In a stunning turn of events in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) managed to confound its critics and win a convincing victory at the polls. These elections were a gamble by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who maneuvered to block the formation of a coalition government following the inconclusive June elections so as to get another shot at winning a majority.
The most important contribution to Erdogan’s victory came from an unexpected source: the main Kurdish insurgent group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with which Turkey has been at war. In an unprecedented strategic blunder, the PKK abandoned its unilateral ceasefire after the June elections. The resulting violence helped the AKP to make its case that it stood for stability, something Turks value more than anything else.
The significant increase in the AKP’s share of votes from 41 to 49 percent will undoubtedly make the new Turkish government, and Erdogan in particular, far more self confident in both domestic and international affairs.
While the United States has always shown a tendency to work with the status quo, especially when it comes to an ally such as Turkey, a member of NATO, it now faces three challenges. The first, and least significant, challenge is the anti-American tone of Erdogan, his party, and especially the Erdogan-controlled press, representing approximately 70 percent of all outlets, whether print, television, online, or social media. Insinuating American plots and partisanship in favor of the opposition even forced the U.S. Ambassador to come out forcefully to deny the allegations.
The second challenge is the increasingly authoritarian bent of the government, including the arbitrary confiscation of opposition television channels and newspapers and the prosecution of individuals from all walks of life for criticizing the President. If such campaigns continue, or even escalate, after these elections, it will make for uncomfortable conversations between U.S. and Turkish officials, potentially casting a shadow on other bilateral issues.
However, the third and most contentious challenge will be Syria. U.S. and Turkish goals in Syria are out of sync. Turkey prioritizes the defeat of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus and the containment, if not reversal, of Syrian Kurdish gains made by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). The latter has emerged as the single-most effective fighting force against the Islamic State (IS). By contrast, the United States is fixated first and foremost on the elimination of IS. The Assad regime has become a secondary issue.
It is over the PYD that the Turks and Americans are likely to have their greatest disagreements. The PYD has established a close relationship with the United States and as a result has succeeded in pushing IS back from some locations it captured in the summer of 2014. In the absence of any other forces on the ground, the U.S.-PYD relationship has deepened. This has alarmed the Turks, who see the PYD as nothing but an extension of the PKK.
In June of this year, the United States finally managed to get permission from Ankara to access to four airbases in southern Turkey for anti-IS operations; Turkish acquiescence came only because Turks were alarmed at the deepening U.S.-PYD relationship, which they worried was a back door to a U.S.-PKK collaboration. This is not an unreasonable fear, despite the fact that the United States considers the PKK a terrorist organization, given that many of the PYD cadres fighting in Syria are in fact Turkish PKK members. Moreover, the Turks also worry that Syrian Kurds, thanks to their cooperation with the United States, will end up with their own autonomous region in Syria once Assad is gone. This would provide Turkish Kurds with another model after their brethren in northern Iraq, who have already established their own semi-recognized government, the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The bases are critical to U.S. plans for the re-conquest of IS’s capital Raqqa with the help of the PYD and a number of smaller local militias. Washington’s decision to introduce fifty Special Forces troops into Syria this past week could not have happened without access to those bases, which are now undoubtedly home to U.S. search and rescue teams. Moreover, the United States also plans to bring in A-10 ground attack fighter aircraft that can lay down devastating cover fire in close combat situations.
Will a rejuvenated AKP government and Erdogan interfere with U.S. plans by trying to spoil PYD ambitions? Last week the Turkish government claimed that its planes had bombed PYD positions in Syria. This has not been confirmed on the ground and in all likelihood was just a pre-election boast. Nevertheless, even its mere suggestion constitutes a major precedent for future similar actions.
To date, though nominally a member of the anti-IS coalition, Ankara has not made that organization a priority, despite a string of devastating bombings attributed to IS that mainly targeted Turkish Kurds. Ankara and IS have been careful not to provoke each other; IS has a significant infrastructure within Turkey that it does not want to risk, and the Turks have seen the power of IS to kill and create havoc.
It is easy to see how an emboldened Erdogan may want to extract new concessions from Washington; on the other hand, this is also an opportunity for the Turks to come in from the cold and begin to shape a new a grand bargain over both Syria and Iraq. We will soon find out.