Will Turkey stop backing the Islamists in Syria?

Will Turkey stop backing the Islamists in Syria?

For Turks, the burning question after the June 7  election is whether they will now get the fully democratic, pluralist country that so many of them want. The defeat of President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) does open that prospect, although translating it into reality will be very difficult. But for everybody else, the question is whether Turkey will stop backing the Islamist insurgents who are on the brink of winning in Syria.

Compared to the head-choppers of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the only-slightly-less-extreme al-Nusra Front that now dominate the military campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Erdoğan is a very moderate Islamist. But his support for those two organizations is the main reason why they have been winning so many battles recently.

Turkey shares a 800-km border with Syria, and for four years Erdoğan’s government has left it open for arms, supplies and foreign recruits to flow to the Syrian Islamists. When al-Nusra seized most of the strategically important Idlib province last March after three years of trying, Damascus claimed that a major reason for its loss was that Turkey had jammed the Syrian army’s telecommunications.

In March, according to reports by the pro-rebel Al Jazeera network, Erdoğan even made a pact with Saudi Arabia to coordinate assistance to the Syrian rebels – most of which flows through Turkey. But all that could change quite quickly if Erdoğan’s party cannot form a government that supports this policy – and the signs are that it cannot.

The Turkish election was not about Erdoğan’s policy in Syria. It was, above all, about his ambition to become a mini-Putin who would dominate Turkey into the foreseeable future. In order to achieve that goal, he gave up the prime ministership and got himself elected to the relatively powerless and ceremonial office of president in 2014. But his intention was to transform the presidency into the all-powerful center of political power in Turkey.

Changing Turkey from a parliamentary system to a country ruled by an executive president would require a constitutional change, which can only be passed by a “super-majority” of three-fifths of the votes in the 550-seat parliament. Since 2002, Erdoğan’s party had won three successive elections with ever-increasing majorities, so he was confident that he could pull it off. He was wrong.

Turkish voters did not even give him a majority of the seats in parliament. Too many people had turned against this always angry and abusive man who condemns his political opponents as “terrorists, marginals, gays and atheists.”

Erdoğan began as a reformer whose entirely reasonable and legitimate goal was to end the Turkish state’s open hostility to the more pious members of its overwhelmingly Muslim population. It was an historical leftover from the time, some 90 years ago, when Kemal Atatürk trying to build a modern, secular state in the face of huge opposition from religious conservatives, but it had no place in a 21st century democracy.

Erdoğan broke the power of the army, which had repeatedly carried out coups in alleged defense of the “secular” state, and deeply conservative and religious Turks who had felt excluded from that state rewarded him with their votes in three successive elections. But as his confidence grew he stopped bothering to accommodate the views of the younger and mostly urban half of the population whose values were liberal and secular.

The Turkish media, once relatively free, came under such concentrated attack that by 2012 there were more journalists in jail in Turkey than anywhere else in the world. The government’s response to public protests became more and more violent, and Erdoğan’s determination to gather all power into his own hands became more and more evident. 

More than one-fifth of AK Party’s voters abandoned the party in this election. They weren’t abandoning their religion; they were just still committed to the party’s original aim of a democratic Turkey that respected everybody’s rights (including their own). Most of them migrated to the new Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which also welcomes Kurds, gays, and non-Muslim religious minorities and strongly promotes gender equality.

Erdogan will find it hard to form a coalition with any of the three big opposition parties in parliament – none of which support his policy of backing Islamist extremists in the Syrian civil war. The government needs to be formed in 45 days, and if that fails Turkey will probably face another election before the end of the summer.

It is unlikely that the AK Party can improve its position in a second election: Once the illusion of invincibility has been shattered, it is very hard to rebuild. What follows may be a coalition government made up of opposition parties that find it hard to agree on most things – but none of them share Erdoğan’s fondness for ISIL and its friends. If al-Assad can hang on in Syria until the end of the summer, he may yet survive.