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18 October 2019

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more isolated on the international stage than ever

The Turkish president is happy to be alone in the world if it means he remains unchallenged at home.

By Hannah Lucinda Smith

There was a brief swell of dissent as the war drums started beating in Turkey a fortnight ago. On Twitter, a hashtag – #savaşahayır, “no to war” – was shared mostly by members of the country’s Kurdish minority, but also by intellectuals and writers horrified at the prospect of further bloodshed in a region that has recently experienced plenty. Many of those who spoke out no longer live in Turkey, where dissent has become dangerous.

They were drowned out anyway as the Turkish army began its assault on north-eastern Syria, one of the last areas left untouched by an eight-year war that has lain waste to most of the country. As the first missiles fell, Turkish Twitter filled with rival hashtags, many of them likely fabricated by President Erdogan’s army of social media spin doctors: “Turkish army means peace”, read one; another, “Kurds stand with Turkey”.

Watching Turkish news reports, one might think the country is united behind Erdogan’s war. Breathless TV presenters stand on the border waving their arms at plumes of smoke rising across the frontier. They frame the conflict as a war on Kurdish terrorists; the only civilian casualties mentioned are Turks killed by missiles that Kurdish fighters fire over the border.

Following news of a ceasefire agreement that was struck after hours of talks between Erdogan and a US delegation led by vice president Mike Pence, a new hashtag whipped across Twitter: #Türkiyekazandı – “Turkey won”. The following morning, newspaper front pages declared the deal a “Victory for Turkey”. The domestic problems confronting Erdogan’s premiership – high-level party defections, an enervated economy, and humiliating losses in local elections earlier this spring – have been drowned out by rolling coverage of the war.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the group that the YPG sprang from, is listed as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, the EU and the US. Some 40,000 people have died in the insurgency that it first launched against the Turkish state in the early 1980s (more than 4,000 of those deaths occurred since the latest ceasefire broke down in 2015). PKK bombings at public squares and football games in Istanbul and Ankara killed a total of 113 people in 2016. Turks of all stripes have no patience for the YPG, the Syrian Kurdish militia that has won worldwide respect for its role in defeating Isis, but remains tied, both ideologically and practically, to Kurdish militants fighting in eastern Turkey.

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Erdogan says he launched the operation to make Turkey safer from PKK threats – even though revenge attacks are now more likely (more than 30 Turkish civilians have been killed in cross-border fire over the past nine days). But in a country where almost every young man is obliged to serve in the army, and patriotism is a second religion, bitter history can be invoked to stir up warmongering support. Once a war starts, it’s only the brave who object. More than a hundred people who have criticised the war have been arrested and accused of terrorist propaganda since it began.

“We opposed the operation before it started, but once the army is fighting it’s impossible,” a member of Turkey’s main opposition party told me this week. On-screen, Turkish football team saluted soldiers after they scored a goal against France. Elsewhere, schoolchildren stand in formation to spell out the name of the operation, “Peace Spring”, in their playground. Shopkeepers in Istanbul hang their arcades with Turkish flags and placards blessing the troops.

The international condemnations, the sanctions, the arms embargoes that Erdogan unleashed with this war – none of them really matter in Turkey, because a dictatorship is a parallel universe, where events can be spun however the autocrat wishes. Erdogan’s strikes against his critics began long before rogue officers launched a coup against him in the summer of 2016. Since becoming president in 2003, Erdogan has shown himself a thin-skinned leader, quick to anger and happy to prosecute anyone who publicly laughs at or questions him.

Since the 2016 coup, Erdogan’s crackdown has escalated to the point where sparks of resistance have been largely extinguished. Nearly 200,000 people have been imprisoned, lost their jobs or face criminal charges in connection with the revolt; many remain in prison awaiting trial and others are yet to hear the charges against them.

What remains is the husk of a society, still functioning on the surface but hollowed out from within. Every part of the state is now controlled by Erdogan’s government. Of the country’s six major news channels, only one still operates independently. Newspapers are barely more diverse; at least 68 Turkish journalists are currently imprisoned.

As Turkey prepares to celebrate its Republic Day on 29 October, Erdogan’s speechwriters will likely be working on ways to present his latest war and the ceasefire as another great Turkish victory. The next presidential and parliamentary elections are not due until 2023, but speculation is mounting that he will call them early, perhaps as soon as next year. The opposition’s statements of support for

Erdogan’s offensive have driven a new wedge between them and the country’s main Kurdish party, just as they were beginning to inch towards an electoral alliance that could have seriously challenged him at the ballot box.

Internationally, Erdogan is now more isolated than he has ever been. But he is happy to be alone in the world if means he remains unchallenged at home.

Hannah Lucinda Smith is the author of Erdogan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey, and a frequent contributor to the Times. She lives in Istanbul.

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