Receb Tayyip Erdogan is modern Turkey’s longest running head of the state after the founder of the Turkish republic Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Born in a poor neighborhood of Istanbul to a religious teacher, Erdogan heads the ruling Justice Party of Turkey. Erdogan has not only overseen transformation of Turkey into a modern economy, he has been able to restrain his powerful generals and dilute Turkey’s secular credentials. Erdogan’s wife sports a headscarf, once taboo in the Kemalist state. Not only has Erdogan dominated domestic politics for over two decades, he has adopted a very aggressive foreign policy. He has been one of the very few leaders of the Islamic world that has supported the Pakistani stance on Kashmir (the other one being Malaysia’s Mahatir) and has not been overwhelmed by the size of the Indian economy. He has been generally supportive of Muslim causes like the Rohingyas of Burma and the Uighurs of Sinkiang. He has been in the forefront in exposing the involvement of the crown Prince Muhammad bin Saud aka MBS of Saudi Arabia in the murder of Adnan Khashoggi in its embassy in Ankara.
His latest gamble has been in Syria. On 22 October this year, he launched an offensive in the north eastern part of its southern neighbour to clear it of Kurd resistance comprising KPP (Kurdish People’s Party) and YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit). His stated ambition is to clear an area 30 km deep and 20 km wide. President Trump sent him an ultimatum to not act as a ‘tough guy’ and ‘not be a fool.’ He said he would destroy Turkish economy. When Erdogan refused to come under pressure, Trump abruptly decided withdraw his troops from the area that the Turks wanted to clear of Kurdish opposition. His action was met with bipartisan criticism at home. To show his anger and to placate opposition at home, where he is threatened by impeachment proceedings by the Democrats, he imposed sanctions. But within days he lifted the sanctions.
Undeterred by American actions, Erdogan met with the Russian President in the city of Sochi. It was decided that the Russian military police would jointly patrolled the cleared area. A few days later he warned the Russians that if they were not serious in clearing the area at the end of 150 hours, he was quite capable of doing it on his own. Earlier Erdogan had struck a deal with the Russians to buy S400 Air Defence and stood up to the US, when it scrapped the F35 aircraft contract. It is worth noting that Turkey has the second largest army within NATO and is home to 50 B61 gravity nuclear bombs at its airbase in Incirlik. The base is of vital for the Americans. 5000 men of the 39th Airbase Wing are based here. Incirlick has a 3000 M long runway and 57 hardened aircraft shelters. Incirlick is an important airhead for air operations in the Middle East. It will be great loss for the Americans if they are asked to vacate it.
Erdogan has also not been amused by the Europeans opposition to his action in Syria. He has threatened to open his country’s doors for the Afghan and Syrian refugees to flood Europe. He told them he was already not happy with their failure to provide US $ 6.4 billion to house and feed the Syrian refugees. Turkey is currently home to world’s largest population of refugees – over three million – most of whom have been displaced from Syria. Turkey is also the transit route for refugees and displaced people from Asia and Africa struggling to make it to Europe. Europe has reeled under the onslaught of the refugees in 2015 and is not in a mood to see a revival of any influx of displaced anymore any time soon.
So far Erdogan has played his diplomatic cards with a passive poker face depicting nothing else but determination to have his way. The American leadership does not seem to have an appetite to open another front with Erdogan over Syria. They have enough troubles with the South American border crossers. The Europeans with Brexit and their own problems with the refugees are also not likely to anger Erdogan openly. One wonders if the western intelligence agencies would play the regime card policy in Turkey. Erdogan has survived the 2016 military coup and the loss of the Mayoral elections in Istanbul has thus far not dented the Justice Party’s home base.
It would be interesting to see how the international politics will play out as a result of Erdogan’s intervention in Syria.