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Everyone’s wondering what on earth Erdogan is up to – first he impedes the Nato accession of Finland and Sweden, then he gives the go-ahead after apparently winning concessions on Kurdish terror allegedly hatched by expat Kurds in those countries. Or so it seems. The same Erdogan who defied Russia by selling those devastating drones to Ukraine. Is he pro-West or pro-Moscow? What’s his game? He manifestly used the Finland/Sweden accession issue as bargaining leverage. What does he really hope to squeeze from Nato? For the answers, you won’t get any real help from authentic Turkish pundits trotted out by big news orgs like the BBC. If they’re based in Turkey, they can’t be too candid for fear of being persecuted under Erdogan’s repressive anti-media laws. And the on-site foreign reporters aren’t much better since their HUMINT contacts are watched and the news media they read locally is muzzled.
So, does Erdogan’s noisemaking about Kurds reflect his genuine concerns? Yes and no. Mostly no. Anyway, neither Finland or Sweden will hand over anybody that Erdogan asks for extra-judicially with trumped-up accusations – as the BBC outlines. More about the Kurds later. Erdogan has bigger concerns, chief among which is the consolidation of his regime in a time of galloping inflation and economic meltdown at home. With a parliamentary general election coming up in the new year, his party is heading for a major loss. In reality, what Erdogan really wants is a pledge of non-interference from Western democracies in his internal affairs. Likely because he intends to keep power in his hands through various authoritarian maneuvers. In effect, he stays as President and maintains state capture from there. He is saying to the West, ‘You need me to co-ordinate on Nato actions? Don’t subvert my hold on power and don’t be championing political prisoners like Osman Kavala, or any number of jailed journalists and Kurdish politicians. Don’t oppose my upcoming anti-democratic ruses.’ That’s his main condition. But there’s more.
Nobody asks why Erdogan strained so hard to acquire Russian S-400 missiles, so much so that Turkey virtually split from Nato. This column has dwelt on that issue multiple times. Answer: the Nato-trained and equipped Turkish air force was the only arm of the military he couldn’t neutralize during the so-called attempted coup against him of July 2016. He had no defense against his own air force: Nato anti-aircraft weaponry, not to mention personnel, need thorough reprogramming to shoot down Turkish pilots in Nato jets. Erdogan’s long-term solution was to acquire Russian missile batteries along with Russian training for Turkish operators loyal to him. He doesn’t want to go through that again – especially now that he has alienated Putin. So he will demand guarantees from Biden and allies that they won’t abet military resistance to his rule. With that in place, Turkey’s air assets will fully rejoin the Nato fold.
Erdogan pursues the grandiose policy formula of most authoritarians – feeding his populace imperial nostalgia in place of prosperity, freedom and rule of law. Hence his forays into Syria and Libya. When Turkey shot down the Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border back in 2015, Erdogan asked for Nato help to forestall retaliation. He was rebuffed. They wanted no part in his strongman antics provoking a Nato-Russia confrontation. Russian bombers then pounded Turkey’s Islamist proxies in Syria at will. Erdogan’s posturing as a latter-day Ottoman sultan sustained a severe blow. Turkey had to apologize loudly. Henceforth, Erdogan will demand that Nato back him in Syria and wherever he confronts the Russians. There’s the rub. Where else might that be?
This far it’s not clear if Erdogan will accede fully to Ukraine demands that Turkey stop Russian ships with Stolen Ukrainian grain. Most likely he will try to profit personally while making public gestures of defying Russia. For that, he will need NATO both to support him and look the other way. But again he has bigger strategic needs…
Erdogan would like Western help with the longer term project of creating a link-up between Turkey and Central Asia. A contiguous land-bridge via Azerbaijan would reconnect Turkic states for the first time since the Czars interdicted the Silk Road over two centuries ago. Certainly Erdogan paid no price for intervening in the 2020 Armenia-Azerbaijan fight over Nagorno-Karabagh during which Turkish drones played a crucial part to help Azerbaijan prevail. Despite the highly influential diaspora community in the West, nobody came to the aid of Armenia due to larger strategic calculations. A potential alignment of the Turkic ‘Stans is now geographically possible, threatening Russia’s south and east – and distracting Russian forces away from Ukraine. Erdogan would like Western help with that longterm project. Moscow is actively aware of the threat which is likely why both Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have experienced sudden uprisings in recent times. To be clear, any number of genuine causes for protest do exist in Central Asian states and many of those too were built in by Moscow from the outset. But that’s a topic for another column. In the standard colonialist fashion, Russia created ethnically and geographically unstable discrete states in that region to provoke just this kind of instability at will. Message: You try to align away from us, we can destabilize you at any time. Stay away from Turkey.
Now for the putative Kurdish issue initially invoked by Erdogan against Sweden and Finland. There’s certainly some evidence that ex-pat Kurdish communities in Europe support Kurdish groups in Turkey, though not necessarily in armed struggle but the line can get blurry. You could argue that, having offended Putin, Erdogan has good reason to fear Kurdish separatists, the PKK, because the Soviets created and for some decades backed them. Then, in the ISIS years, the US chose to ally with the Iraqi/Syrian Kurds to extirpate ISIS. Ever since, there’s been residual sympathy in the West for the Kurdish plight and it irks Erdogan. Post-ISIS, though, the Kurds lost much of that active support and Moscow could easily step into the vacuum, reprise its old role and revive the Kurdish threat along and within Turkey’s borders. The Russians know how to play the multinational destabilization game all too well.
But the truth is Erdogan is chiefly responsible for keeping that threat alive. He courted Turkey’s Kurds in the first few years of his tenure hoping they would ally with him against Kemalist secularists in a pan-Islamic reversion to Ottoman political alliances. The Kurds chose instead to create their own secular left-of-center party. He hasn’t stopped punishing them since. Their leaders got imprisoned on phony terrorist charges. Their political rallies got devastated by ISIS suicide bombers. Since Erdogan was letting global ISIS volunteers flow through Turkey in large numbers, many observers believed him to be complicit. And much else. No wonder Kurdish separatist sentiment spiked. Which served his purposes perfectly. He has used the ‘terrorist’ excuse as a convenience and all-purpose instrument of power at all times, so why not also as leverage against Nato?