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5 Reasons It’s Kicking Off in Turkey

Recent weeks have seen a number of worrying developments in Turkey, including the killing of 32 Kurdish students in an ISIS bomb attack in Suruç, a return to fighting between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, and the initiation of criminal proceedings against the left-wing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in the Turkish parliament. These developments represent a dramatic escalation of several enduring tensions within the country and in neighbouring Syria.

1. Stalled peace process.

In 2013 Turkey’s then prime minister (and current president) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan received many plaudits for establishing a peace process that promised an end to Turkey’s longstanding armed conflict with separatist Kurdish militia, the PKK.

A truce was agreed that was largely respected by both sides. Yet the promised second phase of the process, which would have included improved legal and constitutional protections for the Kurdish minority, never really arrived. The fragile ceasefire almost collapsed in October last year, when the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) indifference to the siege of the Kurdish Syrian enclave of Kobane by ISIS militants became clear. This led to civil unrest and rioting in Kurdish communities throughout Turkey, and to a number of clashes between the Turkish military and the PKK.

The eventual Kurdish victory in Kobane may have granted Erdoğan a temporary reprieve, but Kurds across Turkey are frustrated with a peace process they see as window dressing for sustained attacks on Kurdish communities in Turkey and Syria.

2. AKP support for ISIS.

The siege of Kobane was one episode in a high-stakes game the AKP has been playing to influence the course of the Syrian civil war. Desperate to see the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad overthrown and its own sphere of influence extended, Turkey has faced a series of accusations that it has provided logistical and medical support to Syrian rebel groups.

Yet Ankara’s competing priority has been to prevent at all costs the emergence of anything resembling a Kurdish state in Syria, for fear that this would add credibility to calls for Kurdish independence within Turkey. Following the effective collapse of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, this has led the AKP to give particular preference to ISIS and its ally the Al-Nusra Front.

Turkey has effectively operated an open border policy with respect to these groups, allowing militants to cross and launch attacks from within Turkey, as well as enabling the establishment of trade routes that fund ISIS. This has caused outrage amongst Turkey’s Kurdish population – during the siege of Kobane, ISIS was seen to be given freedom to roam the border and attack from the Turkish side, whilst Turkey repeatedly refused to allow Kurdish fighters in Turkey and Iraq passage to join the resistance in the enclave.

3. The growth of ISIS in Turkey.

A second consequence of Turkey’s tacit support for ISIS has been the establishment of sleeper cells throughout the country. These groups appear to have been given preferential treatment by Turkish police, and have used their position to launch attacks, including last month’s bombing.

The establishment of cells with the capacity to carry out this kind of attack places Turkey in a difficult position. Should a government assume power with a different set of priorities, one of the issues it would have to contend with would be the extensive and powerful network of ISIS militants in the country, who have been able to effectively ride the wave of Erdoğan’s popular Islamist nationalism.

4. Pressure on Turkey from US.

As a key American ally in the Middle East, Turkey has faced significant pressure to join the coalition fighting ISIS in Syria. Until recently, it refused to provide military support to the coalition, citing fears that the crisis might spread into Turkish territory. In fact, we should see this as an extension of the elaborate game Turkey has been playing, seeking to squeeze the Kurds in northern Syria by maintaining its own borders whilst allowing ISIS to develop its capacity to engage the Kurdish militias.

However, the bombing of Suruç changed all that. The PKK, angry at the apparent complicity of Turkey in the rise of ISIS, took revenge for the attack, killing two police officers. Days after the bombing, Turkey joined the coalition fighting ISIS, allowing the US to use its Incirlik air base, and carrying out its own air strikes on ISIS positions in Syria. Yet most of its fire has been saved for the PKK and allied Kurdish militias, which have been heavily bombed in northern Iraq and in Syria.

This is clearly in tension with US policy up to now – since October 2014, the US has coordinated closely with the Kurdish YPG and YPJ (the Syrian equivalents of the PKK), recognising that they are perhaps the only military force in northern Syria that is able to match ISIS. It is possible that that US has simply calculated that it makes more sense to have Turkey on board as an ambivalent ally than it does to work with the YPG/YPJ.

Turkish attacks on Kurdish positions in Syria and Iraq, together with mass arrests of Kurdish activists in Turkey, have brought the peace process to the point of collapse. The PKK has conducted a series of attacks on soldiers and police within Turkey, and its actions have been echoed across Turkey, where several protests have led to rioting by Kurdish young people.

5. Hung parliament following June’s elections.

In June, Turkey held parliamentary elections. These were widely seen as a referendum on Erdoğan’s plans for constitutional change, as he sought to gain a mandate for the creation of an executive presidency that would grant him greater powers. In fact, the AKP suffered what was in effect a humiliating defeat, with their vote share falling from 50% to 41%. The insurgent force in the elections was the pro-Kurdish HDP, which managed to overcome a prohibitive 10% threshold for gaining parliamentary representation to win 80 seats. The success of the HDP denied the AKP a majority in the Turkish parliament, and therefore initiated a series of coalition negotiations.

As the largest party, the AKP has held discussions with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party and social-democratic Republican People’s Party. Yet it is no secret that Erdoğan wants his majority back, and recent weeks have seen a marked ramping up of nationalist rhetoric against the HDP, whose leaders, he recently claimed, must “pay the price” for their alleged links to the PKK. Last week, the Turkish judiciary brought criminal proceedings against the two co-chairs of the HDP. If the prosecutors decide there is a case to answer, the two will face a vote in parliament on whether they should be stripped of their immunity from prosecution.

Erdoğan, it appears, is content to discard the peace process in order to regain his parliamentary majority. His probable calculation is that aggressive nationalist posturing against the Kurds (and ISIS, with ‘posturing’ being the key term here), together with a campaign to discredit the HDP, will be enough to deliver the AKP a victory if a snap election is called in the near future. Erdoğan will present himself as a tough leader, the only figure capable of dealing effectively with the Kurdish ‘problem’.

If he succeeds then he will have completed a minor political miracle in patching over Turkey’s rising structural tensions. But this process of patching cannot continue forever, and the crudeness of Erdoğan’s fix will determine the intensity of the fallout in towns and cities across Turkey.

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Published 5th August 2015

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