017, Erdogan put forth a constitutional referendum that vastly expanded presidential and executive powers—in essence, cementing the emergency powers, in place since the coup attempt, into law. Amid accusations of meddling and corruption, the referendum passed.

Now, after five additional years of tightening control, Turkey faces an election that could decide the future of the country. And it seems like Erdogan and his allies will do everything in their power to ensure that history repeats itself.


Although Erdogan’s chances seem to be improving, the incumbent bloc still faces a significant challenge in winning over voters come June. Given Erdogan’s past behavior, it is no surprise that his government might initiate a conflict in Syria to stave off electoral defeat. Not only would such a move consolidate and rally a nationalist base against so-called Kurdish terrorists and their supposed American backers, per Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu’s post-explosion statement, but it would identify another common enemy that Erdogan can unify his reelection campaign against.

There is also the risk of Erdogan declaring a state of emergency. Although the constitution still requires Turkey to hold elections, this declaration could further expand on his executive emergency powers, codified in the 2017 constitutional referendum. Depending on what the president deems necessary based on the nature of the emergency, Erdogan could postpone or cancel the elections or, at the very least, severely restrict opposition media and campaign activity. It is also possible that such a state of emergency could be declared only in Turkey’s Kurdish regions, which would make voting and participating in elections difficult for the very voters who would be critical to any opposition victory.

Whatever the outcome, Erdogan will likely put the Syrian conflict—and the threat of terrorism it represents—at the center of his reelection campaign. Already, his government has unified behind cross-border operations, risking its ever-more important relationship with Russia to do so. Given everything he and his allies have to lose if they are voted out of power, Erdogan’s bloc has its full attention and resources focused on the election. A major military operation like Operation Claw-Sword would not be undertaken if it were not deemed, at least in theory, significantly beneficial to the incumbent bloc’s reelection efforts.

It’s already clear that Erdogan sees his best bet for staying in office as consolidating power based on opposition to terrorism and Kurdish separatism. What remains to be seen—given the rapid and ever-changing nature of the Turkish electorate—is whether that tactic will work.

Erin O’Brien is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. Twitter: @e_h_obrien

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.