Paul Iddon, a freelance journalist who has written about Middle East affairs, politics, and history for over eight years. He’s a regular contributor to Forbes.com, Arab News, Middle East Eye, and others.
Turkey’s relations with state and non-state actors in the Middle East could significantly change if the opposition alliance challenging incumbent Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Islamist-derived Justice and Development Party (AKP) wins the May elections and takes power.
Turkish State-to-State Relations
In June 2022, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu tweeted that he would hold Greece, Israel, and Saudi Arabia accountable for various infractions against Turkey. If elected, he could reverse Erdogan’s decision to patch up relations between Turkey and several countries it had disputes with in recent years.
Suleyman Ozeren, a professorial lecturer at the American University and senior fellow at the Orion Policy Institute, pointed out that Kilicdaroglu’s tweet was “a response to Erdogan’s costly U-turns in foreign policy decisions.”
“The opposition’s Nation Alliance has declared several fundamental changes in Turkey’s foreign policy objectives,” Ozeren told European Eye on Radicalization. “They promised to complete the steps for European Union accession,” he said. “This will ultimately have a positive effect on Turkey-Greece relations. The bloc stresses the importance of strengthening its relationship with NATO and the United States and advocating regional cooperation initiatives.”
More importantly, the opposition intends to reform the country’s foreign policy apparatus by discontinuing the present status quo in which one man’s whims can determine Turkish foreign policy. Instead, foreign policy decisions will be based on institutional norms and processes. Ozeren believes such a transformation “will have a positive effect on relationships and ties with its neighbors and regional countries, including Greece, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.”
“Kilicdaroglu and his team would prioritize normalization with Turkey’s neighbors,” Ozeren adds. “The new policy may be called ‘a win-win policy based on mutual interests.’”
Nicholas Heras, senior director of strategy and innovation at the New Lines Institute think tank in Washington D.C., sees significant continuity in Turkish foreign policy going forward. “Regardless of who wins Turkey’s election, the reality is that Turkish foreign policy is moving in a direction for independent action that is unlikely to be altered,” he told European Eye on Radicalization. “There is a broad agreement within the majority of the Turkish foreign policy elite that their country needs to think of itself as a Eurasian power that is rising again and which must maintain maximum flexibility in its approach to all, state and non-state actors alike,” he said.
Relations With Non-State Actors
Turkey has complex relations with several armed non-state actors in the Middle East. South of its border in Syria, it arms and backs several Syrian militia groups fighting under the banner of the so-called Syrian National Army (SNA). It has coordinated its deployment of soldiers in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province with the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, which originated as an al-Qaeda offshoot. It opposes the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the backbone of the larger Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which control much of northeast Syria and cooperates with the United States military against the Islamic State (ISIS). Ankara insists the YPG is inextricably linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) group that took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984 and is recognized as a terrorist organization by NATO, the European Union, and many individual Western states.
Kilicdaroglu and the opposition want to repair relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan severed ties with Damascus in 2011 after Assad violently cracked down on a popular uprising against his rule. They hope doing so will enable Turkey to repatriate the three million Syrian refugees it presently hosts, which has become a nationalist irritant in Turkish politics. Attempts toward implementing this policy will doubtlessly affect Turkey’s relations with these groups in Syria.
“In Syria, Turkey will seek maximum leverage over the end state to that conflict, which means that Turkey’s Syrian proxy groups are useful over the long-term because they provide Ankara with a type of compelling power over Assad,” Heras said. “Assad wants the return of his authority over northern Syria without any preconditions, which no Turkish government will give up because there is no guarantee that this move can sustainably prevent instability on Turkey’s southern border with Syria.”
Turkey’s policy toward the SDF/YPG in Syria is not likely to fundamentally change regardless of who wins the elections. The perspective of Erdogan and the AKP on this matter are genuinely Turkish; this is a deeply held belief across the political spectrum, not a position adopted for factional or partisan gain. Heras anticipates that Turkey “will continue seeking to remove the SDF from northeast Syria and to maintain pressure on the PKK in Iraq.”
However, there could be a different outcome if a new Turkish government negotiates peace with the PKK. Erdogan previously engaged in peace talks with the movement in 2013, leading to a brief cessation of hostilities in the lengthy conflict, which was already approximately thirty years old at that time. Talks later broke down in mid-2015, and war returned, at a level more intense than had been seen in a long time, with urban fighting in the southeast that resulted in considerable destruction of property and loss of life.
“The opposition-led government’s approach to the Kurdish issue will be different than that of AKP governments,” Ozeren said. “Unlike AKP, which considered PKK and its [imprisoned] leader, Abdullah Ocalan, as the prime actor in the resolution processes, the opposition considers the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and its representatives as the key actors,” he continued. “The opposition also sees the Turkish Parliament as the main platform for any talks, which will ensure more transparency and trust in the eyes of the public.”
Regardless of which side wins in May, Turkey will most likely have a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially with renewed fears of another Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in light of recent events and tensions. The Turkish position is likely to favor the Palestinians over the Israelis.
“Turkey will probably continue its dialogue with the Palestinian groups while coordinating such efforts with Israel, which will depend on how Israel will respond to Turkey’s new approach,” Ozeren said.
Heras anticipates Ankara will favor the Palestinians if the opposition wins. “Turkey’s position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, despite all the hype of closer potential engagement with Israel, is likely to become more pro-Palestinian,” he said. “There is a consensus within the Turkish foreign policy elite that Israel is a bad actor that represses Palestinians and supports Greece against Turkey in the Aegean.”
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is hardly optimistic about the elections, since the outcome will hardly prove favorable for its future relations with Ankara, regardless of who wins. Given their shared ideology with that movement, when the Brotherhood briefly won power in Egypt in 2012, Erdogan and his AKP hoped for a renaissance in Ankara-Cairo ties. However, that Egyptian Brotherhood government was swiftly deposed in a coup in July 2013 that led to the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Erdogan denounced that government and ties with Egypt became strained for the better part of a decade. More recently, however, Erdogan has shown signs he is willing to repair political relations with Egypt, even though Sisi remains president.
“Relying on Erdogan has already been very costly for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which has been under immense pressure from Erdogan’s government, which is trying to re-establish a relationship with Egypt,” Ozeren said. “So, a win for Erdogan may not be a better outcome for them,” he added. “On the other hand, it is highly likely that a Kilicdaroglu-led government will restore relations with Egypt. So, in the short term, the outcome for the Muslim Brotherhood may not change.”
Generally, there will likely be considerable continuity in Turkish foreign policy towards non-state actors and extremist groups in the Middle East, whether Erdogan or the opposition forms the next government.
On April 30, Erdogan announced that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization had killed Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini Al-Qurayshi, the leader of ISIS, in Syria, whom Erdogan says Turkey had tracked “for a long time.” The U.S. says it is “unable to confirm this”. This is part of a pattern with Turkish claims about neutralising ISIS leaders that later turn out not to be true. Regardless, Turkey will doubtlessly maintain a similarly combative policy toward ISIS under Kilicdaroglu.
At the same time, Turkey will likely continue supporting the SNA, which mostly comprises Islamist groups and even some former ISIS militants, in the short to medium term as it looks for ways to disengage from Syria. Also, Ankara will continue cooperating with HTS at times while it retains forces in Idlib and the adjacent Kurdish enclave of Afrin it has occupied since 2018.
In short, one shouldn’t expect Turkey’s enigmatic policy towards Islamists and other extremists, especially in Syria, to change in the near future regardless of the outcome of these elections.
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