Everyone wonders what the hell Erdogan is doing – first he prevents Finland and Sweden from joining NATO, then he gives the green light after apparently winning concessions on terror allegedly hatched by expatriate Kurds in these countries. Or so it seems. The same Erdogan who challenged Russia by selling these devastating drones to Ukraine. Is he pro-Western or pro-Moscow? What is his game? He obviously used the issue of Finland/Sweden membership as a negotiating lever. What does he really hope to gain from NATO? For the answers, you won’t get any real help from genuine Turkish experts presented by big news organizations like the BBC. If based in Turkey, they must not be too outspoken lest they be persecuted under Erdogan’s repressive anti-media laws. And the foreign reporters on the spot are not much better since their HUMINT contacts are monitored and the news media they read locally are muzzled.
So, does Erdogan’s noise about the Kurds reflect his real concerns? Yes and no. Especially not. Either way, neither Finland nor Sweden will hand over anyone Erdogan extrajudicially asks with false charges – like the BBC broad outlines. More on the Kurds later. Erdogan has bigger concerns, chief among them consolidating his regime at a time of runaway inflation and economic collapse 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 guarantee of non-interference by Western democracies in his internal affairs. Probably because he intends to keep power in his hands through various authoritarian maneuvers. Effectively, he stays on as president and maintains state capture from there. He says to the West: “Do you need me to coordinate the actions of NATO? Don’t overthrow my grip on power and defend political prisoners like Osman Kavala, or a number of imprisoned journalists and Kurdish politicians. Do not oppose my next anti-democratic tricks. This is its main condition. But there is more.
Nobody asks why Erdogan tried so hard to acquire Russian S-400 missiles, so much so that Turkey practically broke away from NATO. This column has dwelt on this issue several times. Answer: The NATO-trained and equipped Turkish Air Force was the only weapon of the army that he could not neutralize during the so-called coup attempt against him in July 2016. He had no defense against his own air force: NATO’s anti-aircraft weapons, not to mention personnel, need extensive reprogramming to shoot down Turkish pilots in jets of NATO. Erdogan’s long-term solution was to acquire Russian missile batteries as well as Russian training for Turkish operators loyal to him. He doesn’t want to go through that again – especially now that he’s alienated Putin. He will therefore demand guarantees from Biden and his allies that they will not encourage military resistance to his regime. With that in place, Turkey aerial means will fully join NATO.
Erdogan is pursuing the grandiose political formula of most authoritarians – nurturing his people’s imperial nostalgia instead of prosperity, freedom and the rule of law. Hence its incursions into Syria and Libya. When Turkey shot down the Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border in 2015, Erdogan asked for NATO help to prevent retaliation. He was pushed back. They didn’t want to participate in his strongman antics causing a NATO-Russia confrontation. Russian bombers then pounded Turkish Islamist proxies in Syria at will. Erdogan’s posture as a latter-day Ottoman sultan has suffered a severe blow. Turkey had to apologize loudly. From now on, Erdogan will demand that NATO support him in Syria and wherever he confronts the Russians. That’s the catch. Where else could it be?
So far, it is unclear whether Erdogan will fully accede to Ukraine’s demands for Turkey to stop Russian ships with stolen Ukrainian grain. He will most likely try to make a personal profit out of it while making public gestures to challenge Russia. For that, he will need NATO to both support him and look the other way. But again, he has more strategic needs…
Erdogan would like help from the West for the longer-term project of creating a link between Turkey and Central Asia. A contiguous land bridge through Azerbaijan would reconnect Turkish states for the first time since the Tsars banned the Silk Road more than two centuries ago. Certainly, Erdogan paid no price for intervening in the 2020 Armenian-Azerbaijani struggle over Nagorno-Karabakh in which Turkish drones played a crucial role in helping Azerbaijan win. Despite the highly influential diaspora community in the West, no one came to Armenia’s aid due to larger strategic calculations. A potential alignment of Turkish ‘Stans is now geographically possible, threatening southern and eastern Russia – and diverting Russian forces from Ukraine. Erdogan would like the West’s help in this long-term project. Moscow is fully aware of the threat, which is probably why Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have seen sudden upheavals lately. To be clear, a number of genuine causes of protest exist in the Central Asian states and many of these were also taken in by Moscow from the outset. But that’s a subject for another column. In typical colonialist fashion, Russia has created distinct ethnically and geographically unstable states in this region to cause this kind of instability at will. Message: You try to distance yourself from us, we can destabilize you at any time. Stay away from Turkey.
Now let’s move on to the putative Kurdish issue originally invoked by Erdogan against Sweden and Finland. There is certainly evidence that expatriate Kurdish communities in Europe support Kurdish groups in Turkey, although not necessarily in armed struggle, but the line can become blurred. You could say that after offending Putin, Erdogan has good reason to fear the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, because the Soviets created them and for a few decades supported them. Then, during the ISIS years, the United States chose to ally with the Iraqi/Syrian Kurds to root out ISIS. Since then, there has been residual sympathy in the West for the plight of the Kurds and that irritates Erdogan. After ISIS, however, the Kurds lost much of this active support and Moscow could easily step into the void, resume its old role and revive the Kurdish threat along and within Turkey’s borders. The Russians know too well how to play the game of multinational destabilization.
But the truth is that Erdogan is primarily responsible for keeping this threat alive. He courted the Kurds of Turkey during the first years of his tenure in the hope that they would ally with him against secular Kemalists in a pan-Islamic return to Ottoman political alliances. The Kurds have instead chosen to create their own center-left secular party. Since then, he has continued to punish them. Their leaders have been imprisoned on bogus terrorism charges. Their political rallies have been devastated by ISIS suicide bombers. Since Erdogan was letting ISIS Global Volunteers cross Turkey in large numbers, many observers believed him to be an accomplice. And much more. No wonder Kurdish separatist sentiment has grown. Which served his purposes perfectly. He used the “terrorist” excuse as an instrument of convenience and all-purpose power at all times, so why not also as leverage against NATO?