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Turkey’s Changing Dynamics Over Syria: From “Zero Problem” to “Zero Tolerance”?

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Several conflicts happening in various capacities over the region of North Syria has been practicing since the mid-Arab Spring. The issue has become supraterritorial case and Turkish political environment is also being affected from the contemporary developments.

How are the domestic status quo and strategic maneuvers of Turkish foreign policy towards Northern Syria changed? By two diverse developments in external and internal agenda. On one hand, soft power politics have failed and could not meet Turkish national interests anymore. On the other, dominant politicians in the conservative right are beating the drum of national security; they have exceeded country’s threat level in order to overshadow disappointing results of last election and regain their political popularity once again.       

The decision matrix of foreign policy moves provides many options to states in order to implement in different environments and centuries. Variables of international conjuncture and geographical status quos have been playing crucial roles in accordance with these developments. For instance, although dreadnought diplomacy or Bismarck-oriented “realpolitik” was perceived as an operative solution until early 20th century world affairs, late 20th century politics have validated that soft power ideology and cultural diplomacy could also occupy a prominent position within the modern foreign policy statecrafts. Nevertheless, compact geographical hostilities generating large scale imbalances may “force” states to switch their insights towards the sphere of influence that they decided to apply soft power politics. Against this theoretical backdrop, the Arab Spring could provide a case for assessing possible changes in Turkish foreign policy calculations and behaviours. It can be put forward that until, Muhammad Boazizi’s, an average street vendor, self-immolation in 2010, Turkey’s external relations with its close neighbours in the upper Saharan region were following principles of reciprocal understanding and tolerated politics which chiefly based on pragmatic soft power implications such as “cultural proximity” and “role modeling figure” under neo-liberal Islamism doctrine.

As Arab Spring phenomenon has been extended its impacts within defined geography and proved its continuance in the region, driving forces of Turkish foreign policy have altered in parallel to changing equilibrium within Middle East. In this sense, the level of gradual shifts in Turkish foreign decisions over Middle East has been composing of many diverse ways. To exemplify the notable shift it can be argued that while Turkey’s insightful politics on Assad regime were depending on regional cooperation principle and even strategic partnership, present-day’s “zero tolerance” tendency was out of the question. At the beginning of the Arab Spring, the international community observed that Turkey, under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) established close bonds with Syria and trying to persuade the Assad regime to solve social unrest by implementing smoother and inclusionary internal politics rather than exacerbating the crisis.

On the basis of the dialog platform, Turkey has comprehended that soft power diplomacy with Syria could serve to establish collective interests of both countries since the idea has proved its effectiveness in terms of improving twofold commerce or cultural interaction between countries for many years. Throughout this dialog process, Turkey’s foreign trade with Syria surpassed 400 million dollar per year1 and tourism between two countries rose by an average of 3% per year2 until 2011. Although soft power politics can contribute enhancing trade activities and enlargement of cultural ties, it may fail to launch critical dialogues on delicate topics which may pave the way to question countries’ sovereignty and lawfulness such as massive killings or religious clashes. Therefore, it should have been premeditated by Turkish policy makers that overlooking the main reasons of civil unrest and offering democratic solutions to such a complex internal anxiety would not be internalized by Baath hardliners who came to power by 1963 Syrian coup d’état. A soft power oriented “Zero Problem” doctrine was satisfactory for Turkish government in order to enhance regional trade partnership in Middle East and the ideology was supported by the AKP. After threatening cases were crossed over as the increasing tensions around Turkish Embassy of Damascus in 2011 regional leadership politics, state sovereignty issues were started to be concentrated around Assad’s legitimacy.

Turkey’s “practical advice” policy which was developed to ease tensions between the Assad regime and rebels fractionally gave its way to “sovereignty” dialogues discussing Syria’s legitimacy to use national army against insurrectionists. The case attested that economic benefit and role modeling figure objectives, under soft power ideology as a foreign policy, could not achieve Turkey’s regional balance of power role per se because uncontrolled internal violence in Syria was signaling further armed confrontation between opposition groups which have been clashing since “The Damascus Spring” in 2001. In parallel to this process, considering the longest border with Syria, the Turkish attitude has modified neorealist “self-help” strategy which mainly based upon martial coercion against the Assad regime as a dissident player. This movement was supported by implementing security discourses to national agenda on Syria which has been driven by the recent issues such as Pro-Assad groups’ attacks to Turkish Embassy in Damascus in 20113, following to that Turkish F-4 plane crash in 20124 and the huge influx of Syrian refugees5 apart from the past practices of water sources crises6, Hatay province case7 and father Assad’s support to PKK extensions in Syria8. By virtue of decline in soft power politics and recent disputes, the new parameter has become as the new and most effective variable: the Turkish parliamentary elections of June 2015.

During the last single party rule of AKP, Turkish external policies over Northern Syria have warned for an escalation in the severity of armed clashes-toughness in this region. Critical media organs’ assertions such as providing logistic support to radical religious groups9 and National Intelligence Service’s truck scandal which was accusing National Intelligence about carrying supplies to ISIS10 were deepened Turkey’s challenging situation over Northern Syria. Besides this politically tight shape, after thirteen years of majority in the parliament, the parliamentary election results marked a psychological turning point for the single party government. AKP lost its majority in the parliament and was required to looking into forming a coalition government. AKP élites thought that they lost their ideological endorsement coming from legitimate voting.

Consideration of “politico-military” choice which was designed to suppress opposite voices has begun to be discussed among AKP officials. To regain political support from grassroots by politico-military actions, national security dialogues and concerns about regional organizations as People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Northern Syria and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) were intensified by provisional government right after the election results were released. There are many potential reasons behind this attitude change over the Northern Syrian case. First, as it was argued, while soft power fails in foreign policy, realism appears to be a “stabilizer”11 (Burchill, 2001:70). In this direction, inadequate politics over Northern Syria triggered AKP’s national popularity to decline. In addition to this political decision, AKP decided to securitize the national agenda in order to stabilize its decreasing per cent of votes which were dispossessed by Kurdish dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Similarly, AKP’s changing policy reflects their martial agenda discourse since securitization of issues can thus be seen as a more extreme version of politicization12 (Buzan, 1998:23).

On the other hand, last election results have warned AKP dominated Turkish decision-makers about the opportunity that, in theory, foreign interventions may bring consolidation of political power and may help to stabilize it which was lost in last elections. By securitization of politics justifies extraordinary actions such as cross border military operations and state of emergency law can be legalized by a government in political distress in order to occupy agendum and postpone nationwide expectations of following the elections. Secondly, national security unifies the nation against a common enemy13 (Huntington, 1997: 350-375). This step also appears as a modern statecraft of national politics to regain fallen political popularity once again. Within this framework it can be deducted that the idea of a potential intervention in Syria is much more linked to what national security “means” rather than what national security “does”. According to interpretations of the Copenhagen School which works on how security dialogues function in international system, having a security agenda could provide opportunities for political groups to overflow regular national politics and create special justifications for political actions14 (Guzzini and Jund, 2004: 1-13).

In light of these assertions it can be argued that if the Turkish government would militarily intervened in Northern Syria before the June 2015 elections, the political costs of intervention for the ruling AKP would have been extremely high. Post-elections, however, a possible intervention has become a viable solution for the AKP to recover political popularity and making the party look like a “national hero”. Equally significant, the developed anti ISIS coalition under the leadership of the US has provided Turkish policy makers with an opportunity to boost its relations with the West. Although the Western powers have been critical to Turkey’s Syrian policy, by getting support from the new strategic alliance, Turkey has started to act more flexible over non-ISIS targets like YPG positions situated in Northern Syria and Iraq until Incirlik Airbase in Malatya has started to be used by US jets. It could be claimed that military actions and tough regulations in Southeastern Turkey could shake Turkey’s “soft power leadership” and remit the political achievements of Turkey in the region where the cultural popularity and political legitimacy of actions were established to strengthen the country’s regional power.

However, circumstances have changed in accordance with the decline in soft power variables and Turkish internal political dynamics. Ongoing activities highlighted that the intervention agenda on the Northern Syria issue will continue to remain on both the internal and external agendas of Turkey as an inefficient and questionable martial involvement which appears as of AKP’s main asset even there is no definite enemy of Turkey in the region because of ever-changing domination struggles among groups. Presently, unstable internal political dynamics, security agenda headlines and de facto neighbor fears are transforming Turkey’s neo-liberal soft power image to hardliner state portrait. It may be deduced from these progresses that AKP’s “Zero Problem” paradigm progressively has evolved into a “Zero Tolerance” mentality over the Syrian conflict.

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Post Trump Palestine

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Al-Walaja, a Palestinian village in the West Bank. Photo: UNRWA/Marwan Baghdadi

The unconditional United States’ political, financial and military support to Israel enabled the latter to occupy the Palestinian territories. The former became involved in Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an arbiter to resolve the issue. But the foreign policy of US has always remained tilt to Israeli interests. From recognizing Israel as sovereign state in 1947 to accepting Jerusalem as capital of Israel has clearly unearthed the biased attitude of US for Israel.

Similarly, Trump also adopted the traditional stance of Washington on Palestine, i.e. outright support for Israel. Trump’s policy regarding Israeli-Palestinian conflict was more aggressive but not in contradiction with his predecessors’. For instance, he brought into reality the law passed by US congress in 1995 that recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, shifted US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, closed office of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington DC in Sept 2018 and closed US consulate in East Jerusalem the area under Palestinian control. His bigotry against Palestinians unveiled more distinctly when he announced defunding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the UN agency that provides food, education and healthcare to the refugees. Moreover during his regime in November 2018 the state department of US proclaimed that the construction of Israeli settlements in West Bank does not come under the ambit of violation of international humanitarian laws. Certainly, the belligerent policies in last four years of trump era paved the way for the colonization of Palestine by Israel and helped the latter to put unlawful restrictions on Palestinians making them deprived of all civil liberties and peace.

As per world report-2020by Human Rights Watch HRW, Palestinian citizens are restrained from all basic necessities of life such that, education, basic healthcare, clean water and electricity. The movement of people and goods to and from Gaza strip is also inhibited. According to World Health Organization WHO 34 percent of applications by Palestinians, for medical appointments outside Gaza strip, were not addressed by Israeli army. Moreover, HRW report states that the Israeli government destroyed 504 homes of Palestinians in West Bank during 2019 and facilitated 5995 housing settlements for Israelis. The country is trying at utmost to eradicate indigenous Palestinians from their home land. According to United Nations’ Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs UNOCHA, the demolitions of Palestinian homes displaced 642 people in 2019 and 472 in 2018.Moreover, the illicit attacks by Israeli side have killed hundreds of innocent citizens in the same years. According to UNOCHA on November 11, 2020, 71 innocent Palestinian citizens were killed by Israeli forces while 11,453 were lethally injured in a single day. Furthermore, UN secretary general exhorted that Israeli armed forces have infringed the children’s rights during the conflict as in 2018, 56 Palestinian children were killed by Israeli armed forces.

While, other international actors criticized the Israeli annexations of the region and declared it as violation of international humanitarian laws, US supported the Israeli escalations in West Bank. The former also stopped aid support through USAID for Gaza strip where eighty percent of population depends upon aid. Such partial attitude of US has put the country outside the international consensus on the issue. Apparently, US pretend its position as arbiter but her policies accredited the colonization of Palestine by Israel.

Thus, it seems futile to expect any big change in US policies regarding Israeli-Palestinian issue during forthcoming administrations. However, the president-elect Joe Bidden may alter some of the trump’s decisions such as reopening of Palestine Liberation Organization PLO in Washington, resuming funding of UNRWA and reopening of US consulate in East Jerusalem.  But his policies will not contradict the congress’ stance on the issue. As, he and his team have clearly mentioned prior to elections that they will not shift back the US embassy to Tel Aviv as it seems politically and practically insensible to them. Moreover, Blinken, the candidate for secretary of state in Joe’s upcoming regime, made it clear through his controversial statements, that the imminent president will inherit historic US position on Palestine-Israel dispute. Further, Chinese expansionism, Russian intervention in American and European affairs and Iran nuclear deal issue would remain the main concerns of foreign affairs of US during initial period of Joe Biden’s regime. He is likely to favor the status quo in Palestine and remain focused on other foreign interests. In addition to this the inclination of Arabian Gulf to develop relations with Israel will also hinder the adherence for Palestinians from the gulf countries. Subsequently, it will enable Israelis to continue seizing the Palestinian territories into Israel and leave indigenous Palestinians stateless in their own land.

Summing up, it is significant for Palestinians to continue their struggle for the homeland and seek support from other international actors to marginalize Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territories. As well as, the peace accord of 1993 signed in between both nations, to share the holy land, should also be revoked by both countries.  Both nations should try to resolve the issue on equitable grounds by negotiations so that either side could not be deprived of its interests.

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Middle East

An Enemy Among Us

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The upcoming talks regarding the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, that are due to take place on January 25, should not disillusion us from the dangers of Turkey’s unilateral aggression on all fronts. Erdogan has made no real efforts to improve ties with the EU, except for the occasional vain promise of turning over a new leaf. Since October, he has urged the Muslim world to boycott French products, continued gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, blatantly ignored the arms embargo in Libya and has aided Azerbaijan in committing war crimes in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Despite the numerous warnings issued by the EU and the many failed attempts at resolving the crisis in the East Med diplomatically, the latest EU summit concluded with an anti-climactic promise to sanction certain Turkish officials regarding the East Med. This minimally symbolic promise could only be described as a mere slap on the wrist that will prove unsuccessful in deterring Turkey’s belligerent tendencies. Turkey’s increasingly hostile attitude, its callous use of the refugee crisis and its clear violation of international law in the East Med, Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh represent a danger to European values, identity and security.

We are witnessing before our eyes a dictator in the making who dreams of a return of the Ottoman empire and seeks to destroy the democratic and secular legacy of Atatürk. He is a fervent supporter of political islam – particularly the muslim brotherhood – and he relentlessly accuses the West of wanting to ‘relaunch the crusades’ against Islam. In fact, since 2014, Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) have continuously facilitated cross-border movement into Syria and shipped illegal arms to a number of radical jihadist groups. The Turkish government also uses SADAT Defense, an islamist paramilitary group loyal to Erdogan, to aid groups that can be considered as terrorist organizations such as Sultan Murad Division and Ahrar al-Sham in Northern Syria and use their jihadi fighters to send to Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and, most recently, Kashmir in order to bolster Turkey’s foreign policy.

Erdogan uses a mixture of islamism and nationalism to expand Turkey’s influence around the world and to consolidate power within. The two most influential factions in Turkey are the radical islamists and secular neo-nationalists, who despise each other but share a deep disdain for the west. Courtesy of neo-nationalist and former Maoist terrorist leader Dogu Perinçek, the NATO member has also enjoyed warmer ties with Russia and China over the past 5 years. As a result of these shifts in alliances and growing anti-western sentiments, Turkey is becoming increasingly at odds with the West. 

Furthermore, the growing discontent at home pushes him to adopt more aggressive tactics, divisive policies and his behavior mirrors that of a panicked authoritarian leader. Erdogan is desperately looking for a conflict to distract the Turkish population from the fall of the lira, the spread and mishandling of COVID-19, and the overall declining economy that predates the pandemic. Turkey’s future will most likely be determined by the upcoming general election that is set to take place within the next three years. If Erdogan wins the next election, it will solidify his power and bring him one step closer in turning Turkey into a dictatorship. During his stay in power, he has already conducted a series of purges to weaken and silence dissidents. Turkey now has the most imprisoned journalists in the world. 

Yet, the loss of Istanbul and Ankara in the last municipal election of 2019 demonstrate his declining popularity, and offer a glimmer of hope for the opposition. Political figures like the new mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, or the new mayor of Ankara, Mansur Yavaş, represent a brighter future for Turkey. Erdogan currently finds himself in a position of weakness, which represents a rare window of opportunity for the EU to strike. Unfortunately, the EU remains deeply divided on how to handle a situation that continues to deteriorate. It seems that some member states, particularly Germany, are holding on to the naive belief that Erdogan can still be reasoned with. 

Our reluctance to impose the slightest sanctions against Turkey demonstrates our division and weakness, which emboldens the neo-sultan. A strong and united response from the European Union is the only way to curb Erdogan’s expansionist agenda. This should include renegotiating the migrant pact, imposing targeted sanctions against SADAT Defense and its leader Adnan Tanrıverdi, imposing an arms embargo, suspending the EU-Turkey customs union and finally suspending Turkey’s membership in NATO. 

Ultimately, Erdogan’s bellicose foreign policy and his contentious nationalist-islamist rhetoric makes it impossible to consider Erdogan’s Turkey as our ally. As the EU reaches out yet another olive branch, Erdogan has his eye on the wars to come. 

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Is Erdogan’s Obsession with Demirtas a Personal Vendetta or a Calculated Strategy?

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The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) Grand Chamber ruled that the former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Selahattin Demirtaş must be immediately released. The Court ruled that his years-long detention “had pursued the ulterior purpose of stifling pluralism and limiting freedom of political debate”. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly reacted to the ECHR’s ruling and characterized the decision as hypocritical’ and accused the Court of defending a ‘terrorist.’

To many, Erdogan’s reaction to the Court’s ruling should not be a surprise,but his resentment and anger toward Demirtaş are quite shocking. So, why does Erdogan pursue a vendetta against him? Or is it a calculated political strategy? How could Demirtaş’s release affect the political landscape in Turkey? What could be the implications of releasing or not releasing him be on the US-Turkey relations during the Biden era?

Yes, the ECHR’s ruling is a significant and expected development. What is more significant is that Erdogan’s quick reaction shows his deeply rooted frustration with Demirtaş, which dates back to the pre-June 2015 elections. In March 2015,Demirtaş made a short but a spectacular speech at the Turkish Parliament when he said, “we will not make you the President.” He also said, “We are not a movement of bargaining, a party of bargaining. There has never been a dirty deal between us and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and there will never be…” His reference to ‘dirty deal’ was believed to be an offer from the AKP to HDP in exchange for support during the general election. In the June 2015 election, HDP managed to secure the electoral threshold with 13% vote for the first time in the pro-Kurdish parties’ history. Additionally, they secured 80 seats in parliament which made them the second biggest opposition party in Turkey. This was an unprecedented victory for the pro-Kurdish party and a breakthrough in Turkish political history. It is fair to say that, based on the author’s experience, Demirtaş’s rising charisma has become a liability, not only for Erdogan but also for Ocalan, PKK’s once unquestionable leader.  

Erdoğan’s hateful outburst towards the call for Demirtaş’s release is more about Erdoğan’s political self-interest and concerns than his personal vendetta. Demirtaş’s release could likely have far bigger implications on the political calculations in Turkey. They would primarily impact on the future of the People’s Alliance, the coalition between the Justice and Development Party (AK) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), where AKP focuses its efforts to maintain control over the Kurdish issue. For the AKP, having an alliance with the MHP has been beneficial so far but not without major tradeoffs. These includethe MHP’s stance against the Kurdish issue and its eroding voter support nationwide.

AKP’s strategy to maintain power partly relies on its ability to create factions within the existing political parties. The pro-Kurdish parties are no exception. Strategies include consolidating Kurdish votes around AKP or dividing them to create enough division as to not let the HDP run as one single dominant Kurdish party in the next elections.

Demirtaş’s release could pose risks for AKP’s three-fold strategy: Dominate, divide and maintain the status quo. First, by arresting MPs, local politicians, mayors, and activists, AKP aimed to paralyze and dominate the Kurdish voter base. So, preventing Demirtaş’s release could serve to kill the electoral enthusiasm at the party’s voting base and prevent unity among the Kurdish constituency. Demirtaş’s potential release could give rise to his popularity, not only among the Kurdish voters but also the left-wing secularists. Such a scenario could force the AKP towards more pro-Kurdish narratives and policies that could eventually weaken the AKP-MHP coalition.

Second, dividing and deepening fractions; and creating splinter parties would mean that the HDP could not consolidate the Kurdish constituency. Although having a smaller base, an Islamist Kurdish Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par)has supported Erdogan during the 2018 Presidential election. They are a group with alleged ties with the Kurdish Hezbollah, which has committed the atrocities in Turkey in the 1990s and early 2000s.Recently, the leader of Hüda-Par expressed his disappointment with ECHR’s ruling after he paid a visit to Erdogan in the Presidential Palace. Another example is establishing the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), allegedly politically in line with Barzani’s tradition, to divide HDP votes.

Third, by cutting new deals with Öcalan again, they aim to appeal to his supporters to maintain the status quo. Just like during the local elections in 2019, AKP might take another step to re-instrumentalize Öcalan despite his failed emissary role in the last Istanbul local re-run. Öcalan called for HDP’s neutrality, which meant not supporting the opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu. Öcalan’s message was contradicting with HDP’s former co-chair Selahattin Demirtas’s call for support for Imamoglu. Though AKP’s strategy of revitalizing Öcalan may not produce the desired outcome for AKP, it could buy some time by diverting public attention from the victimhood of Demirtaş and HDP.

While releasing Demirtas could pose challenges for the AKP and its leader Erdogan domestically, not releasing him could prove costly. As a pragmatic leader as anyone could be, to survive politically Erdogan has made several U-turns domestically and internationally. Facing an economic crisis and continuing decline in approval ratings Erdogan could, unwillingly, comply with the Court’s ruling. This could help him have a fresh start with President-elect Biden,  who called Erdogan an autocrat.

Regardless of whether he would be released or not, as a political leader, Demirtaş will dominate domestic politics in Turkey and continue to be a critical actor in the region vis-à-vis the Kurdish issue.

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