Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints (The Aspen Institute) – Turkey’s Domestic Tug of War: Fragmented Politics and the Security Sector


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mitpatchThe original version of this analysis can be found on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoint

Recent events have revealed the extent to which the alliance between Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Gülen movement (a vast, faith-based community that supported Erdoğan’s AKP party since it was founded) has become strained. Over the last decade, the AKP and the movement mutually benefited from the alliance: Gülen followers offered a formidable and loyal constituency for the ruling party, while the AKP’s consent proved fundamental in allowing members of the community to gain prominence within key national institutions (primarily in the judiciary and in the National Police). However, the anti-corruption operations that have shaken the Turkish government since mid-December seem to have marked the end of the AKP-Gülen ticket, and point towards the beginning of an all-out political war between the two.

Only days after prosecutors approved the operation that led to the arrest of several prominent figures, including the sons of three (now former) AKP ministers, Erdoğan gave dispositions to dismiss a number of officers involved in the investigation (including Huseyin Capkin, Police Chief of the Istanbul Province) claiming the corruption case was nothing more than a political plot against the AKP. The following weeks have brought a salvo of reassignments, sackings and suspensions within the National Police, along with a strongly contested parliamentary bill that aims at bringing the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK – until today an independent disciplinary authority overseeing Turkey’s judiciary sector) under direct ministerial control.

Long forgotten seem to be the days of the Gezi Park protests that started in May 2013, during which Erdoğan hardly missed a chance to laud the professionalism and the integrity of Turkey’s police forces. Back then, just a few months ago, the police was indeed pivotal in projecting Erdoğan’s power and relentless political will into the streets of Turkey, where millions protested against his increasingly authoritarian style. But now the political dynamics have clearly shifted, as pro-AKP media retaliate by accusing the National Police of having robbed the government of several hundred millions of Turkish liras earmarked for its pension fund, and  AKP representatives label policemen following the corruption case as “criminals”. The politically-driven re-shuffle within police ranks apparently paid off, as the new police chief of Istanbul Province has allegedly decided not to follow up on a prosecutor’s order for a new wave of arrests, calling off the police operation that was under preparation.

If the National Police is thus viewed by the AKP as a potential adversary for its lack of political support, Erdoğan knows he can still count on the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence services. Over the last few years, MIT has seen its mandate significantly expanded, and its main representative, Hakan Fidan, has worked in very close cooperation with Erdoğan ever since his promotion to chief of the agency in 2010. MIT’s first groundbreaking operation was uncovered by the press in 2011, when a leaked recording revealed that intelligence top officers had held a series of meetings with senior leaders of the terrorist group Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK) to discuss an agreement that could have ended thirty years of violence. At the time, the move was so unexpected that even the Turkish military claimed the operation caught them off guard. In fact, the revelation triggered an attempted prosecution of Mr. Fidan and other MIT members who were at the meetings, on the basis that any form of dialogue with a terrorist organization had to be considered a crime in itself. Prosecutors allegedly cooperated with members of the police intelligence, raising doubts over whether the case was nothing more than a turf war between police intelligence. Upon MIT members’ refusal to testify, prosecutors issued an arrest warrant, further fueling the suspicion that the case was running on political, rather than judicial, motivations. At that point, PM Erdoğan took the matter into his own hands and put together an ad-hoc law that instituted a special authorization, to be seeked by prosecutors who wanted to trial MIT officers, that the Prime Minister could grant upon discretion.

If Erdoğan’s intervention momentarily solved the problem, frictions between police and MIT remained. A blame-game between police intelligence and MIT got the attention of the Turkish media in the aftermath of the Reyhanli bombing, when, in May 2013, two car bombs killed more than 50 people in the Hatay province, on the Turkish-Syrian border. In that instance, both the local police chief and the local MIT chief were dismissed. More recently, a new police-MIT clash erupted in the midst of AKP’s corruption scandal, with an episode raising the suspipcion that elements of the intelligence services have been carrying weapons to Syria. AKP ministers offered vague and contradictory statements on the issue, but whether the government is using MIT to send weapons to Syrian rebels remains to be confirmed: this, in any case, seems to be the smoking gun that pro-Gülen media are looking for in order to further discredit Erdoğan’s government. In the meantime, they focused on a leaked recording, that appeared on the web in mid-January 2014, in which MIT operatives allegedly instructed Omer Guney, currently under arrest for the assassination of three PKK members in Paris in January 2013, on how to carry out the murder and evade undetected.

Not even the Turkish military, once the sole guardians of Turkey’s national security, has remained immune from the tug-of-war between Erdoğan and Gülen. Hundreds of military officers, found guilty of coup-plotting, have been imprisoned over the last five years. After a strongly contested trial which the AKP and Gülenists staunchly defended, therefore, what remains of the military’s top brass is the more moderate and politically docile fraction. But now that the fight between Erdoğan and the Gülen movement has become an all-out war, AKP representatives seem to have surrendered to the temptation of setting the military against the Gülenists, by hinting at the possibility that there might be a retrial for those generals who are behind bars. After all, one of Erdoğan’s top advisers has claimed, everybody knows that the trial was a set up. In fact, the gravity of Turkey’s current political crisis seems to be epitomized by the fact that the idea of a retrial has been endorsed by Erdoğan himself. The increased politicization of the security sector might bring short-term advantages to the AKP; long-term consequences, however, will be detrimental for Turkey as a whole.


Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoints (The Aspen Institute) – Two Ideals of Democracy Clashing in Turkey


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geziThe original version of this analysis can be found (in Italian) on Aspenia Online, Mideast Flashpoint

Clearly, the protests that are shaking Turkey have very little to do with Gezi Park’s trees. What hit Istanbul first, followed by many other Turkish cities, is the backwash of institutional problems that have been lingering for decades; problems that the AKP, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party, has so far benefitted from, and has in part exacerbated.

When, in April 2007, Erdogan decided to have Abdullah Gul (one of AKP’s most important representatives) running for President, secularist circles erupted against what they perceived as a threat to one of the institutional strongholds of Turkey’s secular identity. In their view, AKP’s unilateral decision to present Gul as candidate for the position once held by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was too radical a break from the tradition that saw the presidential post reserved to generals or, more recently, to political figures of Kemalist inspiration. The Turkish General Staff published a declaration on their website, reiterating the armed forces’ loyalty to the principles of Kemalism, and stressing that they were ready to intervene should such principles be violated – a critique to both AKP’s political positions, and to their attempted concentration of powers into AKP’s hands, as the party also had a solid parliamentary majority.

Shortly after the statement was published, millions of Turks hit the streets to stage a peaceful protest against Gul’s candidacy, many of them chanting “neither sharia, nor coup” – an attempt to express how they were against the potential intrusion of religion into politics, but also asking for the military, who staged four coups (with the most recent one in 1997) and are traditionally considered the guardians of secularism, to stay out of the issue. Regardless of how numerically impressive the rallies proved to be, Turkish society’s ‘silent half’ only emerged during the general elections held in July 2007, when Erdogan won with a 46% majority. The two main opposition parties, the secularist CHP and the nationalist MHP, only obtained a 20% and 14% share of votes. Subsequently, AKP MPs single-handedly elected Gul President, despite CHP’s and MHP’s opposition.

What we see on Turkish streets today has some commonalities with what happened in 2007; however, over the last few years some fundamental changes have also took place. Erdogan has been elected for the third time in 2011, with 49% of votes. CHP has attempted to reshape itself, replacing its traditionalist leader Deniz Baykal with Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who, on paper, was supposed to bring new ideas and new energies into the party. But a real change was never achieved, and after an underwhelming electoral result in 2011 (25%), CHP has progressively backpedalled towards more traditionalist and Kemalism-centric positions.

In the meantime, military circles were shook by the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which focus on an alleged clandestine network that, according to prosecutors, has been operating since AKP’s first victory in 2002 in order to facilitate and eventually stage a military coup. The imprisonment of hundreds of military officers had the consequence of delegitimizing, at least temporarily, the military’s footprint in Turkey’s domestic politics, curbing their influence. Over the last years, those more critic towards the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases have defended the hypothesis that the trials would in fact be a mere purge against the armed forces, AKP’s arch-enemy, as well as against the most staunch voices from the opposition, as dozens of journalists jailed due to charges based on opinions expressed on the Turkish media.

The political crisis of 2007 already reduced the military’s political expectations, as they had to take a step back when faced by the overwhelming majority Erdogan obtained through the ballot box; moreover, generals were also aware that none of the alternatives to an AKP government would have guaranteed Turkey’s political stability. Regardless of the extent to which the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases are legitimate, the detentions that were carried out over the last years (about 400 military officers are currently behind bars) played a significant role in isolating the most radical members of the armed forces, and in reducing the general’s influence.

After having consolidated his political power, reduced the military’s political influence, and kept criticism at bay, Erdogan achieved ideal conditions to push AKP’s political agenda ahead without any problem. The protests of Gezi Park want to address this convergence of powers towards Erdogan, his idea of a democracy that should express itself only through elections, and his increasingly confrontational attitude and refusal to accept dialogue. The few activists that first occupied Gezi Park a few days ago were dealt with by the police through a disproportionate use of force, in what became the brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest. That event turned into the boiling point for a large share of Turkey’s society, who, over the last months, felt like Erdogan was running a one-man show. The fact that the Turkish media purposely ignored the protests (turning CNNTurk’s penguins into a powerful symbol) did nothing but further radicalising the protest, exposing even more how the Turkish system is suffering from a concentration of powers and from the lack of a functioning system of formal and informal checks and balances.

Among those protesting, a small minority has been calling for the military to intervene; however, their expectations clash against the lack of political and social conditions that triggered military interventions in the past. On the contrary, the protester’s vast majority claims decisional autonomy on a range of social issues on which Erdogan demands sole authority – just what military juntas did in the past. Erdogan’s rough style has simply triggered protests that have been lingering for quite some time among AKP opponents – and those who expected a more moderate AKP alike.

However, Erdogan’s electoral weight should not be overlooked. Since 2002, general elections systematically turned into quasi-plebiscites for his party, while the CHP has regularly lagged behind, and the 10% threshold kept smaller parties from emerging. From the position of strength he gained over the last ten years, and being well aware of Turkey’s political dynamics, Erdogan showed a defiant stance towards the ongoing protests. He also accused the international media, social networks, and foreign secret services of (respectively) having provided biased and false information, and of having fuelled protests to destabilise his government.

We can see two different ideals of democracy clashing in Turkey today. On one side, the ideal held by that part of society who protests against a model that, recent democratic achievements notwithstanding, still maintains the rigid and centralised structure that the Constitution (written by the military in the aftermath of the 1980 coup) embeds. On the other there is Erdogan, his political project, and the ‘silent’ part of society that supports him.

Terrorism Monitor (Jamestown Foundation) – PKK Commanders Split with Imprisoned Kurdish Leader on Reconciliation with Ankara


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The original version of this analysis can be found on Terrorism Monitor, Volume XI, Issue 8

After an almost 30-year-long struggle, the Turkish government is currently pursuing what could be an historic agreement with the Kurdish separatist Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan (PKK). Past attempts at seeking a mutually acceptable solution have failed bitterly, thwarted by the lack of trust between the two sides and the ideological and strategic divergences within them. Two years ago, negotiations ended when the organization’s hardliners staged an ambush against Turkish troops and killed 13 soldiers despite PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s orders to abide by a ceasefire. Similarly, the main challenges the ongoing process will have to face come from within the ranks of the two negotiating sides. 

Negotiations have became unequivocally intertwined with the government’s ongoing constitutional reform project, which both the Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi (CHP – Turkey’s main opposition party) and the nationalist Milliyetci Hareket Partisi (MHP – the second largest opposition party) staunchly oppose in its current form. Among other changes, Turkey’s new constitution could bring about increased autonomy and political recognition for the Kurdish minority, along with a transition to a presidential (or semi-presidential) system. This latter reform is strongly advocated by Erdogan, who would have a chance to remain in power by running for president and then ruling the country with expanded prerogatives. The constitutional reforms would be a major step towards paving the way for an agreement with the PKK and such an initiative is, in fact, seen favorably by Ocalan himself.

Frustration is growing within the opposition parties, however, as they become more marginal to the whole process. In particular, they fear a convergence of interests between the AKP and the Baris ve Demokrasi Partisi (BDP – a pro-Kurdish party with links to the PKK) will effectively bypass them as political interlocutors on such fundamental issues. MHP leader Devlet Bahceli slammed the initiative as an AKP attempt to “write a constitution with the PKK” and would result with Turkey being dragged into a “separatist ambush” (, April 5; April 6). MHP members abandoned Parliament last week, protesting against the establishment of a commission designed to keep Parliament updated on the negotiations, while their spokesman sarcastically remarked they were leaving the assembly floor “to the AKP and the PKK” (Hurriyet, April 11).

The CHP’s stance is only slightly more moderate. Even though a few months ago party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu declared his support for negotiations and encouraged the government to do whatever it took to end the conflict, this cooperative stance was soon abandoned under the weight of the CHP’s internal divisions and the party’s subsequent failure to assume an active and autonomous role in the negotiation process. All the CHP MPs have joined their MHP colleagues in boycotting last week’s parliamentary session, refusing any involvement with the government’s activities (Today’s Zaman, September 21, 2012; Hurriyet, April 11). Under such conditions, the long-term sustainability of a reconciliation process within Turkish society over the Kurdish issue is put into question; with the two main opposition parties seemingly ready for an all-out political war against the AKP-BDP ticket. If the latter succeeds in reforming the constitution, they could translate this into a victory at the polls with the opposition losing their leverage in parliament.

From the PKK’s point of view, negotiations have now reached a critical turning point. During last month’s Nowruz (Kurdish New Year) celebrations, Ocalan launched a public appeal from his prison cell to all members of the PKK, stressing how the region’s current political circumstances provide the opportunity for a transition from “a process of armed resistance to a process of democratic politics.” [1] In his message, Ocalan carefully steered away from calling openly for either a ceasefire or a withdrawal from Turkish soil; still, a ceasefire is de facto in place, as no attack against Turkish troops has been carried out since the statement and the focus of attention has promptly moved on to a possible PKK withdrawal.

At the moment, negotiations are getting bogged down over the procedures PKK fighters should follow in scaling down hostilities. While Erdogan insists on an unarmed withdrawal, PKK commanders seem unanimous in wanting their fighters to keep their weapons or to have at least a formal guarantee that Turkish military forces will not carry out any attack during the withdrawal. The reasons behind their position are multiple: firstly, they want to avoid a repetition of what happened in 1999, when around 500 PKK fighters were killed while marching towards Northern Iraq as they followed Ocalan’s order to temporarily withdraw from Turkish soil. They also want to preserve some degree of direct power, which they can only maintain by keeping their weapons with them, a sign of the ideological distance between the PKK commanders and their imprisoned leader.

Although Ocalan is still putting pressure on the PKK to withdraw from Turkey, the organization’s senior commanders oppose the decision. In a recent interview, Duran Kalkan (a.k.a. Selahattin Abbas), known for being a leading “hawk” within the PKK, conceded that fighters are currently in a “ceasefire and self-defense position,” but also stressed that a withdrawal is out of the question until negotiations bring about tangible results (, April 16).

Murat Karayilan, the organization’s field commander, seems to have a more pragmatic stance towards a possible withdrawal, but has also specified that the PKK will only give up its weapons in the very last stage of the negotiation process (KurdPress, March 15). Ocalan and the upper echelons of the PKK, based in the Kandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, are exchanging messages and testing options, but there seems to be a critical difference in terms of the extent to which the two sides trust their Turkish counterparts. After more than 14 years of imprisonment in almost total isolation, Ocalan’s personal stakes are high. When minutes of his meeting with BDP representatives were leaked to the press, it emerged that Turkish authorities seem willing to free Ocalan should negotiations succeed (Today’s Zaman, February 28).

There is also another fracture within the PKK, however. With the 2007 creation of the Koma Civaken Kurdistan (KCK) to bring different Kurdish organizations under a unified structure, the PKK’s armed struggle acquired a transnational dimension. Kurdish fighters of Iranian and Syrian origin organized under the Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistane (PJAK) and the Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (PYD) respectively, became part of the KCK. While PYD members are currently fighting for the control of the northeast region of Syria, PJAK has not carried out any operations against Iranian military forces since September 2011. For PJAK representatives in particular, dismantling part of the KCK and giving up weapons for a solution within Turkish boundaries is an option with no appeal.

In their current form, negotiations are more an “Erdogan-Ocalan” process than a “Turkey-PKK” process. Both leaders are struggling to generate consensus within their respective circles. For Erdogan, the problem is reaching out to those segments of society that do not necessarily support the ruling AKP in order to transform the process into a genuinely shared “national” effort. The creation of the Wise Person’s Commissions, seven regional groups composed of academics, journalists, writers, musicians and actors, is an attempt to fill this gap, as the groups travel to each part of Turkey to promote the negotiation process (Today’s Zaman, April 7; Anatolia News Agency, April 10). As for Ocalan, there seems to be a degree of cognitive dissonance between what he perceives as credible long-term offers made by Turkish authorities and the lack of short-term, tangible results that the rest of the PKK laments.


1. See “Full transcript of Abdullah Ocalan’s ceasefire call,” BDP Press Office, March 21, 2013, Available at: