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A Year After the Coup, Where is Turkey Heading? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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People stand on a Turkish army tank in Ankara, Turkey on July 16, 2016. (Reuters)

Paris – A year after the coup attempt that almost ousted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, where is the country heading? How did Turkey change with the intensified internal cleansing operations launched by the president that sent tens of thousands to jail? What are Turkey’s plans in Syria? Why did Ankara form a coalition with Doha? How did Turkey’s relation evolve with Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump?

We asked these questions to Didier Billion, a researcher at the Paris Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) that specializes in the Middle East, particularly Turkey.

Billion discussed the course of things in Turkey and internal and external policies of Erdogan,who he described as “running forward” inside the country and lacking a “strategic vision” abroad.

Based on statistics, 45,000 people have been sent to prison since July 15, 2016, the date of the coup attempt, and 150,000 civilian and military personnel were dismissed from their jobs over various accusations.

Erdogan has purposely weaken the state infrastructure and empowered his Justice and Development Party. That way he will be in control of all the state, which would destroy the state of law, said the French researcher.

This fact is associated with an internal political approach, in what Billion describes as a “polarizing strategy” that uses internal contradictions.

“Based on Erdogan’s vision, we find Turks against Kurds, secularists in face of religious people, Sunnis against Alawites, and so forth,” he explained.

This is aimed at showing that Turkey is in danger, whether from ISIS or from the Kurdish Workers’ Party, not to mention the group of US-based exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.

These threats, whether real or assumed, justify Erdogan’s “repressive policy” and consolidate the idea that he is the only one who can protect Turkey.

Based on a study prepared by the opposition Republican People’s Party (AKP), the ruling Justice and Development Party enjoyed five times more media propaganda than the opposition, said Billion.

Another phenomenon is represented by the massive march organized by the AKP in Istanbul on Sunday, which indicates that the people have not yet surrendered to a president who can in 2019 run for a second term in office. The recent constitutional amendment allows the president to run for two more five-year terms.

This means Erdogan can stay in power until 2029, This however puts him in danger of being isolated because he is said to “no longer listen to his advisors” and the current prime minister is “virtually non-existent.”

Concerning Syria, Billion stressed that the Turkish “obsession” in Syria is called the “Kurdish issue,” a matter that Ankara considers “essential and existential” and a “primary mover” of its policy in Syria.

Ankara wants to prevent the establishment of an independent or autonomous Kurdish state similar to Iraqi Kurdistan.

Billion confirmed that the “Euphrates Shield” operation launched in August last year was aimed at cleansing the area of ISIS and the Kurdish Democratic Party, which Ankara says is another face of the PKK militias.

The researcher rules out that possibility of Turkey being engaged in a military campaign in Afrin area and north of Aleppo) similar to “Euphrates Shield” because of Russian and US opposition.

Furthermore, Billion believed that Erdogan’s announcement three months ago of the withdrawal of a large number of its Turkish troops from Syria under the pretext that their mission was complete is somewhat true.

The real reason is that he reached an agreement with Putin.

The Russian president pledged to cut down Russian support to Kurds in return for Ankara withdrawing most of its troops. The reward was re-including it in the “Syrian game.”

But the relationship with Russia, despite its complexity, remains understandable, unlike the lack of Turkish understanding of US policy.

In any case, Billion asserted that Turkey “will not run the risk of deteriorating its relations with Washington” and it “will not venture leaving NATO,” which remains its best guarantor that a Kurdish state will not be established in Syria.

When asked why Ankara would establish better relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and refuses that for Syria’s Kurds, the researcher considered that the presence of Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, somehow “reassures” Turkey, because he supports its war on the PKK.

As for the Iraqi government, Billion believes it would be difficult for it to accept the separation of Kurdistan.

Diplomats and researchers warn that a Kurdish separation would mean a “new war” in Iraq which could spread to Turkey, Syria and Iran. The three countries, despite political differences and conflicting interests, agree on rejecting an independent Kurdish entity in Iraq or any other country.

The analyst advises the Turkish authorities to take a different approach in dealing with the Kurdish issue, and he believes the PKK is stronger today than at any previous stage of its existence.

This means that the Turkish approach in combating the PKK militarily and politically has failed, he added.

He even called on Turkish authorities to reopen lines of communication with Kurds that they had severed in 2015.

On Turkey’s ties with Qatar, Billion said that this relationship is based on “mutual desire.” On one hand, Turkey was looking for a pivot in the Gulf, which it found in Doha, and the latter was in the process of searching for partners abroad to serve as its crutch against what it sees as “Gulf pressure”.

The French researcher stressed that the two country’s backing of the Muslim Brotherhood is what ultimately brought them together.

The analyst believed that the Turkish president “lost the bet” and committed “tactical political and strategic mistakes, which he is paying for now.”

Billion even said that Erdogan lacks a political vision.

This is the Turkish situation as it appears today: successive crises at home and strained foreign relations, including with the EU, which Turkey dreams of joining and yet this dream seems so far away and probably even impossible.