Dangerous power game in Ankara, now over Syria

Dangerous power game in Ankara, now over Syria

Everything seems surreal in the Turkish capital nowadays. 

President Tayyip Erdoğan has been presiding over the National Security Board (MGK) with an agenda to intervene in the civil war in Syria, but the military has been resisting - despite a clear government directive.

Under normal circumstances, Chief of General Staff General Necdet Özel would be removed from office and tried for not abiding by the political will of the government. But it seems no one is openly raising this issue, including Turkey’s allies in the U.S. and the EU, who once thought that if Turkish soldiers’ appetite to be involved in politics was curbed then no problems would remain in front of a golden age of Turkish democracy (without realizing the necessity of secularism for democracy in a Muslim society). Many people, including members of the outgoing Justice and Development Party (AK Parti), are well aware that forcing the army into Syria just before talks to form a coalition government - which will likely see a change in Ankara’s Syria policy - would be a dangerous adventure.

Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP), has warned Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu not to take any such steps, in the national interest.

Davutoğlu himself said over the weekend that an outgoing government should stay alert to any threats on its borders, which is absolutely right. But what is on the agenda now goes beyond Turkey’s right to retaliate to any threat on its borders; it also goes beyond the limits of parliamentary permission given to the government to react to any specific border violation from Syria.

Erdoğan, again over the weekend, said Turkey would “never permit” the formation of a state in northern Syria, implying Kurdish autonomy along Turkish borders. However, the current campaign in pro-government media suggests a possible military intervention targeting the advances of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as the forces of Bashar al-Assad.

Following General Özel’s reported request from the government to let the Syrian regime know (through Russia or Iran) that such a move would not mean an assault on the Syrian state or its territorial integrity, Turkish Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu spoke to Michael Bogdanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for the Middle East and Africa. However, receiving Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim on June 29, the same day that Erdoğan convened the MGK, Putin said Russia’s policy to support the Syrian regime had not changed.

But Erdoğan’s Syria move is not the only current development that doesn’t fit into the picture of Davutoğlu’s AK Parti trying to form a coalition with Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP. There is also the round of two-day elections for a new parliament speaker, starting today (June 30). The vote is speculated as being a rehearsal for a coalition.  
Recently, there has been a clear escalation in the Interior Ministry’s tough stance on public events, as in the case of the suppressed LGBTI rally in Istanbul on June 28 and the move to ban a public concert by Grup Yorum, a popular left-wing protest group. In addition to the Syria situation, all those moves raise question marks about whether someone is trying to deter the CHP from entering a coalition with the AK Parti, instead going to another election in order for the AK Parti to try another chance to secure the necessary seats in parliament to establish a government of its own.

Erdoğan would be the most happy person in Turkey to see this latter scenario, perhaps hoping that he could enjoy extended presidential powers without even changing the constitution - thanks to government backing in parliament. Whether that backing would be with or without Davutoğlu as AK Parti head - especially with a party congress due for late August or early September - is an open question.