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In Post-Election Scramble, Turkey Puts IS Fight on Hold

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a graduation ceremony for foreign students in Ankara, June 11, 2015.

Hundreds of Turkish parliamentarians have six weeks to form a government. But after more than a decade of one-party dominance, and a history of failed coalitions in Ankara, experts tell VOA there may be little change in how Turkey deals with the biggest elephant in the regional zoo: the Islamic State.

As civil war disintegrated Syria, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wanted leader Bashar al-Assad out. Then Islamic State fighters grabbed territory along Syria's northern border, pushing refugees into Turkey. Erdogan insisted Damascus was still the problem, while Washington rallied a multinational coalition to launch an air campaign against the extremist militants.

Turkish media alleged varying degrees of Ankara collusion - from funneling arms to the rebels challenging Assad, to simply turning a blind eye to border-crossing would-be militiamen, who then joined Islamic State. Ankara denied the allegations as recently as Thursday, when Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanju Bilgiç blasted the charges as defamatory.

Yet foreign policy wasn't a major campaign issue. As Turkish international relations professor Aydin Mustafa explains in an opinion piece published Thursday by Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News, while millions of Turkish voters may not have cast their ballots with Ankara's Syria policy in mind, "I believe popular disapproval of the government’s foreign policy had played a role in eroding the AKP’s majority in parliament."

The Turkish president has made a personal mission of taking on Damascus, said Sinan Ciddi, who heads the Institute of Turkish Studies at Georgetown University.

"The Erdogan regime is bent on trying to topple the Assad regime as a priority, above and beyond helping to eradicate [Islamic State]," said Ciddi.

For Ankara, Islamic State is a security issue as much as logistical challenge. Thousands of refugees fleeing Syria continue to enter every week, totaling at least 1.5 million. And despite repeated requests from Washington for a more active role in the anti-IS coalition, Erdogan agreed mainly to help train some moderate Syrian rebels.

"The new government, whatever form it takes, will face serious issues in Turkey’s international relations and will have to make important decisions rather soon. [Erdogan’s] position and evolving views will also be crucial in determining the course of Turkish foreign policy," Mustafa writes in Hurriyet.

But in a humbling defeat seen as a de facto referendum on the president's ambitions of stronger executive powers, the ruling Justice and Development Party [AKP] lost its absolute majority, taking only 41 percent of Sunday’s votes.

"It will no longer be Mr. Erdogan and his party that will be determining each and every aspect of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy," said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The main opposition group, the Republican People's Party [CHP], garnered 25 percent, following by the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] at 16.5 percent, and the pro-Kurdish left-wing Peoples' Democracy Party [HDP] at 13 percent. Few coalition permutations are natural among the winners; several party leaders have publicly stated which groups they will not join forces with.

"There are going to be changes, the extent of which we cannot determine now, both with respect to the way that Turkish domestic politics is going to be governed, as well as foreign policy," Aliriza told VOA.

Without a coalition, Erdogan could call for a new election, so tenuous political friendships will need to be formed.

F. Michael Wuthrich, Assistant Director of the Center for Global and International Studies at the University of Kansas, said he believes political fragility is going to lead to a low-profile foreign policy - even as U.S.-led coalition warplanes continue to hit Islamic State targets in Syria, kilometers away from the Turkish border.

According to Wuthrich, a researcher on Turkish politics, "Whatever coalition government comes out of this, they're likely to institute a foreign policy approach that's fairly conservative. Even if it's the opposition party coalition, I think that there's going to be red lines draw in terms of their foreign policy. If they're going to have to work together with various parties, they're not going to do things that take a big risk and that would be seen as a negative choice or policy by the average Turkish citizen."

'World will not give them another choice'

But Fysal Dagli, a journalist based in the majority-Kurdish area of Diyarbakir, told VOA’s Kurdish service Turkey will have to change its stance on Islamic State.

“One of the reasons that caused criticism for AKP is their work with ISIS and their wrongful politics with Syria and other issues in the Middle East. This is what we think caused the White House and Turkey to grow apart. AKP knows that they now have to change or renew their position because the world will not give them another choice,” said Dagli.

Following elections results, Washington was largely tight-lipped. State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke lauded the elections, and told reporters earlier this week that the United States "has a strong relationship with Turkey, and we are going to continue working with – closely with Turkey and with the next government that’s formed."

That’s the right move, according to Aliriza.

"I think there might be quiet satisfaction within the U.S. government that not only does Turkish democracy work, but it worked in a way that has effectively put a block on degeneration into authoritarianism as many in the U.S., including Washington, had charged," said Aliriza. "So, I think it's best for Washington to stay out of the current debate and wait until the dust settles."

Behind the scenes, Washington is likely looking for political stability in whatever coalition is formed, according to Georgetown's Ciddi. By the numbers, that means an alliance between AKP and the Republican People's Party.

Yet President Barack Obama and Erdogan traded a few jabs during separate speeches this week. In Germany for the G-7 summit, the U.S. leader accused Ankara of allowing foreign fighters cross its border into Syria.

"This is an area where we’ve been seeking deeper cooperation with Turkish authorities who recognize it’s a problem but haven’t fully ramped up the capacity they need. And this is something that I think we got to spend a lot of time on," Obama said.

Despite attempts by Washington to rally Turkish support for the anti-IS coalition, Ankara remains firm.

In a televised interview Thursday, Erdogan said Western countries are helping what he called "terrorist" Kurdish groups in Syria where Kurdish militias have joined Syrian rebels to battle IS fighters.

"How can we see this as a positive step? How can we believe that the West is sincere?" he said.

Escalating tensions

Turkey's fraught political relationship with its own Kurdish minority is a longstanding source of tension, making the pro-Kurdish HDP first-time win all the more significant. But Wuthrich, who spent years researching in Ankara, said the party probably will keep a low profile during its first time in parliament.

"I think they're going to be very careful in what they demand outside of the country," he said. "Supporting Syrian Kurds would be extremely unpopular to the average citizen in Turkey."

Unless Washington or another Western nation gave the new government a major role, like helping to negotiate a regional peace deal, there is little chance the HDP will want to make waves outside the country.

"There's also still a lot of societal suspicion about like what Turkish Kurd interests actually are, what their agenda is. So if the first thing that they did, their first priority on the agenda was 'hey, let's do something to help Syrian Kurds,' that would not go very well for them," said Wuthrich. "That probably wouldn't be a foreign policy grenade that they'd want to fall on."