Dr Ugur Tok

Can Afrin Offensive protect Erdogan from implications of his crimes?

Wikimedia Commons
Syrian pro-government militias arrive in Afrin District.

Turkey’s Erdogan has made it crystal clear that he is as pragmatist as one can be. Recently, he dragged Turkey into the quagmire in Syria for the sake of his personal survival. The recent Afrin Offensive is considered by many as just the beginning of another chapter of chaos in the region. Although Erdogan is propagating that patriotism requires nothing but to wipe out the Kurdish Administration in Syria (affiliated with the PKK, an outlawed organization which has been fighting against Turkish state since the early 1980s), what he seeks is a sort of pretext to start a clash with the US.

Erdogan claims that the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed-wing YPG cannot be allowed to rule in the region as Turkey considers them an extension of the PKK. Although it is difficult to distinguish the PYD/YPG from the PKK in the circumstances of the region, Erdogan is not sincere in his rhetoric. Until very recently, he had not only engaged in negotiations with PKK but also hosted Salih Muslim, the leader of PYD, a couple of times in Ankara. One of Muslim’s visit even coincided with the Operation Shah Euphrates DURING which the Turkish military used a corridor opened by the PYD/YPG deep into their territory to evacuate the tomb of Suleyman Shah in Syria and Turkish garrison there.

The June 2015 elections in Turkey was the turning point for Erdogan. He realized that, for the sake of his rule, the Kurdish perspective, which has sought a reconciliation with Kurdish armed struggle, should be changed with a more nationalist one. Erdogan had lost majority in the Parliament for the first time since he came to power. To prevent an opposition coalition among other parties, Erdogan turned them against each other and put the ballot boxes again in front of the people in November 2015 after a series of suspicious events which overshadowed pro-Kurdish HDP’s victory and triggered nationalistic emotions in the country. In the end, he secured the majority after November 2015 election one more time.

Erdogan fears that if he loses the power he will be brought before the justice for the crimes he has committed. He made an alliance with the marginal groups including notorious ultra-nationalists to escape the probes about corruption and illegal arm transfers.  This alliance persecuted judges, prosecutors and police officers, whom they considered non-loyal, to guard Erdogan. Ultra-nationalists have replaced the purged civil servants. After the mysterious coup attempt, the alliance has purged nearly 150.000 civil servants from the state including thousands of soldiers, 4.500 judges, 7.000 academics and 30.000 teachers. Ultra-nationalists and radical Erdogan supporters are now sharing the vacancies within the state.

However, Erdogan’s crimes seem to chase him at a court in New York. Reza Zarrab, a Turkish citizen of Iranian origin “gold trader”, was arrested at Miami International Airport on 19 March 2016 over the charge of breaching the US sanctions on Iran. During the trials, many details of how Zarrab manipulated the banking system with the consent and support of Erdogan and his government to evade the sanctions have been unveiled. Despite Erdogan’s effort to extradite Zarrab to Turkey through the big lobbying firms including Mike Flynn’s, Zarrab cut deal with the state attorney and revealed the illegal transactions which will have heavy implications on the Turkish banking system as well as Erdogan and his close circle. An arrest warrant has already been issued by the US authorities for Zafer Caglayan, the former Minister of Economy. It is now expected that the US state attorney will start new investigations which may include other Turkish state officials including ex-ministers and even Erdogan himself.

On the other hand, Trump’s National Security Strategy and statements of Gen. Mc Master, Trump’s National Security Adviser, have indicated that Erdogan’s cooperation with Qatar to fund radical organizations in the Middle East poses serious threat for the American interests. Earlier, Erdogan has U-turned from his aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric after Russian government raised the issue of Erdogan’s cooperation with ISIL and lodged complaint before the UN Security Council. Erdogan and his administration have serious concerns regarding formation of an international criminal tribune which would prosecute their involvement in Syrian Civil War and their support for radical militant groups including Al Qaeda. This time he will have to deal with the US claims.

Through this lens, Erdogan’s offensive against the strongest ally of the US in combatting the ISIL in the region has been launched to attain two results: First, presidential elections which can secure Erdogan’s rule until 2029 was scheduled to be held in 2019 but if Erdogan can guarantee the nationalist votes he can go for the snap elections. He knows that he lost in 2015 because of the Kurdish Peace Process. Also, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP attracted sympathy to his party with his charisma from various entities of Turkey like LGBT community, minorities and some liberals. To get rid of this situation, Erdogan ended the Kurdish Peace Talks and imprisoned Selahattin Demirtas together with dozens of Kurdish MPs and mayors soon after the failed coup attempt.

Another result that Erdogan expects from the Afrin offensive is to get a leverage against the US by weakening the PYD/YPG, its strongest ally against ISIL. That will also make the US soldiers on the ground vulnerable to hostilities from Turkish forces and their proxies in the region. If the US doesn’t step back in the Zarrab case and ISIL related claims, Erdogan might escalate the tension with the US by targeting American allies without sparing American soldiers. Both possibilities help Erdogan in the short term. It is a clear win for him if the US negotiates with Erdogan and stop the Zarrab related investigations. It is also a win for him if Turkish army clashes, directly or indirectly, with American soldiers in the region. That will be a good pretext for him to increase the oppression at home on the dissidents because of the war conditions and blaming the US’ cooperation with Turkey’s enemy for the already collapsing economy.

In conclusion, Erdogan started Afrin Offensive to escape from the conseqounces of his crimes. Corruption and cooperation with radical organizations are on the top of list that he has been accused. He and his government violated numerous domestic and international laws to cover these crimes and abolished the rule of law in Turkey. Whether or not he will reach his goals will be closely linked to international reactions he receives, not only from political leaders but also civil societies.

Dr Ugur Tok is the Director of Platform for Peace and Justice in Brussels, http://www.platformpj.org/

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