A month on from Turkey’s failed coup attempt, and you’ll find endless op-eds opining the supposed strategic implications of Erdogan’s rear-guard offensives. In a nutshell, it breaks down into four key arguments. The first is that Erdogan will oversee a ‘brutal crackdown’ to consolidate power wherever and whenever possible out to 2019 against any form of political opposition (Gulenist or not). The net result supposedly secures Erdogan’s tenure towards 2023 ‘Ataturk’ landmarks, and beyond. The second facet is that Mr. Erdogan will continue to inflict collateral Kurdish damage to secure internal gains along the way. PKK-Ankara relations basically go back to square one, while the slightly more politically savvy HDP gets caught in Erdogan’s crossfire, undermining consistent Kurdish supplies through Turkey. The third factor is Ankara turning towards Russia as a new ‘strategic’ axis against NATO interests, and indeed Turkey’s vexed relations with the transatlantic military body. A relationship that’s likely to go from bad to worse given Mr. Erdogan’s underlying belief that ISIS gains remain the lesser of two evils compared to Kurdish consolidation on his Southern border. Not to mention the minor fact that most AKP members think the US was all in on the ‘Gulenist’ plot to oust the sitting President. Beyond other blindingly obvious points that Turkey’s now subject to far more terror attacks by failing to ride two competing ‘ISIS / Kurdish camels’, that doesn’t really leave us much beyond point four: The failed Turkish mutiny still supposedly portends a major trigger point for another ‘Arab Autumn’, where MENA states are susceptible to enhanced political risk on the back of depressed benchmark prices. While all these arguments have elements of truth, our position is they don’t constitute a serious discussion of the Turkish question, at least without significant caveats raised across all four points.
But enough with all the pre-amble stuff, what about the political facts here? The first point to raise on ‘internal political consolidation’, is although Erdogan will continue to wield heavy sticks – probably with fresh elections in 2017 to ram through a two-thirds AKP parliamentary majority to pave the way for a strong arm executive branch on the back of Constitutional reforms – Mr. Erdogan’s not in a credible position to oversee ‘total crackdowns’ across the board. This is still a political game he has to play in a politically sensitive manner to get the consolidation he wants. Part of that’s to prevent another ‘coup 2.0 scenario’ that remains a real concern in Turkey. Hence, while the AKP has locked up vast numbers of military staff and public servants (50,000 and counting), the President wasn’t allowed to resurrect military barracks in Gezi park despite declaring ‘emergency rule’ to do so. Erdogan’s also been forced to play nicer with opposition MHP and CHP factions to present a united ‘anti-Gulenist’ front. The longer Erdogan keeps opposition consent in play, the further anti-Gulenist purges can go, in what’s basically going to be a long term cycle of ‘part of reconciliation, part crackdown’ for secular (long term) consolidation. Ultimately Mr. Erdogan will get his way, creating a strong executive to dominate all branches of government into 2017-18. But that’s not driven by crude ‘crackdowns’, but far more politically intricate games the President will play. Presidential apotheosis yes, but secured through politically nuanced means.
Unsurprisingly, the same nuances play into Kurdish questions, and especially with the PKK. Recent attacks in the South East were probably inspired by Ocalan to highlight just how weak a post-purge Turkish army has become. Yet that’s not necessarily with a ‘hard-baked’ view of returning to violence for violence sake, but purely to start playing the political game with Erdogan instead. Although very poorly understood by Western analysts, the PKK remains sharply opposed to Gulenist nationalist trappings, and actually holds them responsible for some of the blunter military tactics deployed in South East Turkey last year. To be clear, we’re not saying that anti-Gulenist positions are anywhere enough to consistently bring Ankara and Ocalan to the table for long term accommodation, but it’s probably still sufficient for both sides to play the political game of tactical ‘on-off’ discussions to secure proximate political aims. The PKK wants to remain the ‘go to’ Kurdish group to eclipse growing HDP influence, and more importantly, keep one step ahead of intra-Kurdish contests between the KRG (KDP, Goran and PUK), and YPG / PYD (Rojava) in Syria for regional leadership. Speaking to Erdogan helps secure that status on ‘diplomatic paper’, with ongoing attacks on the Iraq-Turkey (Kirkuk-Ceyhan) the parallel ‘physical insurance policy’ to remind Ankara’s who’s ultimately calling the transit shots, not to mention keeping the KDP in a very difficult spot trying to monetise Kurdish crude. Exactly like our internal crackdown commentary, expect Ankara-PKK relations to keep shifting between ‘jaw-jaw’ and ‘war-war’ calculations on this, purely depending on where the political points can be scored. Even though the long term ‘Presidential’ prognosis is anything but good for the PKK.
Turn to Russia and that’s where the entire ‘Turkish thesis’ becomes far more tenuous. Despite the clear political aesthetics of Erdogan’s first ‘post-coup’ trip to St Petersburg, this is ultimately a relationship that both Presidents’ want to dominate on key strategic issues, not share. Don’t forget, from President Putin’s perspective, Turkey was always ear marked as a ‘Eurasian Union’ state that basically relegates Ankara to a Russian satellite interest, while Mr. Erdogan clearly thinks Turkey has far more regional clout in the Levant when it comes to shaping Middle East results. With that said, both sides understand that Russia is increasingly well placed to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish state in Norther Syria, given Washington doesn’t have any other anti-Assad cards to play. But whether Russia and Turkey ever truly see eye to eye on Damascus is a less certain prospect. Erdogan won’t like it, but if he genuinely wants Russia on-board as a consistent ‘partner’, that probably means toning down the anti-Assad rhetoric in Syria; it certainly means being more ‘flexible’ over Russian naval presence in the Black Sea. It means scaling down residual support for Crimean Tatars; but most of all, it means increasing Turkish import dependence on Russian energy supplies, where gas is the most politically tradable commodity in play. Putting Turk Stream back on the table with Ankara (as a footnote for our readers, it’s basically a modest version of previous South Stream designs) tries to kill two birds with one pipeline for President Putin. a) It regains the political initiative over Ukraine, where Mr. Putin’s long lost the Donetsk war, but could still win the political peace ahead of 2018 Presidential polls in Russia, provided he can cut Kiev out of Wester European transit routes. b) It makes life far harder for President Aliyev to bring competing Azeri gas to European markets, reducing Baku to its historical status of a Russian outpost. BP merely raises the ‘red flag’ over SOCAR HQ on a daily basis by Caspian / Rosneft proxy.
But unfortunately for Ankara, that rather reinforces the fundamental problem they have with Russia here. This is all one-way political traffic for President Putin to gain the upper hand over Mr. Erdogan, where Moscow rightly sees that a post-coup Turkey is absolutely prime for ‘political plucking’. Whether Erdogan is willing to be stripped to the ‘bare bones’ remains highly unlikely. At best, Turkey and Russia make for politically promiscuous ‘frenemies’. At worst, they’re at strategic cross-purposes on all points of the map, with mismatching vectors inexorably starting to show. In a truly worst case scenario, Mr. Erdogan might even find himself caught in collateral NATO-Russia crossfire, where everyone decides if Turkey can’t be part of a regional ‘solution’, it’s much easier to make them part of the ‘problem’. On that final note, nobody’s quite said it yet, but that’s precisely what’s already on Erdogan’s mind. Behind all the ‘CIA’ coup bluster, the President’s real concern is how many regional players might have played a part in the coup antics. GCC states are undoubtedly on his ‘list’ of suspects, where Turkish realignment hasn’t exactly played through the way major Sunni states hoped over the past few months. Whatever your particular take on that one, the fourth (and final) analytical point to register over any supposed ‘Arab Autumn’ ideas here, isn’t so much that military leaders start getting nervous to make internal MENA moves in a low price environment, but whether regional power grabs start destabilising internal political interests as a new trend. Admittedly, that’s normally the stuff off Iranian intrigues, but in the current political environment, any wrong moves – or perceived wrong moves – will assuredly come with very high political costs. Bottom line, Mr. Erdogan will be around for a long time to come in Turkey. But his interim answers don’t look particularly convincing right now. If anything, they’re merely laying the ground for more costly mistakes in future. Probably circa 2023, when Turkey celebrates 100 years from its modern incarnation, but before Erdogan gets ‘quite that far’, he has the minor issue of growing external debt problem to deal with. As everyone knows, Turkey has relied on FX denominated debt, a large tranche of which happens to be short term to fund its persistent current account deficit. While the debt load may seem sustainable in ‘boom times’, calculations from the IMF shows that a 30 per cent depreciation of the lira would push Turkey’s external debt stock to more than 80 per cent of GDP by 2020. In 2016 Turkey’s gross financing need is likely to exceed 25 per cent of GDP and could quickly spiral out of control if the FX mismatch carried by Turkey’s banks becomes acute. Right on cue, with tanks rolling down the streets of Istanbul, who in their right mind would willingly fund Mr. Erdogan’s adventure toward more red ink and inexorable Turkish turmoil.