Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Turkey Brief: November 10 - 27, 2018

Turkey Brief is a biweekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Turkish government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Reporting Period: November 10 - 27, 2018

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with John Dunford, Paul Becker, and Kieran Hatton

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accelerating his efforts to consolidate power both in Turkey and Northern Syria. Erdogan is tightening security in response to escalating internal threats in areas of Northern Syria occupied by Turkey. He also advanced his domestic consolidation ahead of the March 2019 Turkish Local Elections by successfully pressuring his main nationalist ally into concessions that likely ensure victory for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan likely still intends to attack the Syrian Kurdish YPG in Eastern Syria. However, ISW has previously assessed that conditions are not yet set for such an operation and a decision by the U.S. to establish observation points along the Syrian-Turkish Border will likely further deter imminent action by Turkey.

Turkey took direct action to counteract deteriorating security in occupied Northern Syria. The Turkish Police Special Operations Department announced the deployment of a Syria Task Force to secure the Afrin Region of Northern Aleppo Province on November 15.[1] Turkey seized the majority-Kurdish Afrin Region in March 2018 as part of a cross-border intervention against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It has since struggled to control the region. The YPG is waging an escalating guerrilla campaign targeting security and governance infrastructure in Afrin. Meanwhile, infighting between opposition groups backed by Turkey in Northern Syria has also contributed to increased lawlessness in Afrin since June 2018. Opposition groups most recently engaged in heavy clashes on November 18, destabilizing large parts of Northern Syria. The Syria Task Force will attempt to address these issues by directly securing critical infrastructure and training a new opposition-led police force for the Afrin Region.

Turkey is also attempting to further consolidate control over its proxies in Northern Syria. Military Police units linked to the Syrian National Army - an opposition proxy of Turkey - implemented a curfew and launched a so-called ‘anti-corruption campaign’ in the border town of Jarabulus in Northern Aleppo Province on November 21. The curfew later expanded to include other key population centers in Northern Syria on November 23 including Azaz, Suran, Marea, and Akhtarin. The crackdown largely targeted opposition factions accused of lawlessness or otherwise refusing to consolidate under the command-and-control of the Syrian National Army and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely using these operations to bolster his control over the proxy institutions built by his administration in occupied Northern Syria.

Erdogan acted decisively to bolster his political alliance with domestic nationalists in Turkey. Erdogan likely coerced the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to maintain an alliance with his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. MHP Chairman Devlet Bahceli stated on November 24 that his party will not nominate candidates for open races in the key urban centers of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.[2] This decision opens the door for gains in all three cities by Erdogan and the AKP. The MHP and its splinter Good (IYI) Party performed well in snap Turkish Parliamentary Elections in June 2018. Further gains in the major cities could have strengthened the MHP at the expense of the AKP and degraded Erdogan’s chances to win a future majority in the Turkish Parliament.

Erdogan has likely set conditions to win another electoral victory within the rigged political system of Turkey. Erdogan remains willing to apply state pressure against both opponents and allies in order to shape political outcomes in Ankara. Bahceli declared his intent to end his electoral alliance with Erdogan on October 23. The Turkish National Police later arrested two dozen individuals affiliated with Alaattin Cakici - an associate of Bahceli - in a nationwide operation on November 16. Cakici is a leader within the right-wing youth movement linked to the MHP and an outspoken critic of the ties between Erdogan and Bahceli. Erdogan and Bahceli met two days later and agreed to reaffirm the political partnership they formalized in February 2018. Erdogan likely directed the arrests as well as ongoing investigations of reported criminality within the MHP in order to force a reversal by Bahceli. This action along with ongoing purges of political opponents are likely sufficient conditions for Erdogan to win the 2019 Turkish Local Elections.

Erdogan’s current focus on foreign and domestic consolidation does not preclude a future cross-border military incursion into Syria. Erdogan likely intends to make good on his election promises to pursue interventionist policies against the YPG. This sustained threat has prompted a defensive reaction from the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that the U.S. will establish several observation points along the Turkish-Syrian Border on November 21. Mattis claimed that these posts are meant to prevent incursions by the YPG. In reality, these posts aim to deter any new cross-border operation by Turkey in Syria. Erdogan nonetheless affirmed that Turkey will take “all necessary measures” to eliminate the YPG from Eastern Syria in a scheduled Turkish National Security Council Meeting on November 27.

[1] Cankut Tasdan, “Syria Task Force to Provide Security in Afrin,” Anadolu Agency, November 15, 2018, https://www(.)
[2] Ayşe Yıldız and Süleyman Elçin, [“MHP Head Bahceli: We Will Not Nominate in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir,”] Anadolu Agency, November 24, 2018, https://www(.)