On November 13, six people were killed in a bombing in Istanbul, which the government of Turkey blamed on a Kurdish militant group based in Northern Syria. Shortly thereafter, Turkey began targeting Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq, with President Erdogan threatening an imminent ground invasion of Northern Syria.
In this episode, we speak with Lisel Hintz, assistant professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, to discuss this bombing and this escalating conflict, which comes amid a profound shift in Turkey’s relationships with other countries in the region.
We begin by talking about what we know about the November 13th attack and the Turkish government’s attempt to control the narrative before having a broader conversation about how this crisis informs, and is informed by, recent changes in Turkey’s foreign policy. This including a warming of relations with former regional adversaries like Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Syria. Lisel Hintz also explains the domestic political considerations that may be driving Erdogan’s decisions on the use of force in Syria ahead of elections next year.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
Why was there a bombing in Istanbul on November 13?
Lisel Hintz [00:00:00] And if the government calls a state of emergency, it has a much sort of larger tool kit with which to shape the conditions for its potential reelection in the elections in June.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:02:15] This is an evolving situation at time of recording. Turkey had not yet invaded, though my guest, Liesl Hintz, believes it’s only a matter of time, as she explains in this episode. And of course, whatever happens, this conversation will give you the context you need to understand events as they unfold in the coming days, weeks, and months.
Lisel Hintz [00:05:01] So we know that a bomb went off on November 13th in a crowded section of Istanbul in Istiklal, which is a main shopping thoroughfare. We know that six people were killed. We know that many, many were injured. We know that relatively soon after that, the Turkish government claimed that it was the action of the YPG, which is the people’s protection units or the Syrian Kurdish militia that the Turkish government views as a terrorist group, as linked with the PKK, which is the Kurdistan Workers Party in Turkey. So basically, the Turkish government is claiming that this is a Kurdish terrorist group that is carrying out an attack on Turkish soil. And very soon after that, they released a photo of a woman that they claimed who had planted the bomb. They said that it was very clear that she had YPG ties. And so, one of the things that I think has been frustrating for observers is that there doesn’t seem to be trustworthy evidence or very clear evidence that this is of the YPG. Both the YPG and the PKK have denied responsibility for this attack. For those who study those organizations, it doesn’t seem like the kind of attack that they would carry out. It doesn’t seem like they have the motivations to do so right now. And so, there’s a lot of suspicion, there’s a lot of uncertainty and compounding that suspicion and uncertainty was the broadcasting ban that the Turkish government put in place, which did not allow news media organizations to cover the incident. It was an attempt for the government to try to control the messaging on this. This is a pretty common tactic that the government uses when there’s some kind of disaster or some kind of violent episode. The government kind of goes into spin mode and tries to control the flow of information. There was also a noticeable slowing of social media. Some social media sites were blocked, and so there was a very concerted attempt by the government to try to ensure that people were not perhaps speculating on who could be the source of this or were not sharing information that the government did not want them to share. So the fact that the government immediately claimed that this was the YPG, PKK, the fact that they immediately detained someone whose YPG links have been found to be quite questionable, and the fact that they put a broadcast ban and some social media blocks in place have led many to question who actually is behind this attack and whether the government is sort of trying to benefit from this for its own domestic political purposes.
What are the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:41] Generally speaking, over the years has the PKK, which is an internationally recognized terrorist group that’s distinct from the YPG, which is a U.S. backed militia in Kurdistan section of Syria, in the past have those groups claimed responsibility for attacks when they happen?
Lisel Hintz [00:08:04] In the past, the PKK has claimed responsibility for attacks. I would note that the PKK also has several offshoot organizations that have claimed responsibility for the attacks, so perhaps it was like a youth militia wing of the PKK rather than the PKK itself. I would note that there are reasons, legitimate reasons for linking the YPG and the PKK. They have organizational ties; they have social ties, networks among them, so it’s not a completely off the wall suggestion for the Turkish government to make that these organizations are linked. But in terms of the kinds of attacks that they carry out, this doesn’t seem to resonate as having the mark of a YPG or PKK attack.
How has the Turkish government responded to the bombing on November 13?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:48] So yet, you know, this attack happened. The government very quickly seemed to claim the narrative, blaming the YPG for the attack and then began mounting airstrikes in northern Syria on YPG targets. Can you describe what those airstrikes have been like and what the government’s narrative has been thus far?
Lisel Hintz [00:09:14] So the Turkish military has been carrying out airstrikes against Kurdish targets in northern Iraq and northern Syria. The Turkish government has been claiming that there’s going to be a new ground incursion since late spring, early summer, in order to try to push the YPG back from the Turkish border. So, the Turkish government has been claiming that there is a legitimate security threat, that the YPG, which again they claim is this sort of brother organization of the PKK — and they have reason to do — but they claim that there is a legitimate security threat that needs to be addressed and so they’re using airstrikes to do so. There have been a number of civilian casualties for this, and there’s a concern that a ground incursion could have a much, much larger human cost to it. One of the things that we’ve seen in terms of the way that Turkey has been trying to convince the international community of this security threat has been even the objection of the Turkish government to Sweden and Finland’s NATO’s accession. The Turkish government has repeatedly been saying that the international community needs to take the fact that the YPG poses a legitimate security threat to Turkey seriously. So, it’s been carrying out airstrikes, it’s been threatening a ground incursion, and it’s been trying rhetorically to set up an international context in which those kinds of further campaigns are possible.
Why does the United States financially support the YPG (People’s Protection Units)?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:41] And how has the United States responded thus far? The United States has backed the YPG in its fight against ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq, and apparently YPG has been rather effective against ISIS. What have we heard then from the U.S. in terms of how it’s trying to manage this apparent crisis?
Lisel Hintz [00:11:06] The US is in a difficult position, and it’s put itself in a really difficult position. The decision to arm the YPG as part of a broader Syrian Democratic forces fighting unit that could fight ISIS in order to avoid U.S. boots on the ground to do so was a decision that the U.S. government hoped was not going to anger Turkey to the point that it did. And so, you have a number of issues that are causing tensions between the U.S. and Turkey. But from the Turks perspective, the YPG is absolutely number one. They say, how can our NATO ally, how can a country that claims to be our partner and take our security concerns seriously, arm a terrorist group that we see as having a very threatening presence directly on our border? So that’s the Turkish perspective. Why on earth would the U.S. choose to arm a Syrian Kurdish organization in its fight against ISIS? Now, from the U.S. perspective, Turkey was not willing to step up to the plate in terms of fighting ISIS. The U.S. was trying to avoid another major American military presence in the Middle East, and they knew that the Syrian Kurdish forces could be very effective in their fight against ISIS, and they proved to be. So, the U.S. made that choice. But now they have Turkey saying, you know, this is a stab in the back. How can you do that to us? You’re exacerbating our security concerns. And again, the point was to create these larger Syrian democratic forces but from the Turks perspective, that was a fig leaf. This was largely populated by Syrian Kurdish forces. So, the U.S. recognizing that the YPG has played a significant role in combating ISIS and, by the way, in maintaining the prisons in which ISIS fighters are currently housed, do not want to see them moved out of those border regions of Syria, do not want to see a further military incursion by Turkey. They’ve been very adamant that they have been concerned about a future incursion, although I will note that under the Trump administration there were some mixed signals that were being given to Turkey. And a lot of people would say that the Trump administration kind of greenlighted Turkish military incursions in Syria. We saw Defense Secretary Mattis and Brett McGurk resign over that green lighting. So there have been some mixed signals from the U.S. but under the Biden administration, the message has been very firm. You know, Turkey should not carry out military incursions in Syria. They certainly should not engage in a ground incursion. And what we’ve seen is that the Turkish government has been hinting that this has been coming since June, but they’ve been unable to get the green light from the U.S. and from Russia. It looks as though they’re negotiating with Russia right now as to whether they can get the permission to be able to carry out that particular campaign or will Russia allow Syrian government forces to come back in? But from the Turks perspective, there needs to be a clearing out of the YPG from its borders whether it does it, Russia does it, or the Syrian government does it.
How is Turkish president Erdogan responding to the November 13 bombing?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:10] So we’re speaking on Tuesday, November 29th. This ground invasion is much anticipated but hasn’t happened yet. However, as you said, there have been stepped up airstrikes. How do you perceive that Erdogan perceives the situation in terms of managing his foreign relations? What are some of the politics that are driving his decisions right now in terms of whether or not to go ahead with this ground invasion?
Lisel Hintz [00:14:46] So I think there are a lot more domestic political motivating factors, but they are intimately intertwined with the international foreign policy considerations so it’s a good question to ask. So, Turkey or Erdogan, specifically in terms of being the one calling the shots, is on one hand trying to extract some concessions from the United States. It very much wants to purchase F-16s from the United States. It has been given signals from the Biden administration that it may be able to purchase F-16s from a domestic or military capacity standpoint. It very much needs those F-16s and upgrade kits that would come with them. And of course, part of that is because Turkey lost out on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program because of its purchase of an S-400 missile defense system from Russia. So, the sanction coming from the United States was we’re going to kick you out of the F-35 program. So, of course, it now finds itself in a situation to upgrade its military capacity. It needs these F-16s. The Biden administration, again, has indicated that may be possible, but Congress has strongly objected. So that’s something that Turkey is considering. Does it go ahead with this campaign knowing that that may harm its chances to get the F-16s? Or does it think probably we’re not going to get those anyway so let’s not let that be a constraining factor for us. So, again, thinking about the S-400 and the Russian side, Turkey has a number of ways in which its government and its economy and its energy sources are intimately connected with Russia. There, of course, is the aspect of Russia controlling Syrian airspace, of controlling a lot of the politics of what goes on in Syria and of supporting the Assad regime. So, one of the things that you’ve seen in recent months is Erdogan’s government, who called Bashar al-Assad the president of Syria enemy number one for a long time, has now said, well, you know, perhaps we can reestablish relations, just as he’s been able to attempt to reestablish relations with President Sisi in Egypt. So, you’re seeing kind of an about face on a number of the relationships that had hardened quite a bit following the Arab Spring.
Why might President Erdogan be trying to improve relations with Syria?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:03] Can I ask you about the two about faces? We saw this very warm embrace of Erdogan to Sisi at the World Cup in Qatar the other day, which was a very public demonstration of Erdogan’s shifting priorities. Previously, Erdogan supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi, which are enemies of Sisi in Egypt, but now you saw Erdogan and Sisi embrace each other at the World Cup. Similarly, you just noted that Erdogan has been signaling a warmth towards Assad in Syria. What accounts in particular for this about face towards Turkish Syrian relations?
Lisel Hintz [00:17:50] Yeah, and it’s funny because in some cases it’s an about face after an about face so Erdogan and Assad had been quite close friends, you know, they vacationed together, their wives shopped together, and then, of course, in the wake of the Arab Spring, when Erdogan was not able to convince Bashar al-Assad to stop cracking down on his people and was trying to say, hey, international community, I’ll be able to negotiate this; let me use my political capital. But then he wasn’t able to pull that off. Then they become, you know, these arch enemies, and Turkey is, of course, supporting Syrian opposition forces that are trying to oust Assad. So, you go from very good friends to arch enemies to now, okay, let’s try to sort of pragmatically negotiate how we can manage this relationship. And, you know, Sisi and Erdogan never had that close relationship and, you know, politically and ideologically, they were never going to. But the factors that are driving these sorts of attempted rapprochement, which I don’t like that term, because I think it sort of assumes that things are going to be normalized when it’s more of a really tense, pragmatic relationship that I think we’re seeing, it’s very much due to what I mentioned earlier, which is kind of Erdogan’s domestic political calculations. And part of that has to do with the immense economic crisis that Turkey is undergoing with the free fall of the lira, with skyrocketing unemployment, with massive foreign debt. The fact that you also have Turkey, which of course doesn’t have a whole lot of its own energy resources and therefore would like to be able to partner on gas exploration, on oil pipeline — I mentioned earlier its energy ties with Russia — so economic and energy concerns, I think, are the ones that we can think of as really driving the need to establish these relationships. We’ve seen a bit of an about face with a bunch of Arab countries as well, in addition to Syria and Egypt, that Turkey has undergone. Part of that is sort of in the wake of the Abraham Accords but again, there is this identified need to try to find export markets, to try to find energy sources, to try to find some way of getting swap deals. You know, it has had a similar softening of relations with the UAE, which had been another state in which it had very, very tense relations and even with Israel. So, I think it’s difficult to understand this kind of charm offensive that Erdogan has been trying to undertake without looking at the economic and energy issues that are underlining that. And of course, all of that culminates in Erdogan’s need to remain as president in the 2023 elections.
Why would Turkey launch a ground invasion into Syria?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:20:32] So if economic malaise at home, which is deep and profound —I did an episode on this podcast not long ago about the tanking lira and the unconventional economic responses by Erdogan, which seems to have made things even worse if those considerations are driving this about face in Turkish foreign policy. Is there similar sort of domestic political motivations for wanting to invade Northern Syria, for wanting to mount a major ground invasion across the border?
Lisel Hintz [00:21:12] There are absolutely domestic political considerations for Turkey wanting to undertake a military campaign in Syria, and there’s a number of them. Again, I think that Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies are so intimately intertwined, and I think this is one of these cases in which we can see that. My colleague has just written an excellent book on this topic, the intertwining of domestic and foreign policy, specifically when it comes to Turkey’s campaigns against Syria. If we’re thinking about what Erdogan may be able to gain from this kind of an incursion, I think we have to remember that he is extremely adept at turning crises into opportunities. In turning the 2016 coup attempt into a way to not only sort of rally around the flag and bolster national sentiment and create a lot of national unity, if relatively temporarily, but also to purge opponents from the military, from the civil service, from institutions that could serve as positions for challenging him. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into an opportunity for Turkey to position itself on the world stage as being able to broker a green deal, as being a mediator, which of course is a very convenient position for Turkey to be in because as a mediator you cannot choose sides between Ukraine and Russia, and that’s exactly where Erdogan wanted to position Turkey. So, when it comes to Syria, the Kurdish issue, of course, is one of the main issues that comes to the fore. When we’re looking at elections in 2023, we see that his party and he as the presidential candidate are facing major challenges from the opposition and that Kurds have previously played a very pivotal role. I would say not even just important, but pivotal role in the Opposition’s ability to carry out victories at the polls. We saw that in the 2019 local elections where Kurds were integral to the opposition’s ability to not only win Istanbul but win Istanbul twice in a rerun election that was forced because the government had the Supreme Electoral Board annul the previous election in an attempt to hold that seat. So, Kurds are a key political player in Turkey. Now, the challenge for the Turkish opposition parties, and we have a group of six of them that have united to try to unseat Erdogan, is that not all of those parties can agree on the Kurdish issue, essentially. And among those parties, those six parties, there are nationalist parties that do not want to see Kurds as part of their cohort, as part of their alliance, that have campaigned on anti-Kurdish policies previously, that have voted to remove parliamentary immunity from Kurds. And so, this is a really sort of tense and contentious issue in terms of how the opposition parties can reach out to Kurds. So, what does that have to do with the potential for a military incursion in Syria? So, by carrying out a military campaign, the issue of Kurds as an enemy, the issue of Kurds as a security threat becomes one that the government can inflate, becomes one in which the government can continuously reference Kurds, and not just Kurds who are members of these militant organizations, but Kurds more broadly. There’s this terrorist paintbrush that the government is able to use and does use in order to marginalize Kurdish political actors and also those opposition parties that are willing to partner with those actors. And as you can see that can then create a wedge between opposition parties. Do we partner with the Kurds or do we not? If we do, are we painted as collaborating with terrorists? How do we negotiate that space? How do we negotiate that space legally when we may be targeted by the government with a court case? How do we negotiate that space with voters and how are we trying to communicate to them and make sure that we’re garnering as many votes as we can? So that becomes a much more contentious issue. It’s already a balancing act that the parties have been trying to negotiate, but with a future incursion, that becomes even more difficult.
Why is Turkey’s 2023 election important?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:31] So by invading northern Syria, by fomenting nationalism, you potentially divide the political opposition and make his own position stronger ahead of elections next year. So, it all could be viewed through that domestic political lens.
Lisel Hintz [00:25:52] I think a lot of it can be viewed through the domestic political lens, but there’s even more so he can rally nationalism, although I think it’s worth noting that when Erdogan makes a fiery speech about Greece, right, or threatens another military incursion, he can get a nationalist bump in the polls, but it’s relatively little and it doesn’t last a long time. This kind of a military incursion in which a lot of the population has harbored anti Kurdish sentiments that can be stirred up, so that can have an effect. It can also have an effect in dividing the opposition parties, again, as we said. But it can have a further additional effect, which is alienating Kurdish voters from voting at all. So, you know, maybe they were thinking about voting for the opposition parties, but no, they’re just going to stay away from the polls completely. So, you can alienate Turkish voters who are uncomfortable with how the opposition parties are negotiating the Kurdish issue and then you can also alienate Kurdish voters. I would say that there’s even an additional factor to consider when it comes to this, and this is perhaps looking too far down the road and is perhaps too pessimistic. One of the things that I worry about is if there is another military incursion, if there is unrest that follows from that in Turkey or that spills over the borders, if there’s cross-border violence, that can give the government the pretext to call a state of emergency. And if the government calls a state of emergency, it has a much sort of larger toolkit with which to shape the conditions for its potential reelection in the elections in June. So, we know that the previous presidential election in 2018 was held under a state of emergency, and it was lifted relatively soon after. So, the state of emergency had been put in place following the 2016 coup. It’s lifted soon after the 2018 presidential elections, which Erdogan wins. So, there is a track record of being able to carry out election victories under a state of emergency. The potential for unrest or for violence in the Syrian situation means that there’s the potential for that kind of state of emergency that could lead the government to postpone elections, to cancel elections in the Kurdish region, to have more impetus for closing the HDP, the People’s Democratic Party, which is the pro-Kurdish party in Turkey. It just basically gives the government more tools to use in terms of configuring the domestic playing field in its favor. And that’s something that I worry about quite a bit.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:28:24] In the near term, are there any indicators or inflection points that you’ll be looking towards that will suggest to you whether or not that pessimistic scenario, as you call it, will indeed play out?
Lisel Hintz [00:28:36] I mean, the most obvious one is, is there a military incursion? And I think that there will be. I had thought that before there was a bombing on November 13th, so perhaps that’s why I’ve had kind of a cynical view of the way in which the government has tried to benefit politically from that attack. So, we’ll be looking for whether there’s an incursion, even though we currently see Turkey sort of negotiating with Russia as to whether Russia can clear the YPG from the borders. That doesn’t necessarily seem like something that the YPG is willing to agree to, so we’ll have to see how that plays out. I would also note that one of the extra additional factors that a military incursion in Syria might be able to contribute to when it comes to Erdogan’s domestic popularity is that he has claimed that he can use those spaces as a way to repatriate Syrians. And we know that the Syrian refugee issue or the 4 million Syrians who are living in Turkey, not technically under refugee status, but temporary protection status, has been a major source of criticism of his government and an issue that the opposition has been pushing very, very hard on. So again, lots and lots of different domestic political considerations for this. But in terms of the inflection point, so, A, is there an incursion? And even if Russia is able to clear the YPG from one of the towns in northern Syria, say Tal Rifaat, which they have been trying to convince the YPG to withdraw from, Turkey has also cited a number of other northern Syrian towns that the YPG currently holds, including Manbij and Kobani. So, it seems as though the potential for an incursion is high again, given all of those domestic political motivations for carrying out such a campaign. So, we’ll be looking for that. I think we’ll be looking to see whether there is any kind of violence that spills over. Are there rocket attacks that are coming landing on Turkish soil? Are there protests in Turkey, largely Kurd organized protests or other protests? If there are protests, are the police forces cracking down on them violently? All of this is, I think, for a lot of Turkey observers recalling 2015, which was the summer in which you saw the reignition of the war between the PKK and the Turkish government. There’d been a ceasefire that they’d been working on for several years, but that fell apart once the AKP had lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections.
What is Turkey’s AKP political party?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:06] And the AKP is Erdogan’s party?
Lisel Hintz [00:31:09] Yes. So, the AKP, Erdogan’s party, loses its parliamentary majority for the first time, and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party actually is able to get quite a lot of members into parliament. So, there’s sort of political reasons for why that cease fire breaks down but what happens in the meantime over that summer is that there are a number of ISIS attacks, there are a number of Kurdish protests that are cracked down violently. There’s a lot of unrest and there’s a very hard nationalist turn by the AKP, Erdogan’s party, so that by the time you have new elections in November, you have this high, high amount of nationalist rhetoric that’s being used, and Erdogan is both able to draw more votes for his party and is able to partner with another nationalist party. So, all of that is to say a lot of people are looking at the current situation with concern because of the amount of violence and the hard nationalist turn that occurred in Turkey, in Turkish politics in 2015. There’s a concern that we might be seeing a rerun of that now with the AKP having learned the lesson that they can gain more votes in that kind of a situation of tumult.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:19] Well, thank you so much for your time.
Lisel Hintz [00:32:20] You’re most welcome.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:32:29] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Scharff. Before you go, do take a moment to show your support for the show by becoming a premium subscriber. If you’re listening on Apple Podcasts, you can do so with a couple taps of your thumb. If you’re listening elsewhere, you can go to Patreon.com/GlobalDispatches. We rely on support from listeners to continue to do what we do far into the future and by becoming a premium subscriber, you will unlock access to our entire archive of hundreds and hundreds of episodes. Please rate or review the show on Apple Podcasts.