Turkey’s Referendum Affects the Fight Against ISIS

By: Yasmin Faruki, Columnist

Photo Credit: CNN.com

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared victory in a sweeping constitutional referendum that transformed the government’s parliamentary system into a presidential one. The changes are a welcome victory for Erdogan, who just survived a military-led coup last July.[i] Though 51% of the population voted in favor of the referendum, election monitoring groups, opposition parties, and most of Turkey’s urban population decried the referendum’s narrow margins and alleged election fraud.[ii] For the United States, Erdogan’s consolidation of power will likely agitate tensions with key partners involved in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including Kurdish groups. The ongoing fight for Raqqa will test how well the United States can achieve its goals in coordination with Turkey’s newly invigorated president. 

Turkey plays an essential role in the fight against ISIS. First, the country provides military bases from which the United States conducts airstrikes. Access to Turkey’s bases in Incirlik and Diyarbakir significantly increase the number of hours American aircraft can operate without having to stop and refuel. Cutting off this access would force the United States to operate out of the Gulf with significantly less airtime. Second, the country is a vital point of transit for foreign fighters traveling between Europe and the Levant. The government belatedly addressed the threat of jihadist foreign fighters after an ISIS suicide attack killed 32 Turkish activists in a border town in 2015. Finally, the government is well-positioned to help alleviate the pressure of Syrian refugees displaced by the conflict. Turkey has already pledged to help resettle nearly three million Syrian refugees in exchange for a $6.8 billion aid package and visa liberalization policy from the European Union (EU).[iii] The government’s continued commitment to border control and building law enforcement capacity to prevent irregular migration flow is crucial for the region’s stability.

The ongoing fight in Raqqa is the most recent flashpoint in bilateral tensions over the Syrian war. The United States is mostly focused on destroying ISIS, whereas Turkey wants to prevent the formation of a contiguous Kurdish statelet in the south. In the absence of other willing and capable partners on the ground, the United States favors aligning with Kurdish-dominant forces, including the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Popular Protection Units (YPG), who have already demonstrated their ability to retake ISIS-held cities in Northern Syria over the past year, including Kobani and Manbij. The resulting expansion in Kurdish territory and autonomy severely frustrates Turkey, which faces an insurgency from the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has intensified since a collapse in peace talks in 2015.

The referendum’s passage undermines Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against ISIS in two key ways.

First, Erdogan’s consolidation of power will elevate the PKK’s position, making it more costly for the United States to work alongside Kurdish forces in Syria. In February, Turkey’s parliament removed the chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party that advocates a political negotiation to the conflict between the Turks and the Kurds. As Turkey’s third largest party, the HDP’s pro-Kurdish and left-leaning constituents have vociferously opposed Erdogan’s shift towards authoritarianism, robbing his party of a parliamentary majority in the 2015 general election. Since the attempted military coup in July, the government has disproportionately targeted members of the HDP and its supporters, preventing them from campaigning in the latest referendum. Should the HDP lose its political ground, the PKK is likely to emerge as the champion of Kurdish identity within Turkey and potentially launch more terrorist attacks. Facing a strengthened PKK, Erdogan will be much more resolved to target Kurdish groups in border towns under the guise of fighting ISIS. The ensuing distraction will make it harder for coalition partners to unite against the common goal of ousting ISIS and holding territory.

Second, the referendum will make cooperation on humanitarian issues more difficult with the EU. The referendum was problematic for the EU both in terms of its content and the style in which it was carried out. Last month, the Netherlands barred the Turkish foreign minister from entering the country after attempts by Turkish government officials to host “yes” campaign rallies for Dutch Turkish constituencies.[iv] The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe contended the vote was not fair.[v] France, Austria, and the EU have pushed Erdogan to press for consensus after the referendum—a potential sign that the countries do not approve of the new legislative changes, including the elimination of the prime minister’s position and promotion of the president as the only popularly elected official in government, with the possibility of two five-year terms.[vi] Erdogan’s strengthened hand could also undermine Turkey’s most recent agreement with the EU. The Turkish foreign minister has already threatened to withdraw cooperation on the migrant crisis if the EU does not grant Turkey’s 79 million residents visa-free travel—a contentious position given the existing challenges of preserving the Schengen Zone. Should either party renege on its commitment, irregular migrants will continue to flow freely between the EU’s border and the Levant, raising humanitarian pressures and added security risks.

The United States is unlikely to alleviate all the tensions arising from Turkey’s referendum, but it can help by ensuring success in Raqqa. For the Turks, the United States must demonstrate that it will not allow the SDF to permanently hold the province. The United States should emphasize that the SDF has already committed to transferring its anticipated control of Raqqa to an indigenous civilian council.[vii] At the same time, the United States can re-commit to fighting the PKK in Turkey to demonstrate that it values Turkey as a coalition partner and recognizes the threats to its internal stability. In exchange for counterterrorism cooperation and preventing the formation of a Kurdish statelet, the United States must press Erdogan to seek broader consensus and reconciliation within his government, including Kurdish factions. President Trump is in a good position to make these kinds of requests because he is seen as more sympathetic to authoritarian regimes and already phoned Erdogan to congratulate him on the results of the referendum.[viii] Trump should make the case to Erdogan that he can achieve more power by seeking compromise and scoring political points with elements of his government instead of intensifying the current crackdown. Otherwise, continued crackdowns on the HDP could elevate the PKK and complicate the SDF’s efforts to eventually transfer power to Sunni Arabs in Syria’s border towns. Without a credible broker to help resolve the interim differences between Turkey and the Kurds, the anti-ISIS efforts will be weak. The United States should set up to the plate to ensure that military gains alongside Kurdish forces are sustained.

[i] “Turkey’s failed coup attempt: All you need to know,” 30 December 2016, Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/12/turkey-failed-coup-attempt-161217032345594.html.

[ii] Kareem Fahim, “Turkey’s Erdogan declares victory in referendum over presidential powers,” 16 April 2017, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/turks-to-decide-whether-to-give-erdogan-vastly-increased-powers/2017/04/15/e79812b6-1bda-11e7-bcc2-7d1a0973e7b2_story.html?utm_term=.1d4f40b67e4e.

[iii] “Turkey to make ‘final offer’ to EU on visa-free travel after referendum: Turkish FM,” Hurriyet Daily News, 18 April 2017, http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-to-make-final-offer-to-eu-on-visa-free-travel-after-referendum-turkish-fm.aspx?pageID=517&nID=111974&NewsCatID=510.

[iv] “Turkey-Netherlands row shows no sign of ebbing,” 12 March 2017, Al Jazeera, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/03/turkey-netherlands-row-shows-sign-ebbing-170312052740004.html.

[v] Raf Sanchez and Burhan Yüksekkaş, “International election observers deliver scathing verdict on fairness of Turkish referendum,” Telegraph, 17 April 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/17/turkish-referendum-opposition-plans-appeal-against-last-minute/.

[vi] “Turkey referendum: Key reactions,” BBC 17 April 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39615403.

[vii] “US-backed Syria forces set up post-ISIS Raqqa council,” 18 April 2017, Al Arabiya, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2017/04/18/US-backed-Syria-forces-set-up-post-ISIS-Raqqa-council-.html.

[viii] Mark Landler, “Trump Congratulates Erdogan on Turkey Vote Cementing His Rule,” 11 April 2017, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/17/us/politics/trump-erdogan-turkey-referendum.html?_r=0.

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