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IS Threat Reveals More than Foreign Policy in Turkey

Two months ago, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vacated the post of Turkish Prime Minister he had held for over 10 years, only to assume the post of President on August 28 after being elected earlier that month. As with any election in any country where they take place, what the result means is the subject of ongoing debate. Some say new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, also from the powerful AKP, will simply be a pawn of an increasingly domineering Erdoğan. Others see opportunity for change. One thing is clear: Turkey currently faces a host of challenges, from domestic consolidation of democracy and the ongoing tensions over how to best forge a democratic republic under Islamic-party government, to the continued threat of the Islamic State (IS) and specifically, what should be done regarding the Kurdish population along the Turkish-Syrian border. The international community sees arming the Kurds as an important, if not the only viable option for combatting the Islamic State. Turkey is far less keen on the idea, because arming Kurds in Iraq and Syria is difficult to achieve without arming or at least strengthening Kurds in Turkey, who have long advocated for increased autonomy from the Turkish state. But the threat of IS does not just have ramifications for Turkey’s foreign policy. It also has an impact on the domestic political situation in the country.

Since the activities of IS came to the fore of international attention earlier this year, the Turkish government (then led by Erdoğan) routinely dragged its feet as its Western allies urged it to take a strong stand. As election season got into full swing in Turkey, first for localities and then for President, Erdoğan seemed far more interested in rallying his conservative base than in playing a major role in international affairs. Comments made by Erdoğan during campaign events were another cause for concern, most notably the claim that the Holocaust pales in comparison to Israel’s latest conflict in Gaza. Turkey was further constrained by the seizure of 49 Turkish Consulate staff in Mosul by IS. Following both Erdoğan’s switch from head of government to head of state and the release of the hostages on September 20, the stage was set for change. Western leaders did not have to wait long for a shift in Turkish policy regarding IS. In early October, the Turkish parliament voted overwhelmingly in support of a measure that allows Turkish troops to chase IS fighters across the border and provides a base for anti-IS coalition members to launch their own missions. The measure was called for by Davutoğlu, who noted that IS’s encroachment along the Turkish border was a serious cause for concern. The Prime Minister committed Turkey to doing “whatever we can” to stop Kobani from falling. As a key Syrian Kurdish town along the border, if taken by IS, it would give the group an uninterrupted territory from the Turkish border to its de-facto capital in Syria, Raqqa. This major about-face is cited as evidence by some that Turkey’s new Prime Minister is willing to boldly distinguish himself from Erdoğan. What seems more reasonable is that a series of events, notably the release of hostages and the imminent threat of IS along the border has demanded that Davutoğlu take strong measures. Erdoğan would likely have made the same decision, and probably had a role in shaping the response.

The latest chapter in the saga unfolded just days ago, when Turkey announced its intention to assist Iraqi Kurds in crossing the border into Syria to fight IS. As the BBC’s Mark Lowen explained, this decision was surprising. But politics were at play as usual. While Turkey continued to maintain that the Kurdish fighters in Syria are terrorists who should not be armed, the United States made arms drops. Lowen suggests that this was done with implicit Turkish approval, so that the Turkish government could minimize the backlash it received at home. Indeed, Turkey has long been more willing to engage with Kurds in Iraq than with Kurds in Syria or in Turkey. The leader of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been jailed since 1998 and talks initiated in early 2013 have so far failed to produce a meaningful agreement. Turkey’s actions towards IS and its involvement with Iraqi Kurds is interesting on its own, but Turkish domestic politics have undoubtedly played a role, and it is an important dynamic that often gets left out of the discourse. In Lowen’s BBC article, not one mention of Prime Minister Davutoğlu is made. Rather, the spokesperson for the government is none other than Erdoğan. Clearly, on the most important issues, the former Prime Minister is still in charge. The IS threat has revealed this plainly, and the West has neither the desire nor the ability to make a fuss about it.

The current political situation in Turkey will likely continue to take a backseat to regional and international issues, which should worry any proponent of substantive democracy in Turkey. The claim that Erdoğan is waiting until the next parliamentary elections, to be held this coming June, in order to attempt a constitutional rewrite suddenly seems like a possibility. Those who had hoped to lessen the dominance of the AKP found themselves disappointed when the party won nearly 43% of the popular vote, with the Republican People’s Party (CHP) finishing a (very) distant second. The presidential elections were even more telling: Erdoğan received an outright simple majority in the first round, eliminating the need for a run-off. Amid allegations of fraud, campaign law violations, and even some reports of violence, the message was clear. Many Turks still want the AKP in power, and it is unlikely that this will change before the parliamentary elections in June. Whether it is able to reach the two-thirds majority needed in order to approve constitutional amendments outright remains to be seen. This pressing issue, however, is apparently not sufficiently pressing right now. Western leaders have other matters to worry about, and Turkish opposition politicians will continue to find it difficult to focus on electoral politics while the threat of IS remains real and close. The next several months will show us whether or not Turkey will be able to maintain viable multiparty contestation, or whether it will continue to place an increasing amount of  power into the hands of the dominant AKP. If it is the latter, the ‘Turkish model’ of democracy to which Middle East experts regularly refer may not be such an attractive model after all.

Image License: Some rights reserved by Roger Blackwell

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