Turkish leader Recep Erdogan is facing the toughest political challenge of his career as prime minister since he came to power in March 2003. The Kurdish guerillas dealt a devastating blow in orchestrated attacks early Wednesday killing 24 Turkish troops and injuring 18. This is the highest toll Turkish military has taken in a concerted Kurdish attack for the past 2 decades, almost. Turkey cannot accept the blow.
Within hours, Turkish troops crossed the border into northern Iraq on a ground offensive (which has been under preparation for a while) to destroy the Kurdish sanctuaries. Last time Turkey took a major ground operation was in early 2008. But the geopolitical situation is vastly different today.
Iraq is in transition as the pullout of US troops is under way and there is a power calculus in Baghdad involving the Kurdish parties and the Shi’ite groups supported by Iran. Turkey’s backing for the Syrian opposition has alienated both Damascus and Tehran, which otherwise have shared concerns on the Kurdish question that also affects them and ought to have been Ankara’s ‘partners’. (Iraq also opposes a ‘regime change’ in Syria.) Besides, Tehran is annoyed that Turkey is allowing the US missile system to be deployed in Malatya in central Anatolia. Indeed,Turkish-Israeli ties are under strain and Tel Aviv is no longer sharing intelligence with Ankara on the Kurdish insurgents.
In sum, Turkey is pretty much isolated in the region. So, Turkey needs to fall back on the US’s political support for its invasion of Iraq, but Washington will be hard-pressed to nod public approval. The European Union is also highly unlikely to be supportive of the Turkish offensive as there is widespread sympathy toward Kurdish separatism in the European opinion. The annual EC report on Turkey last week criticised Turkey on the Kurdish problem.
The irony is that Erdogan has shown greater statesmanship than any Turkish leader to address the political grievances of the Kurds. He has allowed Turkish language and literature to be taught in universities and the new constitution he is drafting for Turkey is expected to take big strides in addressing Kurdish alienation. However, the opposition party CHP promptly demanded that Erdogan should step down after today’s guerilla attacks. More ominous is the demand by the influential ultra-nationalistic MHP to reimpose military rule in the Kurdish regions (which was lifted 10 years ago.)
Erdogan’s Achilles’ heel could be the military. In his confrontation with the military over his agenda to establish civilian supremacy, Turkish top brass quit in protest. Dozens or hundreds of top Turkish officers are in jail awaiting trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow Erdogan’s government. Thus, greenhorns run the military and the morale of the forces has been affected. The new chief of the air force, for example, is a relatively junior officer of the rank of major general. The Kurdish guerillas are striking with deliberateness at a time when the Turkish military, famed for its professionalism, is passing through a painful and protracted phase of adjustment to civilian supremacy.
How the developments are discussed in the military barracks and the officers’ mess will be crucial. For the present, Erdogan has no option but to rely heavily on the staunchly nationalistic military, which takes pride as the Praetorian Guards of the Turkish state.
Quite obviously, Erdogan’s ambitions to ride the upheaval of the Arab Spring will now have to be relegated to the back burner as he needs to concentrate on dousing the fires in eastern Turkey and pushing back the avalanche of criticism about his leadership mettle that is bound to appear in the coming days. How transient are the fortunes of a politician! Only last year in June, when Erdogan won a landslide win in the parliamentary election, I compared him to Suleiman, the Magnificent, the great Ottoman conqueror of the Middle East. Just a little over an year into his second term as prime minister, however, he is now hurrying home from the ‘Arab street’ to douse the fires that threaten his hearth.
– October 19, 2011