By Kamran Bokhari
Summary There is a great deal of discussion on the rift between Turkey’s president and prime minister. Most of it tends to focus on domestic Turkish politics and inflate the significance of this rift. Elites in all countries quarrel with each other and quite vigorously. Which of the two has more power is nowhere near as important as how Turkey will manage the various crises it faces internally and externally.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is due to step down at an extraordinary congress of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) later this month. Reports of his departure come after a May 4 meeting between Davutoğlu and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan failed to mend growing differences between the two men. Turkish and international media have been abuzz with reports about an escalating power struggle since the 50-member Central Decision and Executive Board of AKP on April 29 voted to take away Davutoğlu’s authority to appoint local and provincial party leaders. However, this conflict is far from Turkey’s main challenge. The country is trying to position itself as a leader in the Middle East, a much more significant issue than which political leader holds executive power.
Such power struggles are part and parcel of political life in all countries. This is especially the case when authority is divided between various institutions and offices. Competition between individual personalities further drives such discord. This is especially the case in Turkey.
The country’s governing party is trying to change the constitution in order to implement a presidential system of government. Under the current system, the president must be non-partisan and the prime minister holds executive authority. After three terms as prime minister, Erdoğan in 2014 assumed the presidency, which had been held by AKP co-founder and longtime Erdoğan ally Abdullah Gül for the previous seven years. Initially, it was expected that Gül and Erdoğan would switch places. However, Gül would not be a pliant premier, which is why Erdoğan engineered for Davutoğlu to succeed him as prime minister. Davutoğlu is a political philosopher and academic by training and had served as Erdoğan’s foreign policy adviser from 2003 to 2007 and foreign minister from 2009 to 2014.
In politics, even the most trusted lieutenants tend to assert themselves at some point. This is not necessarily because they want to grab power for themselves but because of the need to balance pressures. Davutoğlu has immense respect within the AKP, but he is well aware that Erdoğan is the party boss and he cannot win a confrontation with him. Erdoğan wants to regain executive authority, which cannot happen without overhauling the constitution via a national referendum – a task he entrusted to Davutoğlu, which he has not carried out to the president’s liking.
It is unclear whether Davutoğlu’s successor will be more pliant, but the bottom line is that Davutoğlu’s departure is not going to impact the party’s ability to govern. That said, it is not clear that Erdoğan will be able to secure the constitutional changes needed for him to seize executive authority as president. However, which personality holds what office in the end does not change the reality that Turkey will have to deal with many geopolitical challenges. Whoever heads the Turkish government has to choose from the same narrow menu of options to address these crises.
Turkey has one of the most strategic positions of any country in the world as it sits between Europe, Russia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. At present, each of these regions are in a state of crisis. In an ironic contradiction to Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” doctrine, Turkey faces conflicts on almost all of its borders. Each of these regions has its own internal conflicts, as well as problems with Turkey.
The European Union is in a state of meltdown owing to financial crises brought about by the global economic downturn. It also faces a massive migrant crisis, with migrants coming mostly from Muslim countries, and at the same time it is the target of Islamist terrorism. The Europeans want Ankara to stem the flow of refugees to the Continent as well as crack down on the Islamic State supply lines that run through Turkey. From Turkey’s point of view, it can only do so much.
To the north, Russia is trying to prevent the West from encroaching on its sphere of influence in Ukraine. Turkey, being a NATO member state and dependent on Russia for more than half its natural gas supply, is caught in the middle of this conflict. Russian support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Turkey wants to topple, has brought Ankara in far greater conflict with Moscow. Tensions have remained high since the Turks shot down a Russian warplane almost six months ago. In this way, the Russians are a problem for the Turks both to the north and the south.
However, the Middle East presents the biggest foreign policy challenge for Turkey – one that bleeds into domestic politics given the cross-border Kurdish issue. One of the biggest security threats that Turkey must contend with is Kurdish separatism, which has been energized by the war in Syria. For Turkey, dealing with the Syrian Kurdish movement takes priority over the threat from the Islamic State.
However, Turkey does not want to get involved in the Syrian war. This explains why thus far the Turks have been highly reluctant to send troops to the country, despite the fact that the Syrian Kurds and the Islamic State pose a twin threat to Turkish security. Meanwhile, Iran – as a major backer of the Syrian regime – also represents a major obstacle for Turkey’s objectives in Syria. Historically a rival of Turkey, Iran will remain a challenger of Turkish regional hegemony for the foreseeable future, given that it is a Shiite-majority country and has assumed the leadership of Shiite minorities in the Arab and Muslim world since the 1979 revolution.
But Turkey’s more immediate problem is its relations with other Sunni-majority states. Despite the common Sunni sectarian identity, the Arabs do not want Turkish assistance in Syria at the cost of their region being dominated by the Turks. This is why Saudi Arabia has been aggressively positioning itself as the leader of the Arab and Muslim worlds, especially with its formation of the Islamic Military Alliance in December. The Turks have been reluctant to participate in this project because their post-conflict vision for the region clashes with that of the Saudis. Turkey sees itself as the regional leader and the leader of the Muslim world.
Despite their differences, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu have been more or less on the same page when it comes to regional ambitions. Both want to revive Turkey’s former leadership role in the Middle East. This strategy is not merely a subjective preference for them but a way to deal with the need to restore order in the region as part of their national security imperatives. The chaos that has struck the Arab world provides Turkey an opportunity to try and reassume this position. However, in addition to the multiple obstacles discussed above, the key problem is that Turkey will have trouble regaining leadership of a largely Arab Middle East, in an era of ethnic nationalism.
Davutoğlu’s ideas on pan-Islamic ties provide insight into Turkish strategic thinking. These ideas are derived from the imperial era when the Ottoman Empire was able to rule over the Arab Middle East for four centuries by emphasizing the religious commonality between the Turks and Arabs. Even though the Ottomans referred to the empire as a sultanate instead of a caliphate, its sultans saw themselves as caliphs, especially after the Ottomans conquered the Middle East in the early 16th century.
Complicating Turkey’s efforts to emerge as the leader of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world is the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate. The Turks cannot afford to be seen as promoting a project similar to that of IS – even though the two are not the same. However, if there is a military force in the region that can defeat the Islamic State and impose order in Syria, it is Turkey.
Defeating the Islamic State and toppling the Assad regime will create a vacuum that will require Turkish forces to be stationed in Syria for the long haul to stabilize the country. There is a huge risk that Turkey can rather quickly go from being a liberator of the Syrian people to an occupier in control of Arab lands. Turkey will have to use its religious identity to mitigate this risk. While Syria will be a national and regional security priority for Turkey for the foreseeable future, Ankara’s long-term strategy for the Arab world is to support the development of regimes in its own image. This effort involves supporting democratic political systems in which Islamists can be included. Such a strategy is already causing tensions with countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, where democracy and Islamism represent a dangerous combination.
This is a long-term plan that will require a massive effort on the part of the Turks and goes well beyond the military dimension – though that will be the crucial element. For now, they are hoping that the United States will play a lead role. But Washington has been pressing Ankara to take the lead as part of the American strategy to have regional players do the heavy lifting. In fact, this issue is the source of major tensions between the two countries and is likely a cause of disagreement within the Turkish state.
Ultimately, the Turks cannot afford to anger the Americans, the Europeans, the Russians and the Arabs at the same time – definitely not while they face a major fire burning on their southern flank. Thus, how Turkey deals with these issues is far more critical than the personality clashes between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu because if even both men ceased to hold their respective positions, Turkey would still face regional chaos it cannot afford to live with.