A Turk’s Head Knot.

After years of keeping hundreds of thousands of refugees from the civil war in neighboring Syria within its borders, Turkey has been allowing many of them (and from other troubled places) to leave for Europe. How can we explain this sudden shift in Turkish policy?

In the June 2015 elections, long-time ruler Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority to a coalition of Kurds, leftists, secularists, and young people under the umbrella of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).[1] The defeat, however, did not create a clear majority for Erdogan’s opponents. Instead, it created a “hung parliament” that made new elections necessary on 1 November 2015. One key element in the popular estrangement from Erdogan had been his increasingly autocratic tendencies and his desire to revise the Turkish constitution to grant more power to the executive. The frustrated Erdogan cast about for some means of regaining the lost voters before the looming election.

One answer came in an attack on the Kurds. The First Gulf War (1990-1991) resulted in a protected area for Kurds in northern Iraq. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to the creation of a nascent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Since Summer 2014, the war against ISIS has bolstered American support for the Kurds. A Kurdish state has been rising on Turkey’s southern border for some time. However, Erdogan’s government had been engaged in peace-talks with the Kurds. Suddenly, after the June elections, Erdogan lashed out. Turkey belatedly joined the air war against ISIS, but its attacks have mostly targeted Kurdish forces fighting ISIS in Syria. These attacks struck groups purportedly linked to the Kurdish autonomist (i.e independence) group, the PKK. Nationalist mobs attacked Kurdo-phile[2] sites in Turkey.[3] In mid-October 2015, two suicide bombers killed about 100 people at an anti-government rally in the capital city of Ankara. Although police already had discovered suicide vests in raids on ISIS hide-outs in turkey, security at the rally appears to have been very lax.[4]

Another answer came in an attack on the European Union. Although the EU seems to have been content to ignore the increasing authoritarianism in the leader of a country seeking EU membership, this hasn’t satisfied Erdogan. Suddenly, huge numbers of Syrian (and other) refugees in Turkey began to flood westward.   Most of them departed from a narrow section of the Turkish coast adjacent to the Greek island of Lesbos. Recently, the over-whelmed European Union (EU) sent German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to negotiate a solution with President Erdogan. The Turkish president opened the conference by demanding $3 billion in EU aid for the 2 million refugees currently in Turkey. However, he extended the deal beyond just the refugee crisis. Erdogan asked for an end to the requirement that Turks entering the EU obtain a visa and for revival of and progress on Turkey’s application for membership in the European Union. In return, Turkey would halt the flow of refugees out of the country. Merkel could make no firm response to Erdogan’s proposal because any change in policy would have to be approved by the EU member nations. Thus, it is clear that Turkey is manipulating the refugee crisis to advance other policies.

How did this strategy pan-out for Erdogan and the AKP? In the 1 November elections, the AKP won 49.5 percent of the vote and 317 legislative seats, giving it majority of 84. The question now is whether Erdogan has poisoned one or more wells in his quest for a majority.

[1] “Turkey: Onslaught against Kurds as election nears,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 15.

[2] Is this a real term?

[3] While the cops stood around with their hands in their pockets.

[4] “Turkey: Who benefits from a gruesome attack?” The Week, 23 October 2015, p. 14.

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