Appearances might mislead you regarding Turkey’s Syria campaign

Murat Yetkin


Turkish President Erdoğan chaired his Advisory Board, with Arınç (2ndL) whose statements caused debate. (Photo: Presidency)

The outcomes of the Turkish military campaign, which is completing its first month in Syrian territory, have started to show themselves. But they may not be as they seem at first glance. International reactions against President Tayyip Erdogan, for example, may not result in Turkey’s total isolation. Likewise, the popular support to the campaign in domestic politics may not lead to the strengthening of Erdoğan, but the opposition.

Let’s open up the subject a little. 

The outlook seems as follow: 

1- The Turkish deals with the U.S. and Russia have prevented the proclamation of a Kurdish autonomy by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) Syria branch PYD/YPG along the Syrian-Turkish border. But they still provided the PKK affiliates with international media exposure, making the organization seem legitimate. Maybe this is the Western remorse for once again using the armed Kurdish movements for their purposes only to abandon them. Or it could be crocodile tears. But either way, this image may not last much longer. Indeed, Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government President Nechirvan Barzani said in a November 5 speech in Erbil that Turkey had no problem with Syrian Kurds but with the PKK which has been seeking legitimacy through them. He’s obviously bothered by the PKK being considered as the sole representative of the Kurds. Moreover, most EU countries’ showcase embargoes might simply become void through commercial interests, as they have been in the past. Therefore, it can be misleading to assume that the current political climate in North America and Western Europe regarding “Syrian Kurds” is permanent;

2- The overwhelming votes for sanctions against Turkey and recognition of Armenian genocide claims at the U.S. House of Representatives on October 29 led to the perception that Turkey was being isolated due to its Syrian policy. In reality, there is another side to the coin when it comes to this bill: it’s also part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment and dismissal campaign. Which means it is possible that Senate or Trump or could turn them down. Speculative news about Trump supporting Erdoğan due to a blackmail relating his son-in-law Jared Kushner with the murder of the Saudi journalists Jamal Khashoggi, or of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu lobbying for Ukraine, while he was Speaker of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, might be parts of the same campaign, showing a certain problem in the anti-Trump front;

3- There are also reports are stating that the U.S. Department of State has advised the Trump administration (which still holds the majority at Senate) to stand against the approval of bills against Turkey. The understanding among the Administration ranks seems to be that passing the bills could burn bridges, hence the U.S could further lose leverage on Turkey, and that Russia could exploit the situation. 

On top of it all, the situation in Iraq is complicated and relations with Iran are blurry. And that’s why Erdoğan said that he would need to have certain confirmations on the phone before accepting Trump’s invitation for November 13. After all, the sanctions if approved, encompass the areas that could affect Erdoğan, his family and a number of Justice and Development Party (AKP) ministers;

4- We can go into domestic politics from here. The question is: which move would bring Erdoğan the most points in domestic politics? Should Erdoğan accept the invitation and shake hands with Trump despite his earlier insulting letter? Or should he continue to fight back? Yes, the correct answer is the second one. Maintaining the image of discordance with the U.S. may well deter some foreign investors but would bring him more domestic political points. Yet the current signs suggest that the crisis will quell down and that they’ll reach an agreement – which would be in Turkey’s interests;

5- Popular support to the Peace Spring campaign is around 80 per cent according to recent surveys. Polls even display more than 10 per cent support among Kurdish-problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party voters; of course, one must take into account the many deterring factors to saying no to such a question. The support to the campaign is at 90 per cent among the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Good Party (GP). But we mustn’t see this as a support for Erdoğan. Foreign politics and national security stimulates the public but rarely affects the elections; voters have shown this in the past. When Turkish PM Bülent Ecevit was being considered the “Conqueror of Cyprus” by the public in 1974, he still didn’t win the next elections. Winston Churchill had failed the election when he was the winner of the WW2;

6- The economy will once again direct the election results. As long as there are no developments that positively impact the people’s purchasing power and unemployment rates, and as long as the image of the wastefulness of the government prevails, an early election could be very risky for Erdoğan. Local elections have shown that the situation with Syrian refugees is becoming more and more of a burden on the AKP government. If the repatriation of the refugees, which had been shown as a reason for the Peace Spring operation, does not deliver the expected outcome, then this could backfire too;

7- Erdoğan and his election partner MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli’s domestic policy expectations concerning the Peace Spring operation was that it could dissolve the opposition bloc. But Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu and GP leader Meral Akşener didn’t fall for this and displayed even a more unified image. It could be said that the campaign gathered the nationalist-conservative front within the AKP closer around Erdoğan and made it harder for Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan to part ways with the party. On the other hand, it looks like the campaign has also alienated some of the Kurdish voters who normally support AKP. Indeed, there are reports that some Kurdish opinion leaders who have previously been involved in AKP politics have now started to work with Babacan. Furthermore, the controversial statements of the AKP veteran Bülent Arınç about the decree dismissals of alleged followers of Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-resident Islamist preacher accused of masterminding the 2016 coup attempt surfaced up certain discomfort within the AKP. The forced resignation of the outspoken AKP lawmaker Mustafa Yeneroğlu from the party ranks could also be considered as an example of discomfort. 

That’s why it could be safe to say that the developments in Turkey may not be as they seem nowadays.


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