A brewing storm: why the West and its allies must be braced for further Erdoğan adventurism



As autumn approaches across Ankara, dark clouds gather over the Eastern Mediterranean. This is the latest storm brewing involving President Erdoğan. The escalation in tensions between Greece and Turkey, following the recent discoveries of potentially rich subsea oil and natural gas deposits, is merely the latest flashpoint involving the Turkish regime. From purchasing Russian S– 400 anti-aircraft systems to increasing the use of state-sponsored disinformation, from blocking approval for NATO’s defence plans on its eastern border to its military interventions in Syria and Libya, Turkey’s actions are indicative of a foreign policy approach that continues to exasperate its NATO allies. Turkey’s most recent venture has little to do with prospective energy stores. It is rooted in a need to assert its sovereignty and to rebel against its perceived containment; these are the driving forces.

However, the Eastern Mediterranean is not the only dark cloud looming over President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It is not just on the global stage that he faces an ebbing away of support.  Back home he faces waning enthusiasm after six years as President and the further 11 ½ years as Prime Minister before that. Whilst only a foolhardy analyst would predict a change of power in the short-term, with an election scheduled for 2023, there is time for his grip domestically to weaken further. In such a scenario, his dominance of the Adalat ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP) and the wider governmental machinery, which to date has disincentivised fellow conservatives from challenging him, may no longer hold-up. This could create a tinderbox in which factions develop and rivals emerge. President Erdoğan’s polling should not flatter to deceive; whilst it has been notable that a plethora of world leaders have benefited from an increase in popularity stemming from the fight against Covid-19, such popularity is fickle and transient in nature.

For the West and its allies, any actual or perceived diminution in domestic dominance on the part of Erdoğan will have critical political repercussions. During his long rule, President Erdoğan and his Party have been no strangers to acts of repression.  Dissenting voices have been silenced. A free press has been stifled. The whole gambit of the tools of state have been deployed in order to preserve power. As history tells us, when faced with a challenge to his authority Erdoğan has not shied away from turning to his base instincts; authoritarian rule at home, combined with an increasingly assertive and antagonistic foreign policy platform. In the name of rallying for the cause, Erdoğan will seek to fire up the nationalist and religiously conservative wings of his base. Given Turkey’s strategic importance, sitting as it does at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, a shift towards a more aggressive, nationalist, and religious Turkey will put it further at odds with its Western allies. President Erdoğan’s illiberal approach serves to achieve his primary objective; namely, regime security and the assertion of Turkey as an influential global actor.

There are a number of cogent arguments for a growing disillusionment with a Turkey under President Erdoğan’s control. From the economy, to the refugee crisis, via the shift in the generational sands, all of these issues have the potential of destabilising his grip and power.

Turkey is in the midst of a financial malady. The economy, after 17 ½ years under the AKP’s rule, has begun to stagnate. The current crisis, stemming from 2018, falls squarely at the feet of President Erdoğan and his close circle of advisors.  Unlike the global financial crisis of 2008, Turkey’s current predicament cannot be blamed on the wider global economy. With Covid-19 adding insult to injury, causing the decimation of the Turkish tourism industry, there are no signs to suggest that the economic crisis will abate any time soon. Given the detrimental effect this has already had upon the popularity of the Government, it is difficult to envisage there being any let up soon.

The ongoing refugee crisis, arising from hostilities in Syria, is a further thorn in President Erdoğan’s side. Despite an aggressive and interventionist approach to date, much of which has been broadly met with approval by the wider population, there remains significant anger and resentment at the perceived intrusion of Syrian refugees onto Turkish territory. Erdoğan has demonstrated his willingness to mount military incursions into Syria, along with pressurising his partners in Europe with threats of bussing refugees into Greece; a threat he has followed through on. Therefore, the public’s continued reaction to this crisis is likely to prove critical in underpinning President Erdoğan’s future foreign policy.

Next, one must not fail to consider the generational shift that is currently taking place in Turkey. Those voters under the age of 30 are likely to form a greater share of the electorate come the next elections in 2023. This is significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, there is resentment and restlessness over the lack of job opportunities.  Secondly, they do not share the religious fervour of the more mature elements of the electorate. Thirdly, this is a generation that knows no other leader than President Erdoğan and his Party. They are a generation who take much of the positive achievements of the last 10 to 15 years for granted; they have known no difference. They are a generation who do not necessarily share his view of a better Turkey, and ask what the AKP have achieved of late. Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, given how the younger generation access information, the ability of the government to control and selectively edit the news agenda in an online world is more challenging.

This triumvirate of tests for the government has influenced the political landscape. In recent years, the resurgence of the opposition Republican People’s Party, in winning the mayoralties of Istanbul and Ankara, has put a spotlight on a new generation of leaders. It is, of course, a route trod by Erdoğan himself, who ascended to national office via the mayoralty of Istanbul. There has also been dissonance from within the ranks, with former AKP allies breaking away to form their own political movements. In a more crowded field, a crumbling of conservative consolidation could conceivably spell the end for an Erdoğan rule.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a shrewd political operator. His antennae will not fail to detect a drop off in support, and opportunists waiting in the wings. A student of political history, he will be all too aware of the dangers of losing office and the risk that presents to charges being pursued against him. To countenance these threats, it is almost certain that Erdoğan will revert to his nationalist tendencies, with greater repression of Kurds and the opposition at home, combined with aggressive posturing on the international stage. This presents challenges to the global community as to how best to counteract such acts. To date, Turkey’s strategic importance coupled with the sense of permanency surrounding President Erdoğan has led to the international community, including NATO, taking a more circumspect view. That said, faced with the prospect of a defeat at the polls, foreign powers may choose to take a more robust approach through the application of sanctions. Whilst inviting, such an approach must be balanced with the risk of playing into Erdoğan’s hands and shifting the Turkish electorate back towards the AKP. 

The political landscape is far from certain for Erdoğan. There can be no doubt that he faces a precarious path between now and the 2023 elections. He has shown his ability to turn things around before; however, there can be no false steps for him now. The global community must be ready for further aggressive adventurism by Turkey in the months and years ahead. Foreign powers must think carefully how much longer they can entertain Erdoğan’s brand of authoritarianism. The threat of uncontrolled nationalism must be confronted so that any agitation remains strictly rhetorical and does not spill into conflict; whether by accident or design. 

Dr Neil Shastri-Hurst is a barrister, surgeon, and former British Army Officer. Follow him on twitter: @DrNShastriHurst