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


Thanks to patrons Andrew and David de Bruijn. You can support the podcast by making a small donation on Patreon!

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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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Nuclear Chain Nonsense

The sky is falling!

The United States is about to knock over the first domino and start the nuclear proliferation chain reaction in the Middle East. With the region at war, the argument goes, the American attempt to negotiate with Iran over its previous nuclear weapons work (and current nuclear infrastructure) is painfully naïve, and portends a future of nuclear-armed states. This new nuclear future, we are led to believe, will begin in Saudi Arabia; be followed by a Turkish nuclear weapons program; include a Hashemite bomb in Jordan; and end with Cairo dusting off those Nasser era plans for nuclear weapons (Hey, with Sisi going full Nasser on us, perhaps he may approach China about purchasing a weapon.)

One problem with this argument: It is at odds with all that we know about nonproliferation decision-making and, at least in the case of Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, is near impossible, given their choices about nuclear financing. The region is a mess. A total mess. But proliferation is – thank god – not something that should dominate the debate. In fact it misses the point entirely. Folks concerned with nuclear issues in the Middle East should certainly keep an eye on proliferation concerns, but should focus on a more serious issue: nuclear safety.

From the little we know about Saudi Arabia’s current nuclear plans, the Kingdom has pursued a rather benign approach to nuclear energy. After threatening to “go nuclear” for years, the Saudis chose to sign a MOU with South Korea’s KEPCO. Just next door, KEPCO is putting the finishing touches on the first of four reactors at the Barakh power plant. KEPCO has a great reputation for finishing projects on time, but is not really known to be the Korean peninsula’s equivalent of the AQ Khan network. Does South Korea have a pristine nonproliferation record? No. Has it exported enrichment or reprocessing technology to a customer? No. Will Saudi proliferate using a KEPCO APR1400. Hell no.

There is an elephant in the room. Pakistan, the argument goes, has reserved some warheads for Saudi Arabia’s defense. The Kingdom subsidized the Pakistani nuclear weapons program and therefore could try to collect on its investment. There is simply no way to account for this, other than look to history for some examples. The aforementioned Nasser asked a few countries for nukes during the 1960s. They said no. The Saudi case may indeed be different, owing to the Kingdom’s alleged investment in the program. My colleague and friend Philipp Bleek tackled this issue a few months ago, arguing:

History suggests that while some states have trumpeted their potential desire for nuclear weapons—think Germany in the early years of the Cold War, or Japan more recently—they tend not to be those that later went on to actually acquire them. And for good reason: calling attention to proliferation intentions is counterproductive if one is intent on actually proliferating. Instead, states tend to draw attention to their potential proliferation in the service of another goal: rallying others to address the security concerns that are motivating potential proliferation, and especially securing protection from powerful allies. At least one state, though, trumpeted its potential proliferation while actually pursuing nuclear weapons, and the case is an instructive one for analyzing Riyadh’s recent nuclear saber rattling.

 Again, the Kingdom chose KEPCO.

Turning to Turkey, Egypt, and Jordan – or as I have dubbed them, the Rosatom three. These three countries don’t have the cash to pay for a nuclear power plant. Or, if they do, they don’t want to pay ~$20 billion up front for their 70 year investment. To pay for their reactor, all three rely on a financing scheme known as Build, Operate, Own (BOO). Turgut Ozal came up with this idea in 1983 to help Turkey develop, after the country switched from import industrial substitution to export oriented capitalism. The BOO model was meant to attract private investment to what Ozal dubbed Turkey’s most trust-worthy sector: state-owned energy utilities.

This model is the reason why Turkey failed to procure a reactor between 1983 and 2010; more specifically, Ankara failed to give the vendor a treasury guarantee. It still doesn’t, arguing that the power purchasing arrangement with the electrical utility is good enough. Enter Rosatom. The Russian state-owned nuclear firm is not a private entity and receives ample funding from the Kremlin. Rosatom’s reactors are one of Russia’s few high-technology exports and the industry helps to employ Russia’s legions of Cold War era – and current – nuclear experts. The Kremlin, in turn, has also sought to use the company, as a tool of foreign policy, in much the same way Gazprom has become an arm of the Russian MFA.

For these reasons, Rosatom has embraced the BOO model – despite ample evidence that the financing for such a project makes little sense for the nuclear vendor. Under the terms of the BOO model, the vendor agrees to pay for the cost of construction and operate the plant in perpetuity, in exchange for the host-country to purchase a fixed amount of electricity at a set rate. For Turkey, that rate is 12.35 US cents per kilowatt-hour for 70% of the power produced at reactors one and two, and 30% of the power at the same price from reactors three and four.

After an agreed upon time – usually 15 years – the vendor is expected to have recouped its investment. In turn, Rosatom will then collect a percentage of the profit the Turkish state will make from the continued sale of Russian nuclear energy for the lifetime of the nuclear plant (70 years). This financing model puts pressure on Rosatom to finish the project on time, or otherwise risk extending the time in which it will recoup its initial outlay of expense – keeping in mind that the Kremlin is footing the bill for a $20 billion dollar investment. The Turkish reactor is now 4 years delayed.

Jordan and Egypt have announced that they too will pursue the BOO financing model. The good news: This model makes it all but impossible for the Rosatom three to proliferate. The reactor – a VVER-1200, or VVER-1000 – will be Russian owned and operated. The spent fuel pond will be Russian owned and operated. The fuel, Russian supplied. You get the point. So, if the Rosatom three wanted to proliferate, they would have to steal spent VVER LWR fuel from a Russian owned spent fuel pond and then reprocess it in facilities that don’t exist. They would have to do this without getting caught. Good luck.

The bad news: The BOO model is a regulatory nightmare. To ensure that Rostaom does not cut corners to hasten construction, the Rosatom three need strong, independent nuclear regulators. The regulator must also be empowered to influence the behavior of the operator. How will this work with a foreign owned and operated plant? Is Rosatom beholden to Turkey, or Moscow. At a bare minimum, you need a strong regulator and clear guidelines. The evidence is not encouraging: Turkey’s regulator is weak and beholden to the Prime Ministry for all its funds. Egypt’s is geriatric. And Jordan has no nuclear history. Not good.

If you add Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Bushehr, you can start to see a “nuclearized” region with little nuclear expertise – and nuclear regulations that are very much in their infancy. Is this the end of the world? No. There is stil time to work through these upcoming challenges. However, the regulatory issues are real and the international community has an incentive in ensuring that the region “gets this right.” Focusing on the long disproven idea of nuclear proliferation chains is not helpful and actually distracts from the issue we all should be focusing on: nuclear safety in a region (mostly) using creative financing techniques to “go nuclear.”

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A Look Behind the Curtain: The AKP’s Public Spat

Wow. It has been a busy week.

Turkish politics were turned upside down last week when AKP founder Bulent Arinc called out current Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, about his rhetoric surrounding the peace process. Arinc’s intervention prompted Erdogan ally, the Mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek, to get involved and stand up for the Tall Man. A fight ensued. The fight ended on Sunday with an Erdogan victory; the Presidential system he has been advocating for overtly since 2011 is the center piece of the AKP’s electoral manifesto. How did we get here? What is going on with the peace process? What in the world is going on in Turkish politics? Where do the Kurds and the MHP fit in?

Tune in today for a conversation about this very busy two weeks in Turkish politics with Noah Blaser, an independent journalist in Istanbul and a Turkey Wonk regular.

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Erdogan’s Gordian Knot

The PKK-AKP peace process has been put on ice.

For political reasons, neither party can be seen as being too accommodating in these final ten weeks before Turkey’s June 2015 national election. The upcoming election is, in my opinion, the most important election in Turkey’s recent history. There are numerous interrelated issues driving the current political debate. The first dates back to 2007, when the AKP introduced significant electoral reforms, including a constitutional amendment (later approved in a referendum) for a directly elected president. The Grand National Assembly had hitherto selected the President, but after the Turkish military’s comically stupid intervention into Turkish politics, the AKP seized the initiative to make reforms. The party’s subsequent actions suggest that the change was never meant to be in isolation; it was always intended to be a short-term stop gap before the party could undertake a more sweeping change: the move to an executive presidency. The biggest proponent of this change was – and remains – Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The AKP was not unanimously in favor of this change. This disagreement resulted in a key turning point for the party: the start of an Erdogan led purge of “AKP liberals” in 2008, which resulted in a behind the scene clash (that played out in 2011) between Erdogan and former President Gul about a key element of intra-party politics in Turkey: control over the party list. In anticipation of his move to the presidency, Erdogan wanted to maintain control over the list. The job is traditionally reserved for the Prime Minister. Gul, in contrast, reportedly wanted to keep the system the way it was, owing to his expected move to the Prime Minister. Things did not work in Gul’s favor and he eventually opted to “retire” rather than act as a subservient Prime Minister to an ever more powerful Erdogan.

The party remained divided over the Presidential system, but nevertheless fell into line behind the “Tall Man,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as he led the charge to win more than 330 seats in the June 2011 election. If successful, the AKP would have been able to unilaterally rewrite the constitution, without any input/support from opposition parties (this draft would then be voted on in a national referendum). The party nearly succeeded, winning 327 votes in June 2011. In many ways, the party dodged a bullet. Erdogan is the most powerful man in Turkey. Full stop. But he had yet to convince his own caucus, who would need to vote en masse in favor of his preferred presidential system, on the need for a new more powerful executive.

Enter the Kurdish issue. By this time, the AKP’s earlier efforts to reach a peace agreement with the PKK had stalled, owing to MIT led negotiations leaking. No one knows who leaked the audio tapes, but there is some speculation that the Gulen movement, which is against the peace talks (owing to their preference for assimilation through religious education of Kurds), leaked the tapes. The collapse of this first round touched off fresh violence, similar in scope to the recent clashes in Cizre, rather than the horrible levels of violence during the 1990s. To put it in perspective, between 2009 and 2012, the International Crisis Group reports that over 900 people were killed. 2012 was a particularly bloody year – and came against the backdrop of a very worrying development for Turkish policymakers in Syria: The withdrawal of Syrian troops from the Kurdish border regions and the PYD’s creation of an autonomous entity, Rojava.

In the span of less than a year (dating from the start of the Syrian civil war), the AKP lost its “strategic depth” (I’m referring to the military use of the term, not Davutoglu’s) in Syria. With its back against the wall, both in terms of Turkey’s problems in Northern Syria (a war I think Ankara has lost, but that is for another post) and a rising body count back home, the AKP backed into renewed negotiations with the PKK.

The issue is ultimately tied to three factors. In exchange for greater autonomy, the AKP has demanded the PKK disarm. The PKK, by contrast, has said they will disarm once the constitution is changed to include guaranteed freedoms for the Kurds. The obvious compromise, of course, centered on Kurdish support for an AKP drafted constitution. This constitution would include more explicit rights for the Kurds, but also include Erdogan’s key demand of an executive presidency. The negotiations have been hamstrung ever since by disagreements over sequencing and issues related to autonomy for the Kurds and amnesty for PKK fighters.

The AKP had thought it had finalized a roadmap to disarmament in April 2015, but the letter penned by the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was rejected by the PKK military command in Kandil. Furthermore, the Kurdish political movement, now represented by two political parties, the HDP and the DBP, decided to run under the banner of a united HDP for the June 2015 election. The Kurds had hitherto relied on a loophole to overcome Turkey’s 10% election threshold. Kurdish candidates would run as independents and form a united caucus once in parliament. This time around, HDP leader Selahtin Demirtas, who secured 9.8% of the vote in the June 2014 presidential election, is leading a united HDP, which means that he needs to get over 10% of the vote.

If the HDP does not pass the threshold, the votes for the party will be distributed to the second highest vote getter in the region, which will surely be the AKP. The HDP’s decision resulted in speculation that the party had revived the grand bargain. The HDP would “throw the election” in return for an ironclad guarantee that the AKP – which would get over 330 votes because of the electoral math – would then rewrite the constitution (Many people, including myself, argued against this. But nevertheless there was a lot of speculation that there was a backroom deal).

Against this backdrop, Turkey’s hitherto successful economy began to sputter, owing primarily to improved US economic data and the growing likelihood that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates. This has resulted in the Lira losing value; indirectly raising concerns about an economic crisis amongst many Turks. (Mind you, these fears are unwarranted, but recent history has resulted in Turks associating Lira weakness with impending economic collapse.)

The economy has certainly run out of steam, which has deprived the AKP of its key political selling point: bank on us for more money in your wallet. Add to this the corruption scandal from December 2013. The AKP has launched a full on offense against the Gulen movement. In my opinion, they are losing the war; not because they aren’t the superior force, but because the resulting damage to Turkey’s reputation has touched off a very salient debate in Turkey about autocracy. The majority of AKP supporters brush off any notion of Erdogan being autocratic. However, for the 50% that don’t vote for the party, Erdogan is now viewed as a corrupt tyrant, leading Turkey down a path of dictatorship. The truth is in the middle, of course.

The AKP used to feed off of this polarization. Well, now it seems to be hurting them. The peace process has exposed the AKP to attacks from its most vulnerable flank: the nationalist right. And here is where Syria becomes important again. The PYD has – with direct US air support – succeeded in carving out a statelet. The defense of Kobane has also united Kurds behind a single cause: the defeat of ISIS. The AKP, by contrast, is believed to have supported the Islamic State, first when the group was still operating under the banner of Jabhat al Nusra, and then during the siege of Kobane, when the AKP was late to provide (very limited) support. The anger spilled over in October, when Kurds rioted, and the ensuing clashed resulted in some 45 deaths (most of which were Kurd-on-Kurd).

The AKP, by contrast, claims that it has done more for Syria than any other country. With regards to Kobane, the party points to its opening of the border to accept 200,000 refugees and AFAD’s subsequent building of 35,000 person refugee camp in Suruc. The refugees, however, have shunned the camp, in favor of Kurdish operated camps. These camps receive no support from the central government, are run by Kurdish controlled municipalities, and are patrolled by the PKK.

This is the new status quo in the southeast. This has opened the door for further far right skepticism about the peace process from (and greater HDP/DBP rhetoric aimed against the AKP’s Syria policy). Opinion poll after opinion poll now show that the AKP has lost votes, whereas the nationalist right MHP has gained votes. As of now, the AKP is expected to lose seats. The HDP, by contrast, remains the party of liberals, mostly because half the country hates the AKP and Erdogan. The party is flirting with the 10% threshold; raising the possibility of an MHP vote gain, an AKP seat loss, and an HDP that passes the threshold. All of this means one thing: a coalition government.

For Erdogan, this means that the executive presidency is over. Dead. Kaput. Up until this point, the AKP had been running on its tried and true formula: Economy and Democracy. The economic argument had been a slam dunk, before the aforementioned slow down. The democracy argument was a bit more nuanced. The AKP had made the peace process the center piece of its “we are more democratic” messaging; consistently pointing to the negotiations with the PKK as proof of the party’s liberal bona fides. The HDP’s holding firm to its principles – perhaps best symbolized by Demirtas’ most recent statement to his caucus in parliament, where he gave a 30 second speech saying “No we wont support an executive presidency” left little doubt about the party’s political future – has undermined this message and made the AKP look weak. In reality, the HDP had no choice but to oppose the AKP before the June election. In order to get 10%, the party has to disassociate with the AKP, owing to the aforementioned level of discomfort half of the country has about Erdogan.

Added to this is a rather uncomfortable reality: The Presidential system is not popular, even among AKP voters. Undeterred Erdogan now speaks twice a day every day about the virtues of his rule and the need to transition to a presidential system. It’s not working.

Moreover, it has ignited a debate within the AKP that never really went away: the merits of the presidential system. A minority of MPs are indirectly signaling their support for the status quo via their support for Ahmet Davutoglu – who has come to represent the Prime Ministerial system (to be clear, those who have publicly expressed their wariness about the situation are “third-termers,” which means that AKP party rules prevent them from running again for election in June). This faction remains hamstrung, however, by Davutoglu’s relative weakness. Davutoglu is an academic turned Foreign Minister, who is now trying to learn on the job in a politically charged atmosphere. He isn’t doing too well. Just this week, Erdogan outflanked him on numerous occasions. After all but announcing the final touches had been put on a key PKK demand for peace – the formation of a 16 person body to monitor the talks – Erdogan jumped into the fray, telling sympathetic media that he was opposed to the idea.

He had already ruffled feathers the week before when he said, on two different occasions, that Turkey did not have a “Kurdish Problem.” This kerfuffle resulted in Bulent Arinc – one of the three original founders of the AKP (the other being the “retired” Gul) – to chastise Erdogan for his unhelpful rhetoric. He did so politely, but there was not mistaking what he meant: the peace process is overseen by the Prime Minister, not the President. Butt out.

Arinc has a history of challenging Erdogan, but in this instance, it touched off a debate with the mayor Ankara, Melih Gokcek. The resulting verbal war of words continues, with both men accusing the other of being too close to the Gulen movement. Arinc has also hinted at what everyone in Turkey already knows: Gokcek is corrupt. Davutoglu has largely been silent on this issue, choosing to weakly say that it will be handled via the AKP’s intra-party disciplinary committee. Moreover, in a deft political move, Erdogan loyalist, Yalcin Akdogan (who also happens to be the point person on the peace talks), announced that all of the AKP supports the Presidential system. Davutoglu has conspicuously avoided the subject and done little to tamp down the rampant speculation that he is against the system. Akdogan’s comments will surely result in Davutoglu being asked about it in his next press conference.

Will the academic turned politician take the bait and lay his cards on the table? Probably not – there are ways to avoid this with standard talking point. But avoiding a direct answer is an answer in an of itself – and will certainly result in more speculation about an intra-party split about Erdogan and his presidential system.

Against this already complicated backdrop, the Turkish military has noticeably ramped up its operations in the southeast, after announcing that it was rooting out PKK “hideouts” in Mardin, and then responding to PKK mortar fire in Hakkari.

The events suggest that the party remains divided over messaging now that it is being challenged. On the one side, Erdogan has tacked to the nationalist right, in order to reverse the expected losses to the MHP. The Davutoglu led Prime Ministry appears more amenable to muddling through, without a clear plan to address these electoral challenges. The fight has since become a representation of the internal disagreement about the country’s future political system. There does, however, appear to be a point of consensus: the need to insert a bit more “stick” into the negotiations with the HDP/PKK.

More broadly, however, there are signs of even more trouble. Erdogan is in a unique bind. On the one hand, he needs to tack right on the Kurdish issue. He also needs the HDP to fail in its quest to pass the threshold. This would ensure 330 and allow for him to push the caucus to support his presidential system. However, he does not want violence. This means that he needs to keep the peace process alive. And this means that he needs a viable negotiating partner. If the HDP does not pass the threshold, the issue of political legitimacy will come into play.

Added to this is increased Kurdish expectations. The HDP’s sister party, the Demokratic Bolgeler Partisi, has literally changed its name to match the post-Rojava Kurdish expectations. They are now known as the Democratic Region’s Party, in a nod to Ocalan’s concept of democratic autonomy. Hence, if the party does not pass the threshold, it would surprise few serious Turkey analysts to see the DBP set up an autonomous parliament in Diyarbakir, thus forcing the government to either deal with it, or go back to war. For this reason – and the related developments in Syria – I think the Kurdish position is strong, compared to a weakening AKP.

This is where Erdogan’s electioneering may be the most harmful. At some point, these parties will need to come back to the table to work out these very complicated issues. Words matter. Erdogan’s words matter most. And Davutoglu appears powerless to firmly say what he wants to say: stick with the Prime Ministerial system and let me handle the peace process. And here is where this is most tragic: This all links back to the ambitions for an executive presidency, rather than a consensus driven approach to resolve the Kurdish issue and strike a lasting peace accord.

Moving forward, the key polls numbers to watch are the MHP and HDP figures. The HDP holds the keys to Erdogan’s future, but that future may require resorting to short term tactics that may undermine the potential for peace. Moreover, it speaks to a set of broader questions: Will an AKP-MHP coalition kill the peace process? Did Kandil’s rejection of the Ocalan letter prompt Erdogan to go back to the “stick led” approach vis-à-vis the Kurds? Will Davutoglu actually say what he thinks? No one knows. But one thing is clear: Turkey’s politics have changed considerably since June 2014.

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The Kurdish War against ISIS

After threatening Erbil in August, Islamic State militants have steadily lost territory to the Kurdish Peshmerga. Backed by US airpower and Iranian military support, Kurdish forces have regained control over territory lost to ISIS, control much of Kirkuk, and are battling ISIS militants near Sinjar and Hawija.

In today’s Turkey Wonk podcast, Aaron speaks with Fazel Hawrmy, a Kurdistan based journalist, about the Peshmerga’s multiple offensives, the battle for Sinjar city, and the forthcoming battle for the control of Hawija. In doing so, the discussion touches on the role of Turkey, the new sense of Pan-Kurdish nationalism after the battle for Kobane, and concludes with a plea for more tourists to visit Kurdistan.


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