The Fall of Tel Abyad: Turkey and the Rise of the PYD

The fall of Tel Abyad poses a number of challenges for Turkish foreign policy. The Kurdish advance has sparked claims of ethnic cleansing, resulted in 23,000 refugees fleeing to Turkey, and sparked concerns that Islamic State fighters have quietly slipped into the border town of Akcakale. To discuss the political and humanitarian aspects of the battle for Tel Abyad, Aaron speaks with Has Avrat, a southeast Turkey based specialist in humanitarian refugee issues.


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Turkey’s Election: The Recap

On June 7, over 50 million Turkish citizens went to the polls to vote in the country’s general election. While most polls showed Turkey’s fourth largest political party, the HDP, winning enough votes to pass the 10% threshold, few predicted that the AKP would fall short of winning enough seats to form a government. The AKP’s relatively poor showing has now raised questions about which opposition party makes the most sense as a n opposition party. To discuss these issues, Aaron speaks with Amberin Zaman, the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and a columnist for Turkey’s Taraf newspaper.

Turkish Coalition Politics: Prospects for the Kurdish Peace Process by Aaron Stein

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The HDP and Turkey’s National Election

With the Turkish national election just days away, the future of the country’s political system hinges on Turkey’s fourth largest political party, the HDP. To get a sense of the the party’s electoral chances, and whether the HDP’s efforts to undercut the AKP in Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast are paying off, Aaron speaks with Noah Blaser and Piotr Zalewski about their recent trip to the cities of Urfa, Mardin, Midyat, and Diyarbakir.

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Turkish Elections & Anti-ISIS Strategy

Note: Aaron was the guest on the latest episode of the Middle East Week podcast. Below is that episode, as well as the show notes.

Aaron Stein comes back on the show to discuss Turkey’s upcoming election, their fight against ISIS, and relations with Saudi Arabia. Topics we covered include:

  • An overview of the key political parties and politicians in Turkey
  • Constitutional changes Erdogan and the AKP are pursuing
  • Potential backlash AKP could face for pushing for a presidential system
  • Kurdish politicians’ decision to run as a political party, as opposed to running as individual independent candidates
  • The evolution of how Turkey views the ISIS threat
  • Turkey’s strategy to fight ISIS in Syria
  • Turkey’s lack of influence in Iraq, and how that effects their view of ISIS
  • The rapprochement between Turkey and Saudi Arabia


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Turkey’s Jihadists

Turkish citizens are playing an active role in the Syria civil war. With as many as 1500 Turks now fighting in Iraq and Syria, numerous Turkish officials are now expressing considerable concern about returning fighters. In today’s podcast, Aaron speaks with northcaucasuscaucus, a blogger and analyst following Turkish and Azeri foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, about the history of the Turkish foreign fighter phenomena dating back to the Afghan Jihad.


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Turkey’s Yemen Policy

Note: This episode was recorded on April 20th

The famous Anatolian folk song, Yemen Turkusu, describes the painful memories of one Ottoman military unit from Mus, after being deployed to battle during World War I. The song’s haunting lyrics capture the difficulties the Ottoman’s faced in Yemen, saying “those who go never return.” Historians describe the Ottoman’s experience in Yemen as tumultuous, frequented by numerous local uprisings, and clashes with a powerful actor in the northern mountains: the Zaydi tribe, or the Houthis. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ignored history when he committed to supporting the Saudi led mission to rollback the gains of Yemen’s Houthis. Erdogan explicitly linked the Houthis’ rise to Iranian support – and called on the Islamic Republic and associated terror groups to withdraw. The antecedents for Turkey’s Yemen policy began in March during Erdogan’s high-profile visit to the Kingdom to meet with King Salman.

To discuss Turkey’s Yemen policy, Aaron speaks with Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, about Ankara’s approach to the Yemeni Muslim Brotherhood and why Ankara’s support for the Saudi airstrikes is low-risk and high reward.

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Turkey and the Yemen Coalition: My Brief Thoughts

I have a more comprehensive piece coming out next week on Turkish policy-making vis-a-vis Iran and Saudi Arabia. Below are my brief thoughts on the topic, including the speculation that Ankara is now part of a “Sunni-Axis” against Iran. I think that analysis is far too simplistic and fails to capture key schisms in the Turkish-Saudi relationship, particularly over Iran.



Turkey has a number of conflicting interests in the Middle East. There is no doubt Ankara has a strong affinity towards religiously conservative political movements. These movements are all Sunni. However, Ankara has a strong commercial interest in retaining ties with Iran – and therefore has assiduously worked to compartmentalize its relationship with the Islamic Republic. So, on the one hand, Turkey is engaged in a proxy war against Iran in Syria. Yet, on the other, it is reliant upon Iran for 20% of its yearly natural gas consumptions. If one wanted to be flippant, one could say Turkey’s “oil-for-gold” sanctions circumvention helped to sustain the very Assad/Iranian led war that it is trying to win. Ankara has historically kept Iran inside the tent so to speak during times of tension. The two sides support different actors in Kurdistan, for example, but work together to prevent the region’s independence. In this regard, the relationship is symbiotic. Iran needs Turkey to keep pressure on Barzani, whereas Iran retains links to Talabani. Davutoglu, in Strategic Depth, acknowledges an Iranian sphere of influence in Iraq. It is in the Shia south and east of the country, whereas Turkey’s natural zone is Kurdistan and Ninewa, extending through Aleppo in Syria. All of this is to say that Davutoglu never rejected an Iranian role in Iraq, albeit while acknowledging that they compete for influence in certain spots.

One concern for Ankara is that Iran’s influence has grown so much, whereas Turkey’s remains limited through out Iraq. The balance is off, so to speak, and Turkey would like to see Iran’s role rolled-back, but recognizes it can’t be defeated. In many ways this is structural: Iran has direct control over its proxies, whereas Turkey’s control is tangential and limited to unpopular politicians, like Osama al Nujaifi – one of three ceremonial VP’s in Iraq’s central government. However, one has to remember, that things were a lot worse back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. It was so bad that Turkish warplanes bombed the Iranian side of the border at one point whilst attacking the PKK in the Turkish-Iraqi-Iranian border regions. Iran was also accused of working through Kurdish hizbullah to assassinate key Turkish secularists.

Saudi Arabia

The Yemen intervention stems from a rapprochement over the Muslim Brotherhood. King Salman recognized that the fitna was undermine Saudi foreign policy, and critically that he needed al Islah as a coalition of counter balancing forces towards the Houthis, which have the support of Ali Saleh. This gave the two sides the breathing room needed to cooperate – at least rhetorically – on what is a Saudi led fight in Yemen. It has to be noted that Sudan has committed more to the fight than Ankara in terms of military assets. The key area of convergence is actually in Syria, where Turkey has received Saudi support for its work with Ahrar al Sham and other Islamist rebels. That is a change in Saudi policy.

Nuclear Deal

As for the nuclear deal, Turkey’s policy differs considerably from that of Saudi Arabia. Turkey has always supported a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey has also steadfastly defended Iran’s right to enrich, so long that country meets its nonproliferation/IAEA commitments. Ankara’s reasons for doing so are threefold: First, Ankara has a tremendous economic interest in the lifting of sanctions. In fact, the major issue for these two countries before sanctions were significantly tightened was Iran’s closed economy and the barriers to entry for Turkish private industry to the 80 million person Iranian market. Second, Ankara ultimately views the Iranian nuclear program as something that can be deterred through IAEA inspections and the NATO security guarantee. Third, Turkey sees any limitations on the notional right to enrich as an encroachment on the basic bargain in the NPT – and thus jealously guards its understanding of Article IV. Iran, in this case, is simply a proxy for a broader argument about what the peaceful use clause means.

The Future

Turkey has always pursued a policy of compartmentalization with Iran, whereby it can fight a proxy war, whilst at the same looking to expand trade to $30 billion per year. I expect this continue. The rhetoric, therefore, should be viewed within the natural limits of Turkish-Iranian relations. Ankara can’t break with Iran and therefore can’t adopt Saudi Arabia’s policies carte blanche. Turkey will need to balance its approach to both countries, as it seeks to navigate through the chaos that is the Middle East.

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