June 4, 2015 § 5 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.
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.
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.
August 14, 2014 § 5 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.
June 17, 2014 § 12 Comments
For a few years now, Turkey has been engaged in a delicate balance between the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. Ankara has not wanted to anger Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki by implying support for an independent – rather than autonomous – Iraqi Kurdistan, and Turkey has never been interested in such an outcome anyway because of the incentives it would create for Turkish Kurds to push harder for their own independent state. Turkey has been happy to deal with the KRG and Massoud Barzani outside of its relationship with Maliki, supporting Erbil’s claims to independent oil revenues, and in fact has supported and promoted Barzani in an effort to marginalize the PKK and its Syrian PYD offshoot by making Barzani and the KRG the most influential Kurds in the region. As Turkey’s relationship with Maliki has deteriorated and as Turkey and Iraq have feuded over Iraq’s treatment of its Sunni minority, this dynamic between Turkey and the KRG has increased, and for the most part Barzani has played his part by not speaking out as a champion of Turkish Kurds. Throughout all of this, however, Turkey has stopped short of overtly supporting a de jure independent Iraqi Kurdistan, realizing that to do so will mean the end of any relationship that still remains with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
The ISIS takeover of Mosul and the possibility that it will eventually overrun the Maliki government alters this equation. F0r decades, Turkey’s biggest security problem has been the PKK. Now, the biggest threat facing Turkey is ISIS, which has demonstrated its ability to take and hold territory and which views the Turkish government with hostility. Turkey already received an unpleasant wakeup call a week ago when ISIS captured the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took the diplomats working there hostage. At this point, Turkey has a hostile and capable fighting force sitting right across its border, and the spillover from northern Iraq has the potential to be far worse than the refugee crisis that Turkey has already been managing as a result of the Syrian civil war, since it will involve armed hostilities rather than just absorbing fleeing refugees.
The best way to neutralize ISIS as a threat is to strengthen the KRG, whose peshmerga already took Kirkuk in response to the ISIS takeover of Mosul, and can keep the conflict with ISIS in Iraq rather than having it cross the border into southeastern Turkey. In the past, even considering supporting the KRG as an independent state was not an option, but the circumstances have changed now that it is clear just how weak and ineffectual the Maliki government is. Ankara should be getting in front of this issue, recognizing that even if the Maliki government survives it will be only through the intervention and support of outside powers such as the U.S. and Iran (which is not a phrase I ever envisioned writing) and that the consequences of angering the Maliki government pales in comparison to the consequences of an actual radical jihadi state bordering Turkey.
Furthermore, if Turkey still subscribes to the theory that strengthening Barzani and the KRG sends the message to Turkish Kurds that Kurdistan already exists without them and thus they need to drop any hopes of separation or independence for themselves, then now is the time to test out whether this theory is actually correct. Things are quiet with the PKK, Erdoğan has been slowly negotiating with Abdullah Ocalan, and ramping up the peace process with the PKK while simultaneously supporting Kurdish independence could potentially be a massive victory for Erdoğan and the AKP. If Turkish Kurds support a deal that gives them language rights and some sort of autonomous citizenship and create pressure on the PKK to accept, Erdoğan will easily sail through to a presidential victory while solidifying his coalition for another decade. Erdoğan could thus create a new status quo for his own Kurdish population that ends any legitimate hopes of an independent Turkish Kurdistan while securing Turkey’s borders from ISIS in creating an ally of Iraqi Kurdistan. And this is without even considering the windfall potential of Turkey becoming an energy hub as a result of transporting Kurdish oil, which will always be in doubt so long as the central government in Baghdad still has a claim on it.
There are certainly downsides to this scenario, chief among them the enmity it will cause between Ankara and Baghdad, not to mention the possibility of fighting in northern Iraq between KRG peshmerga and Iraqi troops that will send even more refugees into Turkey. It is also in some sense playing with fire to actively attempt to rewrite state borders in the Middle East, since there is no way of knowing what it will unleash elsewhere. Despite these problems, Turkey has been dancing around this idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan for awhile, and the time is right to be forward thinking and actually implement a real policy. The ISIS threat is real and it is scary, and Turkey’s best strategy should be to empower the only fighting force in Iraq capable of countering ISIS and making sure that northern Iraq does not turn into a jihadi wasteland.
November 26, 2013 § Leave a comment
Today’s post comes to you courtesy of O&Z favorite and veteran guest poster Dov Friedman, and examines the reasons behind Turkey’s apparent shift back to its Zero Problems With Neighbors policy and why the strategy is unlikely to be too successful the second time around.
Turkey’s foreign policy activity appears resurgent of late. In early November, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu hosted his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif, for bilateral talks in Ankara. Zarif, picking up on a cherished Davutoğlu theme, emphasized the countries’ shared ability to promote dialogue in service of regional peace and stability. Two weeks ago, reciprocating Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari’s October visit to Ankara, Davutoğlu visited his counterpart in Iraq—where he extolled his own regional policy in vivid, splendid fashion.
Taken together, they at least signal an end to the oppositional forcefulness of Turkey’s Syria policy. They may also indicate a broader effort by Turkey to reset regional relations.
The problem, Turkey may find, is akin to the one Alvy Singer faces in the lobster scenes in Annie Hall—that of trying to recreate a particular, wildly successful moment from the past. The efforts to improve relations with Iran and Iraq are transparent and a bit clumsy—a sort of ersatz Zero Problems with Neighbors tactic.
In the years prior to the Arab Uprisings, Zero Problems was at its most effective as an aspect of a wider foreign policy strategy—one that leveraged regional relationships to facilitate, and at times mediate, among powers. For a brief moment, that foreign policy vision raised the prospect that Turkey might be a vital presence in facilitating international political negotiations—a “central power” of sorts, to borrow Davutoğlu’s own conception.
Whether by fault or circumstance, that moment is gone. Its evanescence explains Turkey’s efforts to recapture the magic of Zero Problems—and why that effort now appears futile.
Take, to begin, Egypt’s decision over the weekend to send off Turkey’s ambassador and downgrade relations. The obvious immediate cause—as Steven Cook noted in a strong post yesterday—was Turkey’s ostentatious condemnation of the Egyptian military coup. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan foolhardily insisted on continuing to recognize the Mohamed Morsi government as Egypt’s legitimate rulers, and rarely passed up jabs at the military regime. He did so because he believed vocal support of democratically elected governments bolstered Turkey’s regional influence. The result is an embarrassing diplomatic fiasco for Turkey.
Yet, the interactions between Turkey and Egypt during Morsi’s year in power should have communicated to AK Party’s leadership the potential limits of Turkey’s regional influence. After the Freedom and Justice Party’s victory, the AK Party government offered friendly—and wise—advice to its political Islamist brethren on the merits of blending conservative values with a secular constitution. Morsi’s FJP politely told them to bug off. Support from Turkey for the Muslim Brotherhood’s cause was one thing; advice on its political program for Egypt was another entirely.
In hindsight, that was the moment for serious Turkish introspection. Regional actors might welcome Turkey’s support and collaborate to mutual benefit, but they were wholly uninterested in domestic political advice. Turkey’s facilitation- and mediation-focused foreign policy had clear benefits for Turkey’s role in both the international sphere and in relations with the U.S. and Europe, but it purchased little in the way of regional leadership. At the very least, the FJP’s wakeup should have pushed Turkey to consider its core regional interests and work quietly to implement as many of them as possible.
But Turkey pursued misguided policies in Syria and now faces serious internal problems as a result. Believing the regional trend would move toward conservative democratic movements—and believing in an opportunity for lasting Turkish influence—Turkey was bullish on the Syrian opposition. To support the protracted fight against Bashar Assad, Turkey tacitly facilitated the Saudi-backed jihadists, enabling free movement through Gaziantep’s airport and on to the Syrian border, while turning a blind eye to Gulf-funded safe houses on the Turkish side of the border—ones it publicly denies exist.
At the same time, Turkey refused for far too long to engage politically with the PYD—the PKK offshoot in northern Syria—, backing Massoud Barzani’s heavy-handed and futile efforts to extend his influence by sending KRG-affiliated peshmerga forces across the border. This despite the PYD’s demonstrated commitment to fighting both al-Qaeda and Assad regime forces.
The result of these Syria policies? This terrifying item on jihadi recruitment in Turkey’s southeast from the Guardian‘s excellent Istanbul-based correspondent, Connie Letsch. It is a problem Turkey may contend with for years to come.
Which returns us to the recent visits with the Iraqi and Iranian foreign ministers. As the Syrian civil war grinds on, and as Turkey bears the economic and social costs of 600,000 refugees, the government recalls its momentarily exalted international standing and seeks to diminish problems and mend relations with its neighbors to the east.
How deep can these ties possibly run? On nearly every issue facing the region today, Turkey and Iran—and Iraq, by extension—are at odds. Their divergence over Syria is well known. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to foster close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government, with the recent Erdoğan-Barzani meeting in Diyarbakır only the latest indicator. Despite fears that the Turkey-PKK peace process was on life support, Erdoğan—to his credit—has renewed the push to move it forward.
On each of these issues, Iran’s and Iraq’s interests run counter to Turkey’s. The KRG-Turkey partnership markedly increases the likelihood of an eventual bid for independence from Iraq. Turkey is already on record supporting Kurdish oil claims and its constitutional interpretation. Historically, Iran has fomented the PKK-Turkey conflict, which preoccupied Turkish military forces in the east and diminished the potential for PJAK mischief. If Turkey truly ends the decades-long conflict with the PKK, Iran may face a more concerted, focused Kurdish opposition.
Despite the glaring reality that Turkey’s and Iran’s interests run at cross-purposes, Turkey petulantly lashed out in its diplomatic feud with Israel by gift-wrapping 10 Mossad agents for the Iranian regime. At the moment it should have been recalibrating its strategic approach, Turkey simultaneously aided a country with the greatest capacity to upset its regional interests while irrevocably losing the trust of a country whose strengths complement Turkey’s well.
Undoubtedly, Turkey will continue to proclaim, in every way imaginable, a return to normalcy in foreign policy. But through a mix of well-intentioned miscalculations and ill-advised, rash decisions, Turkey faces some troublingly intractable problems. If only assuaging conflicts with its eastern neighbors were the solution. But Erdoğan and Davutoğlu must understand as well as anyone that Zero Problems was effective not as an end in and of itself, but as a platform. Perhaps they would be better off finding their diplomatic rhythm with those who share even the most basic of common regional interests.