Turkey – The rescue of Turkish hostages and Erdoğan’s “New Turkey”

The release on 20 September of 49 staff members of the Turkish consulate in Mosul, who were kidnapped over three months ago by the Islamic State (IS), represents an undeniable success for the newly elected Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. However, especially as there is very little transparency about this operation, many questions are raised over Erdoğan’s recently announced “New Turkey”.

With the arrival of hostages in Ankara on 20 September, the President peremptorily declared that “the Turkish government won’t reveal details of a covert operation that ensured the release of 49 people”. He strongly denied that any ransom was paid to the Islamic State, but refused to answer any questions. “There are things we cannot talk about”, he said. “To run the state is not like running a grocery store”.

This rhetoric is in line with the idea of a self-confident “New Turkey”, run by a president who enjoys great popularity, has been directly elected by its people – for the first time in the history of the 12 presidents of Turkey – and whose mission is mainly to “reshape the country”. But what can the management of the hostage crisis tell us about Erdoğan’s New Turkey?

Erdoğan’s supporters usually praise him for having restored conservative Islamic values in the country, for pushing back the secularist organization of the public space, and for undoing much of the work of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. After he was elected president and by virtue of his great popular support, Erdoğan made it clear that he would use his constitutional authority and powers to the fullest extent. However, in spite the fact that these considerable powers are enshrined in the constitution – issued after the coup d’etat of 1980 – none of his predecessors dared to fully exercise them. His secularist and Islamist opponents, notably the supporters of the US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, speak of his authoritarian tendencies. However, Erdoğan is strongly backed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he established in 2001, and led for 12 years until he stepped down last August upon becoming president of Turkey. The AKP, under its new leader Ahmed Davutoglu, who has also become Prime Minister, is committed to fighting Fethullah Gulen, who leads what they class as the “parallel state”.

Nonetheless, behind this self-confident discourse, many risks lie ahead for Erdoğan. Though there is no doubt that he will remain the dominant figure in Turkey, he has to wait until the 2015 elections that are expected to be held next June before consolidating his power against his many domestic and international detractors. If the AKP wins a three-fifths majority in the elections, the President will then be able to amend the constitution in order to create the “new” Turkish Republic.

In order to make such sweeping changes, he needs to maintain his high popularity. Domestic turmoil in the 2013-2014 protests in Taksim Gezi Park contested his authority. However, one of the most crucial issues liable to affect the consolidation of his power is the security of the country, and of Turkish citizens.

The substantial collapse of the “zero-problems-with-neighbours” policy, elaborated by former Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu has not been fully replaced with a clear-cut strategy. On the contrary, during the last 3 years, Turkey has been significantly affected by the crisis in Syria, and now in Iraq, that Ankara contributed towards creating in the first place.

Allegations over Ankara’s role in fuelling the jihadi opposition, especially the Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, and – more generally – by turning a blind eye to the influx of jihadi militants along its 800-km borders with Syria have embarrassed the Turkish government.

Coming just 23 days after Erdoğan became president, the rescue of the hostages goes to show that in his “New Turkey”, the state will be able to protect his citizens and keep the country out of regional turmoil. Domestic power consolidation, however, may go with a more idiosyncratic foreign policy making.

Erdoğan stated that the liberation of hostages was the result of an operation carried by the National Intelligence Services (MIT). However, it is likely that direct negotiations with the Islamic State, through Iraqi Sunni tribes, occurred. Furthermore, some reports say that the decision to release the hostages was personally approved by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after Turkey rejected Washington demand for “active support of the coalition.” Indeed, Turkey has decided not to join the 10 Arab countries that are now engaged in the international fight against jihadi militia, and especially the Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey’s disengagement from NATO and its Western allies should not be seen as a new anti-Westernism in Ankara. However, Turkey seems now to be paying the price of a 3-year-long foreign policy of deals with Islamist militias, in an attempt to overthrow the Basahr al-Asad regime. In so doing, Turkey had jeopardized its borders, and consequently brought the security crisis close to home. Now that security issues are at the core of Erdoğan and AKP’s domestic concerns for the stability of their rule, and given the level of instability at its borders, Turkey is likely to grow increasingly isolated in both international and Middle East alliances.

Posted by Marina Calculli

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