Prime Minister Erdoğan, who was supposed to be traveling to New York for the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly, has canceled his trip and will instead be staying home. According to Hürriyet Daily News, “The ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) fourth congress on Sept. 30, the prime minister’s hesitation at going abroad amid increased militant activity, as well as the lack of a chance to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama, were all cited as three reasons for Erdoğan’s last-minute cancelation, according to a source from the Prime Ministry.” I have no doubt that all of these reasons are true to one extent or another, but the decision to skip the UNGA is nevertheless a curious one. With the AKP congress coming up, I wonder if Erdoğan is feeling some political heat for the first time during his decade-long tenure as prime minister given events at home.
There is really no overstating just how serious of a problem the government’s Syria policy has become. I know that I have written about this a lot, but it is putting nearly all of Erdoğan’s and the AKP’s accomplishments at risk. The fighting next door and the influx of refugees into Turkey has placed an economic burden on the country, not to mention the loss of trade with Syria and the general instability that makes Turkey a slightly less attractive target for foreign investment. It is no coincidence that Turkey’s 2012 growth forecast was just cut or that its GDP growth last quarter was lower than expected, and as the economy slows, Erdoğan has a lot less room for error. Foreign policy missteps could be papered over when the economy was making all stumbles seem more trivial, but this is no longer the case. The government has badly mismanaged Syria from the beginning, lurching from supporting Assad and hoping that he would reform long after the dye had been cast, to threatening to create buffer zones or even launch an invasion of Syria when it was clear that this would never happen, to supporting and arming opposition groups in Syria no matter how murky their provenance or motives. Turkey is now basically in the worst possible position, having taken a clear side in the Syrian civil war without getting involved enough to really affect the outcome. It’s no wonder that Erdoğan came off as highly defensive and testy in an interview with Lally Weymouth in the Washington Post, which is par for the course with Turkish interviewers but somewhat unusual for interviews with big American newspapers. The Syria policy is highly unpopular with the Turkish public and is an unmitigated disaster and that is dragging down Ahmet Davutoğlu’s entire foreign policy with it.
Relatedly, as I predicted back in May, this has been a horribly unstable and bloody summer when it comes to PKK violence, and it is clear that this is another area in which Erdoğan has made a bad miscalculation. The idea that the PKK could be quashed militarily and that would be the end of Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” was always suspect, but as the PYD has carved out its own territory along the Turkish border and as de facto Kurdish autonomy becomes a reality in both Iraq and Syria, Ankara’s dream of rolling along with the status quo in its own Kurdish-dominated southeast has become even more untenable. The army, while inflicting plenty of damage on the PKK, is taking bad losses of its own, and when parliament deputies are kidnapped in broad daylight and the government has to seal off entire districts to the outside world in order to fight effectively, it is tough to argue that Erdoğan is prosecuting the war successfully or that his overall Kurdish policy is anything but a disaster.
Finally, there is the recently concluded Sledgehammer trial in which 331 of the 365 defendants were sentenced to time in prison, including 20 year sentences for three former service chiefs. There have been signs that Erdoğan realized that the trial went too far, and the military cannot be happy at the visual of so many officers being sent to jail amid serious allegations of forged documents and falsified evidence. The chances of a coup in Turkey at this point are extremely slim to the point of non-existence, but if I were a prime minister running a country that suffered through four military hard or soft coups in as many decades and a trial just concluded that was seen in many quarters as a witch hunt targeting the army, I might be a little paranoid.
All of this backdrop must be taken into account with the news that Erdoğan is sticking to his home base. If ever there was a time for him to show up at the UN and try to wrangle up some support for intervention in Syria, this would be it, yet he has decided that there are more urgent matters to take care of. I think that there must be some grumbling going on behind the scenes, and that Erdoğan knows that his dream of becoming Turkey’s first directly elected president is in danger. This is the last AKP congress in which Erdoğan is running as party leader, and the fact that he is acting so risk-averse to the point of not even daring to leave the country may be a sign that all is not right in AKP land.