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Turkish Election Outcome May Aid Fight Against IS, Analysts Say

FILE - Turkish police special forces take part in a security operation in Diyarbakir, Turkey, October 26, 2015, where two Turkish policemen and seven Islamic State militants were killed after police raided more than a dozen houses in the region.

Some analysts say Sunday’s landslide election victory for Turkey’s ruling party could help in the regional fight against Islamic State militants.

“Once again there is a partner for Washington in Ankara,” said Soner Cagaptay, a U.S.-Turkish affairs expert. “And that is a relief in the fight against IS.”

But that fight in Turkey is complicated politically. And analysts warn that Washington and Turkish aims on Syria could collide.

In the days leading up to the election, the Turkish government faced blistering internal criticism from Turks after IS-suspected bombings in Ankara that left 102 people dead. Opponents said Ankara has not done enough to curb IS militants.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deflected the criticism by blaming the bombings on a combination of Islamic and Kurdish militants and Syrian intelligence.

“It's an outlandish theory that holds little water for most analysts, but it reflects Turkey's own political divisions,” wrote Washington Post foreign affairs reporter Ishaan Tharoor.

Now, after a strong victory by Erdogan’s party, analysts wonder whether the president will use the mandate to further crack down on militant Kurds in Turkey or go after IS extremists in Turkey and Syria.

'More realistic'

Sinan Ülgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul, says Turkey’s policies may become more pragmatic.

“The [ruling] AK Party may take a more realistic approach in terms of foreign policy issues … or it may see this as a support for its foreign policy vision in the region, which previously caused the isolation of the country from the rest of the world,” he told Turkey’s Today’s Zaman newspaper.

“If it reads right the recent signals from the world and reshapes its foreign policy based on a realistic approach, then the government will be able to create more positive results both for itself and for the region,” Ülgen said.

At first, Ankara said little as IS grew — partly, analysts say, because of Islamist sympathies from Erdogan’s party and hopes that IS militants would help oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

After IS unleashed its brutal terror regionwide, including inside Turkey, Ankara recently allowed coalition planes on Turkish soil.

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, predicts that with a strong AKP government, Turkey will be a more effective member of the international coalition fighting IS.

“It has allowed Turkish military bases to be used for strikes against IS,” he said, adding that he expects that to continue.

Different goals

But Makovsky cautioned that Washington and Ankara have different goals in Syria and that this could continue to be a source of tension.

The U.S. is supporting a coalition in Syria that includes Kurdish and Arab fighters against IS. But Ankara’s priority is ousting Assad, whose fight against anti-government rebels has caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee to Turkey.

“Turkey wants Assad gone,” Makovsky said. “The U.S. wants to degrade and destroy IS.”

Erdogan is willing to side with U.S. interests, however, in the hope it will force regime change in Syria, Makovsky said.

Henri Barkey, a former U.S. State Department official and an expert on Turkish foreign relations, said Ankara is likely to follow Washington’s lead against IS.

“Turkey is an ally and also a NATO member,” he said.

And analyst Cagaptay said the AK Party’s big win takes some domestic opposition out of the way and allows Erdogan to accelerate the fight against IS with international partners.

“Today, after much back and forth, Turkey is in a war against ISIS,” he said. “The view from Washington is that now there will be a majority government in Ankara and Turkey should be forthcoming against IS.”

Turkish interests

Terrorism expert Yonah Alexander told VOA that while the Turkish government has at times been criticized for “looking the other way” in the fight against IS, he doesn’t believe “conspiracy theories” that Ankara gave its support to the violent extremists.

“It is best for Turkey’s interests to be in the coalition effort against IS,” he said. “Stability and security is good for Turkish national interests.”

Washington has raised concerns about Sunday’s election results and Ankara’s “pressure and intimidation” of journalists. Erdogan said the world should respect his party's victory.

“There is certainly a tension between Turkey and U.S.,” said Michael Reynolds, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. “However, I think the big thing here is the U.S. has not really figured out what it is doing in Syria and what it wants. Until that happens, we can’t expect a real resolution of the conflict inside Syria.”

Ultimately, too, Erdogan’s Islamist sympathies make it difficult for Ankara to fully align with the West, some analysts say.