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Insights into Turkish Domestic and International Politics

By John VanPool for the European Geopolitical Forum

President Erdogan goes to Washington

Turkey watchers observed with anticipation the meeting between two of the world’s most outspoken leaders when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Donald Trump met in Washington D.C. on May 16. For all that was at stake – the U.S. plans to arm Kurdish militias in Syria, the extradition request for Fethullah Gulen, Turkey’s payments to Trump’s former National Security Advisor – the meeting flew under the radar for its lack of significant announcements. This was due in part to the American leader’s domestic troubles, as he attempted to navigate a growing scandal concerning his campaign’s ties to Russia and the firing of the head of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The Turkish president pushed for American support in expelling Fethullah Gulen, leader of the spiritual movement Erdogan accuses of masterminding the attempted 2016 military coup. His American counterpart is unlikely to acquiesce to lend support to the requests. Even if he would be willing to, the American legal system makes extradition a lengthy and arduous process outside the power of the president.

Concerning the U.S. strategy in Syria, Aaron Stein captures the divergent views between Ankara and Washington D.C. concerning the Americans’ support for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD, in Syria.

“The issue at stake for many Turks is the idea that the Turkish state could be divided. This sounds absurd to most Americans, but has deep resonance across the political spectrum in Turkey. The legitimization of the PYD in Syria, therefore, is seen as a first step towards international recognition of the PKK, including their demand for autonomy inside of Turkey.” (Stein, “When it comes to Syria and the Kurds, Erdogan will leave Washington empty-handed,” www.WarOnTheRocks.com, 16 May 2017).

Despite Turkey’s concern of a pro-PKK Kurdish enclave along its southeastern borders, American decision makers across a divided political spectrum largely favor the Kurds. For Turkey, the American support for the PYD – its military YPG branch and ancillary Arab fighters called the Syrian Democratic Forces – provides the legitimacy all its own. This is a dangerous precedent for Turkey. 

Yet in the American point of view, Kurdish fighters established their own legitimacy as the region’s only force willing to stand and fight the Islamic State as it expanded its caliphate across Iraq and Syria. U.S. policy makers understand that a friendly, secular and militarily capable infantry force in the region pays off. This is best exemplified in the American partnership with the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq.

President Trump revoking support for the YPG and SDF is unlikely. In fact it appears military assistance will be increased in material terms, with the U.S. set to supply weapons, vehicles and other necessities on the final push to the Islamic State’s redoubt of Raqqa, Syria.

Perhaps Turkey missed a great chance at influencing on the future of northeast Syria when Islamic State fighters surrounded the Syrian-Kurdish border town of Kobane in 2014. As Islamic State fighters nearly overran it – held off only by Kurdish militia with American air support – Turkish tanks watched on the hills on their side of the border as the ISIS banner crept closer.

Now the Americans are all in on the YPG and SDF, leaving Turkish policy makers with two choices. Launch an all-out assault on Syrian-Kurdish forces, many who have American soldiers embedded with them. Or wait the situation out and – for the time being – allow the development of a Kurdish territory right across that same border.

Erdogan’s security detail undermines bilateral ties with U.S.

One aspect of Erdogan’s visit did manage to do something that almost no domestic or international topic has been able to in the early part of May; break into the American news cycle breathlessly chronicling the expanding crises engulfing the Trump administration.

A short time before the two leaders met, anti-Erdogan protesters outside the Turkish embassy were attacked.

At first glance, the disturbance appeared to be between those protestors and counter protestors who supported President Erdogan.

Washington D.C. and U.S. Capitol police were unable to stop the attack given the sheer numbers of those involved. Later, according to American law enforcement and press reports, the violence was meted out by body guards of the Turkish president.

Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham confirmed that his officers and U.S. Secret Service agents had difficulty halting the assault because many of the attackers carried firearms though they were not used. (Fandos and Mele,”Erdogan Security Forces Launch ‘Brutal Attack’ on Washington Protestors, Officials Say,” The New York Times, 17 May 2017.)

The Turkish embassy disputed these reports and video evidence widely shared on social media, saying protesters initiated the assault on pro-Erdogan supporters.

This is the third time body guards of the Turkish president have been involved in violent incidents when in the U.S. In 2011, there was a fight between Erdogan’s security detail and United Nations guards at the organization’s Turtle Bay complex in New York City. In 2016, Turkish security guards attacked journalists and protestors outside the Washington D.C. complex of the Brookings Institute where Erdogan was set to speak.

The repeated behavior is doing little to endear Turkey’s leader to policy makers in the American capital. In the long run, this will hurt Ankara’s interests there. Turkey is an important NATO ally and a key player in its neighborhood, but its military ties and cooperation rely on American lawmakers support.

The reaction of Senator John McCain, never one to wantonly speak ill of an American military ally, provided a good example of how many beltway insiders see the Turkish leader’s visits.

“This is the United States of America. We do not do this here. There is no excuse for this kind of thuggish behavior.”

Turkish-Stream ready to lay pipe?

As noted in the European Geopolitical Forum’s April 2017 Gazprom Monitor, construction on the first phase of the Turkish-Stream Pipeline Project are moving along.

Gazprom CEO Alexi Miller met with Russian President Vladimir in early May following up on a press release a few days prior where it announced the commencement of construction “within days.”

President Putin replied that he believed Turkish partners would “offer effective support” to the project, which will start with offshore construction. This was confirmed after a trip to Sochi, Russia, by Erdogan in early May, where the two leaders agreed on the project’s initial work start.

The pipeline has a capacity of 15.75 billion cubic meters of natural gas. It will supply the Turkish market, while a second line will carry gas to Europe and likely decrease supplies of Russian gas crossing Ukraine.

Gazprom expects the project to be completed in 2019, and should that happen, it will be interesting to see what will happen in the region. Oil deliveries through the BTC Pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Turkey remain steady despite an oil glut at storage facilities around the world. This gives Turkey an opportunity to capitalize if crude prices eventually rise above (say) $65 a barrel. TANAP, also traversing Georgia and Turkey, plays a similar role while diversifying supplies away from a reliance on Russian natural gas. Should the security and political situation improve there, energy exports from the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq also have great potential to further diversify imports and export markets. 

Turkey looks set to further improve its geopolitical influence as a corridor for energy supplies to Europe, of which Turkish Stream plays one part. As relations deteriorate with Europe over its criticism of the AKP government’s crackdown on dissent, Turkish Stream presents an opportunity for leverage on energy resource-lacking Europe.

Domestic politics

Despite being fraught with claims of voter fraud and strange decision making from the body overseeing Turkish elections, the April 16 referendum likely solidified the AKP’s hold on power for years to come.

Some of the criticism levelled at the government in the run up to the vote revolved around the purge of opposition members, including the leadership of the country’s second largest opposition party. Top deputies of the People’s Democratic Party, the HDP, have been jailed on allegations of supporting terrorism due to their advocacy of the Kurdish minority. The government alleges they have provided direct support to the PKK.

Others rounded up in the aftermath of the failed July 2016 coup include many members, or even citizens with cursory ties, to the Fethullah Gulen Hizmet Movement. Also included are journalists, academics and civil servants from across the political spectrum, many with one common trait; opposition to the AKP.

The Republican People’s Party, the largest opposition in parliament, vocally campaigned against the referendum and provided significant organizational structure to the ‘No’ vote that narrowly failed.

Yet it appears the prosecution of politicians will continue despite the AKP’s victory. On May 2, the justice ministry issued summaries to parliament demanding the lifting of immunity for18 lawmakers. Most notable on the list was CHP head Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is being charged with insulting the president by the Ankara Prosecutor’s Office. (“Summaries of proceedings seek to life immunities of CHP head, AKP official,” Hurriyet Daily News, 3 May 2017.)

Of those 18, seven are CHP members, 10 are HDP and one is from the AKP. Saban Disli, an AKP deputy looks to be swept up in the coup’s wide net for his ties to his brother, a former general alleged to have taken part in the July 2016 coup.

This is the same process used to imprison the head of the HDP, Selhattin Demirtas and Figen Yusedag who lost their seats in parliament following the loss of their immunity as deputies.

The message for those who may oppose the president is becoming clear; stand down or else.


It has been a tough few months for Turkey’s battered economy. A spate of terrorist attacks and the July 2016 coup imperiled typically reliable industries such as tourism. Those came after the fallout of ties with Russia over the downing of one of its pilots over Turkey. Three million fewer Russians visited Turkey as a result, creating a significant dent in the sector that makes up more than six percent the economy.

By early 2017, all three major credit ratings agencies had downgraded Turkey, though the government has largely been dismissive of their outlook.

Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli responded to concerns about the agencies’ take while on a visit to the United Kingdom, saying they were “far from rational.” He alleged their judgements were politically motivated, echoing an oft-repeated AKP talking point about an international, interest rate lobby aimed at harming the Turkish Republic’s economic prospects. (“Turkey will see single-digit inflation by end of 2017: Deputy PM,” Hurriyet Daily News, 4 May 2017.)

In the short term, the impact from the interest rate increases from the U.S. Federal Reserve have not dramatically impacted Turkey. Part of this is due to the Fed’s dovish approach to the increases, while the Central Bank of Turkey’s own rate hikes early in the year to halt the Turkish lira’s slide also appears to have helped. (Sonmez, “Can Turkey disprove IMF’s dismal economic growth forecast?” www.al-monitor.com, 27 April 2017.)

However, a host of other issues, including geopolitical challenges and economic mismanagement, has the International Monetary Fund skeptical of growth prospects in the month ahead.

The IMF’s April 2017 World Economic Outlook offered stark prospects for growth. Despite accepting the revisionist calculations by the Turkish Statistics Institute, which increased figures for 2015’s GDP 20 percent, the IMF sees slow growth ahead. It predicts that in 2017 it will be 2.5 percent, though stated the “outlook is clouded by heightened political uncertainty, security concerns, and the rising burden of foreign-exchange-denominated debt caused by the lira depreciation.”

According to the IMF, the lira’s depreciation is expected to exacerbate inflation, though in his remarks in London, Deputy Prime Minister Canikli predicted it would be in the single digits by year’s end.

With the referendum passed, the government has touted positive economic indicators as evidence that its push for a strong executive form of government is working. The stability in the country’s security situation – specifically with regards to a lull in terrorist attacks by group – has coincided with some positive economic news.

The summer holiday season is just beginning. British holiday booking and airline company Thomas Cook reported that demand for trips to Turkey had increased, a possible harbinger of positive news on the horizon. (Smout, “Thomas Cook’s summer bookings strong despite British slowdown,” Reuters, 18 May 2017.)

Signs from Europe, where long sought after economic indicators are finally picking up, may be a harbinger of a brighter economic forecast. (Euro-area GDP growth outpaces America’s,” The Economist, 6 May 2017.)

The interconnected economies of Turkey and its western neighbors leave room for hope, though as noted by the IMF, significant challenges remain.

Ties with European allies remain strained

Relations between Germany and Turkey reached a low point in the run up to the April 16 referendum. The former drew the ire of the ruling AKP after barring party officials from holding rallies there. The president further stoked tensions, making allusions to Germany’s Nazi past in speeches to supporters ahead of the vote.

This was a low point that had begun years before, as German officials grew increasingly critical of their perception of an increasingly heavy handed Turkish state.

The arrest of a German-Turkish reporter on charges of espionage have further exacerbated tensions. (Carrel, “Germany demands Turkey release jailed reporter in ‘big test’ for ties,” Reuters, 4 April 2017.)

A contingent of German troops stationed at Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base may be on the move at some point if relations do not improve. The 250 German troops there have been at the base as part of NATO’s anti-Islamic State mission, but Turkey has refused to allow a committee from the German Parliament to visit and inspect the troops. Reuters reported that a source inside the Turkish Foreign Ministry said a visit would not be appropriate at the time. (“Germany sees Jordan as alternative to Turkey’s Incirlik base,” Reuters, 15 May 2017.)

In response to this, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that while her government would discuss the issue further with Turkey, it might look for new options for its troops.

“That means looking at alternatives to Incirlik, and one alternative among others is Jordan,” she said.

Relations with Greece have also been tested once again, as Ankara renewed calls for Athens to extradite Turkish military personnel it says took part in the July coup. President Erdogan repeated the request on the sidelines of the Silk Road Forum in China on May 13, this time to Greek Prime Minister Alexi Tsipras. Though the two leaders agreed to attempt to calm tensions in the Aegean and further cooperate on halting refugee crossings into Europe, the two NATO allies continue to face off in the skies over Greek airspace.

Greece’s national defense general staff issued a tally in the press in early May alleging Turkish aircraft illegally entered its airspace 141 times on May 15 alone. According to the report, Greek fighters intercepted all of the flights, but “in nine cases the interception process resulted in near combat situations.” (Michalopoulos, “EU warns Turkey after it violates Greek airspace 141 times in one day,” www.Euractiv.com, 16 May 2017.)

The European Commission issued a warning to Turkey, urging respect for the airspace of its neighbor. The Commission’s urging will likely go over like a lead balloon, with Erdogan having promised an end to Turkey’s long national nightmare; its EU accession negotiations.

In early May, ever the campaigner, Ergodan promised a referendum that would break off accession negotiations once and for all. (Rettman, “Turkey to hold ‘Brexit-like’ vote, Erdogan says,” www.EUObserver.com, 3 May 2017).

“The EU was never sincere or honest. Turkey is working [on EU accession] in vain. It’s been lingering for 54 years. We fully fulfilled the Copenhagen criteria, our economy is doing much better than some EU members, we are a member of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but we are made to wait patiently.”

While governing has proved difficult as of late, the AKP can definitely campaign. The president has made a career out of it, and some of his most reliable and effective campaign rhetoric is aimed at Turkey’s western allies.

Withering ties with NATO allies and the European Union aren’t a major concern for Ankara under the AKP, so long as they don’t depreciate to the level of an outright break. Much of it is sound and fury, but likely intentional so as to maintain domestic support on the Turkish street.

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