Turkey Pulse

Can Erdogan take cover behind Turkish military?

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Article Summary
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be trying to turn his own political struggle into a war of survival for Turkey.

The first tweet I saw on March 23 was from @RedHack EN: “Erdogan could not shoot down Twitter bird so he took his revenge from Syrian jet. Say no to dirty wars.” The sarcastic tweet was a response to the latest news that Turkey shot down a Syrian plane near the border. The Turkish government argued that the Syrian plane had crossed into Turkish airspace. In line with the latest rules of engagement, Turkish armed forces (TAF) reported warning the pilots four times, then shooting down the plane that violatedTurkish airspace while the other Syrian aircraft disengaged and left the area.

Turkish President Abdullah Gul promptly called and congratulated Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Ozel. At the same time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was at another campaign rally, told the crowd, “Another assassin violated our airspace, then what happened? Our air force shot the plane down. If you violate our rules, our slap will be hard.” Erdogan went on to praise the Turkish general staff and Turkey's “brave” pilots and courageous soldiers. He used the term hashashi, "assassin," the word he has been using to refer to the movement of Islamic leader Fethullah Gulen. Oddly, just before his comments on the plane incident, Erdogan denounced “the man in Pennsylvania,” meaning Gulen himself.

In the meantime, the Syrian government condemned Erdogan. The Syrian pilot who survived the crash appeared on TV, saying, “Turkish planes attacked us while we were bombing terrorists inside Syria. We were about seven kilometers away from the Turkish border.” Oddly enough, one of the pro-AKP TV stations managed to broadcast the incident live on the news. It is further peculiar that the reporter on the scene claims to have gotten the news directly and instantaneously from the rebels across the border. For example, the reporter said, “There are several shots being fired now, but these are shots to celebrate the shooting down of [President Bashar al-] Assad's plane.” This coincidence was found suspicious by many, adding to beliefs that a Turkish government besieged by serious corruption charges hopes to hide behind the fog of war. 

Social media, especially Twitter, lit up with the hashtag #savasahayir (No to war in Syria). Several tweets questioned the AKP’s timing in getting tough with Syria. Many also asked if this was yet another gimmick for the AKP to delay the upcoming municipal elections by declaring a state of emergency. Turks fear that Erdogan, cornered by one scandal after another, will resort to martial law to delay the elections. This conspiracy first sounded bizarre to many Turks, but increasing social and political pressures indicate that anything is possible in enraged Erdogan’s Turkey. I am not sure whether delaying the elections is a real possibility in the minds of AKP elites. However, they have managed to restage every scene of the 1998 movie “Wag the Dog” about the spin doctors who manage public opinion.

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Behind all this speculation, however, lies a more likely scenerio. Several pro-AKP pundits I spoke with justified their actions, claiming it was the TAF that wanted to attack Syria, and that Turkey's armed forces are willing to engage in war to secure the border. On social media, many pro-AKP commenters indicated this shooting was the direct work of TAF, rather than the result of an order from Erdogan. Syria has been such a sore spot for the AKP administration that for the last couple of months, it have been almost mum about the issue. Yet, since the corruption scandal erupted in December, the AKP has been working relentlessly behind the scenes on two missions: first, to find political allies — desperate times make odd bedfellows — and second, to deflect attention from the corruption case.

Therefore, the Syria conflict presents a unique possibility to generate a temporary yet formidable coalition. An alliance with Turkey's armed forces is an opportunity to boost nationalist sentiment and persuade Turkish nationalists. The AKP has been working to steal votes from the Nationalist Action Party's base for a while now. Syria, on the other hand, is a bleeding wound in the hearts of conservative Turks in general, and the AKP’s base, Muslim Brotherhood Turks, in particular. The Turkish government has backed down from its rather ambitious promises to bring democracy and peace to Syria in August 2011. It seems that support from Saudi Arabia and Qatar is drying up as well.

One scholar of theology told Al-Monitor, “Erdogan feels alone and compelled to convince the conservative base it still can stand up for the Muslims of Syria.” Hence, the Syrian civil war has been turned into a domestic matter for Turks through the magic of the AKP media. It started about a week ago with the news about Jaber Castle, an enclave considered Turkish soil in accordance with international treaties. ISIS had captured the area and given the Turkish government three days to abandon the place. In the meantime, “Arabic-speaking” foreigners were presented as Syrian attackers to the public (although they are now claimed to be Albanian and Kosovan). They were seen as terrorists from Syria, more specifically al-Qaeda-affiliated ISIS. Oddly, the AKP has been presenting Assad as in control of ISIS.

If you are confused, mission accomplished. The more confused you are, the less able you will be to pinpoint the AKP’s failures in Syria. The latest AKP adventure in all this has been to make amends with the Turkish armed forces. First, the results of the notorious Ergenekon trials were undone. The release of several defendants — including the former chief of staff, Ilker Basbug — from jail was portrayed as a victory for democracy in Turkey. If one remembers Erdogan's previous interpretation of the Ergenekon trials, this is a head-spinning move.

Now, if the AKP makes amends with the Turkish armed forces and intensifies its efforts to provide grand solutions and resolve the Syrian civil war, could it possibly erase the memory of the corruption scandal? A senior retired officer told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The TAF do not prefer to enter into the Syrian territory, but aim to secure the border.” Another officer, still on active duty, expressed his concerns about not only about the Syrian-Turkish border but also with Syrian elements within Turkish territory. He asked, “How can the TAF defend the country from within when we have no clue where the threat might come from?” All the security experts and military officers I spoke with referred to the AKP’s “open-border” strategy as “indefensible.” 

“Who will pay the price of these ill-judged decisions?” one expert asked.

The AKP has made serious mistakes in Syria. It has failed to explain to the public what Turkey's interests are there. It has failed to understand and adapt to the diverse nature of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as well. In the last 11 years of its reign, the AKP’s most important success has been its ability — even if its methods have been dubious — to minimize the influence of the military on politics. With this desperate move to bring the military back into politics, what will the AKP accomplish? Remembering civil wars are contagious, how will Turkey cope with the AKP’s failed Syria policy after Erdogan?

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Found in: turkish syrian relations, turkish policy on syria, turkish military, turkey-syrian border, internationalization of the syrian conflict, erdogan, corruption, akp

Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today's Zaman, Star and Salom. On Twitter: @pinartremblay

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