Defence in Depth – Securitising Turkey’s November Elections


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DiDThe original version of this article can be found on Defence in Depth

On Sunday November 1st, Turkey will hold the second general election this year. This comes after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to find an agreement with opposing parties to form a coalition government, having previously fallen short of obtaining enough votes to secure its own parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections.

The AKP has been ruling the country since 2002, progressively expanding and consolidating both its electoral pool and the political power of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past decade, the party managed to increase its votes from 34%, obtained while running for its first general election in 2002, to a solid 49.8% in the 2011 elections. The June 2015 elections however, interrupted this trend.

Erdogan’s rule has become more controversial and uncompromising towards both opposition parties and Turkey’s civil society (with the Gezi Park protests being one of the main events for grass-roots opposition). But make no mistake – it has been the discontent registered among AKP’s own supporters that has dragged the party down to about 41% of votes last June. AKP’s main electoral ambition is now to increase its number of parliamentary seats to re-gain a majority of its own.

As the turnout remained virtually constant over the years, a share of AKP voters appears to have moved towards either the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The two parties, which hold irreconcilable political views, both fared well in June’s elections. The former, which flatly refutes any attempt at expanding the recognition of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, increased its votes by 3%. The latter on the other hand, truly imposed itself as the elections’ moral winner. For the first time in Turkey’s history, a pro-Kurdish party has managed to obtain enough votes to overcome the steep 10% electoral threshold, claiming 13% of the votes.

Through its success, the HDP succesfully demonstrated there is a new kid on the block in Turkish politics, and that the Kurdish minority, together with parts of the country’s socialist and liberal electorate, supports the HDP’s willingness to address the lack of rights and recognition of the country’s Kurdish minority through political dialogue. The party’s approach stands against the backdrop of a longstanding war between the PKK (a Kurdish organization labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU, and the US) and the Turkish state: since its inception in the early 1980s, and throughout different phases and various degrees of intensity, the conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives. The conflict has deeply polarised Turkey’s society, and the MHP represents the spearhead of the hardliners’ front, pushing for a purely military solution that disregards any political claim by the Kurdish minority.

Over the past few years, the AKP’s own position with regards to the Kurdish issue has been ambivalent at best, with attempted openings and negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. While projecting a sense of purpose, the initiatives never led to any long-lasting resolution, highlighting Erdogan’s lack of willingness to truly commit to the dialogue between the two sides.

This was best portrayed by events which occurred during the Fall of 2014: on the one hand, Turkey and the PKK were respecting the ceasefire that had been in force until that point, whilst on the other hand the Turkish government ostensibly dragged its feet when it was called to allow Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to transit through Turkey, in order to support Syrian Kurdish forces that were pinned down by ISIS in Kobane.

While the AKP government’s inaction contributed to alienate the party’s Kurdish electorate, the fact that it eventually gave in to mounting domestic and international criticism, and provided logistical support to the Peshmerga also alienated its nationalist fringes, who felt that the government had become too tolerant when it came to the Kurds. There were obviously other factors at play, but the AKP’s conduct during these events played a fundamental role in eroding parts of its electoral base.

Today, faced with the impossibility of forming a single-party government, and pressured by the emergence of a strong and proactive pro-Kurdish party, Erdogan has opted to turn November’s election into a matter of national security. The main goal is to win back part of the nationalist voters, while delegitimising the opposition – and the pro-Kurdish HDP in primis. Through this strategy, Erdogan aims to rally the electorate around the flag, while using every opportunity to stress how the country needs to unite around the AKP, its strongest party, as it navigates through the current phase of insecurity and political paralysis.

Furthermore, since June’s elections, Turkey has experienced multiple instances of terrorist attacks and violence. In July, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS killed more than 30 members of an association who had gathered in the Turkish district of Suruc to reach Kobane, in order to carry out assistance projects for its Kurdish population. As the victims were mostly of Kurdish origin, the PKK accused the government of failing to protect the minority, and launched a series of retaliatory attacks against members of the Turkish security forces, effectively ending the ceasefire.

Since then, Turkish security forces have revamped their campaign against PKK’s safe haven in Northern Iraq, as well as their operations on Turkish soil; more than 100 members of the security forces have lost their lives since July, and President Erdogan is once again presenting himself as the only force that can keep the country from splintering. Last month, another terrorist attack, carried out by two suicide bombers affiliated with ISIS, hit a pacifist rally in Ankara, killing more than 100 people – many of which were Kurds.

During his electoral rallies as well as in his TV interviews, President Erdogan has consistently tried to deflect criticism by arguing that the current chaos originates from the June 2015 election results, and more specifically from the electorate’s failure to give him a stronger mandate. What is more important, however, is that Erdogan’s nationalist appeal seems to have already reclaimed some votes: the most recent available polls put the AKP at about 43.3% of votes (an increase of almost 3% from June), which might be just enough for his party to have a parliamentary majority. Appealing to Turkey’s nationalist sentiments seems to be just about the only option Erdogan has available in order to obtain a working parliamentary majority, and securitising the upcoming elections seems to be the safest bet in order to truly appeal to its nationalist voters – the swing-voters who the AKP can legitimately hope to bring in line with their party.


The Telegraph – What does Turkey’s involvement in air strikes mean for Kurds, Isil, Syria and Nato?


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f16The original version of this article can be found on The Telegraph

In the space of a few days after a terror attack in the Turkish town of Suruc which killed 32 people, Ankara launched air strikes against Kurdish guerilla group, the PKK, in northern Iraq as well as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) positions in Syria.

Prior to this, Turkey had finally agreed to America’s long request for access to its Incirlik air base in the country to launch jets and drones against Isil. Ankara’s change of heart on how it dealt with Isil and attacking PKK means that the crisis in Syria has changed significantly.

What that means next for the different groups involved or concern about the Syrian civil war is what the Telegraph and King’s College London academics explain.


What do Turkish air strikes mean for Isil?

Jill Russell, department of war studies:

QuoteWar would not have endured in human history if managing its politics were easy. Nowhere is this difficulty more relevant and trying than in the diplomacy among allies. Turkey’s move to a more integrated position within the air campaign against Isil is complex and contradictory, creating problems as well as benefits. This must be accepted given its contested position in these events, geographically, culturally, politically, and strategically.

Turkey’s active presence in the constellation of global and local forces arrayed against the renegade ‘Caliphate’ tightens the noose around their strategic neck. Despite dire predictions this time last year when Isil unleashed their campaign in Iraq last summer, their imminent victory across the Iraq and Syria was oversold. Instead, brick by brick the necessary political and strategic opposition them has been built, and the addition of Turkey has every potential to strengthen the effort.

Isil’s defeat is probable, but it will not lack for challenges. The management of the relationships within the coalition will not avoid disagreements and discord. At times the parties may even seem to work at cross purposes to each other as well as the common goal without necessarily weakening the group’s resolve. As Turkey signals its committed stand against Isil, the rewards from which loom above even the fraught politics, the group’s demise is brought into sharper focus.



Francesco F. Milan, teaching fellow, department of defence studies:

QuoteAn increase in the number, reach, and tempo of air strikes against Isil will undoubtedly benefit Syrian Kurds, which effectively represent the ‘boots on the ground’ component in the fight against the extremist group.

Through their guerrilla units (known by the acronym YPG) and their parent political party (PYD), Syrian Kurds have managed to establish themselves as one of the principal actors in Syria’s civil war, and even more so in the conflict with Isil.

While the United States have developed a working relation with both the YPG and the PYD, Turkey has not. Wary of the possibility of a politically autonomous Kurdish presence along its border, Ankara’s government has been adamant in pointing out how the two formations should be considered PKK offshoots, and, as such, treated as threats to Turkey’s own national security. In fact, as soon as Turkish air strikes started, YPG units have claimed to have been targeted along with Isil militias; the Turkish government, however, has claimed that YPG units currently remain ‘outside the scope of the current military effort’.

Perhaps more importantly, Turkey’s air strikes already had fundamental domestic repercussions. As previously mentioned, the combination of attacks against Turkish security forces carried out by the PKK and the consequent air strikes that hit the organisation’s safe haven on the Qandil mountains have effectively compromised any remaining hope for a rapprochement between the current government and the Kurdish minority.

After years of negotiations with the PKK, the two sides had eventually agreed on a ceasefire in 2013. Despite the lack of progress in the negotiations, the ceasefire held until last week. Now that clashes have restarted, the Kurdish question is likely to be raised once more in terms of security, overshadowing the electoral success that the Peoples’ Democratic Party, the first pro-Kurdish party to overcome the national 10 per cent electoral threshold, obtained in the general elections held last month.



Richard Spencer, Middle East Editor:

QuoteTurkey’s air strikes against Isil and the Kurds raise the possibility of Ankara’s direct involvement in the Syrian war for the first time.Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made overthrowing the regime of president Bashar al-Assad a priority, but has refused to intervene in the war directly without American backing, which has not been forthcoming. Instead, Turkey has backed a number of rebel groups, allowing them to be supplies through Turkish territory.

However, by guaranteeing a “safe zone” to be overseen by its favoured rebel groups, Turkey has put its reputation on the line. If this zone is successfully formed thanks to air attacks by its own fighter jets and those of the United States, it will have to be protected – including, if necessary, from the Assad regime’s jets and barrel bombs.

Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish prime minister, acknowledged this in an interview with Hurriyet newspaper, saying: “An important point was the air cover for the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and other moderate elements fighting against Isil. “If we are not going to send land units to the ground, and we will not, then those forces acting as ground forces cooperating with us should be protected.”

Turkey’s main concern is to prevent a unitary Syrian autonomous enclave emerging stretching from Afrin in the west to the Iraqi border in the east, cutting it off from the Syrian interior.

That concern will only have been exacerbated by Mr Assad’s tacit admission in a speech on Sunday that Syria was effectively divided into enclaves. As Mr Assad defends his core area while giving up on the north, Turkey will have to intervene to ensure its interests are met – otherwise other players, including the Kurds and Isil, will be allowed a free hand.



Francesco F. Milan:

Quote Turkey’s decision to grant use of the Incirlik airbase for United States-led air strikes against Isil militias means air operations into Syria and Iraq will now benefit from Incirlik’s proximity to Syria, as it sits less than 124 miles away from the Turkish-Syrian border. Besides allowing for more agile and far-reaching air operations in Syria and Iraq, the decision also ends a diplomatic tug-of-war that lasted for over a year: since the beginning of the US-led campaign, in June 2014, Turkey made access to the airbase conditional upon Nato’s commitment to the establishment of a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, in order to hinder military efforts carried out by Mr Assad’s regime.

The recent agreement does not seem to include a plan for the creation of a full-fledged no-fly zone, but there has been mention of a possible plan for the creation of a safe haven within Syria, to be located along parts of the Turkish-Syrian border currently controlled by Isil militias. Still, it seems this idea might be a ‘work in progress’ at best, as Mr Davutoglu recently confirmed Turkey is not planning to commit ground troops for deployment in Syria, and other Nato members do not seem willing to get involved.

More importantly, it seems the Turkish government might have more to its strategy than currently meets the eye. Turkish air strikes against Isil have immediately been followed by a series of retaliatory operations against PKK militias located on the Qandil mountains of Northern Iraq, after a car bomb killed two Turkish soldiers on Sunday. The events effectively ended a two year-long ceasefire between the two sides; as violence further escalated, Turkey called for a Nato meeting on the basis of the Treaty’s Article 4, which can be invoked when a member state believes its territorial integrity or security might be threatened.

The Telegraph – What does Erdogan’s setback at the elections mean for Turkey’s role on the global stage?


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TurThe original version of this article can be found on The Telegraph

The results of Turkey’s elections are nothing short of striking. For the first time in more than 12 years, the Turkish president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered a major electoral setback.

It is no longer able to single-handedly rule the country since its first success in the 2002 elections, only a year after it was founded by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, former president Abdullah Gül and others.

Since 2002, the share of votes cast for the AKP has grown from 34.2 per cent in that year to 49.8 per cent in 2011. In Sunday’s elections the party failed to go beyond 40 per cent of votes, falling some twenty seats short of being able to form its own working parliamentary majority.

Perhaps even more striking is the success of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and its leader Selahattin Demirtaş, which obtained 13 percent of votes. The party’s progressive electoral agenda managed to bring together Turkey’s Kurdish minority and a large nationwide share of those voters who oppose AKP’s increasingly authoritarian political approach.

Successfully passing Turkey’s electoral threshold of 10 per cent means that for the first time, a pro-Kurdish party has won political representation in the National Assembly.

On the opposite ideological extreme, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) also increased its share of votes, and with 16 per cent of preferences the party might be a fundamental actor in this post-electoral phase.

It remains to be seen whether AKP will take the lead as a minority government, attempt to form an equally fragile coalition government, or it will leave the incumbency to the other parties. There is a chance the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well as HDP and MHP will try to cooperate and find an almost impossible compromise under the watchful eye of President Erdogan.

While an AKP-MHP alliance seems to be one of the more likely options on the table, this will be uncharted territory for AKP.

The Kurdish issue and Syria

One of the main outcomes of Sunday’s elections is that HDP’s clout in the Turkish parliament will move Turkey’s Kurdish issue higher up in the country’s political agenda. This, in turn, might give a new impulse to the negotiations between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), who is currently committed to a ceasefire after a three decade-long conflict in south-east Turkey.

An all-round stronger parliamentary opposition might bring about a more incisive debate over Turkey’s role in Syria. A report by Cumhuriyet newspaper appeared to confirm long-standing allegations about the government’s direct involvement in arming Syrian rebels via the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence agency. This triggered President Erdoğan’s reaction, who accused the journalists behind the report of working to tarnish Turkey’s international reputation and filed a criminal complaint against the newspaper’s editor-in-chief.

On the other hand, a potential coalition government that includes the ultra-nationalist party would definitely compromise the dialogue with the PKK, and might not lead to a less active role in Syria: while the MHP aspires to nurture relations with Turkic peoples across the globe, it is particularly concerned with the status of Syria’s Turkmen minority, and might push for increased support and assistance for Turkmen fighters in the Syrian conflict.

Perhaps paradoxically, Turkey’s already limited willingness to be involved in actively contrasting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) might be even further reduced. Despite MHP’s own firm stance against ISIL, support for Kurdish Syrian fighters woul be out of question, as the party sees them as an extension of the PKK, and claims their ultimate goal is the formation of a Kurdish state that would include the Southeast of Turkey.

Initiatives such as the one that took place last October, when the AKP government eventually agreed to allow Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga to transit through Turkey in order to reinforce Kurdish defences in Kobani, which was under ISIL’s siege, would not receive MHP’s green light.

Turkey and the EU

The EU described Sunday’s elections as a “clear sign of strength of Turkish democracy”, and as an opportunity to “further strengthening the EU-Turkey relationship and to advance in broadening EU-Turkey cooperation”.

Yet, over the past decade, Turkey’s bid to become a member of the EU has made minimal progress towards meeting the requirements for accession, due to a number of long-standing political divergences – the main one being the dispute over Cyprus, and Turkey’s refusal to formally recognise the country, which is itself a member of the EU.

Should the new government include the MHP, there would be no margins for progress.

Over the years, AKP has pushed Turkey further away from hopes of accession, and towards becoming a more Erdogan-centric and compromise-averse system.

If there is a coalition with the AKP, the smaller party will dictate the extent to which the party will follow a more moderate political approach. Whatever the outcome, the EU will closely monitor how HDP’s human rights-centred political agenda will be received in this new phase of Turkish politics.