Sirwan Kajjo
Jun 05 2018

Syrian opposition groups anxiously following Turkish elections

Syrians are anxiously anticipating the results of Turkey June 24 elections that they believe will significantly impact Ankara’s policy towards war-torn Syria.

Alongside the economy, the issue of Turkey’s ongoing military involvement in the civil war in Syria is a major issue in the presidential and parliamentary polls.

Turkish troops and their Syrian allies now control large parts of northwestern Syria, including northern parts of the province of Aleppo and much of Idlib province and, after a two-month offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces starting in January, the border district of Afrin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and other officials from his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have also threatened to move against the Syrian Kurdish-held town of Manbij and then the rest of northeastern Syria, a region the Kurds call Rojava.

“We support the democratic movement in Turkey because we believe the AKP government’s policies have put Turkey in many dangerous predicaments,” said Shahoz Hasan, co-chair of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the dominant Kurdish party in northern Syria.

Turkey views the PYD and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has conducted an armed campaign for autonomy in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for more than three decades.

“Turkey has had a very negative role in Syria,” Hasan told Ahval. “We really hope that democratic forces in Turkey achieve good results in these elections so they could have an effective role in getting Turkey’s hands off Syria and stop antagonising Rojava and the democratic experiment in northern Syria.”

But other Syrian opposition leaders said they doubted the Turkish opposition would win and said Erdoğan’s rivals did not have the ability or experience to conduct policy in Syria.

“Opposition parties have failed to present a competent candidate who can challenge the current president,” said Riad al-Asaad, the founder of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a Turkish-backed Syrian rebel group.

“As the Syrian opposition, we feel that Turkish opposition parties are not capable of steering the ship in Turkey as the country goes through many economic and foreign policy challenges,” he told Ahval.

According to the United Nations, Turkey currently hosts more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees leading to a large strain on services and much resentment against their presence.

Presidential candidate Meral Akşener, the head of Turkey’s nationalist Good Party, has vowed to send Syrian refugees back before the end of next year.

“I promise you from here that Syrian refugees in Turkey will have their Ramadan breakfast in 2019 together with their brothers in Syria,” Akşener told supporters at a recent campaign rally in the southern city of Mersin.

But Asaad said any attempt at repatriation would have to be internationally coordinated.

“This is an international issue that no candidate or party could act on unilaterally,” the FSA commander said.

As Turkey inches diplomatically closer to Russia and Iran, the two major backers of the Syrian government, Syrian groups allied to Ankara believe this rapprochement could help their country.

“Winning elections at home would certainly encourage the AKP government to seek more leverage in Syria and to ask Russia and Iran to help it drive the PKK out of Syria,” said Ibrahim Biro, member of the foreign relations office of the Kurdish National Council (KNC) in Syria, a Kurdish group that has close ties with Turkey.

But some observers said that, given Turkey’s complex entanglement in Syria, the next government in Ankara would most likely maintain the current policy towards Syria.

“Nothing would drastically change in Turkey’s Syria policy,” said Hosheng Ose, a Kurdish affairs analyst who writes for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. “If the AKP wins, then Erdoğan will continue what he has adopted recently, which is aligning with Russia and Iran.”

And if the opposition wins, Ose told Ahval, “the same policy will likely remain in place because it is the opposition that has constantly demanded Erdoğan steer clear of Syria in the first place.”

Aliza Marcus, a Kurdish affairs analyst in Washington, agreed that “regardless of who wins – apart from (HDP’s) Demirtaş becoming president, which is not going to happen – the situation in Syria will be of concern for Turkey.”

“Someone like Meral Akşener is unlikely to veer far from Erdoğan’s views on Manbij, for example,” she told Ahval. While, she said, the main leftist opposition presidential candidate Muharrem İnce “certainly has said a lot of the right things in his campaign about democracy and about solving the Kurdish issue, isn’t the head of the party, that’s Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has always been a coward when it comes to taking bold policy stances.”

“In the end, unless there’s a new Turkish government that wants to settle the Kurdish issue in Turkey, which would obviously then have an impact on relations with the PYD/YPG in Syria, there’s not likely to be a change,” she said.