« Turkey’s foreign policy adjustment has been dictated by electoral motives »

Jean Marcou, Director of International Relations at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies 
Interview conducted by Tania Gisselbrecht, Research Associate @BridgingEurope

Jean Marcou is the Director of International Relations at Grenoble Institute of Political Studies and the Director of the Master Degree “Integration and Changes in the Mediterranean and the Middle East” at the Grenoble Institute of Political Studies. His main fields of teaching and research address Turkish and Egyptian Politics, Political Transition in the South of Europe, the European Union and the evolution of the balance of powers in the Middle-East.

Professor Marcou was senior researcher at the French Institute of Anatolian Studies in Istanbul (IFEA – Institut Français d’Etudes Anatoliennes Turkey-www.ifea-istanbul.net) where he was in charge of the Observatory of the Turkish Political Life (Observatoire de la Vie Politique Turque – OVIPOT –http://ovipot.hypotheses.org/). He was also the Director of the French Section of the Faculty of Economics and Political Science of the University of Cairo (Egypt) from 2000 to 2006.

In the context of Bridging Dialogue Initiative, Tania Gisselbrecht discussed with Professor Marcou on Turkey’s elections and foreign policy, the Daesh and Kurdish movements,

turmoil in the Middle East, the  peace process between PKK and Ankara.
Commentary – Background
The Suruç bombing (20 July 2015) and Turkey’s decision to reinforce its cooperation with the international coalition against Daesh have produced confusing results on the ground. While the Turkish army got ready to launch airstrikes against Daesh in Nothern Syria, a latent civil war was resuming inside Turkey. To understand the rationale behind Turkey’s seemingly new political and strategic choices, Professor Jean Marcou, Director of the Master of Middle Eastern Studies at Grenoble Institute of Political Studies and specialist of Turkish politics invites us to look at them through the lenses of national politics. Despite its international ramifications, the current crisis is more likely the results of electoral motives.

Turkey’s decision to fully integrate the coalition against Daesh is rising questions. It is the result of lengthy talks with the US whose most efficient support on the ground (the Syrian Kurds) was labeled Turkey’s worst enemy. Conversely, Turkey’s allegedly maintains murky ties with Daesh, the US number one target. This is a shaky kind of alliance.

First and foremost, we need to choose words carefully in order to understand the subtlety of the Middle East and the paradoxes of the current crisis. One should refrain from a manicheist approach and therefore the word ‘alliance’ should not be used, though, practically, the US and Turkey are already allies within NATO. Here, it is more appropriate to talk about ‘converging interests’ instead of ‘alliance’. ‘Converging interests’ can be detected between the US and the PYD, although traditionally the PYD enjoys good relationships with Russia, and despite the US legally regarding the PYD as a terrorist group.

As for Turkey, as a regional power, it does no longer have established ties with its southern neighbours (Syria and Iraq) because they hardly exist. So Turkey has developed connections with different internal conflict actors in these countries. In that context, Turkey shares stronger interests with some of them. The same rings true for the US. They share converging interests with different actors of the ongoing wars. That explains why the agreement between Turkey and the US remains vague.

There has been intense diplomatic activity between the two countries since spring over a deeper involvement of Turkey in the coalition against Daesh. Indeed, although Turkey, as a NATO member, was formally part of the coalition, it did not concretely participate in its operations. So far the country had refused to grant authorization to use its airbases to American planes striking Daesh in Syria.

During the negotiations, Turkey requested help from the UN and the US to manage the influx of Syrian refugees on its soil. Additionally it was advocating in favour of the creation of a no-fly zone and a buffer zone to be held by moderate Syrian rebels. Talks also focused on a programme to train these moderate rebels on Turkish land. Turkey’s final demand was not to permit Assad to be part of future talks. On the other side, Turkey was expected to better monitor its borders to prevent infiltration of jihadists.

What came out from the talks is rather a consensus. The exact terms of the agreement have not been written and in all likelihood, they were not targeting particular actors. So I believe that the airstrikes against the PKK came as a surprise to the US. Several high ranked US officials tweeted during the night of the first strike against the PKK, stressing that this was not part of the agreement.

Two forces are growing in the Middle East: Daesh and the Kurdish movement. What does their success tell about the region’s state of affairs?

We are witnessing the collapse of the nation state concept. It did not worked in Lebanon. Syria and Iraq are on the verge of dissolution. In Egypt, unity has been maintained at the cost of authoritarianism. That being said, Daesh and the Kurdish movement are not really embodying an alternative model. Their appeal does not come from the principles they advocate. It is grounded in local interests. With the Middle East ongoing Balkanization, each new actors is trying to benefit from its position. For instance, Iran supports the Kurds not because they approve of their project but simply because they fight against Daesh. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that divisions among Kurds are growing. Barzani favours the interests of Iraqi Kurds over Kurdish unity. This shows that the Middle East breaking up is characterized by a multiplicity of actors behind which regional and tutelary powers are re-aligning.

In this context, what could be the new face of the Middle East ?

The Syrian and Iraqi States have failed as centralized nation states. They will probably split up and be reorganized. New complex entities acknowledging new actors will come forward. There is already a semblance of Kurdish state in Northern Iraq and quasi autonomous Kurdish entities are emerging in Northern Syria. Daesh is trying to create its own State on the territories it conquered. The Syrian regime has managed to install several sanctuaries. A parceled out Middle East is on the rise. Maybe its decomposition will be mitigated by the formal continuation of the Syrian and Iraqi States which would rest on a loose federation, or a confederation framework. But I personally foresee another scenario closer to the one implemented in Bosnia, where the state structure reflects the outcomes of the war. Although imperfect and complex, such a solution deserves credit for stopping the war. In the wake of pacification, territorial gains will have to be acknowledged and given a political frame in order to organize cohabitation of new actors. The war fatigue will also become a stabilizing factor.

What is the impact of Turkey fully joining the coalition against Daesh on the way Turkish foreign policy is perceived?

Strategically the situation has not changed much. Ambiguity still prevails. For Turkey, the PKK still equates with Daesh. Therefore, the first Turkish airstrikes against Daesh have been improperly described as a ‘turning point’ in Turkish foreign policy. First, so far there was only one series of strikes against Daesh led by planes using Turkish airbases. Secondly, the US and Turkey came to an agreement on the use Turkish airbases for strikes inside Syria. But it is not clear in which conditions strikes can be done, and whether Turkey will join in airstrikes aimed at Daesh to protect the PYD.

So the strategic ‘swing’ is rather cosmetic. Above all, the move enabled Turkey to improve its reputation on the international stage by shedding its image of Daesh associate. Yet concretely Turkish foreign policy remains hardly readable. Proof of it is that reactions across the Middle East remained lukewarm. Only western countries rejoiced at the news (though the UE showed a bit more caution, also underlining the need to uphold the peace process and exert moderation towards the PKK). On the contrary, Assad roughly said ‘better late than never. That being said Turkey does not really want to fight Daesh’. Egypt remained silent and the Arab League finally condemned Turkish bombings in Northern Iraq. In other terms, the so-called foreign policy swing will have extremely limited consequences.

So what was the real purpose of this agreement?

I believe Turkey’s decision to join the coalition cannot be understood without taking into consideration the national political context. Several hypotheses can be carved out. Some argue that the US allegedly accepted to sacrifice the Kurds in order to convince Turkey to join the coalition. I am not convinced that things are that clear. I am rather inclined to believe that the US have been surprised by the Turkish interpretation of the agreement.

Obviously, the consequences of the agreement cannot be disconnected from the Suruç bomb attack. One has to remember that Turkey is going through an interim period since the AKP lost its majority during the 7 June 2015 general elections. This was a major turning point for the AKP: the party lost for the first time the absolute majority that had enabled it to rule alone the country since 2002. For Erdoğan, it was even more destabilizing. After being elected by direct universal suffrage, he had hoped to continue ruling the country and to presidentialise the regime. His defeat threatens his plans. Without a clear majority, AKP needs to form a coalition government if it wants to retain power. Yet for Erdoğan that means the burial of his regime change project and being confined to a limited presidential mandate. To escape the deadlock, the establishment of a coalition has to fail, and early elections must be convened. The blast in Suruç provided the perfect excuse. It shocked Turkey and triggered a wave of PKK reprisals. The government has instrumentalised the emotion to justify its military operations against PKK.

The major victim of Turkey’s strategy is the symbolic winner of the 7 June elections, the HDP. The young party now finds itself in a very uncomfortable situation, caught between AKP and PKK. Are its leaders living up to the challenge? Do they have the means to come out from the stalemate?

I would answer affirmatively because they are rather experienced both at the grassroots and political level. Although one has to recognize that a few HDP MPs were caught by surprise and did not expected to be elected, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, the party’s co-leaders, have strong field experience. Demirtaş also knows how to play the game within the parliamentarian system, how to run a campaign. The HDP leadership also displayed strong political maturity by restraining its militants when local offices were ransacked or a bomb detonated during an electoral rally in Dıyarbakır in June 2015.

Actually the HDP’s electoral success revealed Demirtaş as a seasoned tactician. At the beginning of the campaign, when he announced that the HDP had decided to present a list instead of independent candidates, many pundits, and even the UE, dismissed his stance as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many thought this was an unrealistic approach. However, against all odds, the HDP succeeded in snatching votes away from both the AKP and the opposition. Within the Turkish system, Demirtaş has aroused a new political enthusiasm that materialized into the ballot boxes. Thereby, Demirtaş managed to transform the HDP into a party of Turkey for which a variety of citizens voted. Not only did the HDP attract part of the traditional Kurdish electorate usually voting for the AKP, but it also benefitted from a tactical vote meant to block the way to Erdoğan. That partly explains why, since the Suruç bomb blast, the position of the Kurdish political movement has become so uncomfortable. The Kurdish vote can no longer be taken for granted by the AKP since Demirtaş transformed his party into a party of Turkey. Because of its political stature, the HDP has become the main target for the AKP and particularly for Erdoğan.

That being said, [this newly acquired sympathy is being eroded] by the PKK’s and HDP’s hawkish wing’s attitude. They use the airstrikes as a pretext for resuming the guerilla and bury the peace process. Nonetheless the HDP owns one essential asset: Demirtaş acted as a go-between for the government and the PKK during the peace process. Familiar with the dossier, he is a key link for both sides.

You are referring here to the main argument raised to discredit the HDP: its links with the PKK. What does the current crisis tell about these links?

Of course, the HDP is tied to the PKK. There is a symbiosis with the PKK among parts of the HDP leadership and at the grassroots level. But the PKK and the HDP do not hold the same sway over the grassroots constituency, and particularly over the radical wing. Although this is a sore point, it is not specific to the HDP. The same phenomena has been observed within the Basque independent movement. It has been difficult for the political wing to distance itself from the clandestine military movement.

Beyond Demirtaş’s charisma and political ability are there other factors explaining the HDP’s success?

The HDP’s success can also be explained by the evolution of the Kurdish cause into a multi-facetted project, as well as by the evolution of the Turkish State. The latter has accepted the presence of a party representing the Kurds within the political system. De facto, this party found its place in the system not only through the channel of elections but also through the opportunity to manage municipalities. Running a local administration requires a political sense that greatly differs from the mentality of a guerilla organization. Pluralism, transparency, openness are essential to deliver a unifying message. Because of extreme partisanship, a guerilla organization is usually managed in an opaque and closed fashion. That presence within the political system as well as the willingness to be more inclusive appealed to Kurdish voters who traditionally voted for AKP. This phenomena of political integration can work only to the extent that repression is declining. On the contrary, when the rights of citizens are infringed, violent behaviours are more likely to arise among both radical wings and the average Kurdish population.

In the last 15 days, reports about violent clashes and PKK reprisals, about village’s evacuation are regularly coming in. Nine security zones have been decreed in the Sırnak Province. Media columnists are prone to compare the current situation to the OHAL time? (The OHAL (Olağanüstü Hâl Bölge Valiliği orGovernorship of Region in State of Emergency) region was a ‘super-region’ created in Turkey  state of emergency  Turkish–Kurdish conflict). Do you agree with that conclusion?

I believe Turkey stands now in an intermediary situation. Obviously the AKP is playing the repression card again, and reviving the conflict, but it is abstaining from going too far. They don’t want to get back to the dirty war of the 90s. What the AKP is trying to create is a situation that would justify its reelection and erode the HDP’s credibility. The simplest scenario is to marginalize the HDP by making it fall below the 10% electoral threshold. In such a case, the AKP could get back the lost Kurdish votes. However a more sophisticated scenario could unfold, i.e. the creation of an AKP minority government elected thanks to the MHP votes that would pass a law aimed at lowering the electoral threshold to 6 or 7 %. Such a move would limit the threshold effect and consequently the number of seats the HDP could get, even if it overcame the 10%. Small details can already be constructed as the premises of this scenario: For instance, the government sent a high level delegation to inform the opposition parties about its military operations. The HDP has been left out and hence stigmatized as different, as dangerous for the country because of its ties to the PKK. Paradoxically the strategy adopted by the HDP to increase its voters base precisely rested on the argument that it was a party of Turkey.

What has been the attitude of the main opposition party, the CHP, with regard to the internal crisis?

The marginalization strategy implemented by the AKP against the HDP might turn out to be beneficial for other parties, and particularly for the CHP. Mostly because a fraction of its electorate voted for the HDP. For that reason, the other opposition parties are anticipating early elections. ‘One man’s joy is another man’s sorrow’.

So far, the CHP attitude has not been very clever. This is a party that has not been able to progress in terms of electoral gains. It was not able to garner the Kurdish vote, to tap into the Gezi dissent movement targeting the AKP as the HDP did. Incapable to morph into a popular opposition geared for governing, it simply cristallised the traditional opposition. So, the CHP has been wary since the HDP managed to shed its ethnic status. Indeed, as the main opposition party, its capital is jeopardized by the advent of the HDP which succeeded where it failed: at shifting traditional political lines.

As such, one could venture into comparing the HDP with Syriza and Podemos, mutatis mutandis. Like its Greek and Spanish fellows, in a few months, the HDP capitalized the sympathy of voters in a system that seemed in a deadlock. Of course, the HDP has not yet reached the level of development of its European counterparts but it is raising concerns within the CHP. Its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu said while addressing its militants during the parliamentary campaign: ‘We are not the Red Crescent!’. He meant to say that his party was not there to do charity to the HDP in order to help it pass the threshold, but rather to garner the maximum number of votes. Concretely he was trying to deter his militants from casting a tactical vote in favour of the HDP.

The CHP has also been very cautious and silent about the peace process since Suruç. First there are still nationalist segments among its constituency who don’t view Kurds favourably. The party cannot afford to lose these votes. Therefore the CHP avoids appearing as supporting unconditionally the process. Likewise it did not stand together with the HDP when investigations were launched against some of its MPs for alleged links with a terrorism organization. Secondly, its main goal remains to impede Erdoğan’s regime change project. Its strategy rather focuses on building a coalition government. The CHP is the party which negotiated the most with the AKP to that end. If talks fail, they will be able to claim that Davutoğlu did not have a free hand on negotiations, that Erdoğan is interfering for the sake of his own ambition.  At this stage, ‘Down with the presidential system’[seems to be CHP’s only motto].

How does the current crisis affect the AKP? What does it says about the party’s willingness to complete the peace process?

There were already conflicts within the AKP during the last campaign. The first topic of disagreement has been the presidential regime. A presidential regime rests on the couple Prime Minister/President and on consensus between them. Yet the regime change was not unanimously supported within the AKP ranks. Prime Minister Davutoğlu reluctantly accepted that Erdoğan preside over the Council of Ministers and that the presidential regime be added to the party’s programme. Vice Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said ‘it is the government that rules, not the President ‘. Additionally there have been punctual disagreements within the AKP: for example, over the law on transparency of the use of public funds, but above all, over the ‘resolution process’. With respect to the latter, one has to remember that the Dolmabahçe 10 points declaration and the ensuing AKP/HDP press conference held on 28 February 2015 has been disavowed by Erdoğan. One can therefore wonder whether there has not been an internal conflict over the campaign strategy. Erdoğan was convinced that peace should take a back seat in order for his party to mobilize nationalist feelings within and outside his party. He already resorted to a similar strategy in 2011. To weaken the MHP, he went hunting for votes in its territory, developing a nationalist discourse. Erdoğan then declared ‘If I had been prime minister when Öcalan was sentenced to death, he would have been executed’. This turned out to be a mere electoral strategy because he afterwards resumed negotiations. So the current double-talk probably reflects a divide over strategy within the AKP. One of the grossest ambiguities arose when the AKP’s electoral programme was released. The document was not mentioning at all the peace process. Davutoğlu hid behind a printing mistake to explain the omission. The topic was later added to the programme but the incident reinforces the presomption of internal divisions.

Where does the army stand in this troubled period?

The ‘big mouth’ has become almost silent. In 2011, when Erdoğan intervened to support the appointment of General Necdet Özel as Chief of the General Staff of the Turkish Armed Forces, he did not choose someone sympathetic to the AKP. He merely demonstrated that he was in a position to modify thecursus honorum. He somehow managed to position the government into the Supreme Military Council (Yüksek Askerî Şûra, YAŞ). This was just a first step. Now what will matter is how the army will be reformed at the lower level. Gradually reforms risk transforming the army into a body opened to all sorts of influences. Moving from a conscript army to a professional one will further aggravate that phenomenon.

In the current context, loyal to the Kemalist doctrine of non-intervention, the army has advocated for moderation on the Syrian front. It does not want to be dragged in a quagmire. As far as the Kurdish conflict is concerned, it is playing its traditional protective role. As for now, it is however difficult to say whether the army can and/or want to play again a political role. One has to bear in mind that the army now shares converging interests with Erdoğan because he made sure that the Balyoz and Erkenegon trials be buried. This factor cannot be neglected when assessing the army’s stance.

Is it possible to see the peace process go back on tracks?

First of all, reviving tensions can prove dangerous for Turkey in an already troubled Middle East. So Turkey’s best interest would be to carry out the process to its term. As a matter of fact, this process is also the product of a de facto evolution. Indeed today Kurds are politically speaking more integrated. This political integration was sought after by both Turkish political actors and the PKK. Indeed pursuing the guerilla was no longer sustainable. The PKK is an ageing organization. Its radical discourse, the way it communicates has lost their appeal. So, fostering further political integration can only be beneficial.

The only possible obstacle to that natural evolution is personal ambition and partisan interests. But a politician willing to take responsibility for ending the peace process would have no future in politics. Given the regional context, such a move would be too risky. Last but not least, renouncing to peace would jeopardize the touristic and economic development of the country. With failed states and multiple conflicting actors at its southern borders, with a guerilla and millions of refugees on its soil, it is imperative that Turkey play the moderation card.

Anyway in the AKP’s discourse, one can sense that the suspension of the process is simply a conjectural halt. When AKP’s representatives are questioned about whether the peace process has come to an end, they invariably answer no. For them, the process is a historical event and therefore ineluctable.

Do you think that Erdoğan’s push for regime change will succeed?

As previously said, the AKP speaks a double talk in order to raise tension to justify early elections. I am not sure whether such a strategy can be profitable for the ruling party.

Last June, by casting a tactical vote in favour of the HDP, the Turkish electorate has shown a strong political maturity. That vote was the expression of fears generated by certain social changes and the Syrian policy of the government. One has to remember that in 2011 [that year the AKP won the general elections with an absolute majority], the Syrian problem did not exist and Turkey was still trying to negotiate with Assad. Turks are extremely reluctant towards any military intervention abroad. Yet Erdoğan went too far. His warmongering posture scares Turks, including some AKP supporters. Troubled times require trustworthy leaders advocating for unity. Some surveys are telling in this regard. The MetroPOLL Institute studied perceptions of various threats among the main parties’ constituencies. Daesh was identified as the most serious threat for Turkey. Even by the AKP supporters, though with a lower percentage. On the basis of these results one can question the relevance of Erdoğan’s strategy.

Another factor may hinder his project. Already during the legislative campaign, he systematically stood first. But Turkey has traditionally been a parliamentary regime where the President acts as a referee beyond political lines. Erdoğan’s hyper-presidency has irritated the electorate because he is not an unifying figure. After being elected President, he continued to act as the PM. He hence blurred the contours of the two roles. Turks felt lost. Introducing this institutional confusion was Erdoğan’s first strategic mistake. He should have instead stayed behind until the regime change was enshrined into the constitution. At the institutional level, people did not understand in which direction he was going to. At the political level, a vision was also lacking. The ‘mega projects’ initiated by the AKP initially seduced the electorate. But a new generation has emerged. For this generation, a third bridge over the Bosphorus or a third airport is not a development priority. Turkey is experiencing a wave of hyperactive protests against construction projects deemed unsustainable. This is a tangible sign of policy orientations rejection.

Erdoğan’s second mistake was to suspend the peace process. Erdoğan is an election winning machine so he was certainly convinced that choosing the nationalist posture was the right strategy. However astonishingly he did not foresee there would be a price to pay, namely the loss of Kurdish votes. During the 2011 campaign, he already used a similar strategy. But the situation was different. Back then, the ‘opening policy’ started in 2009 had come to an end. Since talks were no longer ongoing, a nationalist posture could convince the nationalist electorate. In 2015, Erdoğan rejected an ongoing process. This decision did not bring in nationalist votes as expected because he had actually been the initiator of the peace process. His ‘there is no longer a Kurdish problem’ speech rang false in the ears of nationalists and intolerable to the Kurds. His decision cost him both nationalist and Kurdish votes.

Yet, everything indicates that he will continue to brag, and run personally the early elections campaign, impervious to the fact that the June 2015 vote was directed against him.


Strasbourg – Grenoble,  12.8.15
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