Erdogan's Juggling Act

Domestic troubles. Regional conflagrations. Kurdish problems. Turkey's path is a difficult one.

Syria has been the biggest disaster, from Erdogan’s lengthy affair with Assad to his inability, along with Obama and everyone else, to do much about removing him. He has already received twenty-six thousand refugees, and more could be on the way. Erdogan struggles to stay ahead of events but has few levers with which to affect change. The grotesque violence in Syria has drawn passionate Erdogan tirades against Assad but little concrete help, except with Syrian refugees. While Turkey supports the Syrian opposition and hosts the Syrian National Council that keeps Syrian Kurds out, it does not want military action that would conjure up all sorts of regional problems. And Erdogan’s renewed embrace of the United States has drawn criticism from Islamist circles questioning how Turkey can cooperate in a Cold War synergy with Washington and be a “model” for the Arab world.

Turkey’s relations with Baghdad also have gone downhill. Erdogan’s feud with Prime Minister Maliki is public. Similarly, Turkey has gone from an open embrace of pseudo-elections in Iran to direct competition with Tehran in Syria and Iraq. These confrontations have injected a Sunni-Shia divide into the regional political discourse, a dimension that Erdogan has tried to paper over. Turkish public discussion has been somewhat muted on all of this. Turkey’s only real friend and greatest economic partner in the region paradoxically may be the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq, even as Turks fear Iraq’s unity is unraveling. Syrian turmoil is increasing Turkish concern about a second autonomous Kurdish region, but more immediately, there is also anxiety over an empowered PKK operating in Syria, once again backed by Damascus. Throughout the Middle East, Turkey’s positive reputation apparently remains intact, but its influence is uncertain.

Bargaining Away Kurdish Peace

Erdogan promised to produce a more liberal and democratic constitution this year; it would replace the military-dictated one adopted after the 1980 coup. A parliamentary group and numerous private organizations are at work supplying advice on the new document. But Erdogan’s ambition to create a presidential system in the new constitution and move to the presidency in 2014 may be torpedoing his long-stated goal of resolving the increasingly bloody Kurdish issue, including satisfying key Kurdish demands on issues such as expression of identity and education in Kurdish.

At one point, Erdogan looked to have the will and political capital to deliver a long-desired political solution to the century-old Kurdish problem. He initiated a “Kurdish Opening,” worked the area politically and sent senior officials to talk with PKK leaders. For many reasons, some beyond Erdogan’s control, none of this bore fruit. As the Kurdish issue has become regionalized and the Kurdish-inhabited Arab region remains in flux, the urgency of accommodation with Turkey’s Kurdish population increases. The prime minister maintains the rhetoric but has apparently changed course and returned to a policy of increased military operations against the PKK. He also seeks greater collaboration from the Iraqi Kurds in eliminating the PKK in their territory, a solution he probably knows is not likely to work. Additionally, the government keeps jailing more and more local Kurdish politicians, accusing them of supporting the PKK.

Increasingly, Erdogan’s focus seems to be on creating a presidential system in the new constitution that will allow him to make a Putin-esque move to a more powerful presidency. His AKP party does not have the votes in parliament to pass a constitution without a referendum. It needs the support of another party or a coalition of individual parliamentarians. However, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) opposition, which shares the AKP’s conservative values (and some of the same voters), has expressed converging views with AKP on important issues in a new constitution, most notably few concessions to the Kurds, allowing Erdogan sufficient votes to pass the constitution in parliament. That could eliminate public endorsement for a new constitution, and it bodes ill for a better resolution of the Kurdish issue. If creating a presidential system requires such a bargain—the help of the ultranationalist MHP and the back of the hand to the Kurds—few doubt what choice the prime minister will make.


Erdogan is an enormously skillful politician with a keen sense of what Turkish voters want. Even the most masterful politician, however, would have a hard time juggling all the domestic and foreign issues facing Turkey. In a perverse way, this is a tribute to Turkey’s impressive growth, profound political change and greater complexity under Erdogan. Unless the economy also tanks, he will most likely survive the growing political turbulence and the problems of the new constitution, his position still strong. In any event, his present term has three years left.

But if he proceeds down his current track, this transformative Turkish leader will forego a truly historic contribution: the potential transformation of Turkey’s enormous Kurdish problem. It is too early to say anything conclusive about the likely denouement. Indeed, this issue is a moveable feast. Last Wednesday, in what seems like a cynical ploy to the liberal gallery, Erdogan agreed with the main opposition-party leader to establish an all-party commission to develop a new approach to the Kurdish issue. That won’t happen: the nationalist leader immediately denounced the effort, and a two-party agreement with the main opposition is highly unlikely. Interviewed later the same day, Erdogan said there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey.

Events and domestic politics will determine what Erdogan does next—but it does not look promising. Too bad for Turkey and its mute American friends.