What’s a political strongman to do when his economy is weak and another round of financial turbulence is on the way? When political support is languishing and a series of budget-busting construction projects has people shaking their head in dismay?
The answer is obvious: he invades another country in order to distract attention and give his poll numbers a boost. Better yet, he invades two countries and then travels to a third in order to make highly bellicose comments about a forth. Then while the press back home buzzes with excitement, he folds his hands and prays that somehow it will all work out.
That’s the situation that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan finds himself in now that various foreign adventures are going to pot. Turkey has been in economic crisis since 2018 when excessive indebtedness sent the currency plunging while Erdogan’s political standing has been on the wane ever since center-leftists seized control of the Istanbul city government last June.
But rather than meeting such challenges head on, his response has been to send troops to Libya, pour military reinforcements into Syria, and deliver a speech before a joint session of the Pakistani parliament last week in which he declared that the Muslim struggle in Indian-controlled Kashmir was comparable to Turkey’s own effort to a repel a major Allied offensive in the Dardanelles during World War I. "No distance can build a wall between the hearts of believers," he said. "If there is torture against any believers in the world, it’s our duty to help them."
It was a feel-good exercise for the benefit of the folks back home, but one that unlikely to do Erdogan much good in the long run. Who cares if the Pakistani parliament responded with a round of applause? The country is such a pariah these days thanks to its support of international terrorism that it’s the equivalent of a warm wet kiss from Typhoid Mary. Intervention in behalf of Libya’s beleaguered Government of National Accord was supposed to gain Turkey access to Libyan oil fields and establish it as a force to be reckoned with throughout the eastern Mediterranean. But the GNA barely controls central Tripoli, much less the vast countryside beyond, and is an international outcast as well thanks to its embrace of local Islamist forces. So Turkish intervention is a rare example of a rat entering a sinking ship rather than fleeing in the opposite direction.
Indeed, the news that the GNA’s CIA-trained opponent, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, had destroyed a Turkish ship loaded with arms and ammo is a sign that this adventure is not going to work out to Turkey’s benefit either.
Then there’s Syria where conditions have taken a drastic turn for the worse.
Initially, Erdogan saw the Syrian civil war as an opportunity that was all but impossible to lose. As the government in Damascus reeled and tottered beginning in mid-2011, all he had to do was to allow aid and materiel to flow to a small number of rebel groups for the country to fall into his outstretched hand like an overripe fruit. Once it did, he would be in a position to remodel it along Muslim Brotherhood-lite lines much like those of Turkey itself. Ankara would then emerge as a regional power able to deal with the US, Israel, the European Union, and Russia on equal terms.
Such was the dream. Not only did Syrian President Bashar al-Assad turn out be tougher and more popular than expected, however, but the rebels soon came under the sway of Al Qaeda-led terrorists vowing to impose shari‘a on the Sunni majority and death and enslavement on Alawites, Christians, and other religious minorities that comprise the remainder. Instead of a democratic uprising, the war turned into a bloody struggle between a secularist government and jihadi head-choppers backed by America, Britain, and the Persian Gulf oil monarchies.
Conceivably, Erdogan still had time to get out. But any number of factors drew him back in – US pressure, Sunni chauvinism, a desire to get his share of the great Syrian carve-up, plus the realization that violence would not remain confined to Syria no matter what he did, but would spill over the border instead.
Blowback was the inevitable consequence as an increasingly powerful jihadi network took aim at opponents in Turkey itself. In July 2015, an ISIS suicide bomber killed 33 members of a leftist youth group in the southern border town of Suruç and injured more than a hundred others. In October, jihadis exploded two bombs at a leftist gathering outside Ankara’s main train station, killing 109 people and injuring 500 more.
The atrocities continued, but Erdogan’s response was merely to double down. First, he turned his guns on ISIS for daring to interfere in Turkish internal affairs. But when Kurdish militias launched an anti-ISIS offensive in 2014, he then alternated between fighting Islamic State and helping ISIS fight Kurdish separatists whom he viewed as no less hostile to Turkish interests. In August 2016, with US backing, he sent Turkish forces into northern Syria in order to push the Kurds to the east. In October 2017, he invaded Idlib, a province in Syria’s extreme northwest, to repel other Kurdish units, protect pro-Turkish rebels, and establish more than two dozen observation posts from which to direct artillery fire and jet fighter attacks on Syrian troops.
Then the "correlation of forces," to use the old Soviet phrase, began to shift once Syria launched a major offensive last April. The assault advanced with unexpected rapidity. After a three-month ceasefire, Damascus launched a second offensive in mid-December aimed at clearing out the entire region west of Aleppo. It proved so successful that, by Feb. 3, surprised Turkish troops were exchanging fire with Syrian forces along a front dozens of miles long. A week later, pro-Damascus forces elements attacked a Turkish observation post twenty-five miles or so southwest of Aleppo, killing at least five Turkish soldiers and an equal number of pro-Turkish rebels and destroying trucks, armored personnel carriers, and a tank. Warplanes destroyed a nearby Turkish convoy the same day.
Erdogan had promised Russia to weed out Salafist jihadis, leaving only "moderate" rebels behind. But he had twiddled his thumbs while Al Qaeda turned northwestern Syria into a terrorist paradise, and now he was paying the price.
"I hereby declare that we will strike [Syrian] regime forces everywhere from now on regardless of the [2018 de-escalation] deal if any tiny bit of harm is dealt to our soldiers at observation posts or elsewhere," Erdogan declared last week. He added that he would do "whatever necessary" to push back Syrian forces if Assad didn’t retreat by the end of the month. But it was so much empty bluster. Bloomberg News reported that the Turkish president was hoping to persuade Putin to switch sides, while, in a phone call to the White House last Saturday, he tried to pressure Donald Trump to involve himself too. Both gambits seemed unlikely. Just as it is hard to imagine Vladimir Putin changing sides after years of backing Assad, it’s equally difficult to imagine Trump plunging the US into another Middle East land war.
So Erdogan’s excellent Syrian adventure is on the ropes. What will he do in response? Conceivably, he could follow through on his threat to send in more troops. But that would turn into a suicide trip once the Turkish public realizes that escalation will lead to a full-scale war that will be long and bloody with no clear end in sight.
Or he could fold and go home. But that’s no solution either since a humiliating withdrawal will send his poll numbers sinking all the more. Syria is thus a trap whether he leaves or stays put. Like a long line of strong men before him, he’s beginning to realize that foreign military adventurism is no solution to a rise tide of domestic woes and that it only makes matters worse. But by the time he wakes up to the truth, the damage will have been done. The more he retreats into his 1,100-room presidential outside of Ankara, the more isolated he will become.
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.