Yaşar Yakış
May 18 2018

Turkish Elections and foreign policy issues

Using foreign policy in an election campaign is a sensitive issue, especially for countries like Turkey, which is surrounded with external problems from almost all sides. It may contribute to the success of the ruling party in the forthcoming elections, but it may also have negative effects on its success if things go wrong for reasons beyond the government’s control.

The opposition parties in Turkey claim that launching the military operation into the Syrian district of Afrin was part of the government’s preparations for the early elections. Even if the government might have acted partly with this motive, there were also other reasons than the elections for the Afrin operation.

If the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) were not controlled in Afrin they would further consolidate their local administration in the form of an autonomous canton and could become an annoyance for Turkey in the neighbouring Idlib province where Turkey is observing de-confliction.

Furthermore, the establishment of a strong Kurdish presence in Afrin harbours the risk of creating another nest for terrorists like the one in the Qandil Mountains, northeastern Iraq. In case a military operation is needed in the future to eliminate the terrorists, Afrin is more easily accessible for the Turkish army than the rugged Qandil Mountains, but a nest of terrorists is bound to become a headache for Turkey sooner or later. Therefore, Turkey preferred to eliminate the threat before it becomes more difficult to deal with.    

The YPG was receiving weapons and ammunitions from the United States, though U.S. forces were not present in Afrin. The absence of U.S. troops in Afrin made Turkey’s task slightly easier as it meant the military operation did not entail direct confrontation with the US forces, a scenario that both Turkey and the United States were anxious to avoid.

The Afrin operation should be put to the credit of the Turkish army because it was accomplished with relatively few casualties and collateral damage. The government is entitled to draw credit from the entire exercise. A very high percentage of Turkey’s public supported the operation. Therefore, we may assume that Turkey’s military operation in Afrin will have positive effects on the ruling party’s success in the forthcoming elections. It does not necessarily mean that all those who supported the Afrin operation will vote for the ruling party in the June 24 elections. To take pride in the success of the national army is a justified feeling, but whether there were other ways of avoiding the threat posed by the Syrian Kurds in the first place is a slightly different matter.

After having cashed in on the success of the Afrin operation, the government has turned to the old U.S. promise to withdraw YPG fighters to the east of the River Euphrates now that the Manbij city is cleared of Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey proposes to assume the administration of the city in cooperation with the United States, while Washington seems to be more inclined to leave this task to the people of Manbij, which is mainly composed of Sunni Arabs. Turkey and the United States came very close to reaching an agreement on this subject in the last days in office of the former State Secretary Rex Tillerson, but his replacement by Mike Pompeo postponed the implementation of the agreement.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert denied outright that an agreement had been reached, while Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın said that Turkey planned to create a safe zone around Manbij after the Kurdish fighters of the YPG leave the area. He added that the reshuffle in the State Department might cause a delay in the implementation of the arrangement. It is now more than two months since this agreement was reached, but the United States continues to drag its feet.

How soon this transfer of power in Manbij may take place is difficult to say, but Turkey hopes that the YPG will withdraw from Manbij before the end this month. If this happens Turkey’s ruling party will be able to present two success stories in foreign policy to boost its votes for the June 24 elections.