Talking Turkey

Turkey’s recent referendum was contentious, its process fraught with problems. Many have suggested that it was illegitimate, but this is less important than the result. That result is significant. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey claimed victory in a constitutional referendum on the question of awarding him sweeping new powers.

Critics of his government dispute this, but it appears that the vote will stand. After a campaign which included high profile disputes with foreign countries and rabble rousing statements by the Turkish government, it seems the country’s president has won the change he sought.

This is not a positive result for Turkey and its people. Erdoğan’s tendencies are already authoritarian. Given more power he will likely seek to bring it to bear against internal enemies. The possibility of his cracking down further on the press and academia, all undertaken in the light of the failed army coup d’état last year, is very high and distinctly worrying.

Edroğan’s effective political strength will increase and with it his security. Flush with new powers, he could remain in office for many years to come. This will have far-reaching effects.

Turkey could soon have another referendum on its hands, this time on capital punishment. Such a vote, if it were to take place, would likely reintroduce the death penalty, giving the lie to Turkey’s stated intention to join the European Union, which requires member states to have banned capital punishment. Not that Erdoğan cares overmuch; the prospect of Turkey’s accession to the union has been slim to none for years now.

That he is willing to sever the prospect of this deal is also a symptom of Erdoğan’s confidence. The referendum has given him a great deal more power to deploy.

This internal empowerment begets external confidence. It could prompt a notable change in tack.

Erdoğan has had to scale back his foreign policy ambitions of late. Where once the Turkish government stood as an implacable foe of the Assad regime in Syria, it recently suggested that removing Bashar al-Assad was no longer a priority.

This went against long-standing Turkish policy; the shift in both tone and emphasis was seen to be the result of Turkey’s dramatic and surprising rapprochement with Russia, which was possibly undertaken to remedy internal Turkish insecurity in a time of increased tension between the two countries.

At the same time, the election of Donald Trump on an isolationist platform and the tacit acknowledgement that removing Assad was no longer on the cards appeared to make the previous Turkish position untenable.

But now, after President Trump authorised strikes on a regime airfield and his officials have begun to signal that the regime will not be left in power, the above may no longer apply.

This shift in American rhetoric and policy, in tandem with the referendum result, does seem to change things.

It is not a positive development that Erdoğan is in a position to become more authoritarian internally, but it matters on an international stage – and especially in Syria. Erdoğan may feel more able to revert to Turkey’s previous stance on Assad, no longer so wary of upsetting or unsettling the Turkish population.

If he begins pursing a more assertive policy in Syria, the Assad regime could face real problems. The Turkish-supported rebels of Operation Euphrates Shield could be given both more support and a greater remit. They have enjoyed emphatic but geographically limited success.

If they are let off the leash they could change the nature of the war in Syria.

At the same time, an internally empowered Erdoğan would not need to placate war-weary Turks by making nice with Russia when tensions increase.

This could lead to a more aggressive policy vis-á-vis Russia’s proxy, the Assad regime.

Erdoğan, and the state of Turkey, will now feel greatly more confident. This is built largely on internal factors but could affect the entire region.

Nonetheless, it must be said that Turkey will not and cannot chart a new foreign policy in isolation. The attitudes of other powers matter. Without active engagement by the United States, a Turkish shift away from Russia will not occur.

The American–Turkish relationship is complicated. The entanglement of many opposing factions makes it difficult to imagine a simple realignment on Turkey’s part.

Though Trump’s attack on the Assad regime could signal a willingness to work with Turkey against Assad, and also his his new hostility to Russia, this is not a guaranteed outcome.

There remains the not insubstantial case of Kurds, both within Turkey and in neighbouring countries.

Erdoğan would like to fight harder against Kurdish separatists in Turkey, notably the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). And he will do all he can to inconvenience or actively confront Kurdish forces allied to those terrorist elements. This includes the political apparatus of the Kurdish areas in Syria, the Kurdistan Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the YPG.

Turkey has aroused international ire, and some condemnation, for its recent airstrikes on Kurdish YPG forces inside Iraq.

The YPG in turn is the major component of and animating influence behind the Syrian Democratic Forces, the formation given real backing by the United States and earmarked to take Raqqa from the collapsing Islamic State (ISIS).

Erdoğan faces internal opposition from Kurdish parties, the largest of which, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), has demanded a recount of the constitutional referendum. Kurds largely voted against the proposed changes.

This internal and external opposition plays on Erdoğan’s mind.

If he begins a greater campaign against the PKK and its YPG allies in Syria, he will be in direct conflict with American ‘partner forces’. This could create immense tension. It would inevitably forestall any coming together of American and Turkish interests, either against Assad or in opposition to Russia’s expanding influence in the Middle East.

But if, on the other hand, the United States offers a path to a more internally secure Erdoğan to abandon Russia, there could be a dramatic shift in the political dynamics in Turkey and a corresponding change in Syria.

The outcome of this referendum could change the face not only of Turkey, but the surrounding nations. How this will happen and whether it will be for the good remain to be seen.