Among the major geopolitical challenges of 2017 that could seriously alter the balance of power in the international arena, particular attention should be given to the developing situation in Turkey. The final weeks of 2016 showed increasing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow on major international issues such as Syria and the fight against international terrorism on the one hand, and the ability of terrorist organisations to carry out successful attacks in the heart of Turkey, Istanbul, on the other.
Both represent two sides of Turkey’s political model. The developing situation in Syria and the surrounding region (including in the context of terrorist acts carried out by the Islamic State and Syrian Kurd militia groups), coupled with a build-up of tensions between Ankara and Washington, is effectively forcing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to drift towards Russia and Iran, gradually softening his attitude towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This drift is heightening the anger of international terrorists and their secret mentors, however.
In unison, international organisations close to Barack Obama’s outgoing US administration and the European Union are beginning to take action. In a recent report, experts at one of these organisations, the Eurasia Group, identified «President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s laser-like focus on consolidating power» as one of the most dangerous factors in the global situation in 2017, together with America’s «independence» during Donald Trump’s presidency, «the rise of China», and the weakened positions of major political forces in Europe.
The vicious circle of terror that Turkey seems to be getting increasingly drawn into not only has an external dimension, but also an internal political one related to the constitutional referendum scheduled to take place in the country in June 2017.
The amendments that President Erdoğan intends to submit for public discussion are of an unprecedentedly radical nature for post-Kemalist Turkey. They will grant the president full executive powers, abolish the post of prime minister, and significantly reduce the powers of parliament. At present, nobody is willing to predict what, exactly, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will be focussing his exclusive power on.
In order to hold the referendum, however, Erdoğan and the ruling majority of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) need the corresponding bill to be approved by a constitutional parliamentary majority. It is still far from certain whether the bill will be approved. The AKP needs the votes of another 14 deputies to obtain the required constitutional majority of 330 votes. The most suitable candidate for cooperation in this regard is the Nationalist Movement Party’s Devlet Bahçeli, who would be given the post of vice president in the new government structure. His party is currently divided, however, and some of its deputies have already promised to vote against the amendments put forward by Erdoğan and his supporters in parliament. The representatives of Kurdish organisations headed by the Deputy Speaker of the Grand National Assembly, Pervin Buldan, are even more strongly opposed to the constitutional reforms.
In the present situation, opponents of the Turkish president do not have that many options for a favourable scenario. And one of these could serve to increase the internal political instability, plunging the country into chaos and foreign policy isolation. Such a scenario would be particularly beneficial to those forces in the Near and Middle East who regard the diplomatic rapprochement of Russia, Turkey and Iran as a threat to their own interests. Many in Turkey believe that this rapprochement could be sustainable. The Hürriyet newspaper in particular has already referred to the terms on Syria agreed by the three countries as a «roadmap», with Russia and Turkey acting as «guarantors» of a political settlement in Syria.
Ankara’s increased cooperation with Moscow and Tehran is taking place amid a noticeable deterioration of relations between Turkey and the US. One of the biggest mistakes of US policy in the Middle East «was that they took action while stepping on the toes of old friends like Turkey», writes the Turkish newspaper Star Gazete.
It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that the stakes of the ‘Turkish gambit’ being played out by many in the Middle East and beyond its borders have grown considerably. And while the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are seeking to strengthen their cooperation on Syria, including to solve the more large-scale goal of combating international terrorism, many of their opponents have directly opposing aims. In the coming months, therefore, it will be Turkey and the policy of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that will become one of the most important areas in the geopolitical space from the European Union and the Balkans to Iran and the Central Asian republics.