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Domestic politics, Idlib sway timing of Turkey’s Syrian operation

Erdogan’s latest campaign in Syria may be justified as an effort to fight terrorism, but his immediate objectives include stopping the unraveling within his party, fracturing the opposition bloc and creating space inside Syria for a possible new wave of refugees from Idlib.

Urgent necessities of a domestic nature have determined the timing of Operation Peace Spring that Turkey launched Oct. 9 along the Syrian border east of the Euphrates against the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has been building a self-rule in the region thanks to US protection and military support.

For Ankara, the strengthening presence of the PYD — the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey and much of the international community, including the United States — is seen as a general ground justifying the argument of fighting terrorism. However, this falls short of explaining why the operation came in the wake of the local elections earlier this year in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) suffered major losses. The economic crisis bruising Turkey proved a major factor in the party’s debacles in big cities in the March 31 polls and the June 23 rerun of the mayoral vote in Istanbul, giving impetus to rupture trends within the AKP.

Also, Ankara is greatly concerned over the prospect of a new refugee influx from Idlib that would further entangle Turkey’s Syrian refugee problem. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had warned in September that Turkey cannot tolerate another refugee wave atop the 3.6 million Syrians it is already hosting.

Besides putting strains on Turkey’s financial resources and social stamina, the Syrian refugee problem has proved increasingly costly for the AKP in terms of domestic politics. It is no coincidence that since the party’s rout in the June 23 rerun in Istanbul, government spokesmen have constantly touted the safe zone plan inside Syria as a way to expedite the return of Syrian refugees. Across Turkey and in big cities in particular, most of the Syrian refugees live in close proximity to AKP voters, either in the same neighborhoods or adjoining ones. Under the impact of the economic crisis, tensions between locals and refugees have grown, contributing to a gradual disenchantment with the government among AKP voters. 

In Istanbul — the heartbeat, the spirit and the mirror of the country — 73% of some 479,000 registered Syrians live in districts where local administrations are controlled by the AKP. Out of the 10 districts with the largest refugee numbers, seven are held by the AKP. Similarly, eight of the 10 districts with the biggest refugee populations in proportion to the locals are run by the AKP.

While announcing the launch of Operation Peace Spring, Erdogan said the campaign would “lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes.” The political motive underlying this pledge rests on the fact that the Syrian refugee problem is becoming unbearable for the government.

If the campaign progresses as planned, leading the Turkish military and its Syrian allies to take control of a border stretch running 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep to the east of the Euphrates, the Syrians who could be forced to flee Idlib in the near future could perhaps be placed in tent cities in this “security belt” without being let into Turkey at all and instead transferred via Afrin and al-Bab, which are already under Turkish control.

For Erdogan, Operation Peace Spring offers also an opportunity to stop or contain the unraveling within his party. Ali Babacan, the AKP’s former economy czar who has already quit the party, is expected to create a new party and join the opposition ranks by the end of the year. Ahmet Davutoglu — the former premier and foreign minister who, together with Erdogan, designed and implemented the failed policies that spawned the grave “Syria crisis” that Turkey is experiencing today, both domestically and in its foreign policy — is gearing up to get ahead of Babacan and announce his own party in November. These political dynamics have already triggered a spate of resignations from the AKP, and the formal establishment of the new parties could further accelerate the unraveling. Hence, the government will seek to capitalize on Operation Peace Spring to curb the centrifugal forces pressuring the AKP since its defeats in the local polls. The intensive employment of a nationalist narrative, in which the operation is depicted as a struggle of “national survival” against terrorism and quitting the AKP is equated to treason, would not be a surprise. 

There are already omens that this state-of-emergency climate, nurtured through the operation, will be used to further suppress the opposition, free speech and media freedoms

The events of Oct. 10 alone are telling enough. First, the organizers of a big environmentalist rally against a gold mining project in the Kaz mountains along the northern Aegean coast canceled the Oct. 12 event on the grounds of the military operation in Syria. Then, the web editor of the left-leaning BirGun daily, Hakan Demir, and the editor of the Diken news portal, Fatih Gokhan Diler, were detained on the grounds that their coverage of the operation amounted to “inciting hatred and enmity” among the people. The two journalists were released on probation later in the day.

Meanwhile, prosecutors launched an investigation into the co-chairs of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Pervin Buldan and Sezai Temelli, on charges that their critical comments about the operation constituted “spreading terrorist propaganda” and “openly insulting” the government. 

The operation is likely to further alienate Kurdish voters from the AKP and Erdogan. Under the current circumstances, Erdogan already lacks any political ground to try to win over the Kurds, but Kurdish voters are likely to develop resentment against the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) as well over its support for the military campaign. This, of course, could be one of the side objectives the government seeks from the operation, given that the backing of HDP voters was instrumental in CHP victories in big cities such as Ankara, Istanbul and Adana in the local polls after the HDP opted to sit out those races.

Finally, US President Donald Trump's threats to “obliterate” the Turkish economy if Ankara goes “off-limits” in the operation offers Erdogan the chance to blame the economy’s domestic woes on external reasons and portray the ongoing fragility of the Turkish lira as an American conspiracy.

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