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Panel Explores Turkey’s Political Landscape, Role in the Middle East

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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Blaise Misztal, director of BPC’s national security program, sat down with experts on Turkey, the Kurds and the Middle East to discuss the implications of Turkey’s general election on the ongoing peace process with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), and its policies on Syria and Iraq. Panelists at the July 1 event included: Alan Makovsky, a member of BPC’s Turkey Task Force, Aliza Marcus, author and journalist who has covered the PKK, John Hannah, a member of BPC’s Turkey Task Force, and Denise Natali, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies.

Coalition Prospects

One of the main topics of discussion was the prospects of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entering into a coalition government. The panelists generally agreed that it seemed unlikely that the electoral success of the HDP, which exceeded expectations and won 13 percent of the total vote in the June 7 election, would actually translate into political power.

The panelists were also in agreement that HDP would not have had the success it did without the backing of the PKK. Indeed, Aliza Marcus asserted that the HDP’s platform falls into line with PKK policies. Marcus and Makovsky both pointed out that HDP was able to capitalize on Kurdish disappointment with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s peace process efforts and his abandonment of the Syrian Kurds in the border town of Kobani. Erdogan’s decision to equate the PKK to the Islamic State (ISIL) also angered Kurds and mobilized the Kurdish vote both in the southeast and across the western part of the country. Finally, Makovsky pointed out that the HDP received 2-3 percent of its total vote from liberals and other minorities such as Armenians, who push the party’s platform leftward and create, in the words of Natali, “a juggling act” for party leadership to balance when deciding on a coalition or vote.

Though HDP seems unlikely to form a coalition with AKP, the other two major parties—the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP)—have been courting a coalition with AKP. Hannah argued that, though Erdogan may not wish to relinquish his “imperial presidency,” the likelihood of a coalition between AKP and MHP is increasing. According to Hannah, MHP “midwifed” the recent election of an AKP official as the speaker of Turkey’s parliament. Such cooperation seems to be the beginnings of an alliance and potential coalition.

On the other hand, Makovsky argued that there are two reasons why the most likely coalition is between CHP and AKP. First, the CHP is surprisingly forward-leaning with the Kurdish issue. As he put it, it is “not your father’s CHP.” This may allow for some common ground between AKP, which is interested in continuing the peace process, and CHP, whereas the MHP have explicitly come out in support of ending all dialogue with the PKK. Second, and more important according to Makovsky, whichever party decides to form a coalition with AKP will have to be willing to drop any further investigations into allegations of corruption by Erdogan and his circle. CHP seems much more likely to do so, while the MHP has made prosecuting the corruption charges a major campaign promise.

Challenges with the PKK and the Peace Process

Another major point of discussion among the panelists was about how HDP entry into parliament would affect the ongoing peace process between Turkey and the PKK. Marcus suggested that there may be a halt in negotiations if Erdogan and the AKP courts the MHP and anti-Kurdish nationalists, freezing the current peace process as a way not to use the political clout he gained from starting it during AKP majority rule. Natali pointed out, however, that the process could not be frozen by these elections, since nothing has happened over the preceding several months. She claimed instead that the current peace is more of a ceasefire, and the election would do little to alter this in either direction.

Both panelists agreed that the process had stalled because of Erdogan’s incorrect assumption that the Kurds primarily identified as Sunni Muslims and wanted to be integrated into Turkish culture, while in reality most Kurds have continued to promote an independent, secular and nationalist identity.

Moreover, they saw the most likely outcome as a determination by the PKK to pursue its objectives outside of the political process, moving forward with local projects such as schools in order to entrench itself, amass power and influence, and begin changing facts on the ground.

Effects on U.S. Foreign Policy

The discussion also looked at how Turkey’s approach to the region might change and what the impact might be on U.S. interests and the struggle against the Islamic State. Natali suggested that the U.S.-Turkish relationship has seen rough spots before, and current struggles over Kurdish interests do not mean the end of an irreplaceable alliance. She also urged restraint, arguing that that any U.S. advocacy for a Kurdish state in Syria would only harm current bids for greater autonomy within Turkey, and the HDP currently prefers Americans and others not to discuss independence. Marcus pointed out that the United States has not been calling for a Kurdish state for these very reasons.

Marcus suggested that recent U.S. air support for Kurdish fighters was due to their successful advances against ISIL, and not because of their ideological struggles. She argued that the United States should invest in their continued success and could do so, without having to back the Kurd’s political agenda, by providing the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), who are underequipped and trained to counter ISIL, much-needed non-lethal military assistance.

Hannah made clear that the United States in no way supports Turkey’s proposal to create a buffer zone in Syria. While YPG control of the Syrian side of the border causes issues in U.S.-Turkey relations, largely because Turkey is nervous about the possible emergence of an autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Syria, it is mostly in the U.S. interest to address Turkish disparities in policy toward Kurdish groups. While on relatively good terms with Iraqi Kurds under Masoud Barzani and with the PKK, the current Turkish government has taken poorly to the Syrian YPG. Hannah suggests that the United States undertake a policy of triangulation, trying to initiate talks with both the Syrian Kurds and Turks that could bring a much-needed unity to U.S. policy in the region.

KEYWORDS: AKP, ALAN MAKOVSKY, BLAISE MISZTAL, CHP, HDP, IRAQ, ISIS, KOBANI, KURDS, MHP, PKK, SYRIA, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY