For Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), 2020 opened with denial. The country of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had some magic immunity to the Covid-19 pandemic. By mid-March, when it was no longer possible to cover up Covid-related deaths, it was too late. Turkey quickly surpassed Iran as the country with the highest infection rate in the Middle East and one of the highest rates in the world. The sudden health crisis added yet more problems that Erdogan did not need. It also proved another potent example of the disastrous consequences of Ankara’s arbitrary policies at home and adventurist policies abroad.
No sector of society has been left unscathed by one economic or political setback after another in Erdogan’s Ottoman revivalist path. The intractability of these crises combined with rampant corruption, cronyism and nepotism have left him little choice but to hunt for victories abroad in order to distract a grumbling public at home from their woes. So, he struck out westward and southward into the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean to recapture “stolen” maritime wealth against conspirators. He also struck out further southward to North African shores in order to stake a controlling share of Libyan oil and gas operations. All the while, he still has to deal with that Kurdish headache.
But all these best laid plans kept running afoul of the West. Even the ever-indulgent Trump administration neared the end of its tether. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was unusually blunt in interview with Le Figaro on 16 November 2020. “France’s President Emmanuel Macron and I agree that Turkey’s recent actions have been very aggressive,” Pompeo said, referring to Turkey’s involvement in Nagorno-Karabakh as well as its military actions in Libya and the Mediterranean. “Europe and the US must work together to convince Erdogan such actions are not in the interest of his people.”
EASTERN MEDITERRANEAN: For months, Turkey’s geological survey and research vessel, the Oruç Reis, has ploughed into Cypriot waters, retreated for a while, then returned with an escort of burly naval vessels. Such actions, which European and American officials have frequently described as deliberately provocative, would not go without more practical answers. In September, it was reported that Washington was seriously considering relocating its major military assets out of Incirlik Airforce Base in southern Anatolia and was studying alternatives. Greece appears the most likely option and the US has already begun to revamp its facilities in Crete in anticipation of a possible move. The “news leak” coincided with joint US-Greek naval manoeuvres in Greek territorial waters.
Washington’s frustration at Ankara’s adventurism is shared by many European powers. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke for much of Europe when he appealed to Turkey to engage in a “responsible dialogue” conducted “in good faith” and “without naivety”. In a gathering of six European leaders in Corsica in late September, Macron said, alluding to Turkey, “Our Mediterranean is, today, the theatre of ongoing conflicts, in Syria, in Libya… The hegemonic games pursued by historic powers that seek to destabilise the entire region are of great concern to us in this regard.” He stressed that European powers “need to be clear and firm with the government of President Erdogan, which today is behaving in an unacceptable manner”. He added that, due to this behaviour, Turkey was “no longer a partner in the region”.
On the Eastern Mediterranean front, Erdogan’s options appear to have been reduced to two. One is to cease his provocative actions. The other is to stay the course of his boundless “Turanic” vision. But, if Erdogan “doesn’t come to his senses,” as Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis put it, the already battered Turkish economic ship will sink off the Cypriot coast.
RETREAT IN LIBYA, EXIT FROM SUDAN: On 24 October, Erdogan received two pieces of bad news. The first was the ceasefire reached by the military opponents in the Libyan Civil War. “Time will tell whether it will last,” he grumbled. If he were to respect the terms of that UN-brokered agreement, he would have to remove the thousands of Syrian jihadist mercenaries he sent into Libya to fight alongside the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord. Not only would that diminish his influence in Libya in favour of Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and other designated enemies who support the other side, it would put at risk some $19 billion worth of Turkish construction and business enterprises in Libya. The other piece of bad news was the agreement between Khartoum and Israel to normalise relations.
The people of Sudan had already dealt Erdogan a hard blow when they ousted Omar Al-Bashir who had always been dear to Erdogan’s heart. There were also the material and geostrategic incentives. The Bashir regime opened another horizon for the realisation of Erdogan’s irredentist drive. For example, a 99-year lease on the Sudanese port town of Suakin promised the heir to the Ottoman Empire a foothold on the Red Sea. That deal fell apart. But even so, he has tried to keep doors open with post-Bashir Sudan and, as a gesture, he dispatched Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to Khartoum to attend the signing of the political and constitutional declarations between the Transitional Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change on 17 August. But there was no containing the overwhelming popular sentiment in Sudan where the people remained determined to cut off all avenues to outside designs to undermine the revolution. So, in the autumn, Sudanese security forces followed through on the drive they had launched to dismantle the sprawling web of corruption between Bashir regime cronies, the AKP regime in Turkey and any number of radical Islamist movements.
TURKISH KURDS: HOSTAGES IN ERDOGAN’S JAILS: Bulent Arinc was a cofounder of the ruling AKP, a former speaker of parliament and one among a long train of Erdogan advisers. That record of service would not spare him from Erdogan’s verbal guillotine for the crime of speaking his mind. Arinc had called for the release of the chronically detained Kurdish political leader and former co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş, and of the rights defender, philanthropist and political prisoner Osman Kavala. Arinc, a lawyer himself, had read the indictments against Kavala and Demirtas and said they sounded “like child’s work”. He put himself at risk of meeting the same grim fate when he urged fellow Turks to read “Devran” (Wheel of Fate), a collection of stories written by Demirtas while in prison. “You will perhaps not change your views on Demirtaş after reading it, but so much will change in your minds about Kurds and the trauma experienced by Kurds,” he said.
Predictably, Erdogan brushed aside all possibility that the Kurds might have some grievances with his oft reiterated, “What Kurdish question?” The outpouring of criticism from Erdogan quarters and worse invective from the quarters of Erdogan’s far-right ally Devlet Bahçeli convinced Arinc that it was time to resign as a member of the Presidential High Advisory Board. The resignation was promptly accepted.
Barely a week goes by without a police roundup of ordinary Kurdish citizens of Turkey on trumped up terrorism-related charges. Dozens of teachers were arrested in November in Diyarbakir on the grounds of alleged ties to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Diyarbakir, one of the largest cities in south-eastern Anatolia with an overwhelmingly Kurdish majority, is frequently a target of government wrath because of their stubborn insistence on voting for the wrong party.
Sadly, the victims have few to defend them against the backdrop of that endless season of systemic purges that set in during July 2016. Dozens of popularly elected Kurdish mayors have been summarily dismissed from their posts and replaced by “guardians” handpicked by Erdogan. Pervin Buldan, the co-chair of the pro-rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP), described the situation more bluntly. She called it a “political coup” which she dated to 4 November 2016. That was when “the unlawful hostage-taking operation was carried out against democratic politics and democracy… Over 20,000 people including our co-chairs, deputies, municipality co-chairs, executives and members have been detained and 10,000 people have been arrested in an unlawful way over the past six years. Our municipalities have been seized, one by one.”
What Erdogan and his party failed to obtain through the ballot box in municipal elections last year they obtained through draconian measures that have effectively disenfranchised millions of Kurds and deprived them of representation in budgetary committees, municipal boards and other councils. As though to twist the knife, government appointed wardens removed signs in Kurdish and targeted cultural centres, schools and other institutions for using Kurdish in cultural activities or as a language of instruction.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly