Once the 45 day period for forming a new government begins in Turkey, the make up of the government that forms could have massive flow on consequences for the Kurdish militia fighting in Northern Syria.
The recent results of the Turkish elections have, for the first time in over a decade, dealt a blow to the power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the party founded by the current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan the former Mayor of Istanbul has faced down critics and overcome difficulties before. However, for the first time since his election to the role of Prime Minister, his power appears to be slipping. This latest election was dominated by Erdoğan’s desire to change the Turkish parliamentary system, famously the only secular democratic system in the Muslim world, into an American style presidential system hued with Islamism. The result was a referendum on his plans and effectively ended that aspiration. Power still resides with the AKP, as Erdoğan has the power to tap whomever he wishes to form government first, and he is expected to pick his Prime Minster. The AKP has lost its overall majority for the first time, and is now required to seek a coalition partner in the 45 days from the election in order to form government. It is clear that Erdoğan is reluctant to begin this process however, as he is yet to establish the newly elected assembly’s bureau, required before the 45 day countdown period can begin. The entire cabinet resigned on June 9th yet they have continued in their roles “until a new government is formed”.
The effect of this election in Turkey will be far reaching (assuming new government is ever actually formed). As the war on Turkey’s southern border shows no sign of abating, and in some cases appears to be heating up again, the choice that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (and ultimately President Erdoğan) makes for AKP’s coalition partner can have enormous flow on consequences for the conflict in Syria. The option of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) appears to be the most likely outcome. Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP is by far the most anti-Kurdish leader in the Turkish Parliament. His inclusion in any government would categorically end Erdoğan’s presidential desires, a victory for secular Turkey, but it would also spell disaster for the Kurdish armed forces currently battling Islamic State radicals in Syria.
Erdoğan recently said that Western support for Kurdish fighters in the battle for the Turkish border town of Tel Abyad was a covert attempt to bomb Arabs and Turkmen, and put Kurds in their place by an untrustworthy West. In the same speech he declared that Turkey would never allow any attempts to establish a Kurdish state in northern Syria. It is hard to tell how much of this was brinkmanship and hard-man leadership playing to a domestic audience, yet the rhetoric itself is unsettling. Accusations of Turkish government support for ISIS fighters have been circulating for months and they grow increasingly strong as evidence begins to emerge. However the denials from Ankara remain equally strong. This is in spite of revelations that the recent ISIS attacks on Kobane, the Syrian border town made famous as one of the first places inside Syria to be targeted by Coalition airstrikes, originated inside Turkey.
The ongoing coalition negotiations in Turkey may go some way to explaining the rhetoric, as even the AKP could lose power if the “unholy alliance” of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Kurdish and Leftist HDP and the Nationalist MHP comes off, sidelining AKP altogether. That appears increasingly unlikely. The most likely outcome is an AKP / MHP alliance that tempers AKP Islamism, yet ramps up the supposed existential threat posed by the long persecuted Kurdish minority.
While Prime Minister Davutoğlu mulls an invasion of northern Syria to establish an exclusion zone, tacit support for Sunni extremists within Syria appears to be continuing unabated, to the detriment of their NATO allies also in the fight. The Turkish suggestion of invasion of northern Syria to establish an exclusion zone of 30 kilometres should be applauded as a positive step for humanitarian purposes. However, it radically undermines the Kurdish and coalition efforts in the area and will muddy the waters even further in an already convoluted polycephalys situation. The Turkish army is the second largest in NATO (after the US) and would be able to fulfil its mission should it enter the conflict, but the 15% Kurdish minority within the country and within the conscripted army might further complicate the situation for the Turkish government.
Fiery rhetoric has long been the purview of Middle Eastern leaders as they attempt to play to a domestic audience. Anti-Kurdish rhetoric has been a permanent fixture of Turkish politics, and as a result a belief amongst ethnic Turks that the Kurds represent an existential threat persists (71.3% of ethnic Turks believe the Kurds are seeking a separate state while 59% of Kurds believe they are not seeking to part from Turkey). Regardless of misperceptions, as the horse-trading in Ankara continues, the rhetoric begins to have a flow on effect for the issues in Syria. If the Secularist opposition, the CHP, form government with the AKP (a distant possibility) the result could be a greater role for the armed forces and a tempering of the anti-Assad rhetoric. Should the AKP form government with the MHP, anti-Kurdish rhetoric can be expected to be louder and stronger than any previous government, and the repercussions for the conflict in Syria could be dire. Should the HDP form a part of any government, protection of the Kurdish minority and humanitarian support for the fighters and civilians in northern Syria will almost certainly form part of the deal.
Turkey has so far steadfastly refused to become overtly embroiled in the conflict, but the outcome of these party negotiations could change that. Should political blustering turn into action and Turkey invades, the current détente with the Kurdish backed militias may fall apart, especially now that Dilek Ocalan, the niece of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has entered Parliament (giving a voice to the radical left of the Kurdish minority). The already volatile situation may deteriorate further, and Turkey may be dragged into the quagmire of Syria.
Alexander Willox is the Editor of the Australian Outlook Blog and a graduate of the Melbourne School of Government’s Master of International Relations. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.