Sitting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan comfortably defeated opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu in this week's runoff vote in the Turkish presidential election. The AKP leader, who has ruled Turkey since 2002, secured just over 52% of the vote, to his rival's 47%.
In more than two decades of rule, Erdogan has proved adept at neutralizing rival sources and contenders for power. He has amassed immense power in the office of the presidency. The independent judiciary, the free media, the military, rival political centers and the academic world have all been tamed and largely hollowed out, with independent voices and sources of influence replaced by structures linked to the president himself and those around him.
As such, Erdogan's victory came as no surprise. Indeed, the unity and spirited display from the opposition coalition was the greatest surprise of the elections, showing that Turkish society remains deeply divided, even if the Islamist president is able to ensure electoral victory for himself.
What does his win mean?
So what will an additional term of office for Erdogan mean for the region? In which areas will the defeat of Kilicdaroglu's challenge and the continued incumbency of the sitting president have an impact?
The regional file likely to be most immediately affected by the result of the Turkish presidential elections will be Syria. Kilicdaroglu and his Republican People's Party (CHP) had campaigned hard on the issue of Syrian refugees present in Turkey. There are 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees in the country. Turkey is beset by economic woes, with 44% inflation and a plummeting currency. There is, as a result, widespread resentment in broad sections of society toward the Syrian refugees. Kilicdaroglu had sought to capitalize on this, telling an Istanbul rally the day before the second round of voting that: "I hereby declare that I will send all refugees back as soon as I come to power."
The opposition candidate had identified a wedge issue, potentially separating the hard-right nationalist element of Erdogan's support from the incumbent president. The extreme nationalists, predictably, are the element most hostile to the refugees. Erdogan, meanwhile, is responsible for their presence.
The effort failed to deliver victory for Kilicdaroglu, but it did reflect a tangible difference in approach on Syria between the two candidates.
Erdogan was the first regional leader to offer strong support to the Syrian insurgency. In its early months, he facilitated the transfer of weaponry in large quantities across the border to the nascent rebellion. Other powers, regional and then global, came to offer their support to the rebels, and then withdrew it, as the Sunni Islamist and jihadi nature of the revolt became more clear, and as its chances of success receded.
BUT WHILE others wavered, Erdogan remained loyal (as did Qatar). The reason was that for Erdogan, support for the Syrian rebellion was not tactical or opportunistic. It was a component in a larger regional strategy in which the Turkish leader and his Qatari allies hoped to ride the wave of Sunni Arab and Islamist revolts in a number of countries, to emerge as the leaders of a new bloc of conservative Sunni Islamist regional states.
Little remains of this ambition. The wave of Sunni Islamist revolts passed. Defeat and eclipse followed. Islamist governments in Egypt and Tunisia were short-lived. The Syrian rebellion ended up birthing the brief and monstrous experiment in Sunni Islamist governance known as the Islamic State.
Yet Erdogan has not entirely abandoned this direction. That which remains of what was once the insurgency now owes its existence entirely to him. The remaining Islamist factions of northern Syria are now gathered in the Turkish-controlled Syrian National Army, which serves the Turkish-sponsored Syrian Interim government. This "government" rules over an area of northwest Syria guaranteed by Turkish arms. Adjoining it, a jihadi, formerly al-Qaeda linked faction, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, maintains its own Syrian Salvation Government. Again, Turkish positions surrounding this area are what make possible its continued existence.
Diplomacy between Erdogan and the Assad regime is underway. A meeting of the foreign ministers of the two countries, alongside those of Russia and Iran, took place on May 10. But progress toward reconciliation has currently stalled because Assad insists on a prior commitment to the withdrawal of Turkish troops, and hence the final abandonment of the remnants of the uprising. Erdogan will not commit to this.
Had Kilicdaroglu won the presidential elections, it may be assumed that he would rapidly have moved to normalize with Assad. The CHP leader has no personal or ideological commitment to the defeated Syrian Sunni Arab uprising. He could have presented normalization with Assad and withdrawal from northwest Syria as ways to prepare the ground for the return of refugees to their homeland, in the context of the current general regional normalization with Assad's Syria.
Under Erdogan, this is unlikely to happen, at least in the short to medium term. The Turkish leader has abandoned his commitment to Sunni uprisings because there are currently no uprisings to support. Facing severe economic crisis, he has of necessity revived relations with the United Arab Emirates, and with Saudi Arabia, in the hope of receiving their assistance. His renewal of relations with Israel and even with the formerly despised government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt is of a piece with this re-orientation.
Yet the holdout position on Syria should offer a clue that it would be mistaken to expect a new Erdogan, who will commit fully to an Abraham Accords-type view of the region. The Sunni Arab Islamist elements, who are his natural allies, are at the present moment defeated everywhere in the Arab world. Indeed, there exists an unbroken crescent of defeat and containment for such forces, beginning in Egypt and going via Israel and the PA areas, to Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. It is unlikely, however, that they will remain quiescent forever, particularly as such forces retain considerable support at the popular level in all these areas.
Erdogan's pattern of behavior suggests a certain flexibility – where economic or strategic necessity demands, he can agree to rapprochement, shift ground and mend fences. But such moves should not be taken to indicate a profound and deep change. As the example of Syria shows, where the Sunni Islamist forces he naturally favors remain an option, he will find a way to get to them. And should such forces once again rise to greater consequence in the region, it may be assumed he will seek once again to champion and assist their cause. Reports of his transformation have been much exaggerated. Those whom the Turkish leader is currently courting should take note.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He is author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter's Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (2018).