“Erdogan once again wants to use Syria to achieve his national goals”

Gönül Tol is Director and Founder of the Turkey Studies Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI), a think tank based in Washington. A specialist in international issues, defense and Islamist movements in Europe and the Arab world, she has just finished her book Erdogan’s War (Oxford University Press, 332 pages, 35 euros, untranslated). The book meticulously details how Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan exploited the Syrian war for domestic political and personal image reasons, thereby upsetting his country’s diplomatic posture.

After the Istanbul attack of November 13, 2022, promptly attributed by the Turkish government to members of the PKK based in Syria, Erdogan once again threatened to intervene militarily on Syrian soil in the north of the country. What purpose does this serve?

The war in Syria has always been an integral part of Erdogan’s efforts to consolidate his personal power. Faced with a critical election this year, he wants to once again use this country to achieve his national goals. Through an incursion into Syria, he hopes to mobilize the nationalists and dig an additional gap between the pro-Kurdish party and the rest of the opposition. More importantly, he wants to tell voters that he will solve the Syrian refugee problem with another foray into Syria – an issue that resonates strongly among the electorate. The question is whether Erdogan will get the green light from Russia. So far he hasn’t been able to, but that doesn’t mean he won’t. In the coming months, Putin, who relies on the Turkish head of state in the post-invasion era of Ukraine, could agree to lend a hand to his friend for the next elections.

Syria, Saudi Arabia, Greece… The Turkish president’s reversals on the international scene are numerous. After twenty years at the head of the country, what is his vision of the world?

I don’t know and no one knows. Why ? Well because the only thing that matters to him is staying in power. He only thinks, acts and sees the world through this single lens. It is absolutely central to understanding it. There’s nothing he can’t sacrifice to achieve this goal, he showed us that from the start.

Above all, Erdogan is a populist in the sense that he precisely uses different ideologies in order to achieve his ends. Populism gives enough leeway and flexibility to use a reflection or a proposal corresponding to the agenda of the moment. When he won the MP seat that propelled him to the post of prime minister in 2003, he knew, or understood, that winning votes at the polls in a country like Turkey might not matter. because it is the secular establishment that ultimately makes the real decisions.

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