President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has increasingly demonstrated his willingness to destabilize his country's democracy to maintain his grip on power. Meanwhile, Turkey’s presence in northwestern Syria has aggravated relations with the United States and also risks conflict with Syrian government forces and their Russian backers. Turkey's visible role in the Libyan civil war is pitting it against Russia in yet another theater of conflict. What will happen next? Learn more when you subscribe to World Politics Review (WPR).
With his sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system in 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to cement his near-total control over the country. But an electoral setback in the Istanbul mayoral election in June 2019, the worst of Erdogan’s career, pointed the way to a potential rebirth of the political opposition, even as it highlighted Erdogan’s willingness to destabilize Turkey’s democracy to maintain his grip on power.
The victory by Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, in June came after the Supreme Election Council sided with Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, to overturn an earlier ballot in March that was also narrowly won by Imamoglu over the AKP’s candidate. The Supreme Election Council’s decision underscored how severe the erosion of democratic institutions has been under Erdogan and the AKP. And Erdogan’s interference with the initial outcome points to a potential future in which the regime may no longer even look for institutional cover when it decides to subvert democratic norms.
Brussels and Washington both publicly criticized the court’s decision at the time, but their options are limited when it comes to exerting pressure on Erdogan. Turkish cooperation is critical to the European Union’s goal of blocking Syrian immigrants and refugees from reaching Europe, and Erdogan is very much aware of the trump card he holds.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system has highlighted the degree to which its ties to the U.S. and NATO have frayed. Washington has suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation fighter plane program over fears that deploying the U.S.-designed stealth fighter alongside the Russian system will make it more vulnerable to Russia’s air defenses. But Ankara insists it will go ahead with operationalizing the Russian system.
More recently, in October 2019, the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria targeting Syrian Kurdish militias became the latest irritant to bilateral relations with the U.S. It also highlighted the disconnect between the U.S. Congress—which fiercely defended the Syrian Kurds, America’s principal partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State—and U.S. President Donald Trump, who seemed oblivious to their plight and subsequently received Erdogan at the White House. Meanwhile, Turkey’s presence in northwestern Syria is increasingly putting it in the line of fire of Syrian government forces, as well as the Russian forces that support them, heightening fears of a further conflagration in the Syrian civil war. And its involvement in the Libyan civil war on behalf of the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord has once again put Turkey at odds with Russia, which is supporting the forces of Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and its European partners, who are seeking to enforce an arms embargo on the country.
WPR has covered Turkey in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. What are Turkey’s goals in Syria, and can it achieve them without being drawn ever further into the quagmire of that country’s civil war? Will Ankara continue to drift into Russia’s orbit, or will tensions in Syria and Libya derail efforts to improve ties? Will Trump and Erdogan overcome their differences, and congressional opposition, to reach a U.S.-Turkey detente? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.