Turkey has experienced a typically eventful year. In our review of 2017, we look at Turkey’s security situation, its changing role in Iraq and Syria, the burgeoning ties with Russia and Iran, the difficulties in its relationship with West, and the future of Turkish politics after the referendum.
Despite beginning 2017 with a devastating terrorist attack on an Istanbul nightclub in the early hours of New Year’s Day, Turkey has seen a marked improvement in its security situation over the last 12 months. In 2016, Turkey’s major cities were hit by more than twenty bomb blasts, killing 225 people and seriously wounding hundreds more. In contrast, 2017 saw almost no major terrorist incident, making the aforementioned shooting by an Islamic State (ISIS)-linked gunman a brutal anomaly.
Turkey, however, continues to face an unprecedented level of security threats. These overwhelmingly emanate from ISIS and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that has been engaged in an on-and-off conflict with the Turkish state since the 1980s. The security services have made gains against both groups, successfully targeting ISIS networks in Turkey through intelligence gathering, and using new technology to counter PKK influence in rural areas. But ultimately, the nature of these threats makes them almost impossible to contain completely. The lower number of major terrorist attacks in Turkey has, therefore, likely been driven by the strategic considerations of its major security threats.
The PKK has taken up a more defensive stance in Turkey as its Syrian allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), consolidates their position in Northern Syria. Although its insurgency continues, the group has increasingly relied on IEDs targeting military convoys, rather than direct confrontations. After launching several deadly bombings that hit both security services and civilians last year, the PKK’s more radical offshoot, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks (TAK) has also gone quiet again, amid reports that the Pentagon is pressurising the PKK to rein in violence while the US provides support to the YPG in Syria.
ISIS, having lost much of its Syrian territory to the YPG, also appears to have taken a strategic pause. The number of ISIS members who have fled from Syria to Turkey is unknown, but it is believed to be in the thousands. It is as yet unclear if ISIS has halted its attacks in Turkey while some its members seek to regroup in the country, because it simply lacks the capacity to strike, or both. In either case, ISIS’ likely transition to an insurgency group will pose a big, if not bigger, threat to Turkey’s security going forward.
With the decline in ISIS’ territorial influence over the last 12 months, Turkey has sought to fill the vacuum in Syria and Iraq. But in doing so, Ankara’s ambitions have increasingly run up against the growing influence of the region’s various Kurdish movements. This has led Turkey to row back on its revisionist regional strategy, accepting the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and renewing relations with the Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad.
Turkey has become more directly involved in the Syrian conflict as the power of the rebel factions under its influence has waned. ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’, which saw Turkish ground forces back local rebel groups to push ISIS out of several Syrian towns, was hailed as being successfully completed in March, having pre-empted the People’s Protection Units (YPG) from taking control of almost the entire Turkey-Syria border. Since then, however, the YPG has substantially increased its influence throughout much of the rest of Syria, gaining significant territory at the expense of the Islamic State (ISIS). In contrast, rebel forces backed by Turkey remain isolated to the area carved out by Operation Euphrates Shield’ after being driven out of Idlib province, Syria’s last remaining rebel stronghold.
The Turkish military entered Syria again in October, deploying troops on the ground in Idlib as part of an agreement with Russia and Iran aimed at de-escalating the conflict. The deal signalled Turkey’s tacit acceptance that the Russian and Iranian-backed Assad regime would remain in power. In return, the Turkish military has increased its influence in North West Syria, where it is seeking to isolate the YPG-held town of Afrin. This move has required Turkey to strike an unofficial deal with Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda linked group that dominates Idlib. It remains to be seen how such informal cooperation will play out in the long-run.
A similar dynamic has played out in Iraq. In October 2016, Baghdad and Ankara appeared to be on the brink of armed conflict over who should control the Iraqi city of Mosul following its liberation from ISIS. However, October 2017 saw joint manoeuvres between the Turkish and Iraqi militaries, united by their opposition to an independence referendum held by Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Emboldened by its successes in leading the fight against ISIS in Iraq, the KRG held the independence poll on September 25, but was unable to stop federal troops from forcibly reasserting control over the region’s borders less than a month later – a move supported by Turkey and Iran.
Until the referendum, Turkey had been the KRG’s closest regional ally. In February, KRG President Masoud Barzani was welcomed on an official visit to Ankara by the flying of the Kurdish national flag, a historic first that provoked widespread condemnation from Turkey’s main opposition parties. However, while the AKP government had been keen to promote economic ties with its potentially oil rich neighbour, accepting an independent Kurdish state on its border proved a step too far. Faced with the prospect of a fundamental regional alignment, Turkey again opted to maintain the status-quo.
Iran / Russia
With their interests no longer diametrically opposed in Iraq and Syria, the second half of 2017 saw growing cooperation between Turkey, Iran and Russia. From Ankara’s perspective, this was partly borne out of necessity. With the survival of the Assad regime, Russia has retained significant influence in Syria, and a newly strengthened federal government in Baghdad means Iran holds evermore sway in Iraq. However, Turkey has also seen benefits to deepening its relations with both countries. By broadening its alliances, Turkey is seeking to develop further ways in which it can operate independently of the West.
Turkey sees Iran in particular as a decisive partner in its battle against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The armed group’s headquarters are located in the Qandil Mountains that straddle the Iraq-Iran border. And Tehran’s influence in both the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government in Baghdad will prove crucial if Turkey is to succeed in disrupting the PKK’s movements between Northern Iraq and the areas controlled by its YPG allies in Northern Syria. This was the driver behind a recent incursion by the Turkish military into Northern Iraq, a move that almost certainly had Iran’s tacit approval.
Russia recently announced that it had agreed to sell Turkey its state-of-the art S-400 air defence system. Turkey is hoping to receive a significant technology transfer as part of the deal as it seeks to bolster its domestic weapons industry. This has not yet been signed off by Russia, which is reluctant to share the technical insights of its key missile system with a NATO member. However, deal is just one of a series of potential agreements lined up between the two countries, including the joint development of a nuclear power plant. Ankara is rumoured to be keen on developing its own nuclear weapons and the planned Akkuyu plant would be a crucial first step in this regard.
These potential benefits have come at some cost to Turkey’s other relationships. The US in particular has raised objections to Turkey developing a missile system outside of the NATO alliance. Similarly, the Gulf countries are unimpressed by Turkey’s new alignment with Iran, which they regard as their main threat in the region; adding to the animosity that has developed since Turkey decided to break the blockade imposed on Qatar by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in July.
There also remain limits on an ever-growing relationship between Turkey, Iran and Russia. Presidents Erdogan and Putin have met six times in the last 12 months. This was an unprecedented sign of the new-found cooperation between their two countries, but also an indication that it was not always proving easy for them to reach agreements. Continued Russian support for the YPG in Syria remains a key sticking point. The two countries are not as closely aligned as some in the West have begun to fear.
Turkey – US relations have sunk to their lowest point in recent history amid a myriad of disputes that cannot be easily resolved. There was hope in Ankara that a new Trump administration would enable a clean break from the last years of President Obama, when tensions over Syria in particular had come to a head. This optimism largely proved to be false. The US has continued to arm Kurdish militants in Syria with close links to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Trump has similarly failed to act on Turkey’s request that the US extradite Fethullah Gulen, the religious figure accused of leading last year’s failed coup.
Instead, the Turkish and US governments have found themselves further entangled in damaging investigations involving each other. In October, Turkish police arrested a staff member of the US consulate in Istanbul, accusing him of links to Fethullah Gulen. And in November, the trial of a senior executive of a Turkish state bank began in New York, where a key witness, Reza Zarrab, claims he bribed senior Turkish government officials as part of a scheme to break international sanctions on Iran.
The row over the detention of the US consulate employee saw both NATO countries place visa restrictions on each other’s citizens. The outcome of the sanction’s case is likely to have an even more divisive impact, with the potential for massive fines to be imposed on Turkish banks. How both governments respond is likely to define relations between Washington and Ankara in the period ahead.
Turkey – EU relations have seen a rocky period during which domestic politics has increasingly impacted on bilateral ties. European governments, often with their own local political constituencies in mind, have taken an increasingly strong position on Turkey and its membership of the EU, with the Turkish government responding in kind. This was encapsulated by the row between Turkey and Holland in March, with each side accusing the other of interfering in its domestic politics, but both governments keen to be seen to take a robust stance ahead of crucial votes in their respective countries. A similar dynamic saw Germany remove its military planes from Turkey’s strategically important Incirlik Airbase in September, after a relatively small dispute escalated amid both sides refusing to back down.
In previous years, the public nature of these rows has tended to belie the necessarily close economic relationship between Turkey and the EU. However, there are signs that this may now be changing. The EU has indicated that it is likely to withhold 3.5 billion euros allocated to Turkey through its development programs. This unprecedented move comes as European investor confidence in Turkey continues to suffer. In July, Turkish authorities provided Interpol with a list of 680 German companies they accused of financing terrorism through alleged links to the followers of Fethullah Gulen. The list was eventually withdrawn, but the incident was one of the most damaging chapters in a year that has seen a 17 percent drop in foreign direct investment in Turkey.
Domestic politics in Turkey was dominated by the government’s plans to change the constitution, transforming the country from a broadly parliamentary to a presidential system. The measures were passed by a narrow margin at a referendum held in April. The 51 percent ‘yes’ vote was much lower than expected, coming in significantly below the combined vote share of the two parties that campaigned for the changes: the ruling Justice and Development Patty (AKP) and its allies in the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Despite operating under the restrictive conditions, the ‘no’ campaign was able to mobilise significant popular support. This included sections of the electorate that would usually be expected to vote for the AKP.
The success of the ‘no’ campaign among nationalist and conservative voters catalysed the formation of the Good Party (GP). Led by former MHP member Meral Asker, the GP is the most significant force to emerge on Turkey’s right since the foundation of the AKP in 2001. The new party looks set to challenge the government on questions of competence and accountability, attacking the reputation for good governance on which the AKP originally built much of its popularity.
It remains to be seen how much of an inroad the GP will make into the AKP’s support. Initial indications appear to show that it is just as likely to attract voters from Turkey’s main opposition, the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), which has a strong nationalist current. The party therefore risks being squeezed between Turkey’s existing major parties, able to win support from both without having a significant impact on either. This is exacerbated by the new political system, under which the next president will be chosen in a run-off between two candidates. For now, achieving the 10 percent of the national vote necessary to enter parliament at the 2019 elections will be seen as an electoral success. In the meantime, the party’s impact will be measured by how far it can effectively challenge the government on its own political terms.
In the background to these developments is the paranoia that still runs deep in Turkish politics after rogue elements in the military attempted to overthrow the government last year, killing 265 people. A state of emergency remains in place as the government faces the near impossible task of identifying members of the Fethullah Gulen movement, the group widely blamed with masterminding the failed coup and seeking to remove them from state institutions.
This has resulted in a difficult political environment for opposition groups in the country, with theirchallenges to the government often being conflated with support for either the Fethullah Gulen movement or the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The Kurdish political movement continues to bear the brunt of this, with the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) facing restrictions on its activities, and its leaders jailed on charges of links to the PKK. Thus far, Turkey’s other parties have remained largely untouched, but the fear of being accused of links to Fethullah Gulen has worked to supress dissent, not least in the AKP itself.
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