No president likes to be called a fool, least of all Tayyip Erdogan.
He is a man who jails people who make jokes about him, as thin-skinned and paranoid as a late Ottoman sultan. So his reaction to Donald Trump’s letter on October 9, the day Turkey launched its unilateral attack on Syria, was entirely expected.
‘Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool! I will call you later,’ Trump wrote, in his now infamous attempt to hold Erdogan back from another Syrian misadventure.
Erdogan’s people say he threw the letter in the bin. The Turkish president later told journalists he would get his revenge: ‘When the time comes the necessary steps will be taken,’ he vowed.
But with its naked threats and assumption that the world runs on mob boss rules, Trump’s message is one that Erdogan gets. He has now dominated Turkey for more than 16 years, a bullish constant in his own country while the whole world has changed around him. At home, he has tended his image as a street fighter, the ‘Chief’ or ‘Tall Guy’ who is cheered hardest when he dishes out insults. Foreign diplomacy has never been much his strong point, and he is happy to ramp up anti-Americanism in Turkey if it helps him gather more support at home. Since the attempted coup against him three years ago, he has repeatedly claimed that Washington had a role in the plot, or at the very least is harbouring the people who did.
As Trump baited Erdogan, he also courted him. ‘Let’s work out a good deal!’ he wrote, and so they did. Eight days into the battle, a US delegation led by Mike Pence, the Vice President, persuaded Erdogan to call a temporary halt to the fighting. The fighting never stopped – but both strongmen were able to claim that they had outplayed the other.
#Türkiyekazandı – ‘Turkey won’ – read the hashtag that whipped around Twitter after Pence’s visit, with users embellishing it with a photo of and praise for Erdogan. The next morning, a pro-Erdogan newspaper ran the headline: ‘Johnny’s donkeys are crying’.
In reality, it is Vladimir Putin who won – another mafioso-style president, the third and cleverest in this triumvirate of back-room dealers and opportunists. He would never be so gauche as to threaten Erdogan in the tone Trump did – he doesn’t need to. Putin’s troops are now stationed across almost all of Syria, and his jets and missile defence systems control the airspace. The US withdrawal has eliminated the last real counterbalance to Russian power in Syria. Whatever Putin offers, Erdogan literally can’t refuse.
Those inside Turkey who question Erdogan’s war are rarely let off easily. More than a hundred people, many of them Kurds, have been arrested for criticising the offensive, all of them accused of spreading terrorist propaganda. A crackdown on Kurdish politicians has been escalating since August, with seven Kurdish mayors removed from office in southeastern Turkey, and some of them detained in prison. Sezgin Tanrikulu, a heavyweight with the main secularist opposition party, is facing criminal charges for calling the assault a ‘war on Kurds’.
Meanwhile, Erdogan’s state corrals everyone else into shows of support: schoolchildren line up in their playgrounds to spell out ‘Peace Spring’, and soldiers’ funerals are turned into nationalist rallies. Most Turks need little convincing: this war may be a foreign policy catastrophe for Erdogan, but at home it is a hit. A survey published in Yeni Safak, a conservative newspaper that is close to his AK Party, claims that 76 per cent of Turks support the war, and that that 77.2 per cent believe it will be successful. Istanbul’s narrow arcades are still hung with banners declaring support for the troops during Erdogan’s last Syrian war, in Afrin in early 2018. They barely need updating. In recent days, scrappy colour printed posters have appeared around my neighbourhood – certainly no bastion of Erdogan fanaticism – showing pictures of Turkish troops on the frontlines under the slogan: ‘Everybody’s soldiers’.
The war is a shot in the arm for Erdogan, whose popularity has never been overwhelming in Turkey and is sliding off a cliff as he grows more dictatorial. For every Turk who loves him to his bones, there is another who hates him to his soul. He knows that should he lose power and the legal protections it gives him, he will likely face criminal charges arraying from corruption to crimes against the state. He is currently in the most parlous position he has ever known – he lost big in local elections earlier this year, the economy is tanking, and there have been high level defections from his party.
Kurdish militancy is his secret weapon, a trump card he can whip out even when everything else is going terribly. Since the start of Operation Peace Spring, Turkish newspapers and television channels have talked of little else but the war, and in blanket favourable terms. Erdogan’s two previous military operations in Syria, in late 2016 and early 2018, and the breakdown of the ceasefire with Kurdish militants in eastern Turkey in 2015, were all swiftly followed up with snap elections and a constitutional referendum, with the tide of nationalism nudging him to victory each time. A spat with Trump thrown into the mix won’t hurt – if anything, it will give him even more fuel to claim that he is standing up to the Americans.
Don’t be surprised if Erdogan uses Turkey’s Republic Day, on October 29, to claim the deflated end to his fourth war in Syria as a glorious victory – and then call early elections again. Erdogan can serve two terms as president under the new constitution that he herded through in a highly questionable referendum in 2017. The clock started in 2018, when he had already served four years. Should elections be called early, the counter can be reset. So, if Erdogan plays it right, he could stay in the palace through elections until 2030. By that time, aged 76, he will have been the leader of Turkey for 27 years, president for 16.
That will be good for Putin, who thrives on the growing chaos at the heart of his adversaries’ governments and alliances. For the past three years, he has been wooing Erdogan away from the West, ploughing a stake into the heart of Nato. Letting Erdogan claim the victory in Syria is a small price to pay if it helps him to stay in power and keep Ankara turning towards Moscow. Good too, in the shorter term, for Trump, who can also claim that a bloodbath was averted in Syria, while diverting attention from his own problems at home.
Elsewhere in the world, Erdogan looks almost alone. It’s not just the sheer facts of his human rights abuses that drag down his global brand: these days he is often wilfully offensive. He looks childish from the outside, often a fool. At international summits, his counterparts chat amongst each other but turns their backs on him as they gather for the family photo.
Inside Turkey, for Erdogan, it doesn’t matter. Ditching what’s left of his world reputation will lose him no more votes in Turkey, and in the short term a war on old enemies can help him pick up some new ones.