How Will Turkey Deal With Its 9/11?

October 16, 2015 § 1 Comment

Turkey has been the scene of terrorism and street violence off and on for decades, but the suicide bombings at a peace rally last Saturday that killed 97 people and wounded scores more is a new low, and has been rightly described as Turkey’s 9/11. As all who have been following Turkey’s descent into chaos know, the bombings came after months of political polarization between the government and everyone else but particularly the Kurds, fighting between the Turkish military and the PKK, Turkish airstrikes against ISIS, and a tightening crackdown on voices of dissent in Turkey of any sort. In the aftermath of the bombing, the government has issued a blanket media blackout, which is unlikely to help matters and will only sow more distrust and confusion. While no group has taken credit for the bombings, they were almost certainly the work of ISIS and deliberately targeted Kurdish political parties at the rally, so this is the latest in the never-ending fallout from the fight for Kobani earlier this year.

Steven Cook wrote a good post on Monday summing up the various conflicts tearing Turkish society apart, and they range from the political to the ethnic. While sometimes tragedy can bring a country together, as it certainly did in the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks, in Turkey that dynamic does not seem to be emerging. The government is still practicing the demagoguery that has become its hallmark, and its rhetorical flourishes are reaching new heights of absurdity. Yesterday, Prime Minister Davutoğlu claimed that there is a secret agreement between Assad, ISIS, and the PKK to eliminate all anti-Assad forces and share the Syrian border with Turkey. I’ll leave it to you to ponder for a moment how anyone can seriously think that ISIS is in league with the regime that it is trying to replace, or even more fantastically how ISIS and the PKK sat down in a room together and agreed to live and let live despite the raging war going on between ISIS and the Kurds in Kobani and other places. Given that Davutoğlu, in trying to demonstrate Turkey’s distance from ISIS in response to theories that the Turkish government was complicit in the rally bombings, said on Wednesday that the difference between ISIS and Turkey is 360 degrees, perhaps we should just assume that nothing he says is to be taken at face value.

Ribbing of the prime minister aside, the question facing Turkey is what comes next? This would be a challenge for any country that had just experienced a tragedy and was already riven by political and sectarian strife, but in Turkey’s case there is the added variable of the November 1 redo of June’s election. A combination of President Erdoğan’s refusal to let go of his dream of a super-empowered presidency and bad blood between the AKP and the other parties combined to prevent a government from being formed after the AKP failed to win an outright majority last time. If the polls are to be believed, Turkey is headed for the exact same result in November, and this time it will come with the added pressure of more bad blood between the AKP and HDP, more pressure from the government on journalists, a reinvigoration of the government’s war against the Gülenists, and conspiracy theories about the bombing flying fast and furious. One cannot discount either that there will be more terrorism in Turkey in the next two weeks, which would only add to the pressure building. It was obvious after June what Erdoğan’s strategy was for November, namely to ramp up the fight with the PKK and foster a sense of insecurity so that AKP politicians could then rail against what happens when voters do not hand the AKP a majority. The problem is that the tiger of violence and uncertainty is beyond the AKP’s control, and if anything discontent with the AKP has only deepened.

Should the AKP again fail to win a majority – the outcome that nearly everyone is expecting – there are two ways this can go. One is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu will accept that the era of coalition government has returned, inject some humility into their pronouncements and actions both public and private, and figure out how best to work with some combination of the CHP, MHP, and HDP (if the latter is still even a possibility given the demonization of Kurds and HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş that has occurred) to get the country back on track. This can involve a step up or a step down in the battle against Kurdish nationalism depending on whom the AKP partners with, although I find the latter to be increasingly unlikely. The second way this can go is that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can take the same path they took following the June vote, which is to blame all sorts of enemies foreign and domestic for their troubles, crack down further on internal dissent, continue to threaten the PYD – and the U.S. and Russia for allegedly supporting the PYD – and refuse to see the writing on the wall about Kurdish autonomy in Syria, and ally with the MHP in order to form a government and push an extremely narrow nationalist agenda.

One can look at Turkey’s history of democratic institutions and the recent kneecapping of the military in order to prevent its intervention into the political system and assume that Turkey’s history demonstrates that it will emerge from the darkness into the sunlight, that logic will prevail following the horrific Ankara bombings, and that Erdoğan and company will realize a losing hand they see one. Alternatively, one can look at Erdoğan and the AKP’s history, see what they have done once unencumbered by significant checks on their power, and observe their behavior in the last few months alone, and then come to the opposite conclusion about Turkey’s future.

After my assessment following the June election that it did not mean the end of Erdoğan’s domination of Turkish politics and that Turkish politics was not about to immediately change for the better, Cengiz Çandar took me to task in Al-Monitor for my prediction that Erdoğan had not been made irrelevant, writing, “The summer of 2015 may be messy and full of uncertainty, but Turkey will not be at the mercy of one man and one party.” As it turns out, Turkey in fact was at the mercy of one man and one party, and that one man and one party prevented a coalition government from forming, actively aggravated tensions with Turkey’s Kurdish minority through constant incitement against the HDP and its politicians, and has left Turkey in a much more dangerous position than it was four months ago. Turkish society is on the brink of eruption, and the specter of further ISIS terrorism, further PKK targeting of Turkish military and police, and the occasional leftist DHKP-C attack mean that the pressure is only going to increase. The aftermath of this election is going to recreate the precise environment as existed the day after the last election, and the open question is what Erdoğan – and Erdoğan alone – is going to decide to do, since much like last time, this hinges on whether he accepts the death of his presidential system and an AKP victory without AKP dominance with grace, or whether he continues to wield his authority in the service of himself and his party rather than his country. Given what we have seen so far, I am pretty sure I know which option he will choose.

Turkey’s Fight Against Kurdish Empowerment At Home and Abroad

August 3, 2015 § Leave a comment

I have a new piece in Foreign Affairs on Turkey’s recent agreement to engage in the fight against ISIS, and what Ankara is really hoping to accomplish, namely an assault against Kurdish nationalism both at home and abroad. While it is evident that Turkey’s airstrikes have so far been directed primarily at the PKK rather than at ISIS, Ankara is at the same time directing a political assault against the HDP, Turkey’s Kurdish political party, in the hopes of killing two birds with one stone. Here is my argument in Foreign Affairs:

On July 23, Turkey finally joined the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and it did so with much fanfare. It began with a series of air and artillery strikes to push back ISIS forces in Syria and seal what has been a porous southern border. The Turkish government also gave the United States access to its Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases, opening them up to support combat missions, not just surveillance operations.

This was a major win for the Obama administration, which, for months, had been negotiating with a reluctant Turkey to get it to recognize the ISIS threat. U.S. officials are now hopeful that ISIS can be set back on its heels, since Ankara will be able to wage a more robust bombing campaign given its proximity to the conflict. The U.S.–Turkish agreement about the Incirlik and Diyarbakir airbases apparently also involved the establishment of a safe zone in northwest Syria just north of Aleppo, something the Turkish government has long demanded, although Washington has refused to commit to it. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has argued that a safe zone would naturally emerge after removing ISIS forces from that part of Syria.

Yet all is not as it seems. Although Washington trumpeted the agreement as a potential game changer in the fight against ISIS, Ankara’s recent behavior suggests that its primary mission is to use the opportunity to simultaneously fight the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group that the government has been fighting for decades. The group, however, has also been on the frontlines battling ISIS.

As Washington celebrated Turkey’s new commitment, Ankara’s initial airstrikes last week targeted both ISIS and PKK positions, and, as some have noted, the United States has essentially enabled Turkey to cloak its primary objective—striking the PKK and its Syrian cousin, the People’s Protection Units (also known as the YPG)—in the general fight against ISIS. Turkey would also be able to ensure that U.S. strikes against ISIS positions do not benefit Kurdish fighters in the process by coordinating joint missions and moving Turkish troops into areas immediately following U.S. sorties. By conceding to Washington’s requests to do more against ISIS, Turkey is actually hoping to achieve its true goal, which is to prevent the autonomous Syrian Rojava canton currently controlled by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from turning into a truly independent Kurdish state and additionally, using the Kurdish issue to bolster its political standing at home.

Turkey has also targeted its own Kurdish population through heightened policing after the July 20 terrorist bombing in the border town of Suruc. Linked to ISIS, the attack was directed at pro-Kurdish activists and left 23 dead. Since then, Turkey has been conducting an anti-terror sweep that as of July 29 has resulted in the arrest of 137 suspected ISIS sympathizers and 847 suspected PKK members. Writing in the pro-government paper, Daily Sabah, the influential presidential foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin explicitly linked ISIS and the PKK [6]. He essentially argued that the PKK and ISIS are two sides of the same coin because both groups use terrorism to achieve their political goals, and that PKK attacks are just as big a threat to Turkey as those carried out by ISIS.

Fighting the PKK and thwarting Kurdish ambitions in Syria are not the only dynamics driving Turkish actions. In addition to all of this, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is head of the current caretaker government that will rule the country until a new coalition is formed (or, if one fails to form, until new elections are held in the fall), is attempting to reverse the political consequences of its Kurdish Opening policy, which granted Turkish Kurds greater rights in using the Kurdish language and expressing their Kurdish culture. It brought momentary peace, but appears now to have weakened the AKP’s hold on power.

To read the rest, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

What Will Happen After Turkey’s Elections on Sunday

June 4, 2015 § 6 Comments

When Turkish voters go to the polls this Sunday, it will mark the end of what has been an interminable 15 month long election cycle in Turkey encompassing municipal elections, a presidential election, and finally parliamentary elections. This would be have been taxing under the best of circumstances, but given the factors involved – including but not limited to the transition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from prime minister to president, the fate of Erdoğan’s desired constitutional overhaul and prospective presidential system, the pending forced retirement of term-limited AKP legislators, the ongoing fallout from the Syrian civil war, the Kurdish peace process hanging on by a thread, the increasingly nationalist tone of the government following the 2013 Gezi protests, the war between the AKP and its former Gülenist allies, worsening assaults on freedom of speech and expression, and allegations of rampant AKP corruption – the last 15 months have been rough on Turkish society and Turkey’s political system, to say the least. Many of my Turkish friends are eager for Sunday’s election to be behind them and hope that this will mark a turning point of some sort that puts an end to what has been a volatile time by any measure.

Despite this fervent wish, not only are the parliamentary elections unlikely to bring much stability, but there is a significant likelihood that the immediate and medium-term aftermath will be even stormier than the past couple of years. There are too many variables in play that hinge on the election’s results, and many of them will create chaos irrespective of the outcome. Rather than do a deep dive into what the actual outcome of the elections themselves will be – for that you can read excellent previews from Carnegie Europe, the Center for American Progress, and my friend Aaron Stein, and your first and last source for polling and polling analysis should be the indispensable James in Turkey blog – I thought I’d highlight some issues to watch out for that are main drivers of Turkish political volatility and that will be magnified in the election’s aftermath.

The most immediately pressing issue is the role of Turkish Kurds going forward. The outcome of the election will primarily hinge on the success or failure of the Kurdish HDP in passing the 10% vote threshold – the world’s highest such threshold – that is required for a party to sit in the Grand National Assembly, and nearly everything that happens is going to follow from this result. When the last legal polls were published last week (publishing polls is prohibited within ten days of the election), the HDP was hovering between 10.2% and 10.6%. For comparison’s sake, the HDP’s candidate in the presidential election, Selahattin Demirtaş, received 9.76%, which surprised most observers as he was not expected to do so well, and most analysts attributed his success to his personal appeal rather than to the party’s. Demirtaş is the party leader and is thus the public face of the HDP for this election as well, but he needs to improve his party’s performance by pulling off two difficult maneuvers that are diametrically opposed. He has to simultaneously attract disaffected liberals who voted for the AKP or CHP in past elections and attract religiously conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in 2002, 2007, and 2011. Without siphoning off voters in both of these groups, the 10% threshold is going to be hard to crack as there is not a large enough base for the party to rely on its traditional Kurdish supporters alone. While I hope that the HDP makes it into the Assembly since it represents a new and important voice, my gut tells me that it will not. Aside from having a tough uphill climb, it is operating in an environment in which the AKP has an enormous incentive to ensure that the HDP does not make it in (more on that below) and is close enough to the 10% line that some well placed election fraud – such as occurred in last year’s municipal elections – will guarantee that it falls short.

If this happens, Turkey is going to experience protests and unrest on a scale that equals and likely surpasses those that rocked the country during the Gezi protests of June 2013. The southeast of the country, where the majority of Turkey’s Kurds reside, is going to be a disaster zone, since it will be impossible to convince Kurds that the HDP lost fair and square. Turkish Kurds are highly distrustful of the government and believe that the government has been supporting ISIS in an effort to stamp out Kurdish nationalism. Kurds blame the government for not actively aiding Kurdish fighters in the fight against ISIS for the Syrian town of Kobane and for preventing the fighters from being resupplied, and this resentment is not one that will merely linger and eventually dissipate. Kurds also see the handwriting on the wall of a potential coalition between the AKP and the ultra-nationalist MHP if the AKP does not receive enough seats to form a government outright, and such a result will mean the cessation of any conciliatory moves in the name of the Kurdish peace process. In short, Turkish Kurds believe that the government has sold them out and will continue to do so in the future, and if the HDP does not receive a high enough vote share on Sunday, there is going to be unrest on a mass scale. It will also raise the question of how Kurds fit into Turkey’s political system, since the decision by the HDP to run as a party rather than as independents signals a Kurdish desire to renounce violence and separatism, and to work within the confines of Turkish politics. If this gesture is rebuffed in a way that convinces Kurds that the government is fraudulently trying to keep them out, it will be a terrible squandering of a historic moment in relations between Kurds and the Turkish state. It will tell Kurds that their grievances will never be redressed through politics, and it will empower the PKK and those who are inclined toward terrorism and separatism, unleashing a new round of violence similar to that which racked Turkey in the 1990s.

If the HDP does not crack the threshold, Kurds are not the only ones who will be upset. HDP votes will be reapportioned, with the AKP receiving most of them as the largest overall vote getter and the only other party that receives votes in the HDP’s stronghold of southeastern Turkey, and this could boost the AKP’s share to a 3/5 supermajority of 330 seats (the party currently has 311). This matters because Erdoğan’s single-minded focus since becoming president last summer has been on remaking Turkey’s political system into a presidential one, and 330 seats is the number he needs in order to submit a new constitution to a referendum. It is for this reason that he needs the HDP to fall short of the magic 10% number, and without that happening, not only is his dream of an empowered presidency dead in the water, the AKP is not guaranteed to reach the 276 seats it needs to form a government outright and may be forced to form a coalition for the first time since coming to power in 2002. The incentive for the party and for Erdoğan personally is to suppress the HDP’s vote, which is why both Erdoğan – who is constitutionally not allowed to campaign for any party and is prohibited from being a party member, but who in reality is still the de facto leader of the AKP – and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have been striking hard at the HDP and Demirtaş every chance they get. The prospect of an even more powerful President Erdoğan terrifies many non-AKP supporters, which is why if the HDP does not make it into the parliament, protests and unrest will not be limited to Kurds and southeastern Turkey. Anecdotally, there are a not insignificant number of erstwhile CHP supporters who are planning to vote for the HDP, and Istanbul and Izmir are likely to erupt should the AKP receive a supermajority on the back of a failed HDP bid. If I am right about the HDP ultimately falling short, Turkey is going to be in for a long and contentious summer, with all of the now-familiar scenes that have accompanied recent summers – tear gas, TOMA water cannons, police beating protestors, and mass arrests on vague and undefined terrorism charges.

Even if the HDP does garner 10%, another prevailing source of instability will be the continuing unraveling and unpredictability of Erdoğan, whose behavior has become nuttier as time goes on. If he does not get his presidential system, he is not going to react well to what will be his first real loss in over a decade, and for a guy used to getting what he wants – thousand room palaces, gilded drinking glasses, having his spy chief remain in his post despite said spy chief resigning and announcing a run for parliament – this will be a new reality for him. Erdoğan has built an independent power base of advisers and sycophants that make up a parallel government and that Turks now refer to in shorthand as “the Palace” and he intends to use it. If his presidential dreams are dashed, there is no telling what he will do and to what lengths he will go to try and get what he wants, but one can guarantee that whatever he does will be divisive and damaging to Turkish democracy, which as Erik Meyersson points out, is hanging on by a thread as it is even in the context of the very elections that purportedly legitimate Turkey as democratic. The perpetuation of Turkey’s current parliamentary system also means that the maneuvering between Erdoğan and the Palace on the one hand and Davutoğlu and the prime minister’s office on the other will continue, with jockeying between the dueling power bases. The AKP is already divided between the two camps, as personified by the spat between deputy prime minister and co-AKP founder Bülent Arınç and Ankara mayor “Mad” Melih Gökçek, and a setback for the prospective presidential system is not going to end this fight. It will continue to divide the AKP and prolong the Twilight Zone aspect of nobody knowing who is actually in charge and whether Erdoğan or Davutoğlu is running the country and the party. So long as the party controlling the government is unstable – and the AKP is as unstable as it has ever been – it is going to filter down into every aspect of governance, and while it may lead to the AKP’s downfall, which many will welcome, it may also lead to chaos for Turkey itself.

If the HDP does not get enough votes and the AKP does get to 330, this does not guarantee stability either. While Erdoğan has cowed dissident party members for years, there is significant dissension in the ranks. There is no guarantee that the AKP will march forward in lockstep toward unlimited Erdoğan despotism, and certainly the other parties are not going to lay down quietly without a fight. There will be nastiness ahead during the struggle over the terms of the new constitution within the Assembly, and then the real fighting will take place in the run-up to the referendum. As bad as things have been during the perpetual campaign of the past year and a half, it will be that much worse during the campaigning over the very future of Turkey’s political system. The talk of lobbies – Jewish, Armenian, interest rate, Greek, robot, preacher’s, blood, chaos, gay, atheist, and Alevi are among Erdoğan’s greatest hits – and foreign conspiracies will only intensify as Erdoğan seeks to paint all of his opponents as enemies not of him but of the “New Turkey” and of Turkish progress. If you think what has come up until now has been bad, just wait for what comes once Erdoğan really turns on the afterburners.

Finally, there is the question of whether the end of this seemingly perpetual election season will restore some stability to Turkey’s foreign policy and its relations with its once and future allies. There is certainly an argument to be made that if Turkey has some space to strategically reorient itself with regard to the U.S. and to the Middle East, it will undo some of the damage that has been done. Unfortunately, while Turkish domestic politics and the over-the-top rhetoric that has served the government’s domestic political needs have contributed to its foreign policy disarray, I don’t think that the end of Erdoğan and the AKP’s permanent campaign mode is going to be enough. Jon Schanzer and Merve Tahiroğlu take a quick glance around the region and convincingly argue that Ankara’s isolation is a permanent feature rather than a bug of its quest for regional dominance given the constraints under which it operates. I myself argued in World Politics Review earlier this week that Turkey’s relationship with Israel is doomed to the status quo for the indefinite future, and despite the nascent cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey on training and arming a subset of Syrian rebels, there is too much dividing the two countries for the relationship to be as robust as it appeared during President Obama’s first term. As much as Turkey is trying to create a new normal for itself in its neighborhood, its efforts can only go so far.

In sum, whatever happens on Sunday, Turkey is not about to enter a newly stable period. Turkish politics are in flux in ways that haven’t been seen in decades, Turkish society is reaching a boiling point, alarm bells are going off all over the economy, and Turkey is involving itself in proxy wars all over the Middle East. While it would be nice to chalk up the last couple of years to the constant electioneering, the fact is that Turkey is in a bad place, and nobody can confidently predict that it will get better with the advent of a new government.

Turkey’s Syria Spillover Problem

October 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

I wrote the following piece for Foreign Affairs, arguing that the true threat to Turkey from ISIS is not a military one, but is rather the spillover effects that are going to impact Turkish domestic stability as a result of ISIS’ rise.

To listen to officials from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and read Turkey’s pro-government press is to dive into a happy place in which Turkey has never been better. It is a democratic beacon shining its light on the rest of the Middle East, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu is leading the charge to consolidate Turkish democracy and create a new regional order, the Turkish economy is humming along despite villainous credit rating agencies’ efforts to destroy it, and Turks of all stripes are united behind their government’s various initiatives. The official view from Ankara is sunny indeed — yet the clouds massing on the country’s border presage a hurricane.

AKP rule has brought a measure of stability previously unknown to Turkey. Here, a growing economy and concerted efforts to address Kurdish grievances have contributed. On a more disturbing note, so have the gradual reining in of the free press and open dissent. For better or worse, the country has become safely predictable and the AKP has been able to govern without seriously being challenged. Even those not in the AKP camp acknowledge that today’s Turkey seems eons removed from the days of terrorism and assassinations in the streets, military coups, and runaway inflation.

But the chaos on Turkey’s border with Syria threatens to upend all of this. The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has threatened Turkey’s internal balance in a number of ways. But the danger does not come from ISIS itself. Although the group has proved its military bona fides during its rampage through Iraq and Syria, it does not present a serious territorial challenge to Turkey, which has a large NATO-backed army, a modern air force, and the resources to hit back at ISIS should it choose. Rather, it is the follow-on effects of ISIS’ march through the region that may herald a return to the bad old days.

To read the rest, including my analysis of Turkey’s economic problems, burgeoning issues with the Kurds, and the rise of nationalism, please head over here to Foreign Affairs.

The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition

September 23, 2014 § 4 Comments

Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.

Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.

The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.

The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.

Is Turkey’s Future A Liberal One?

August 14, 2014 § 6 Comments

Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.

It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.

The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.

Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:

The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.

Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.

He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.

There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.

I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.

Guest Post: Turkish Kurds and Presidential Politics

July 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

Guest poster extraordinaire Dov Friedman, who is spending the summer doing research in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, weighs in today on why the Turkish government’s resumption of the peace process with the PKK is motivated by factors other than improving relations with the KRG in Iraq.

Late last week, the Turkish government submitted a bill to the Grand National Assembly advancing the stalled-but-ongoing process toward resolution of the country’s longstanding Kurdish Issue. The bill arrived after a long period of dormancy in the process. Since the negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan began, Prime Minister Erdoğan has faced mass social protests, corruption allegations, and contentious local elections.

The government recommences the process at a time when Iraq is melting down and the Turkey-KRG relationship looks stronger—and more elemental—than ever. This fact has not escaped commentators on the bill. The Wall Street Journal reported on the new bill and implicitly connected it to Turkey’s relationship with increasingly important relationship with the Iraqi Kurds.

That explanation is a bit too neat, and elides some of the complexities—both in the bill and in the Turkey-KRG relationship.

Hurriyet Daily News published a nice summary of the bill’s contents. The bill is mostly procedural. It sets out government control of the process and its reporting mechanisms. Only two articles appear ripe for analysis.

First, the bill explicitly grants targeted legal immunity to any government appointees tasked with negotiations on behalf of the Turkish state. If Erdoğan’s purges in the judiciary and police force were not enough, this article represents another swipe at the Gülen Movement—which has generally opposed negotiations with PKK insurgents as part of a solution to the Kurdish Issue.

In 2012, Gülenist prosecutors sought to bring criminal charges against intelligence chief and top Erdoğan adviser Hakan Fidan. Erdoğan countered by ramming through immunity from prosecution for Fidan. The immunity article formally extends protection to anyone involved in the negotiations, and is nothing more than a preemptive step to discourage Gülenist machinations.

Second, the government—in a very preliminary fashion—has launched the process of bringing PKK fighters down from the mountain and reintegrating them into society. This is a commendable—if long-overdue—step from Erdoğan, and any optimism about the process is pinned to this article. Some analysts may see this genuine step forward as motivated by the crumbling of Iraq.

We should avoid the temptation to connect this step to the ongoing Iraq crisis. As a factual matter, the AKP government advances this bill at the same time as its relationship with the KRG evolves precipitously. But the two are not necessarily related. Turgut Özal famously viewed relations with the KRG as a powerful antidote to Turkey’s Kurdish Issue. In response to Kurds in Turkey clamoring for a state, Özal believed Turkey could strengthen its position if it could point to a self-governing Kurdish region in Iraq. Relations with the KRG would not facilitate a solution, they would obviate the need for one.

Moreover, the KRG’s relationship with the PKK—as with so many intra-Kurdish group relations—is complex. The KRG has not worked especially hard to oust PKK fighters from the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time, Barzani cultivated the Turkish relationship well before the Kurdish Issue solution process began. Since the Syrian civil war loosed the Syrian Kurds from centralized control, Barzani has worked to expand KDP influence—opening low-intensity conflict with Salih Muslim, leader of the PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish PYD.

Finally, in a mildly surprising departure from the AKP’s usual lockstep messaging, debate has burbled up from the circle around the Prime Minister. Hüseyin Çelik, former Education Minister and Erdoğan’s close ally, said recently that if the crisis in Iraq leads to the state’s failure, the Kurds have a right to self-determination. Days later, Ibrahim Kalın—adviser to Erdoğan and frequent designee to explain government positions in English—wrote an impassioned defense of a unified Iraq. It would be strange if the government initiated domestic legislative action in response to the Iraq crisis without first sorting out what exactly its unified position on the crisis was.

More likely, the bill on the Kurdish Issue solution is tied directly to the worst-kept secret in Turkey: Erdoğan’s upcoming presidential bid. During his tenure, Erdoğan has often made small but flashy gestures toward solving the Kurdish Issue during election season. The Prime Minister still commands a tricky coalition of forces. It includes urban Kurds, who want to see progress on a solution, and religious nationalists, who will bristle at concessions too swift or numerous.

Erdoğan plainly wants to win the presidency on a single ballot, and he needs both of these voter groups in support to do so. Hence, this bill. It signals to Kurdish supporters that he is serious, if deliberate, in his efforts to solve the long-running conflict. To conservative nationalists, it indicates that the Prime Minister will make no immediate sweeping changes and will pair attention to security with any conflict de-escalation.

As much as Erdoğan benefits from cracking down on free media, weakening Turkey’s institutions, and concentrating power in his person, bills like this one are the primary reason Erdoğan continues to rule Turkey. No other Turkish politician has deciphered how to command such an effective—and impressively stable—coalition. The joint opposition’s management of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu’s presidential campaign inspires precisely zero confidence that it is any closer than it has been over the last decade to offering a viable political alternative. Thus, we can expect more artful baby steps toward a solution to the Kurdish Issue in the coming years under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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