Turkish opposition faces a struggle to cope with new realities in Syria
Developments in the Kurdish autonomous region in the northern part of war-torn Syria in mid-2012 brought the issue of the Kurds, Turkey’s thorniest problem, back to the surface and led to the launch of the Kurdish peace process in 2013.
This process, which aimed to resolve the differences between the two sides peacefully and politically, collapsed when the Turkish government was unable to reach any agreement with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara considers to be a terrorist organization.
At the time, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the founding political party of the Republic of Turkey, was skeptical of the peace process and declined to support it on the grounds that it should be transparent and conducted through the parliament with the participation of all political parties.
The only issue the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the CHP agree on is the battle against PKK. Therefore when fighting broke out in 2015 between Turkish forces and the PKK, and Ankara subsequently mounted three military operations (Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch and Peace Spring), the CHP threw the weight of its support behind the fight against terrorism.
The CHP said that Turkey’s right to take action against terror threats beyond its borders is guaranteed by international agreements and engagements, and that Ankara should continue with its counterterrorism efforts. When the Turkish parliament ratified a motion extending the authorization to launch cross-border anti-terrorism operations in northern Iraq and Syria, the CHP backed the motion.
After announcing his support for the long-planned operation in Syria, however, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu then submitted a long list of complaints about the engagement.
The CHP has been critical of the government’s policy on Syria for a long time. Since the start of the civil war the party has supported the idea that the Turkish government should have negotiated with the regime of Bashar Assad in an effort to find a comprehensive political solution to the crisis on Turkey’s doorstep.
There are even voices within the CHP that consider Turkey’s offer to build a safe zone on the border as a “demographic engineering project,” as was stated in the final report of the party’s Syria Conference in 2019. CHP deputies have also accepted invitations by Assad to meet him in Damascus.
Last week, Kilicdaroglu pledged that if CHP takes power he will implement a new foreign policy to normalize relations with Assad’s regime and end the “tragedy” of the Syrian refugees in Turkey. He has also called for the reopening of the Turkish and Syrian embassies in each other’s countries, while stressing the need for peace in Syria so that refugees can return home.
“If we were in power there would be no problem in Syria, but relations with Damascus need improving in any way,” Kilicdaroglu said in a pointed remark clearly directed at the AKP. The CHP leader insisted that such a move would be in the best interests of Turkey.
In recent months all countries in the region, other than Turkey, have started to approach Damascus to one degree or another. Under AKP rule, Turkey seems unlikely to follow this path, despite harsh criticism and calls from opposition parties to do so. Even if that opposition did come to power and normalized relations with the Assad regime, would it be able to cope with the new realities in Syria, a country deeply fragmented among various groups, including the Kurds?
In the March 2019 local elections, one of the factors that contributed to the CHP’s victory in Istanbul and Ankara was the votes it received from Kurds. The decision by the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to encourage its voters to support CHP candidates led to the defeat of AKP in these two important cities.
Since the start of the civil war the CHP has supported the idea that the Turkish government should have negotiated with the regime of Bashar Assad in an effort to find a comprehensive political solution to the crisis on Turkey’s doorstep.
However, the government’s attitude toward the HDP, and the military operations in northern Syria against Kurdish militias, have put the CHP in a tough position. Although the party criticized the removal by the Turkish government of three elected Kurdish mayors in August 2019, and sent Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to Diyarbakir in a show of solidarity, the CHP has adopted a policy on northern Syria that aligns with the government.
Obviously, the situation of the Kurds in Syria is much more complicated than that of those in Turkey, and a comparison would be unfair and inaccurate. However, there have been reports that the CHP, which finds itself stuck between a rock and a hard place, intends to develop its own plans for a resolution of the Kurdish issue. Meanwhile the pro-Kurdish HDP wants the government to initiate talks with Syrian Kurdish groups that Ankara considers a threat to national security.
The CHP is not in power but even if it — or another opposition party that is critical of the AKP government’s policy on Syria — was and pursued a normalization of ties with Damascus, they would be unable to ignore the new realities in the war-torn country.
The question therefore is whether, and how, Turkey’s opposition parties, which represent about half of the population, could cope with this.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz