A second-rate dictator can survive by suppressing his own people, but to achieve first-class dictatorial stature, nothing works as well as war.
Erdogan may have pursued authoritarianism by suppressing freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary, but he achieved it by turning on the Kurds–both peaceful Turkish Kurds and militant Syrian Kurds, using the Kurds as scapegoats to justify his drive for personal power. And it worked: it is the oldest con in the book.
Unfortunately for everyone, he is now locked in. It would take political genius indeed for Erdogan suddenly to turn democrat and welcome all his people as full citizens with equal political rights. It is crucial to remember that Erdogan attacked Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent not for defense but after the pro-Kurdish party had just won a breakthrough electoral victory gaining national support and the right to 80 seats in parliament. The issue facing Erdogan at that moment was not “terrorism” but the prospect of a moderate, democratic, pro-Kurdish party peacefully getting enough votes to deny Erdogan his dream of re-writing Turkey’s constitution to replace Turkish democracy with authoritarian rule under himself.
Having used the Kurds as his scapegoat to achieve full power, it is highly doubtful that he will find the will and the way to turn away from racial repression domestically, but–ominously for a Mideast already filled to the brim with chaos–as long as Erdogan holds grimly onto power over a society split right down the middle, the logic of his position will propel him toward a general war against Kurds region-wide. The two Turkish bombing strikes that immediately followed Erdogan’s referendum victory should be interpreted in that context: they are a portent of things to come.
Dictatorship feeds off war because war is the easiest way to con (“in this historic moment of threat, only I can save you”) a population into bending its knee and accepting repression. If the repression was originally justified as protection against a domestic minority, the logic of the situation predicts further racism; if the minority lives on both sides of the border, the logic of the situation predicts regional war.
Dictators need tension, violence, and–even better, from their perspective–war. This sad conclusion has nothing in particular to do with Turks or Muslims; it is simply part of the human condition…at least, until we achieve a higher level of civilization. The people of Turkey are now but the latest victim of a very old political dynamic that Americans are just as vulnerable to as every other society.