What Game is Erdogan Playing?

Brad Patty

4 months ago

May 20, 2019

Security Studies Group Senior Fellow Diliman Abdulkader notes that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pressing forward with a Russian arms purchase.

Turkey’s shift away from NATO, while not formally leaving NATO, has been a topic of regular discussion here. To some degree Turkey seems to be drifting out of the West’s orbit, weakening its ties to the European Union and NATO, in favor of the Russian/Iranian axis that has been forming. That shift has played out in several ways, but not in every way. This weekend, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya received a sizable shipment of armored vehicles that appear to be of Turkish manufacture. The United Nations sounded a call for the enforcement of an arms embargo on Libya that is apparently mostly theoretical. Turkey has long backed the GNA and its predecessors against the government in Tobruk led by the House of Representatives, to the point of supporting named foreign terrorist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah.

In December, a prominent Benghazi-based activist claimedthat Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, a faction loyal to al-Qaeda that has carried out acts of political violence against the recognized Libyan government, is partially funded by “businessmen linked by trade ties to Turkey.” … In January, Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan Islamist militia, confirmed the death of its leader Mohamed al-Zahawi at a Turkish hospital, where he had received medical treatment for an “injury sustained in battles for Benghazi.” Turkey sent his body back to Misrata for burial.

Russia, however, is backing the Tobruk government (though reportedly not the current offensive on Tripoli)– as is Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The United States currently recognizes the GNA, but there is clear motion from the Trump administration to reconsider that. (I have argued that this shift makes good sense from an American perspective.) Turkey is clearly going its own way here, defying the Russians in favor of the Islamist allies in the GNA.

So Erdogan isn’t loyal to NATO, and he isn’t loyal to Russia either. But surely he has clear enemies, right? The Kurds, for example: he has fought a series of brutal engagements with the Kurds over the whole course of his presidency. Surely, if he has no certain allies, he does have certain enemies — right? Maybe not.

To win the repeat election, Mr Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party might have to reel in at least some of the abstainers, as well as conservative Kurds, to secure the election of its candidate, a former prime minister, Binali Yildrim. “Erdogan’s loss has entirely to do with Kurdish dissent,” says Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He might have to pivot to the Kurds simply to keep power.”

The decision to allow Mr Ocalan to meet his lawyers appears to be part of the outreach, says Ms Aydintasbas. The move comes amid rumours that Turkish spooks recently met members of the PKK’s Syrian franchise, known as the YPG, to discuss a possible “safe zone” in Syria’s north-east. Despite opposition from America, which teamed up with the YPG to crush Islamic State’s “caliphate”, Mr Erdogan’s government has repeatedly threatened to attack the YPG’s strongholds in Syria.

The most likely scenario is that Erdogan cares for Erdogan, and is simply an undependable ally. Just as he is undependable in his support for democracy — he likes it when he wins, but reverses elections when he loses — he may be interested in alliances only insofar as they seem to him to be roads to increased power. Such men are dangerous to entrust with power, and hard to remove from it once they have obtained some.

About the Author

Brad Patty

Dr. Patty advised US Army units in Iraq on information operations as part of more than a decade's involvements in America's wars. His work has received formal commendations from the 30th Heavy Brigade, the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. Dr. Patty holds his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Georgia, as well as a Master's in history from Armstrong in Savannah.