Turkey Heads to the Polls as U.S. Puts Boots on the Ground in Syria

Voters in Turkey head to the polls for a second time in five
months Sunday, yet again risking political instability in a country
the U.S. needs more than perhaps any other to back its tenuous coalition to
defeat the Islamic State group.

The snap elections come in the wake of a June parliamentary contest in which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) looked to build on its majority in order to pass sweeping new powers for his presidency. But the plan backfired, with AKP losing its outright majority and Erdogan unwilling to seat a coalition government. In addition, the party representing Turkey’s minority Kurdish population won 13 percent of the vote, surpassing a 10 percent threshold required to allow it to take seats in parliament for the first time.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters pose for a photo next to a military vehicle bearing the Kurdish flag in the district of Daquq, south of Kirkuk, Iraq, on Sept. 11, 2015.


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“The inability of Turkey to form a ruling government, a ruling coalition means that it essentially runs the risk of being paralyzed politically and that is not good for anybody,” says Michael Reynolds, an associate professor of near Eastern studies at Princeton University.

The ultimate makeup of the legislature in Ankara after Sunday’s elections likely won’t
affect Turkish relations with the U.S. However, Erdogan, whose tactics for holding power 13 years into his rein have become increasingly heavy handed, is
focused on winning enough this time to earn a majority and a clear mandate to govern. Without it, Turkey has so far resisted fully
committing to the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State group and the parallel civil war in Syria. 

Fearful that its minority Kurdish population could be emboldened to seek independence, the NATO ally has instead focused its
attention on the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK, an organization it and the U.S. deem a terrorist group. The PKK is at least loosely aligned with the other Kurdish
fighters not considered terrorists which the U.S. backs across its southern border. 

Kurds have proven to be one of
the most effective fighting forces on the ground in Iraq and Syria, and the
Turkish government – like others with significant populations of the ethnic
group – is likely concerned its success in combat will morph into renewed
hopes for a breakaway state.

Turkey agreed in August to allow
the U.S.-led coalition to use its military bases to launch airstrikes. But the
initial fanfare from the Pentagon over adding another ally to its coalition
quickly died down following reports the Turks had directed their firepower at
Kurdish forces, not the Islamic State group as the U.S. had planned. On Friday, the U.S. announced it would deploy ground commandos to Syria in support of the
Kurds, forcing Ankara to examine how much more involved it can become amid its
conflicting interests.

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Reynolds suggests the elections will do little to resolve the ongoing political questions.

“My gut reading is that it’s going to be more or less the same results as they had last time – that is the AKP will by far get largest number of votes – but it’s not going to get enough to have a parliamentary majority,” Reynolds says. “The AKP – my guess would be that they’re actually going to do slightly worse than last time.”

Joshua Walker, a nonresident fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says the AKP has used the Syria crisis, as well as an escalation of hostilities with its own Kurdish population, as a campaign tool. The country has become overwhelmed by the millions of refugees it’s hosting without international assistance, and seeks a resolution to the conflict that would allow Syrians to return home. 

Armed Kurdish militants stand behind a barricade during clashes with Turkish forces on Sept. 28, 2015, in Bismil, Turkey.


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“What’s interesting about the ISIS coalition is it’s a little bit of a hot potato right now because the Turkish government currently knows that by saying it’s supporting the anti-ISIS coalition, there are certain benefits it gets. So when it gave America the basing rights, et cetera., it got American support for intelligence and other things,” Walker says. “That’s particularly relevant with the sort of independent Kurdish region of Syria that they’re very concerned about and are watching very carefully. The argument that the AKP is making is ‘If you want to have a stable Turkey, you need to re-elect us.'”

A stable Turkey is clearly in U.S. interests, but Walker says the main U.S. concern regarding the election isn’t who wins, but that the process is free and fair and Turkey’s traditional role as a solid democracy in a region of authoritarian regimes is maintained.

“I don’t think it matters all that much what comes out of it as long as that government is reflection of the Turkish people’s will,” Walker says. “Up until now, the U.S. has worked very well with the AKP and Erdogan.”