Erdogan’s best-laid plans

Hany Ghoraba
Thursday 20 Dec 2018

The actions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the past year have had enormously adverse effects on his country’s international standing

For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 2018 has been a year he would rather forget. It was the year when all his best-laid plans went to waste.

Despite his efforts to plan for a bigger role for his regime in the region, utilising some of the most unorthodox and criminal methods, the Turkish president has still been moving from one failure to another.

His actions over the past year have had enormously adverse effects on his country’s military, economy, society, and standing in the world.

On the military side, Erdogan’s ambitions to expand Turkish power in northern Syria and eastern Iraq have been impeded by regional and international condemnation coupled with fierce military resistance from the Kurdish forces in these regions.

The country has lost about 174 servicemen along with equipment including an F4 plane and nearly 1,200 of its Free Syrian Army (FSA) allies who were killed in operations that left the Turkish regime with no option but to establish enclaves in northern Syria.

The battle of Afrin in Syria, part of Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch, witnessed some of the heaviest losses to Turkish forces as Erdogan’s plans to eradicate Kurdish forces in Syria resulted in one of the biggest military blunders seen in recent years.

He planned to hit two birds with one stone, hoping to take down Kurdish nationalist rebels in Syria and besiege the army of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

He left no stone unturned towards attaining such goals, including aiding and abetting wanted terrorists along with providing logistics to terrorist groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra and the Islamic State (IS), which the Turkish regime hoped would act as its proxies in Syria and Iraq to help eliminate Kurdish rebels and the Syrian army.

However, this playing with fire led IS to gain a stronger foothold in the region, and as is the case with all terrorist groups it turned against its benefactors when it attacked targets inside Turkey such as in the Istanbul nightclub shooting in January 2017 that left 39 civilians dead and 70 injured.

On the economic front, the Turkish economy has seen far better years than 2018 when the Turkish lira tumbled to its lowest levels unaided by record inflation of 101 per cent in August 2018.

This has driven the Turkish Central Bank to raise Turkish interest rates to a staggering 24 per cent. The economy has been on a downward trend in terms of performance, and it has seen massive bankruptcies as a result of the piling up of debts.

In a display of traditional denial by the Turkish leader, Erdogan cited an “international conspiracy” as the reason for the failures of the Turkish economy under his rule and called upon Turkish citizens to change their savings from US dollars into Turkish lira.

This had little effect on the dire state of the Turkish currency, however, as the bleak state of the country’s economy has led to fears in international circles due to possible contagion effects on other emerging economies.

Politically, there has been growing anger against Erdogan as he has continued to purge civilians, policemen and military servicemen alike after the failed coup d’état in Turkey in 2016.

The number of imprisoned Turkish civilians has now reached 270,000, many of them journalists and even dissidents outside the country. The suppression of media freedom has become rampant in Turkey, and the country has gained a reputation for being the world’s biggest jail for journalists.

There are now at least 168 journalists in prison in Turkey, and Erdogan’s government has closed over 130 media outlets since the failed coup.

Turkey’s relations with the United States witnessed their lowest point in recent years when the Erdogan regime was forced to release US pastor Andrew Brunson in August 2018 to appease the American administration that had threatened economic sanctions against Turkey.

Erdogan’s attempts to extradite his enemy Fethullah Gülen from the United States, according to him responsible for the failed 2016 coup, also failed as the Americans have maintained their position providing Gülen with political asylum.

Moreover, Erdogan is now facing the possibility of military sanctions by the US, which could see Turkey banned from the American F35 stealth fighter programme if it executes a deal with Russia to acquire S400 missiles.

On the diplomatic front, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul was an unexpected gift from Saudi Arabia, since a Saudi intelligence team seems to have killed the journalist by mistake while trying to repatriate him to Saudi Arabia.

Erdogan attempted to blackmail the Saudis by leaking details of wiretaps from equipment his intelligence services had installed inside and outside the Saudi consulate.

The tactic worked for a time, and the world awaited details of the crime from Erdogan, who nevertheless withheld them in the hope of garnering a higher price from the Saudis and gaining favours from Western capitals that seemed ready to ignore Erdogan’s own record of crimes against journalists in Turkey.

Much to Erdogan’s dismay, however, after a period of denial the Saudis acknowledged that the crime had been committed by certain rogue agents and placed them under arrest in Riyadh.

This move stripped Erdogan of most of his leverage despite his remaining adamant that he had more to reveal. He also demanded that Saudi Arabia turn over all 19 suspects for trial in Turkish courts even though the crime took place in Saudi diplomatic premises, meaning that it happened on Saudi soil.

Erdogan hoped that his insinuation that Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman had been behind the murder of Khashoggi would facilitate a change of guard in the Saudi royal house that would bring a change of emphasis in Saudi policy towards friendship to the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Bin Salman, not tied to the murder in any plausible way, has recently finished a tour of the region that included some of his country’s main allies, such as Egypt and the UAE, and he also attended the recent G20 summit in Argentina as the head of Saudi Arabia’s delegation.

The end result has been Erdogan’s losing out in his attempts to force the Saudis into making political and economic concessions.

Instead, he has turned the royal family in Saudi Arabia into an enemy, and he has continued in his attempts to drag Saudi Arabia into an international scandal with talk of economic sanctions.

Erdogan has thus kept up his tradition of turning friends into enemies and has lost the respect of even some of his closest allies in the West and the Middle East.

A line from a poem entitled “To a Mouse” by the great 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns goes as follows, “the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley”, which translated into English means they often go awry even if they are well laid as a result of unforeseen circumstances.

Erdogan has turned out to be such a mouse. His elaborate plans for expansion are now in tatters, isolating both him and his country.

* The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 December, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Erdogan’s best-laid plans

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