Insights into Turkish Domestic and International Politics
By John VanPool for European Geopolitical Forum (EGF)
- Changes to the constitution appear likely as the Turkish parliament votes to send amendments empowering the executive branch to a vote of the people in the spring.
- Ties between Turkey and Greece are once again strained as the Greek Supreme Court refuses to force eight Turkish soldiers to return to face charges for their alleged participation in the July 2016 coup.
- Turkish troops attempt to secure the Syrian town of al-Bab from the Islamic State while the country’s leaders realize their forces may be reaching the limits of their engagement without American or Russian air power.
- The country’s economy sustains another hit as Fitch downgrades its outlook, while the Turkish Central Bank scrambles to keep the political leadership happy while staving off rising inflation and a tumbling lira.
Constitutional changes on the way?
After securing the support of the nationalist MHP, the AKP’s majority in the Turkish Parliament voted 339-142 to make the president the de-facto head of state. Under current statutes, the constitutional amendment could have passed automatically if the threshold of 367 votes had been reached. Amendments receiving 330-366 votes send the proposal to a vote of the people, which has been scheduled for April 2017. (Hacaoglu and Kozuk, "Turkey Parliament Triggers Referendum on Presidential System," Bloomberg, 22 January 2017.)
The changes will cement what has largely become reality in practice, making the president the head of state in a strong executive role. Proponents of the change argue that the new powers will allow the government to avoid unwieldy power sharing deals necessary in the parliamentary system.
The newly empowered presidential office would have the authority to declare states of emergency with few checks on executive power during those times. If the changes are approved by voters, the presidential service would be two 5-year terms, though a snap parliamentary vote during the second term would allow for a third. ("Turkey's constitutional overhaul," The Economist, 14 December 2016.) The president will have the power to appoint and fire his cabinet, which previously had to be approved by parliament.
The AKP’s get out the vote machine is unparalleled, and the ongoing state of emergency will make it especially hard for supporters of the opposition HDP and CHP to campaign. If the party is able to mirror that success, the changes likely to pass, thus keeping President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the head of the nation for the foreseeable future.
Turkish-Greek tensions rise
It seems every two to three years, Athens and Ankara find a reason to rub each other the wrong way, and the beginning of 2017 proved no different in that regard. Still operating under a state of emergency in the aftermath of the July 2016 coup, Turkish leaders have been angered by Greece’s refusal to return military members who Ankara says took part in the attempted putsch. A helicopter crew of eight Turkish military members fled to Greece in the aftermath of the failed overthrow of the elected government. Turkey alleges that they played a role in the attempt, the soldiers deny this. Greece’s highest court has refused to force them to return, saying they would not receive a fair trial in their home country.
This was not an arbitrary decision by political leaders in the Greek government, but a ruling from the country’s supreme court. As it promised it would, Turkey has retaliated by sending one of its top soldiers, Army Chief Hulusi Akar, to the disputed Kardak Islets in the Aegean Sea. In response, Greek naval vessels attempted to block their Turkish counterparts carrying the Turkish army chief. No physical confrontation ensued, but tensions are always high when two ostensible NATO allies run the risk of coming to blows. Indeed, the visit to these islets was highly symbolic and demonstrated Turkey’s seriousness on the issue. In 1996, a dispute over the islets almost resulted in armed confrontation. ("Charges Fly As the Greeks and Turks Avert a War," The New York Times, 1 February 1996.)
Following the court decision, the Turkish Foreign Ministry issued a statement, saying “As a country that has experienced coups in the past, Greece, with this decision has regrettably put itself in a position of a country that provides shelter and protection to putschists.”
Despite the Greek government’s stated commitment to the rule of law, the fact remains that Turkey views the issue as a matter of a NATO ally siding against other members of the alliances, in favor of members of a terrorist organization. Turkey claims that the Fethullah Gulen Movement was behind the coup. Its U.S.-based leader denies any connection.
Several issues have the possibility of coming undone as a result of the standoff. First off, cooperation between Turkey and Greece has made a monumental difference in stemming the tide of refugees crossing the Aegean in recent months. Should Turkey cut back on enforcement of illegal people smuggling operations on its western coast, there is little to keep the refugees from flooding back into Greek territory. This would renew tensions in Greece, already inundated with tens of thousands seeking refuge and greater economic opportunities in Europe.
Secondly, Greek and Turkish diplomats have renewed efforts to reach a peace agreement on the island of Cyprus. Both countries’ leadership is necessary to move progress forward on the island with its Turkish and Greek republics. A peace agreement there, or the lack thereof, has the potential to impact energy projects in the eastern Mediterranean Sea’s Leviathan Gas Field.
On the one hand, given the frequency of tensions and incidents between Greece and Turkey in recent history, there are open channels for dialogue that mitigate escalation. However, both countries have a history of demonizing one another, necessitating the need to save face for domestic purposes. While Turkey may see the dispute as a betrayal by an ally and neighbor, the wiser path would be to let the issue lie dormant for a time while moving forward on other issues. Even if they are guilty, the return of eight Turkish soldiers under the supervision of Greece does not warrant an international incident that could topple relations between two important neighbors.
Turkey’s Dilemmas in Syria
The new American president has discussed his administration's support for safe zones in Syria. Yet in some sections of northern Syria, these zones already exist in practice under territories controlled by Turkish troops. To date, Operation Euphrates Shield has brought significant portions of territory under the control of Turkish troops or their Syrian rebel proxies. This operation has not been without sacrifices, as dozens of Turkish soldiers have been injured or died in fighting with the Islamic State or the Kurdish Democratic Forces, known as the YPG. For all intents and purposes, the YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has pulled off a spate of attacks on military and civilian targets inside Turkey over the last year.
Turkey’s focus of late has been its attempted capture of the town of al-Bab, which it seeks to wrest from the Islamic State. The town is seen as the gateway to ISIS’ de facto capital, Raqqa. However, Syrian government forces are in pursuit of the town as well, and have support from Russian air power, risking a reoccurrence of a shooting exchange between Turkish and Russian forces. Complicating matters further is the YPG’s own push towards al-Bab, a move that Turkey sees as an attempt to further cement a Kurdish proxy state right across the Turkish border that would support the PKK’s separatist ambitions. Turkish troops are attempting to cut off the chance of a link up of Kurdish fighters from Kobani, Qamishli and Afrin as they head toward al-Bab. (Cockburn, "Turkey faces long and difficult fight against Isis in Syria," The Independent, 25 January 2017).
Ankara is in an unenviable position on many fronts. It understandably feels as if it has received little meaningful support from its American ally in recent years. The Obama administration was reticent to deploy large numbers of troops to Syria, and despite promises of closer ties and a more forceful approach to ISIS, President Donald Trump’s administration has signaled that while it would be in favor of safe zones, it was scant on further details of just how this would work. The new American president doesn’t have the domestic support or motivation to put significant numbers of American servicemen and women in harm’s way there.
This means Turkey’s military may be deployed across the Syrian border for the long haul. Ankara is understandably frustrated by a report that the U.S. has confirmed it will provide the Kurdish PYD (the political arm of the YPG) armored vehicles for its fight against ISIS. For all of Washington’s dithering in recent years, it recognizes that the Kurdish fighters have proved themselves the only force that has consistently stood against ISIS in combat. Ankara’s animosity towards the group takes a back seat to the threat ISIS poses to the U.S.
Despite attempts to walk back his January remarks at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek indicated that Turkey may eventually accept the prospect of Bashar al-Assad staying on as president of Syria. With this assurance reinforced by an agreement with Russia, which is expanding its footprint at an air base and naval base in Syria, to keep the al-Assad regime from further encroachment on areas under Turkish-backed rebels’ control, an end may be possible for the bloody civil war. Indeed, should such an agreement hold, Turkey would finally have a way to safely repatriate some of the two million or more Syrian refugees it has nobly hosted since the conflict’s outbreak.
Yet as it stands, Russia and the United States appear to be receptive to a presence for the Kurdish YPG and the PYD in Syria after the civil war. The al-Assad regime may accede to such an agreement in the short term for the very same reason the Russians and Americans would; the Kurdish fighters are a bulwark against further encroachment by ISIS. Where does this leave Turkey?
If remarks made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in late January are any indication, the Turkish leadership understands that its forces may be reaching the limits of their engagement without American or Russian air power. On January 27, he told reporters that Turkish troops would stay within the limits initially insisted on by the U.S., saying “Henceforth we must make speedy headway and finish the job there without going farther south.” (Idiz, "Turkey squeezed between Russia, US in Syria," www.al-Monitor.com, 1 February 2017.) The best solution in Syria may be one that leaves Turkey with a bitter taste in its mouth, but should the U.S., Russia and Syria agree to a settlement that leaves these Kurdish enclaves untouched, Ankara may have to accept it for the time being. The issue then becomes more difficult for Turkey, as it seems likely that the PKK would use the Syrian enclaves to launch attacks into Turkey in the years to come.
The Economy Struggles to Survive with a Downgraded Outlook
It is telling that the three major credit rating agencies all rate Turkey as non-investment grade after S&P downgraded the country’s outlook to negative.
As noted in an excellent analysis by Mustafa Sonmez for Al-Monitor, several factors are at play in the downgrades, including a lira that continues to tumble and ineffective responses from a central bank afraid of further castigation by President Erdogan, a vocal critic of raising interest rates. To date the lira has fallen more than seven percent against the dollar while inflation continues to rise. A Reuters report notes that despite assurances that politicians are only voicing their opinions on economic issues, central bank officials remain wary of raising rates and angering the AKP leadership. (Devranoglu and Coskun,"Divisions in Turkey's economic team hamper response to lira slide," Reuters, 3 February 2017.)
Mr. Sonmez points out political factors, especially the constitutional change referendum in the spring that could empower the executive branch, have also undermined the country's economic prospects. He cites the Fitch report which notes the deterioration in security, coupled with a central government that has undermined the rule of law, as some of the reasoning for its downgrade. ("Fitch Downgrades Turkey's LTFC IDR to 'BB+'; Outlook Stable," www.FitchRatings.com, 27 January 2017.)
The AKP’s legitimacy isn’t strictly due to its ability to turn out the conservative voters from the Anatolian heartland, but rather from its ability to right an economy that was once prone to boom and bust cycles. Given the upheaval the country has experienced in recent years, whether from terrorist attacks, the coup attempt or even deterioration of the security situation in its geopolitical neighborhood, the leadership feels under siege. Yet this feeling has given way to a stance which brooks no dissent or disagreement, seeing only opposition with sinister intentions should a disagreement arise. The ruling party needs to return to the formula that made its success so potent by respecting the rule of law and curbing prosecutorial zealousness against political opponents. Trust the independence of the judiciary and renew investors’ confidence of doing business there.