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How Would Afrin Offensive Shape Turkey’s Domestic Politics?

It took only 10 days for Turkey’s political parties to remain standing in unison behind the military offensive against Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria. Mostly for fear of being labeled as unpatriotic, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) cloaked its criticism and lingering questions from public view, muted all critical voices among its ranks. But the display of political unity has eventually unraveled, with ominous ramifications for the course of things to take shape in the political domain.

The breakdown of national unity came after CHP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan embroiled in a quarrel over how to define Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. The CHP depiction of the once Western-allied and moderate rebels as “terrorists” or unreliable elements someone who has close links to jihadists provoked opprobrium and disparaging remarks from the government side.

Mr. Erdogan lashed out at CHP and called FSA rebels heroes fighting for Turkey’s cause. But the latest spat exposes a far more complex and evident political drama that reflects the impact of the Afrin operation on Turkey’s domestic politics.

Only one week before incursion to northern Syria, polls alarmingly showed a steep decline in support for Mr. Erdogan’s 2019 presidential aspirations. According to a number of surveys, the public enthusiasm for Turkey’s powerful president has been unmistakably waning, revealing a public fatigue over hurly-burly, bare-knuckled power politics that gripped the social fabric and political landscape over the past years. The president needs at least 51 percent of the votes in 2019 presidential election. His figures were hovering around 44 percent to 47 percent, according to a recent survey.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the Afrin offensive offered a reprieve to the president to arrest the decline of his prospects. The military operation has infused political landscape with a swelling nationalist sentiment, obscuring the looming signs of economic distress and postponing the urge to reckon with the implacable social problems at home front.

As Mr. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party is finalizing negotiations to forge a new political alliance with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) in an effort to dispense with their shortcomings due to electoral mathematics, the military offensive would inject a new blood to his fleeting base.

“In general, I think, the Afrin Operation works well for Erdogan politically. It presents him as tough on addressing terrorism and it allows him to stand up against the Americans,” Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident senior fellow at Washington-based POMED, told The Globe Post Turkey.

“Both of these not only help him on the nationalist right; they are genuinely popular across much of the political spectrum.”

Not surprisingly, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) was the only political group that opposed the operation while broad public support cutting across the political spectrum was lent to the government, reflecting a national consensus to deal with a security matter Turkey regards as seriously alarming.

On Jan. 20, Turkish forces launched the offensive against Kurdish militia, People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. The threat to take action was long brewing and was the culmination of a series of recent developments on the ground.

What accelerated Turkey’s military push was the announcement of a U.S. plan to form a new border force, mainly out of Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). It spooked the Turkish leadership and prompted a swift reaction from Ankara. YPG is, in the eyes of Turkish authorities, an ideological brethren of outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has resiliently waged an insurgency for self-rule in southeastern Turkey for decades.

Mr. Eissenstat highlighted the security dimension as one of the driving forces behind the Turkish military endeavor. For him, it is a mistake to see “the Afrin policy as merely a political ploy for domestic consumption.”

“I don’t think there is any question that Erdogan – and most Turks – view the consolidation of the YPG as a clear strategic threat,” he said, elaborating on the long-running Turkish concerns over an emerging statelet run by the PKK-linked militia. And “the Pentagon’s statements about a border force,” he underscored, “crystalized these concerns.”

In that regard, the Afrin operation was driven by a confluence of different dynamics: President Erdogan’s intention of redesigning of political realm to his liking ahead of an election year and a non-political, purely geopolitical motivation emanates from Turkey’s decades-old strategic calculations and alignments over its national security in its near vicinity.

“Quite apart from the popularity of the Afrin operation, Erdogan’s actions also reflect longstanding assumptions about Turkey’s security situation and the American alliance with the YPG,” Mr. Eissenstat said.

The YPG issue drove a wedge between Turkey and the U.S., testing the decades-old alliance between two NATO members. Pentagon’s repeated efforts to assuage concerns of Turkish authorities through redefining the nature of the border force have abysmally failed.

To the chagrin of Washington, President Erdogan pledged to expand Turkey’s offensive to the east of Afrin, to Manbij, a Kurdish-held town which is home to nearly 2,000 U.S. special forces members. Any move toward Manbij raises the specter of an unwitting confrontation between two NATO allies, a dreadful scenario that keeps officials on both sides on edge.

The “U.S. is doing everything we absolutely can” to avoid a confrontation with Turkey in Syria, Gen. Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command responsible for Middle East operations, said on Wednesday. There is robust coordination mechanism between two allies, he noted, to avoid such a friction. Pentagon, on Thursday, again urged Turkey to keep the scope and duration of its operation limited.

Afrin and Turkey’s Kurdish Question

The Afrin operation has presented an old quandary for Ankara. Turkish airstrikes and shelling pound militia targets in Afrin, but also laying waste to residential areas and unavoidably causing civilian damages.

Another victim of the offensive appears to be the prospect of a peaceful resolution of Turkey’s own Kurdish conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the past four decades. An unresolved Kurdish problem has unequivocally eviscerated Turkey’s democratic norms, undercut its institutions and militarized a region by condemning southeast to a perpetual state of underdevelopment and destituteness.

The onset of Afrin operation has only aggravated this vexing problem, inflicting new rounds of blows to Kurdish political party whose thousands of members, including its co-chairs, were already placed behind bars in the post-coup crackdown on domestic political opponents.

“In traditional rally-round-the-flag fashion, the Afrin operation (despite its improbably peculiar name of Olive Branch) enables Erdogan to drum up nationalist support from its current electoral ally the MHP, as well as garner at least faint approval from hard-line CHP supporters who resented the AKP’s 2013-15 outreach to the Kurds,” Lisel Hintz, an assistant professor at John Hopkins University, told The Globe Post Turkey.

She thinks that achieving assent for any policy from the latter, comprised of “secularists” opposed to what they perceive as the AKP’s Islamization of Turkish society is a particularly difficult needle to thread, but the Kurdish issue is a wedge issue that can be used to divide those opposed to the AKP into liberal/pro-Kurdish and anti-Kurdish camps.

According to Ms. Hintz, “those in the former camp saw great success in the June 2015 elections when the Peoples’ Democratic Party won 13% of the national vote, but quickly saw their hopes evaporate as the AKP refused to accept the loss of its parliamentary majority by forming a coalition government, choosing instead to play the Kurdish card in that case as well through the re-initiation of fighting with the PKK in July 2015 and the use of divisive nationalist rhetoric.”

The armed nature of the conflict with PKK and YPG’s not-too-subtle links to Qandil-based militants lend credence to the security-oriented argument in Turkey, buttressing their positions in the face of reconciliation calls from liberals, some left-leaning intellectuals and HDP.

“The resumption of conflict and subsequent attacks carried out by PKK members,” Ms. Hintz argued, “advance the arguments of those in the CHP, MHP, and now AKP pushing for a military solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question.”

“The CHP in particular struggles with internal divides, and the Kurdish issue is perhaps the polarizing among these,” she added.

President Erdogan’s fallout with Kurds, after two years of negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and a ceasefire between 2013 and 2015, took place following an electoral debacle of ruling AKP in 2015 parliamentary elections. The party first time lost its majority to form a single-party government.

And HDP’s electoral success blunted Mr. Erdogan’s push for the executive presidency that year. It prompted the president to unleash a more militarist policy to win back the lost votes, wooing the nationalist voters. His hawkish strategy paid off in next parliamentary elections held on Nov. 1, in 2015.

For Ms. Hintz, the central aim of Mr. Erdogan to maintain his leadership and his position both in the party and Turkey.

“This central focus on power,” she underlined, “helps explain drastically different policies toward the Kurds depending on whether they can be counted on to support Erdogan; for him the issue has nothing to do with identity, ethnicity, or representation, but is purely one element of his calculation of how to stay in power and, crucially, thus immune from prosecution.”

To this end, she noted, Mr. Erdogan is using the Afrin operation the way he did the July 2016 coup attempt, as an excuse to crack down not only on those who pose legitimate threats to the nation and the regime but also on those who criticize him and his policies.

The political machinations are evidently on display during Afrin operation, which further coarsened Turkey’s already gutted landscape of free expression. Since the launch of the operation, Turkish authorities have detained 311 people for their critical remarks on social media sites. Several members of HDP were also imprisoned.

This behavior, Ms. Hintz said in conclusion, is taken straight from the dictator’s handbook on how to intimidate the opposition.

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