The Growing Irrelevance of Erdogan’s Advisory Circle

Many close advisors have come and gone under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s long tenure. Once important inner circle figures – such as Yigit Bulut, Yalcin Akdogan, Ilnur Cevik, Hilal Kaplan and Mustafa Varank – have lost much of their sway in the last two years. Until Russia’s arrival in Syria in 2015, Turkey’s decision-making system was managed through a network of power-brokers all vying for influence on Erdogan.

Turkey’s gradual transition into Moscow’s security orbit has fundamentally altered this system. Although most government figures in Ankara intensely dislike Russian influence, Moscow’s views are reshaping Erdogan’s advisory circle. First came the injection of strongly pro-Russian individuals – such as Vatan Party Chairman Dogu Perincek, a former senior National Intelligence Organization (MIT) operative, and his deputy chairman, former head of military intelligence Gen. Ismail Hakki Pekin. (Both are close associates of Russian Eurasianist ideologue Alexander Dugin’s.) These two figures became uniquely influential on all matters related to Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Next, old advisors were edged out. Formerly pro-EU and pro-US figures like Ilnur Cevik and Hilal Kaplan had to make repeated pro-Russian statements to the media in order to cling to their jobs. Those who did not – like Yigit Bulut, formerly the key advisor – were ultimately removed from the circle altogether. From January 2016 to July 2017, Erdogan’s key inner circle – which was normally no larger than six figures – expanded into an unwieldy body with more than 45 advisors. As a result, the ability of a single advisor to make a difference declined significantly, with Erdogan looking only at consensus policy options.

With little to do, the former insiders are now making a nuisance of themselves. Before, such figures disagreed in the shadows to preserve a public sense of cohesion and respect for the president. This is no longer the case. In September 2017, two of Erdogan’s key economy advisors – Bulent Gedikli and Cemil Ertem – fought a “Twitter war” over foreign trade deficit figures and currency exchange rate policy. Later, an Islamist columnist writing for the Yeni Cag newspaper (a fringe newspaper that sets micro-agendas among Islamist bureaucratic circles) reported in December 2017 on “insurmountable differences” between six well-known Erdogan advisors, all of whom were subsequently removed from their positions.

At present, even higher-level figures are also openly feuding. In January 2018, Minister of Interior Suleyman Soylu had a visible quarrel during a Justice and Development Party (AKP) meeting with Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, the Minister of Family and Social Policies and a childhood friend of Minister of Energy Berat Albayrak’s, Erdogan’s son-in-law. The argument was over Turkey’s Afrin operation, which Kaya accused Soylu of mismanaging. The incident – which pitted Erdogan’s family circle against a powerful security minister – would have never occurred under earlier circumstances, or would have been conducted in private. This is a troubling trend for the AKP ahead of the snap elections likely to be called later this year.

These are signs of deterioration in Erdogan’s control system, as the evolving government structure is anything but business-as-usual. Key ministers and advisors are frustrated at their growing irrelevance. As key policy issues like foreign relations and internal security are increasingly negotiated and brokered through Turkish, Russian, Iranian and Iraqi military diplomacy, Erdogan is becoming more dependent on external factors (especially Russia) than internal ones. In this externally generated policy environment, much of the advisory energy that could be allocated to policy formulation and oversight is instead spent on internal tensions and Byzantine intrigues in Ankara. In our assessment, this is making Erdogan more vulnerable to domestic political shocks. Russia’s influence – and secondarily that of Iran and Iraq – will also shape investment, security and market regulatory decisions in Turkish foreign policy.