Those who thought escalation inevitable would have seen it coming. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is resorting to militaristic rhetoric as the June 24 election approaches.
He had hoped to win the election outright on June 24 and not worry about a run-off but is seen to be losing his grip ever so slightly on the discourse. Erdogan’s challenger for president is good at repartee and, reliable estimates said, it is unclear whether Erdogan will receive the more than 50% of the vote he needs to claim victory in the first round.
Apparently, polls indicate that dramatic armed conflict could turn the vote in Erdogan’s favour; just 5 percentage points would suffice. This explains why tension between Turkey and Greece is at alarming levels and why the Turkish Armed Forces are penetrating ever deeper into Iraqi Kurdistan.
On the western front, the escalation has been constant. When Greek authorities released eight Turkish Army officers accused of taking part in the failed 2016 Turkish coup, Ankara ordered fighter jets to embark on daily low-altitude flights over Greek islands in the Aegean. Athens sees these flights as a violation of its airspace and retaliation for the judicial decision to release the eight Turkish officers.
Turkey, however, has not let up on the fighting talk. Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said it was a “duty to find these ‘putschist’ soldiers wherever they are, pack them up and bring them to Turkey.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry declared it was suspending a bilateral migrant readmission deal with Greece in response to the Greek court’s decision. Reports claim that Ankara ordered Special Operations commando units to be on stand-by in case of “provocations,” which indicates more tension with Greece.
This has not gone down well in Greece. Nikos Konstandaras, a prominent analyst for the Athens daily Kathimerini, wrote: ”Turkey’s suspension of a deal for immigrants to be returned from Greece, as ‘retaliation’ for the freeing of eight Turkish military officers who requested asylum in our country, is a supreme act of arrogance. It shows that Ankara’s desire to put pressure on Athens takes precedence over respect for agreements, even if breaking them causes problems for the European Union.”
Clearly, Erdogan is gambling that the inflamed atmosphere will play well at home and produce an election victory. He knows that going to war can produce a winner. When Turkish troops invaded northern Cyprus in 1974, the result was a huge victory for Bulent Ecevit, the nationalist centre-left leader.
Erdogan also remembers that any action targeting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) unites the pro-nationalist vote around the leader who orders the operation. When Abdullah Ocalan was returned from Kenya in 1999, the prime minister won a sweeping election victory. Erdogan is also aware that military escalation serves to silence political rivals because it would be unpopular to oppose nationalist sentiments.
That is why observers were unsurprised by Erdogan’s declaration that “Qandil’s turn is coming.” His ministers had warned that Turkish troops, backed by tanks, unmanned aerial vehicles and armed drones, had penetrated 30km into northern Iraq and were moving steadily towards Mount Qandil.
The rugged mountain chain is known to be a PKK stronghold. Local sources said Turkish special-ops units had reached Lelkan hills in the Bradost region, which is 50km from what is believed to be the PKK base.
For the moment, Erdogan seems to have reached an understanding with the Trump administration about the electoral considerations of the offensive. This becomes clear from the fact that the Qandil operation follows Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s visit to Washington. At the time, the United States declared that the People’s Protection Units, which are linked to the PKK, would withdraw from Manbij in northern Syria.
Cavusoglu said that the Iraqi operation would have “four-way cooperation between Turkey, the United States, Baghdad and Erbil [in the fight against the PKK].”
It is possible that Turkey’s Justice and Development party government may have used arguments in Washington, such as the PKK’s characteristics as a Marxist-Leninist terror organisation. Such a categorisation would appeal to US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
If so, Erdogan may feel he has free rein on the Iraqi front and he may be hoping to bring at least one or two prominent PKK figures back to Turkey.
Will this strategy bring Erdogan the 5 or so percentage points he needs and hopes for? There is good reason to say “yes.”
Yavuz Baydar is a senior Turkish columnist, and news analyst. A founding member of the Platform for Independent Journalism (P24) in Istanbul, he has been reporting on Turkey and monitoring media issues since 1980. A European Press Prize Laureate in 2014, he is also the winner of Germany's 'Journalistenpreis' in 2018.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.