Post-Election Turkey and the U.S. Plan to Take Raqqa
Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) exceeded pre-election expectations, winning 49.5 percent of the popular vote, which translates into 317 seats in parliament. One week before the vote, an average of the polls in Turkey suggested that the AKP was on pace to win 42 percent, which would not have allowed for the party to govern without a coalition partner.
After governing with a majority in parliament since 2002, a second consecutive parliamentary defeat would have been a tectonic shift, but the AKP defied nearly everyone’s expectations — this author included. The early data suggests the AKP managed to woo nationalist voters who had previously voted for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and pious Kurdish voters who had voted for the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) in last June’s election. MHP seems to have lost two million votes to the AKP, while the HDP lost 1.3 million. The AKP also benefitted from a slew of smaller, far-right religious parties choosing not to run in this election to expand its vote total by more than four million.
This suggests that the AKP’s constituency is now comprised of right-of-center conservative and nationalist voters who were drawn to the party’s pledge to bring stability and security after a recent wave of terrorist attacks that have killed close to 300 Turkish citizens in the past six months. In July, a two-year-old cease-fire between the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government collapsed. In parallel, a group of Turkish Islamic State members carried out five attacks in Turkey, including four bombings, along with the brutal murder of two Syrian civilian activists living in Urfa. In total, these attacks have killed 143 people, while PKK fighters have killed upwards of 164 Turkish security personnel, according to the International Crisis Group.
The AKP has a clear a mandate from the electorate to continue to fight what has been locally dubbed a “synchronized war on terror,” in reference to the government’s crackdown on the PKK, the Islamic State, and the Fetullah Gülen organization. An empowered AKP will certainly continue its raids against the Gülen movement. And in recent weeks, following the deadly attack in Ankara, Turkish authorities have ramped up arrests of suspected Islamic State members operating inside Turkey.
While the United States certainly has an interest in Turkey taking further steps to impede the flow of foreign fighters through its territory to the Syrian conflict, how the AKP handles the Kurdish issue will have reverberations for the current U.S. strategy in Syria. Since July, the Turkish government has allowed American aircraft to fly strike missions from Incirlik Air Force Base in southeastern Turkey. The aircraft stationed at the base are flying strike missions in support of Syrian rebels fighting along the so-called Marea line in northern Aleppo, as well as in support of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a nationalist Kurdish group linked to the PKK, and its Arab allies.
Backed by U.S. air power, the PYD’s militia, the YPG, managed to take control of the strategic border town of Tel Abyad in late June, and has advanced to within 30 miles of the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa. Turkey has criticized this strategy and has publicly stated that it does not differentiate between the PKK and the PYD. Nevertheless, Ankara is not placing restrictive rules of engagement on U.S. aircraft operating from Turkey — and is therefore indirectly supporting the group’s operations east of the Euphrates.
Throughout the AKP’s time in office, it has sought to manage its relationship with the United States. While the party’s top leadership opposes much of the U.S. policy in the region, key AKP officials recognize the value of having close relations with the world’s dominant power. In recent weeks, the United States and Turkey have found common ground, particularly about the need for a political solution and a phased transition in Syria, wherein Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad could remain as a ceremonial president for up to six months. This policy is not a huge departure from Turkey’s previous support for the 2012 Geneva Communiqué, but it does signal a shift in Ankara’s rhetoric vis-à-vis Assad.
Ankara and Washington, however, remain at odds over key elements of the anti-Assad insurgency, with Turkey giving support to numerous rebel groups that the United States has thus far refused to engage with, owing to their connection to global jihadi networks. However, both sides are working together to hasten the provision of anti-tank missiles to various rebel groups. A new AKP government is unlikely to alter its approach to the Syrian rebels — a fact that the United States appears to have tacitly accepted, despite deep misgiving about Ankara’s indirect support for groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.
Turkey’s strategy is independent of the U.S. reliance on the YPG for operations east of Euphrates. This new AKP government is likely to continue with this program to provide rebels with weapons, particularly now that Russia has intervened on behalf of the Assad regime. The new Turkish government is also likely to continue to put pressure on the United States to adopt its preferred policy in Syria: the formation of a 110-kilometer-wide buffer zone extending up to 33 kilometers south into Aleppo province.
This zone would provide a safe haven for refugees and a key area for the anti-Assad rebels to back-base. This proposed zone would also be free of the YPG, which Ankara accuses of indirectly bolstering the Assad regime by working at cross-purposes to the insurgency. Turkey has made one thing very clear: It will not tolerate a YPG presence west of the Euphrates, and will therefore not accept a Kurdish-led offensive on the ISIS-held city of Jarablus, or any YPG-led effort to unite its territory with the Kurdish-controlled enclave in Efrin in northwestern Syria. In the days before the election, the Turkish military fired upon YPG forces trying to cross the Euphrates, ostensibly to shore up their front line with the Islamic State.
This approach is not necessarily at odds with the United States’ current plans to further bolster the YPG, in preparation for a planned offensive in Raqqa. In October, the United States deployed 12 A-10s at Incirlik and dropped 50 tons of ammunition to the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S. military has also recently announced that it will deploy up to 50 special operations forces to PYD-controlled territory, presumably to aid with the future Raqqa offensive.
This suggests that Turkey and the United States have found some common ground in Syria, despite continued Turkish apprehension about the Syrian Kurds. The AKP will instead focus its military effort on the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan and southeastern Turkey. This points to Turkey continuing to pursue a dual-pronged strategy towards the PKK and the PYD. With regards to the former, Ankara remains committed to forcing the group to withdraw from Turkish territory, and has been willing to back this demand with military action. In the latter case, Ankara has signaled that it will tolerate a YPG presence east of the Euphrates, but will not accept any attempt by that group to move further west.
This policy is dependent on the PYD downplaying its links to the PKK and, most importantly, not attacking Turkish interests from its territory in Syria. The United States has sought to balance Turkey’s concerns about the PYD’s obtaining heavy weapons with the immediate need to put pressure on ISIS. Washington has therefore been clear that it has only delivered ammunition to the Syrian Kurds, rather than weapons that the PKK could later use to attack Turkish security forces.
The AKP government, however, will likely continue to publicly criticize the U.S. war plan, particularly if more reports emerge of forced migration of Arabs and Turkmen in areas under Kurdish control. However, outside of vocal criticism, there are no indications that the AKP has plans to derail U.S. plans for Raqqa. Doing so would threaten to further undermine Ankara’s relationship with its most important ally, and could harm Turkey’s interests in other parts of Syria. The AKP can certainly make things uncomfortable for Washington, but it has not shown a willingness to undermine the current strategy, despite its deep reservations about the empowerment of the Syrian Kurds.
The AKP will retain control over the direction of Turkish foreign policy for at least the next four years. Despite deep misgivings about the empowerment of the PYD, Ankara appears to have tacitly accepted elements of the current U.S. war plan. The election is unlikely to seriously alter these dynamics and the new AKP-led government will likely continue to implement the policies put in place in recent months.
Aaron Stein is a Nonresident Fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, a Doctoral Fellow at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London.