Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is fighting for his own political survival by launching a war in Syria with the Kurds.
Escalating tension in Syria is the only option Erdoğan has, as he is no longer able to win support through the usual peaceful means such as a building the economy, providing welfare, the rule of law and a free society.
In the last three years, Erdoğan has attempted to regain support with extraordinary economic measures such as the distribution of cheap credit and aggressive public infrastructure investment. Though some of those populist tactics worked for a while, none provided a solution to structural economic problems such as unemployment and inflation.
Erdoğan’s economic failures cost him this year’s mayoral elections in Istanbul, Ankara and other big cities, suggesting he would lose a general election.
Keenly aware of this, Erdoğan has adopted a strategy of taking extraordinary measures. The Kurdish issue, deeply entwined with the Syria crisis, now seems to be his favourite.
The strategy helps Erdoğan in three ways domestically. First, it weakens the anti-Erdoğan coalition, particularly putting pressure on the nationalist opposition Good Party. A tenser atmosphere on the Kurdish problem is likely to push the Good Party closer to Erdoğan’s position. An escalated crisis over the Kurdish issue could even change the position of the secular main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has been reaching out to the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
The second and the more critical effect is more structural. Erdoğan has benefited from the polarisation of politics along the Islam versus secularism fault line. He knows that a political fault line over the Kurdish problem might also help him. Erdoğan could convert tension over the Kurdish problem into a new line of polarisation through which he can consolidate a large constituency.
We are observing the early fruit of this policy. Until the breakdown of the ceasefire between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015, the official narrative on the Kurdish issue was to encourage Kurds to embrace party politics as the only route of political expression. The narrative also aimed to persuade Turks that there was a big difference between Kurds and the PKK.
But now Turkey has changed its official stance on the Kurdish issue. Now the government does not differentiate between the PKK and Kurdish politicians. Thus the HDP is also the target of the government’s attacks. The new strategy has changed the public view of Kurds and many Turks now imagine all Kurds belong to the PKK.
Finally, given that Erdoğan is in a process of creating a new regime, the securitisation of politics through crises such as Syria are an opportunity to consolidate his grip on power.
Erdoğan successfully used his fight with the Gülen movement to transform state institutions like the army and judiciary. His fight with the Gülen movement, which he blames for the 2016 coup attempt, was sometimes backed by secular groups and helped Erdoğan to restructure the state apparatus to do his bidding.
Erdoğan now wants the Kurdish problem and the Syrian crisis to consolidate his state according to his ideological preference. Having reorganised the state, the Kurdish problem could provide him opportunities to fuse the Erdoğanist state and the people.
It is much like the motto “war made the state and the state made war”. Prolonged tension with the Kurds, extended into Syria, would provide Erdoğan time and leverage to consolidate his new regime.