The Decline and Fall of Ahmet Davutoğlu

May 6, 2016 § 4 Comments

And just like that, he’s gone. After leading the AKP to victory in November and regaining the parliamentary majority that the party had failed to win a few months earlier, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is being replaced upon the decree of President Erdoğan. A prime minister being ousted by the president outside of an election is a normal occurrence in many countries, but not in countries that have parliamentary systems or in countries where the prime minister is the leader of the ruling political party. In this case, Davutoğlu is simply the latest victim of Erdoğan’s fiat and his determination to do whatever he likes whenever he likes, rules and regulations be damned.

The truth is that Davutoğlu never had a chance. As all Turkey observers know, Erdoğan has been on a multiyear mission to transform Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. While he has done his utmost best to accomplish this under the current strictures – chairing cabinet meetings despite the complete absence of the national emergency or special circumstances that are required by the Turkish constitution, setting up his own shadow government outside of the prime minister’s office, building a literal palace that was intended for the prime minister but then taking it for himself once he was elected president – to do so ultimately requires a new constitution and a prime minister who is willing to radically reduce his own powers and back such a plan. To Erdoğan’s great rage, Davutoğlu has not proven to be such a prime minister to Erdoğan’s complete satisfaction, and like anyone else who has stood in Erdoğan’s way (MPs, reporters, children who are found to have insulted him), Davutoğlu has now been dealt with. Whether, like my good friend and colleague Steven Cook, you describe the situation in Turkey under Erdoğan as patrimonial sultanism or, like me, you describe it as a presidential takeover, the upshot is that Davutoğlu’s only chance for political longevity was in backing Uzun Adam, and he quite clearly did not go far enough for the Tall Man’s liking. This is not to suggest that Davutoğlu has been some courageous and independent politician, since I think he has been far from it. But when you expect total acquiescence and you only get mostly acquiescence, heads roll.

It is important to clearly understand why this episode is particularly outrageous. When Erdoğan ascended to the presidency, the Turkish constitution required him to officially resign from the AKP and to have no involvement in the party’s political affairs, as the Turkish president is supposed to be non-partisan and above politics. Erdoğan then proceeded to blatantly campaign for the AKP on multiple occasions with appeals to voters that only a vote for the AKP would ensure stability and a new constitution. He was heavily involved in choosing the AKP’s candidates for the Grand National Assembly, a task that is supposed to be done by the party leader, who in this case was not Erdoğan but Davutoğlu. The makeup of the current cabinet ostensibly selected by Davutoğlu following the November election, and which is supposed to have nothing at all to do with the president, has Erdoğan’s fingerprints all over it and includes numerous Erdoğan loyalists and his son-in-law. Now comes the most egregious interference of all, which is that Erdoğan, who supposedly has no involvement with the AKP whatsoever by law, has managed to depose the head of the AKP and force a party with which he is supposed to have no affiliation to choose a new leader and new prime minister. You can call this whatever you like (and many are referring to it as a palace coup, which is a particularly wonderful and literal turn of phrase in this case since Erdoğan actually does live in a palace), but a sign of healthy democracy it is not. I feel like simultaneously laughing and crying while watching the various Erdoğan sycophants in the press and on Twitter rush to do their best Winston Smith imitations by banishing all positive mentions of Davutoğlu down the memory hole now that he has become an enemy of Oceania rather than an ally.

I do not mean to convey the impression that Davutoğlu should be seen as a principled martyr for the greater good. My thoughts on his role in fomenting an ugly nationalism in Turkey have not changed, and he is complicit in Turkey’s authoritarian slide by giving cover to Erdoğan for years in allowing him to roll back democratic gains. I do not think that history will treat him terribly kindly, despite the mid-2000s fawning over him as a leading global thinker, given that much of his reputation for strategic brilliance was exposed as naïve and arrogant blustering – can anyone still utter the phrase “zero problems with neighbors” without snickering? – and he more than anyone else is responsible for Turkey’s past half decade of disastrous foreign policy and geopolitical weakening. But the fact that Davutoğlu is a flawed prime minister is ultimately only for Turkish voters and his own party to judge in deciding whether to remove him, and it is decidedly not under the purview of Turkey’s president, who is supposed to have no role in party politics at all, to sack him. The absolute loser in all of this is not one newly unemployed individual, but the institutions and political culture of the Turkish state.

Aside from the damage to Turkey itself, there is a high likelihood of a series of unintended consequences that will unfurl as a result of Davutoğlu’s removal. Davutoğlu has been the point man in negotiating the refugee deal and the related visa waiver deal with the EU. With him out of the picture, both of these developments are in danger. It is difficult to imagine smooth sailing ahead between Turkey and the EU with Erdoğan or an Erdoğan flunky at the helm of the relationship on the Turkish side (and make no mistake about what level of independence the next Turkish prime minister will enjoy). This also in my view increases the likelihood that the group of AKP heavyweights who have fallen out of the palace’s favor, most saliently Abdullah Gül and Bülent Arınç, finally decide to challenge their erstwhile political partner and co-AKP founder and form their own conservative political party that will directly compete with the AKP. It will be poetic should Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate power ultimately result in the opposite.

Should this happen, Davutoğlu himself will not be at the forefront. The primary reason that he was so easily disposed of is that he has no political base of his own, and in fact was not even an MP until the AKP’s third election victory in 2011. His rise was entirely dependent on Erdoğan, who elevated him from relative academic obscurity to be his chief foreign policy adviser and then eventually foreign minister. When you are a courtier whose position and influence hinge upon the king’s good graces, your only real option when you fall out of favor is to quietly slink away. The Davutoğlu era is over, and he will stand as a cautionary tale for those who do not bend entirely to Erdoğan’s will and as an enormous pulsating warning beacon for what lies ahead for Turkey and its imminent imperial presidency.


News Quiz, Trump Vs. Erdoğan Edition

March 7, 2016 § 7 Comments

Normally when I do a news quiz post it is with a sense of cheeky jest, but today’s is deadly serious. Donald Trump is the leading candidate to be this year’s Republican nominee for president amid a swirling debate over whether, in Robert Kagan’s words, a President Trump would demonstrate “how political parties die and how democracies give rise to authoritarian rulers.” I agree with Kagan that the question over Trump’s authoritarian inclinations is no longer a question and is rather definitively settled, and the simplest way to see this is by examining Trump’s treatment of the press. A free press is the sine qua non of any functional democracy, and Trump has made it very plain that he views a free press as a nuisance that would hinder his ability to do whatever he pleases.

Conveniently for someone like me who writes about Turkey, there is another world leader who also views a free press as something to be quashed rather than accommodated. I think we can all agree that Turkey under President Erdoğan is not exactly a paragon of press freedom, coming in at 149 out of 180 countries in the 2015 Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index and recently featuring scenes of angry pro-government mobs attacking both media offices and individual reporters while the courts order the government takeover of newspapers that conveniently happen to not toe the government line. This assault on the press has heralded a real and measurable authoritarian turn in Turkey, and the two developments have gone hand in hand. When a political leader inveighs against the media doing its job in such a consistent and unrelenting fashion, it reveals a lot about that leader’s stance toward democracy, as tragically seen again and again in Turkey. It stands to reason that if it takes some effort to distinguish Trump from Erdoğan when it comes to the subject of the press, we here in the U.S. should be more than a little concerned about Trump’s candidacy. So without further ado, read the following quotes and see whether you are able to identify which ones insulting, threatening, and belittling the media emanated from the current autocrat and which from the budding one.

  1. “Most of it [the media], seventy percent, seventy-five percent is absolute dishonest, absolute scum.”
  2. “The media should be independent and the level of democracy in a country is shown by the extent to which the media, journalists, and media employees are free. However, this freedom should not mean being exempted from all responsibilities. What matters is that people have access to true and objective news.”
  3. Singling out a reporter at a campaign rally by name who had written about him earlier that week – “A militant in the guise of a journalist, a shameless woman… Know your place!”
  4. Singling out a reporter at a campaign rally by name who had written about him earlier that week – “She’s back there–[derogatory nickname for the reporter]–she’s back there. What a lie it was, no, what a lie, [reporter’s name], what a lie it was from [media network] to have written that, it was a total lie…Third rate reporter, remember that, third rate, third.”
  5. “You know the press is among the most dishonest people ever created by God.”
  6. “Media should never have been given the liberty to insult.”
  7. “I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them.”
  8. Threatening to sue a prominent newspaper – “The press wants to throw mud to see if it sticks. The [name of newspaper] is renting out its own pages for money. This is the [name of newspaper’s] failing. We will pursue legal channels regarding the [name of newspaper].”
  9. Calling out a reporter during a speech by name who refused to be in the same place as the candidate because of concerns over press restrictions – “Ah, we really depend on you. Who cares if you come or if you don’t….What an ignorant man you are.”
  10. Confronting a reporter at a press conference while alleging that the reporter misquoted him – “Do you apologize? Do you apologize for not reading my words? Do you apologize? No? . . . Okay, forget you. Just forget you.”

Folks, guessing the provenance of quotes is a fun little game, but the consequences are serious. Trump is fundamentally different than every other person running for president, because unlike the other candidates from both parties – whose views and policy positions you may find awful and contrary to American values – Trump gives no evidence that he is committed to democracy beyond getting the most votes and assuming power. Like Erdoğan, his fetishization of polls and vote totals as the only factors that matter betrays a theory of majoritarian governance that cannot be reconciled with liberal democracy. It is the notion that when you receive the most votes, you are entitled to do anything you please because the voters have given you a mandate to govern unencumbered by checks and balances. When Trump treats reporters as scum of the earth, this is what he is signaling. Accountability may be annoying to those in power, but it is the lubrication that keeps the engine of democracy from stalling.

Since this has been a sobering experiment and I want to end with a little bit of levity, who said the following quote yesterday? “I am a second father to every girl, a second brother to every woman.”

A. Donald Trump, dismissing allegations that he is a sexist

B. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, speaking at a conference on women’s issues in Istanbul

C. Bill Cosby, defending his behavior toward women during a pre-trial deposition



  1. DJT
  2. RTE
  3. RTE
  4. DJT
  5. DJT
  6. RTE
  7. DJT
  8. RTE
  9. RTE
  10. DJT

Bonus question: B

A Quick Reaction to the AKP Victory

November 1, 2015 § 11 Comments

I need some time to absorb today’s election results and think about them more thoroughly, but a few brief points in the immediate aftermath.

I certainly will not pretend to have foreseen this result. Had someone predicted to me yesterday that the AKP would replicate its 2011 parliamentary victory, I would have laughed at the idea and dismissed the person as naive or a Turkey neophyte. I know of no serious Turkey analyst, either Turkish or otherwise, who saw this coming, and the polling whiffed entirely, so both I and everyone else need to figure out where the gap is between the polling/analysis and actual results. I will, however, take credit for writing on the day after the previous election that it was not a loss for the AKP, that Erdoğan was still going to control the direction in which Turkey moved, and doubting the analysis of a liberal wave or new era in Turkish politics. At least I got something right!

Assuming that these results are accurate – and I’ll get to why that may be a question in a minute – Erdoğan and the AKP’s strategy has been vindicated beautifully. After the June 7 election, Erdoğan took the gamble that introducing some instability into the system, linking the HDP to the PKK and Kurdish terrorism, turning even more nationalist and polarizing, and arguing that not handing the AKP a parliamentary majority was a recipe for further chaos, would all result in a second election that would net the AKP a larger vote share. A lot of people, including me, thought that this strategy spun out of the AKP’s grasp and that the AKP would end up either in the same spot or even lose some ground given the violent clashes between the army and the PKK, terrorist attacks inside Turkey that were almost certainly carried out by ISIS, the introduction of Russia into the Syrian civil war in a direct way and on Assad’s side, and an economy that is not improving. As has been the case repeatedly over the last decade and a half, Erdoğan’s political instincts are better than everyone else’s, and while the preliminary results do not have him getting the supermajority he has so craved in order to install his beloved presidential system, the AKP is back to a majority of seats in parliament.

How does something like this happen? After everything that has gone on in Turkey over the past five months, how is it possible that the AKP increased its vote share in every single city? How is it possible that the AKP is only a few seats short of its 2011 victory despite a worse economy, a foreign policy that has blown up, terrorist attacks in Turkey’s streets, renewed fighting with the PKK, and far greater political polarization? Looking at the results that have been released, the AKP has picked up seats from the nationalist MHP and from the Kurdish HDP, and turnout overall is up. That says to me that the nationalist positioning worked exactly as it was supposed to, since nationalist voters figured that they may as well vote for the suddenly ultra-nationalist party that will be the largest party rather than the ultra-nationalist party that will come in third. In terms of the loss of vote share for the HDP, it’s probably a combination of the AKP’s constant allegations tying the HDP to the PKK and some HDP voters getting fed up with the system since the HDP’s historic success in June did not translate into any increased power for the party or an increased voice for Kurds, and some of the voters who cast their ballots for the HDP last time but are historic AKP voters returning to the AKP fold. People who pay attention to Turkish politics spend a lot of time reading the Turkish press online and conversing with each other on social media, but the vast majority of Turkish voters get their information from Turkish television, and last week’s seizure of Koza Ipek television stations reinforces that if you get your news from Turkish television, you are getting a relentless pro-government message. So in hindsight, it is easy to see how the AKP’s message that instability was the result of not giving the AKP a majority in June and that the only way to restore things was to correct course today, and drowning out every alternative argument to the contrary, could have produced the desired result.

Of course, there is also another possibility, which is that what seems to be impossible actually is. As of this writing, the AKP has received an additional 4.3 million votes over what it received in June. Also as of this writing, the Turkish Supreme Electoral Council (YSK) has not released any official results and the YSK website is down, and it has been ever since voting ended. I’m an Occam’s Razor kind of guy, and quite frankly, the prospect of the AKP doing so much better five months later despite things being so much worse seems like it should be statistically impossible. The central elections website is down, votes were counted hours faster than they were last time, the ban on broadcasting results was lifted before it was supposed to…I’m not in a position to make accusations of fraud, but there is definitely some unusual stuff going on. The bottom line, however, is that even if there turns out to be nothing irregular at all about the actual vote tally, the facts are that the AKP spent five months harassing opposition politicians, arresting opposition journalists, shutting down television stations and newspapers, accusing the HDP of supporting terrorism, and warning the entire country that the instability that has wracked the country would look like child’s play if the AKP were not handed a majority this time. Whatever you want to call the sum total of those tactics, they do not make for a free and fair election. Welcome to the era of competitive authoritarianism, Turkey.

More to come…

How Will Turkey Deal With Its 9/11?

October 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

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.

Some Significant Home News

September 24, 2015 § 4 Comments

I know that I have been neglecting the blog lately in a serious way (some of which was for good reasons such as the birth of my daughter, and some of which was for not so good reasons such as having a lazy summer), but that is soon to be remedied due to some news on the professional front. As of last week, I am the new policy director for the Israel Policy Forum, an organization that will be familiar to regular readers as I have mentioned it before as one whose goals and motivations track very closely with my own. In IPF’s own words, “Israel Policy Forum is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that provides resources and advocacy for a strong, Jewish and democratic state at peace with its neighbors.  IPF convenes forums and publishes commentary and analysis that promote pragmatic strategies for achieving regional peace and security. IPF mobilizes policy experts and community leaders to build support for those ideas in the U.S. and Israel.” It’s a unique organization in many ways and difficult to pigeonhole, but think of it as a think tank with a dedicated policy mission that combines objective analysis with advocacy for its goals. I will be doing many things as policy director, but since IPF asked me to come on board to provide the organization with a clear voice and message, my primary task will be to establish IPF as (hopefully) an unparalleled source for analysis and commentary on Israeli politics and society, the internal politics of American Jewry, and the ways in which regional dynamics in the Middle East affect Israel. I will be writing a weekly column for IPF along with starting up a collaborative blog on IPF’s website, and so if you have enjoyed my writing in the past, there will now be lots more of it and more regularly than it has been for the past few months. For those of you who have been readers from the beginning and remember when I used to write a post every day, I shall be returning to a pace much closer to than than what it has been over the past year. So I hope that I still have some dedicated readers left after my months of neglect, and if you promise to keep coming back, I promise to have a lot more writing ahead.

What does this mean for O&Z? Good question. Any column I write for IPF about Israel will be cross-posted to this blog, so you need not worry about ever missing anything substantial I write on the subject if you are a regular O&Z reader or subscriber. Since the IPF blog is not my own proprietary piece of Internet realty and will feature other writers as well, however, I encourage everyone to check it out once it is up and running in the next month.

You’ve covered the Zionists; how about the Ottomans? Rest assured that I have no intention of neglecting my writing on Turkey. As even casual observers of the news are aware, Turkey is going through serious political and social upheaval, with another election coming on November 1 and constant developments related to the Syrian civil war. I will continue to opine on Turkey as I always have, and for those who doubt my commitment, I have a new piece in the American Interest – at 6000 words the longest piece I have published to date, I believe – on the past, present, and future of U.S.-Turkey relations, and how the U.S. should best view Turkey going forward if it is to maintain any type of productive strategic and tactical bilateral relationship. Please go over to the American Interest and check it out, and as usual, here is a taste to whet your appetite:

On June 7, Turkish voters went to the polls to decide the makeup of their next government. When Turkey last held legislative elections in 2011, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was riding high on a decade of record economic growth, newfound influence in the Middle East, and an international consensus that Turkey was more democratic than it had been at any time since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Four years later, that narrative had soured on nearly every front. The economy had slowed considerably, Turkish foreign policy had become bogged down in a Syrian quagmire partially of Ankara’s own making, and the government had launched any number of assaults on Turkish liberties and Turkish citizens in response to threats real and imagined. On top of this, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had turned an election in which he ostensibly was not participating into a referendum on his ambition to transform Turkey’s political system into one with a super-empowered presidency. The AKP entered the election with its past record in question and its future plans—including its very hold on a majority of the seats in the Grand National Assembly—in flux for the first time since coming to power 13 years before.

The relationship between Turkey’s ruling party and its citizens is not the only one that is highly volatile these days. Much as the AKP has suffered a bumpy ride domestically over the past few years, so has Turkey’s relationship with the United States. The “model partnership” that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu used to wax so eloquently about—established during the heyday of relations between President Obama and Erdoğan, when Obama listed the Turkish leader as one of his five closest foreign confidantes—has given way to a far different reality. Erdoğan and other Turkish officials now regularly take potshots at the United States, accusing President Obama of not caring about his own Muslim citizens and American news organizations of inappropriately meddling in Turkish affairs and seeking to “bring down” the “New Turkey.” On the U.S. side, former ambassadors to Ankara have called for the U.S. government to take a tougher approach toward Turkey rather than treat the government with kid gloves, and it has become accepted wisdom in Washington that the U.S.-Turkey relationship is so broken and dysfunctional as to be nearly unsalvageable.Despite the unpleasantness on both sides, U.S.-Turkey ties are far from dead and buried. While the Obama Administration has become disappointed with the limits of what Turkey can and will do to further American interests in the region, it continues to hope for greater Turkish buy-in on a range of policy issues. This delicate tightrope walk has entailed abandoning grand plans that involve an over-reliance on Turkey while avoiding too much public criticism of Ankara so as not to drive the Turks away. Rather than assume that Turkey is a consistent partner, the White House has adopted more of an a la carte approach, working with the Turkish government on issues that are of mutual interest and papering over any clashes on issues that aren’t.

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.

Did the AKP Win Or Lose Yesterday’s Election?

June 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

If you read any of the coverage of yesterday’s Turkish election, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the AKP suffered a crushing defeat. Tayyip Erdoğan’s dreams of an imperial presidency appear to be dead, the AKP no longer has a majority of seats in the Grand National Assembly and will be forced into either a coalition or a minority government for the first time since coming to power in 2002 (and go read Aaron Stein for a great breakdown of the various possibilities), and the party performed far below nearly everyone’s expectations (including my own). At the same time, calling this a defeat seems bizarre given that the AKP beat the second place CHP by 15 points and 126 seats and will still control the government, albeit from a weakened position. I wrote about the election today for Foreign Affairs and argued that the election results should not give cause for instant jubilation to the AKP’s opponents:

Imagine a country in which the ruling party—having won three consecutive national elections over the past decade-plus—wins its fourth in a row, beating the second-place party by over fifteen percentage points, and yet nearly every outside observer declares the result to be a disastrous loss for that party. This is the situation in which Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) now finds itself following Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister turned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is still ensconced in his thousand-room palace, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu will remain at his post, and the AKP is going to continue dominating the government as either a minority ruling party or as the lead party in an extremely lopsided coalition. Wherever you look, though, the AKP’s political obituary is being written.

It is easy to understand why schadenfreude reigns supreme among the 60 percent of Turks who voted for a party other than the AKP. In the span of one election, the AKP has gone from 49.8 of the vote and just three seats short of a coveted supermajority in the Grand National Assembly to having to rely on the backing of another party for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Six in every ten Turkish voters cast their ballots for an opposition party, and when taking into account Erdogan’s very public drive for the AKP to win 400 seats in order to give him the increased presidential powers that he so desperately covets, it is in many ways a devastating blow. The path to a formal presidential system—one that many feared would put Turkey on the fast track to full-blown democratic breakdown—has petered out. This in itself is plenty cause for celebration. However, the exuberance that reigns supreme in many quarters should be tempered; although the results of this election will prove good in the long run, the short-term aftermath may prove decidedly unpleasant.

To read the rest, including why I think the AKP’s disappointing performance may counterintuitively empower Erdoğan, please head over to Foreign Affairs.

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