On paper, the office of the president in Turkey isn’t a particularly powerful one. Of course, you couldn’t tell that from the way President Tayyip Erdogan is running things at the moment. A few weeks ago we looked at the predicted changes Erdogan would be seeking to the constitution to consolidate his power and potentially keep him in charge for the rest of his life. That would require significant action by the elected members of the Parliament, which should, in theory, have provided some sort of check on a power grab such as this. Unfortunately, ever since the brief coup attempt this summer, the legislative body is now controlled by a near supermajority held by Erdogan’s Islamist AK Party.
This week we learned that the essential demolition of the once vibrant democracy’s constitution is definitely on the agenda. In fact, their Prime Minister confirmed that they’ll be addressing that little detail as soon as he finishes some other important diplomatic business. Do I really need to give you more than one guess as to who he’s on his way to visit? (Reuters)
Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Monday that the ruling AK Party would submit to parliament its proposal on constitutional changes expanding the powers of the presidency after his return from a visit to Russia this week.
“If there are no issues, we will bring to parliament the proposal after the Russia visit this week,” Yildirim told reporters before departing for Moscow.
President Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters argue Turkey needs the strong leadership of an executive presidency, akin to the system in the United States or France.
So Yildrim is on his way to Russia and when he returns they’ll see to the details of having the constitution amended. If they go with the original draft under discussion, Erdogan will be on track to remain in power for the next sixteen years if not longer, assuming he lives that long. But what’s with the trip to Russia?
Their official cover story doesn’t offer much in the way of details, but Erdogan has been making it clear for some time now that Putin is his trusted ally and the two are working on a number of mutually beneficial projects. David Barchard is a journalist and professor who has worked in Turkey and regularly writes on Turkish affairs. He recently penned a brief study on the relationship between Putin and Erdogan, showing how they essentially worked out a plan to divide up Syria between the two of them. It’s a scheme which has been extremely effective.
So what we are seeing in Syria seems like a drift towards the emergence of two zones of influence: a Russian-backed littoral state under Assad, claiming to be the sole government of the country, and a “Free Syria” backed by Turkey.
This might sound a bit like Cold War Germany, but perhaps a better parallel, and a more Middle Eastern one, is the division of Iran into Russian and British zones of influence before the First World War.
This depends, of course, on the four-months-old Russian-Turkish understanding continuing. Not all Russian observers are confident that it will. The red line which it seems Turkish forces must not cross is Al-Bab, the strategic town currently occupied by IS 55km to the north of Aleppo. Turkey struck this week at PYD forces close to Al-Bab, frustrating possible Kurdish moves to gain the upper hand there.
So what does Russia get out of this investment in a budding relationship with Erdogan? Take note of Barchard’s description of the historical significance of this pairing.
Putin knows that cooperation with Turkey is beginning to glue it into a long-term partnership with Russian interests. It is not simply that Turkey’s relations with the US and NATO are tense and mutually suspicious, and steadily deteriorating.
The arrival of Russia in Syria could be its biggest strategic breakthrough since the distant times when it arrived on the Black Sea in 1774. It transforms the strategic balance in the Eastern Mediterranean region, effectively encircling Turkey and pruning its strategic importance to its Western allies.
We appear to be seeing history repeat itself. Erdogan has opened the door to an expanded and more powerful Russian presence in a volatile and resource rich region. Turkey was previously leaning toward western influence and even looking to get into the European Union, but those ties (along with their relationship with the United States) are strained to say the least. By heading in an authoritarian direction and making some new friends, Erdogan appears to be cementing his hold on power well into the future and getting some insurance in the form of the Russian military, with both exercising joint control over the Syrian region as we move forward.
Pay close attention. We’ve been talking about this here all year and it’s a tragedy in the making.