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Turkish Election Outcome Could Shape Syria Policy

  • Dorian Jones

The latest opinion polls in Turkey are predicting that the ruling AK Party could lose its majority in parliament in the June 7 election. Analysts warn a significant change in foreign policy could be looming regarding Syria and the influx of refugees into the country.

The ending of nearly 14 years of one-party rule of the Islamist rooted party will have a profound effect on Turkish foreign policy, predicts diplomatic columnist Kadri Gursel of the Turkey’s Milliyet newspaper and Al-Monitor website.

"In the aftermath of such a coalition we can talk about returning to the factory settings of Turkish foreign policy," Gursel said. "First, institutionalism; second predictability; third secular foreign policy. And of course a fourth element: having peaceful and good relations with their neighbors."

All the opposition parties have accused the AK Party of increasingly pursuing a pro-Sunni stance in the region, allying Turkey with countries like Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Qatar - a charge the government denies.

Ankara’s policy towards Syria would likely see the biggest change if the election results in a coalition government, predicts Sinan Ulgen of the Carnegie Institute in Brussels.

"The outcome would certainly be a recalibration of Turkish policy in Syria and certainly a scale back engagement as far as the opposition groups," said Ulgen.

Comitted to bring down Assad's regime

The AKP government is among the most robust supporters of Syrian rebels and has committed itself to bringing down the Assad regime. This policy has been strongly criticized by opposition parties which blame the government for inflaming the Syrian conflict and consider it partly responsible for nearly 2 million Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey.

Concern is also growing among opposition politicians over the menace of radical Islamic groups across the Syrian border and the use of Turkish territory as a Jihadist highway. Any potential coalition partner, according to diplomatic columnist Gursel, would demand an end to such practices.

"A coalition will enable Turkey real damage control on Syria, ending the tacit support of al-Qaida affiliated organizations," Gursel said. "Ending the tacit support to ISIS, securing the borders, and ending the ideology approach to the Syria crisis, (as well as the) ending of sectarian policies and politics."

Denying IS support

The AK Party has strongly denied giving any support to Islamic State, but has confirmed it has stepped up its cooperation with Riyadh and Qatar in supporting other Islamic groups.

That support, analysts say, is key to recent gains by those groups against pro-Assad forces. With a 900 kilometer border with Syria, Turkey is the only supply route for rebels based in northern Syria. The leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, this month, pledged to seal the Turkish-Syrian border.

Which political party forms any potential coalition government in Turkey will also be a factor in determining future foreign policy, says analyst Ulgen.

"A coalition with the Kurdish HDP (Peoples Democratic Party) could work towards the settlement of the Kurdish problem that would certainly have an important impact on a relationship with Kurds in Iraq and how it looks at the regional situation," said Ulgen. "A coalition with (Turkish Nationalists Republican People’s Party) MHP, on the other hand, we can be pessimistic with the outcome of the settlement regarding the Kurdish issue, but also on foreign policy. Turkey would more likely adopt a more nationalist stance."

The AK Party’s deepening relationship with the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish government is seen by observers as one of its major foreign policy achievements. Iraqi Kurdistan, according to some estimates, is Turkey’s second biggest trading partner. While the government’s peace efforts with Kurdish rebel group the PKK are fragile, they are also heralded as key to the country’s political and economic stability. Observers says whomever forms a government, they would pay a potentially heavy cost if either of those achievements were lost.