By Alex Callinicos
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Has the Turkish regime overplayed its hand?

This article is over 8 years, 5 months old
Issue 2487
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Pic: Flickr/Presidency of Mexico)

Now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first won parliamentary elections in 2002.

As prime minister he humbled the military, long masters of the Turkish state. Hundreds of generals were jailed.

Erdogan also took decisive steps to end the war Turkey’s army had waged with the nationalist guerrillas of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) for decades. He changed the law to recognise the Kurdish minority’s right to use its own language and initiated peace talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

But over the past year Erdogan has performed a U-turn. The army has been deployed in Kurdish areas and the ceasefire with the PKK has collapsed.

Street fighting between young Kurdish activists and security forces in Diyarbakir and two other cities in Turkish Kurdistan has cost hundreds of lives. Turkish academics involved in a peace petition were arrested last week, and others threatened with sacking or worse.

So Erdogan seems to be returning to the war against the Kurds waged by the generals he displaced. This seems to be true on other fronts as well.

Traditionally the Turkish military collaborated with Israel. Relations deteriorated under Erdogan.

He has regularly denounced terror against the Palestinians and responded angrily to Israel’s attack in 2010 on Turkish ships going to the aid of Gaza. In September 2011 the Israeli ambassador to Turkey was expelled.

But in December 2015 talks were announced between Turkey and Israel to “normalise” relations.

How do we explain this reversal? Many on the Turkish left, echoed by their counterparts elsewhere, argue that Erdogan is an extreme reactionary, even a fascist. This goes along with a tendency to lump in all the different varieties of political Islam with the sectarian and counter-revolutionary politics of Isis. Erdogan is also accused of backing Isis.

This analysis is mistaken. Erdogan is in many ways quite a conventional bourgeois politician.

The social base of the AKP is provided by the new capitalists, highly successful in exports, who have emerged in Anatolia in the past generation.


They tend to be relatively pious Muslims and have traditionally been marginalised. A secularist oligarchy centred on Istanbul has dominated the Turkish state since Kemal Ataturk created it in the 1920s. Erdogan has used his electoral base to break open the Turkish establishment and create a political space for these new capitalists.

Economically Erdogan’s policies have been broadly neoliberal. But he has also pursued an expansionist regional policy. In particular, he has sought to fill the power vacuum caused by the implosion of the Arab world after the revolutions of 2011.

This led him to back the ill-fated Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt in 2011-12. He has also sought to overthrow the dictator Bashar al-Assad in Syria. This meant backing diverse jihadi groups and casting a blind eye at the crystallisation of Isis’s territorial base in eastern Syria.

Now Erdogan is facing diverse forms of blowback. The threat to the Syrian regime prompted Russia to intervene in the war to prop it up, raising the geopolitical stakes in the region.

Worse still from Erdogan’s point of view, Assad abandoned areas bordering on Turkey, allowing the PKK’s Syrian affiliate to seize control. With US help it’s been able to defend this enclave against Isis.

This is the key to Erdogan’s U-turn. It’s one thing to talk to Ocalan about autonomy for Kurdish areas within the Turkish state. It’s quite another to deal with a PKK that has its own territorial base outside Turkey.

Add to that the fact that the PKK-aligned People’s Democratic Party won 13 percent in June’s elections, depriving the AKP of a parliamentary majority. This is the context of the renewed war against the Kurds.

Fears of political instability allowed the AKP to regain its majority in repeat elections in November. But Erdogan may be overplaying his hand. His increasingly authoritarian turn may provoke a backlash that extends far beyond the Kurds.

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