Turkey’s Syria Strategy: All About Domestic Politics?


The prospects for a coalition government in Turkey have faded away, and Turks are about to witness yet another election — the fourth poll in the past two years. The rise of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) as a challenger to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was in fact a crucial factor behind the shift in Turkey’s recent strategy in Syria. The HDP’s victory in the June elections effectively put an end to 13 years of the AKP’s single-party rule. After a few rounds of coalition talks, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu appeared to favor the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as a viable coalition partner. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, however, vehemently opposed such a coalition and pushed for early elections, now scheduled for November.

After months of backroom arm wrestling with U.S. officials, the Turkish government cut a deal with Washington on the anti-ISIL coalition but swiftly cracked down on Kurds — both HDP politicians as well as the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As a result, Turkey’s domestic political coalition talks quickly derailed, and violence exploded. Due to their alleged links with PKK, more than 400 HDP activists including town mayors were arrested, and about 1,500 PKK fighters were killed or injured. Erdoğan, once again, is widely seen as the powerful leader of the AKP, as each day brings fresh stories of martyrdom to Turkish citizens — 56 members of the security forces have been killed, the highest death toll in recent years.

Following recent attacks along the Turkey–Syria border — including the July 20 attack on Suruc that killed 32 people — Ankara now allows American military aircraft to use the Incirlik airbase to launch attacks against the Islamic State and designate a military “safe zone” within Syria. The agreement signaled a remarkable change in Turkey’s Syria policy. The recent shift reflects not only Ankara’s concerns about increasing Islamic State militancy in Turkey’s border towns, but also deep worry over recent developments on the Kurdish issue — both domestic and regional.

On June 15, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the PYD (itself the Syrian affiliate of the PKK), captured the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad. This has renewed historical fears among Turkish policymakers that a Kurdish state under the tutelage of the PKK could emerge along Turkey’s border with Syria. A predominantly Arab city, Tal Abyad is located between the two Kurdish cantons of Jazira and Kobane. After the heroic defense of Kobane, the Kurdish victory in Tal Abyad with the help of U.S.-led coalition forces symbolized a strong march towards unification of the Kurdish cantons. Before the PYD seized Tal Abyad, the Turkish military had reportedly been reluctant to conduct any military operations in Syria. In domestic Turkish politics, secular Turks interpreted the Army’s reluctance as silent dissent toward Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn. Yet, the Tal Abyad factor united Erdoğan and the Turkish military through the shared fear that American support for PYD against the Islamic State could seriously harm Turkey’s long-term interests in the region — especially at a time when Washington and Ankara’s relations are increasingly deteriorating. Thus, the shift among Turkey’s military elite helped Erdoğan in negotiating with the administration of President Barack Obama over the use of Incirlik airbase.

To grasp the military elite’s continued reluctance to involve itself in Syria, it is critical to understand the domestic discourse in Turkey. A possible intervention in Syria was a hotly debated nationwide issue during the last election campaign period. The opposition has long claimed that Erdoğan would take the country into war in the case of an electoral defeat for the AKP. Erdoğan’s campaign mantra was “stability,” portraying himself as the guarantor of peace in the country. Pro-government media reminded the public of numerous weak coalition governments before in Turkey’s past and the associated economic and social problems during the 1990s, including the war with the PKK. Thus, against increasing criticism of Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn, one simple but powerful message aired constantly: Turkey needs a powerful leader like Erdoğan and voting for the AKP is the way to ensure stability via an executive presidency enacted by constitutional reform. After a frustrating defeat in the elections, Erdoğan’s advisor Burhan Kuzu tweeted, “I said ‘either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos.” The opposition then designated the war in Syria “Erdoğan’s war” and charged that a chaotic environment was being used to “convince” voters to seek “stability” with the AKP.

Among the domestic factors that convinced the Turkish military to intervene in Syria was the civil war’s impact on Turkey’s Kurdish towns and Kurdish Islamist supporters of the Islamic State. A large number of Kurds are leaving Turkey to join opposition groups — the YPG as well as the Islamic State. In other words, Turkey’s Kurds are killing each other across the border. According to official statistics, these two groups have recruited 1,300 and 1,500 Turkish citizens, respectively. Another data set indicates that 50 percent of the citizens who joined jihadist groups in Syria are of Kurdish origin. The recent suicide bombing in Suruc is in fact a long-anticipated spillover effect. As with the June 2015 attack on an HDP rally in Diyarbakir, the bomber belonged to Dokumacılar, a radical Kurdish Islamist group based in the city of Adiyaman that supports the Islamic State’s fight against the YPG. The leader of the Islamic State in Turkey, Halis Bayuncuk — also known as Abu Hanzala — is an ethnic Kurd. Bayuncuk’s father is serving his life sentence for being one of the leaders of Hezbollah, a Kurdish Islamist group that fought against the PKK during the 1990s. Bayuncuk left the Kurdish Hezbollah to join al-Qaeda in 2007 and then became a key figure in the Islamic State. The large presence of Kurds in the Islamic State is partly tied to the rise of splinter political groups that criticized the moderation of Kurdish Hezbollah when its affiliated legal party, Huda Par, was formed to participate in the Turkish political system.

By proposing the Incirlik deal and renewing war against the PKK, Erdoğan put the pro-Kurdish HDP, which shares part of its support base with the PKK, in a tough position. As violence escalates throughout Turkey’s Kurdish-populated southeast, the HDP’s moderate voices are weakening, and its criticism of the Turkish government may be publicly interpreted as support for radical elements of the PKK. Erdoğan called on the Turkish parliament to strip HDP politicians of their legislative immunity and make them “pay the price” for “their link to the terrorist groups.” HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas, in turn, took bold, unprecedented steps to secure support from the Turkish left and publicly criticize the PKK attacks. “No ifs, ands, or buts,” said Demirtas, “PKK needs to stop its operations. Killing police and soldiers will not call the AKP to account for its crimes. The police and soldiers are children of the whole country. They are our children.”

After a few weeks of election reverberations, Erdoğan has forcefully returned to Turkey’s everyday politics — but this time also as “a commander-in-chief” in a bloody war in southeast Turkey.


Mustafa Gurbuz is a policy fellow at Center for Global Policy at George Mason University and a research fellow at Rethink Institute in Washington, DC. He is Associate Editor of Sociology of Islam and the author of Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey: Transforming Ethnic Conflict (Amsterdam University Press, 2016). ​Follow him on twitter: @Mustafa__Gurbuz.


Photo credit: Minister-resident Rutte

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