There are hardly any countries in the world whose political agendas are as intense as Turkey’s. Such is the price it pays for being an active player in a turbulent, chaos-ridden region. As if the heavy toll of violent conflicts in Syria and Iraq are not enough, the Turkish government recently has had to take initiative regarding the Qatar crisis and the developments at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that the steps Ankara has taken to promote security and stability in recent years changed the nature of its alliance with Western countries. German politicians calling for economic sanctions against Ankara and U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford expressing concern about Turkey’s S-400 deal with Russia are two cases in point.
Ahead of Turkey’s 2019 elections, the country will be compelled to deal with domestic and international challenges. It would appear that there are certain governments that simply do not want the Turks to leave behind the period of turmoil that began in 2013. As a matter of fact, they seem to be laying the groundwork for a two-year battle over the Turkish presidency.
It is possible to predict that Turkey will face challenges in four areas:
1) The aftermath of July 15 and the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) trials
2) The PKK and Democratic Union Party (PYD) presence in Syria and Iraq
3) Syrian refugees
4) The legal transition to the presidential system
To be clear, all of the above could place Turkey’s domestic stability, economic growth and relations with the West at risk.
The fact that Western governments would like to see Turkey’s fight against FETÖ, the PKK and the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) as a question of freedom of expression and human rights violations instead of counterterrorism has turned into a serious problem. Berlin’s calls for economic sanction and halt to customs union negotiations, and the risk of this campaign spreading to other EU countries, in the wake of the arrest of a German citizen in Turkey raises concerns about the future of the country’s relations with the West. The main threat here is that certain countries could attempt to spark an economic crisis in Turkey ahead of the 2019 elections. Let us hope for now that economic diplomacy will end Berlin’s eagerness to hit President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan where it hurts. Turkey, however, needs to be prepared for any efforts by European countries to impose economic sanctions on it. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the shortcomings of the fight against FETÖ cannot be used to fuel social tensions.
The second challenge is related to the possibility of the PKK presence in northern Syria and Iraq turning into an act of provocation in Turkey. Having taken advice from the United States, Turkey’s ally, to rename itself the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the PKK’s potential response to attacks on Afrin and places in Turkey and European capitals must be taken into consideration. Turkey needs to lay the groundwork at the local and regional levels for new crises with Washington that could be triggered by Turkish military action.
The third risk could involve Turkish nationalist attacks against the Syrian community in Turkey. In order to address this threat, it is necessary for Turkey to adopt a comprehensive integration policy and manage the public’s sensitivities.
The fourth and final challenge relates to the possibility that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) will opt to take its struggle against the transition to the presidential system to the streets.
In an effort to prevent Erdoğan from being re-elected in 2019, the above-mentioned circles could seek to trigger any of the four challenges with an economic crisis. Under these circumstances, political elites must remain alert to such risks.
Needless to say, Erdoğan’s strong leadership and the political consciousness of various social groups in Turkey will be the driving force behind efforts to overcome the challenges ahead. However, public institutions cannot afford to lack strategic foresight, coordination and preparedness.
This article was first published in Daily Sabah on July 31, 2017.