The Sultan of Swing’s Dangerous Gamble
It appears Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking his country to war in order to win an election. It could be the biggest miscalculation of his political career.
The ink had barely dried on the “game-changer” headlines proclaiming Turkey’s much delayed entry in the war against the Islamic State, when Kurdish activists began sounding “game-unchanged” warnings on Twitter. The hashtag, #TurkeyIsAttackingKurdsNotISIS, started making the rounds before dawn on Saturday, July 25, just hours after Turkish warplanes began bombing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraq.
So if Friday, July 24, began with a dramatic change in the region — Turkey directly taking on the Islamic State — it ended with a familiar hammering of an old foe that has fixated Ankara for decades and exposed Turkish inflexibility on the Kurdish issue, regardless of whether there’s a military dictator, a Kemalist, or an Islamist in power. Sadly, this happened despite a cease-fire between Turkey and the PKK that had been holding since March 2013. There were still hopes for a critical peace deal.
But those peace dreams have now been flushed down the Turkish toilet.
Issuing a unilateral end to the cease-fire this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that it was “not possible to carry on the [peace] process with those who target our national unity and brotherhood,” referring to the outlawed PKK.
Let’s be clear: Turkish authorities never said they would be exclusively striking Islamic State targets in their latest bombing raids. Announcing the campaign last week, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu indicated that including Islamic State targets on Ankara’s hit list did not mean the real enemies — the PKK and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime — were sliding down the foes scale. “Turkey cannot stand by as Kurdish, leftist, and Islamic State militants target Turkey,” said Davutoglu. “We will take necessary measures against whoever constitutes a threat to our border.”
Note the priorities there: Kurds, leftists, and then the Islamic State.
Over the past week, Turkey has arrested more than 1,000 suspected members of the Islamic State, the PKK, and leftist groups. Erdogan’s prime leftist target, it seems, is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the pro-Kurdish party, which made history in the June 7 parliamentary election when it crossed the required 10 percent vote threshold to enter parliament for the first time.
The Turkish president’s broadside against the HDP began in earnest on July 22, when the PKK’s military wing claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish policemen in Sanliurfa to avenge a suicide bombing two days earlier in the southeastern Turkish town of Suruc, which killed 32 people. Turkish authorities say the Islamic State carried out the suicide bombing, although the jihadi group has not claimed responsibility for the attack. In a statement released shortly after the Sanliurfa shooting, Erdogan blasted the HDP for not adequately denouncing the attack. “It’s disgraceful for circles who have openly expressed that they rely on the [terrorist] organization to not be able to show courage to condemn and instead remain silent on the PKK’s brutal [terrorist] acts,” he said.
I’m still trying to figure what level of condemnation is condemnation enough for Erdogan. Here’s a portion of HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas’s statement following the Sanliurfa police killing: “We have lost 32 fine, young people [in the Suruc suicide attack], but blood cannot be cleaned with blood. It cannot be washed away with blood. We will continue our efforts in the peaceful, democratic struggle despite all these hardships. As the HDP, there is no other way we can approve of. As a people, we have lost too many lives, we have cried too many tears. However the way to undo the pain is not to restart combat.”
The Kurdish state threat
The truth is, for Erdogan, the real threat is the handsome, young, telegenic Demirtas, who led his party to a historic victory by bringing together liberals and leftists — including women’s and gay rights groups — alarmed over Erdogan’s unbridled political ambitions. Nearly two months later, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has still not managed to form a coalition government; early elections look likely, which means it’s populist high season for Turkey’s famously neo-Ottoman sultan-in-waiting.
We all know that Turkey entered the fight against the Islamic State after months of concerted U.S. pressure. But the policy change isn’t just a matter of Ankara finally bowing to Washington. There are Turkish interests at stake, most critically Syrian Kurdish control of huge swaths of the Turkey-Syria border, right by the area Ankara would like to have their much touted, but internationally rejected “safe zone.”
With last month’s fall of the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad from Islamic State control to the YPG — the Syrian franchise of the PKK — Syria’s Kurds succeeded in joining two Kurdish-controlled enclaves. All that’s left now is a westward push to link up to the Kurdish-controlled Afrin enclave, situated north of the strategic Aleppo region. But to do that, the Kurds have to push out the Islamic State and the Sunni Arabs living in the region.
Erdogan, who sees himself as the Sunni Arab savior, is not going to stand by and watch the Kurds take control of almost 50 percent of the nearly 560-mile Turkey-Syria border. The propaganda war over a likely Kurdish takeover of that part of the border began shortly after the YPG’s Tel Abyad takeover, with alarmist headlines in the Turkish state media warning of “Pro-Kurdish YPG accused of ‘ethnic cleansing.’” Erdogan is likely to support the Free Syrian Army or other Syrian Arab groups in their anti-Islamic State fight for that parcel of land — and he will push for it precisely because the United States views the Kurds as the most reliable ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
As always, the Kurds are valued as loyal U.S. allies, but only up to a point. And weighed against giving U.S. warplanes access to Turkey’s strategically located Incirlik air base, they don’t stand a chance. For Washington, it’s all about that base, that base, no troubling ourselves with Kurdish rights and aspirations.
Washington has even yielded on the Turkish demands for a “safe zone” inside northern Syria that Ankara says will provide a buffer area for Syrian refugees controlled by “moderate” rebels, but the Kurds fear will be used to drive a wedge between Afrin and the eastern Kurdish enclave of Rojava.
And so, once again, Ankara is pulling Washington’s strings, and the Kurds will fry.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When he was prime minister, Erdogan was hailed for launching the peace process with the PKK, winning his party widespread Kurdish support and votes as Turkey’s estimated 15 million culturally embattled Kurds dreamed of an end to a 30-year conflict that has cost around 40,000 lives.
But while both sides do not want a return to the all-out confrontation of the brutal 1990s, a cease-fire — let alone a sustainable peace — is looking increasingly elusive with the latest airstrikes.
Suddenly, Erdogan, the wily, seemingly invincible sultan, who has swung Turkish politics for over a decade, doesn’t look that strong — or smart — anymore.
Jihadi chickens come home
In one week, Turkey has borne the brunt of Erdogan’s disastrous policies on two fronts. After years of pursuing an Islamist-lite policy on Syria, arming rebels of varying stripes and permitting the seepage of fighters on “the jihadi highway” from Turkey to Syria in his bitter, deeply personalized bid to unseat Assad, Erdogan is starting to feel the heat as the chickens are coming home to roost. If the Islamic State has indeed masterminded the July 20 Suruc suicide bombing, it underscores the lessons the international community has long learned from countries such as Pakistan: You can’t play good Islamist/bad Islamist to destabilize a neighboring state without facing the jihadi music back home.
On the one hand, by joining the international fight against the Islamic State, Turkey has put itself in the jihadi group’s crosshairs. Should the Islamic State choose to pursue the jihadi strategy of suicide bombing soft targets across Turkey, it can easily turn it on: There are plenty of battle-hardened, radicalized young men inside the country ready to answer the call.
On the domestic front, Erdogan has squandered the goodwill and diplomatic capital he invested on the Kurdish issue in a political calculation that has backfired. The peace negotiations, started in secret in 2012 with PKK chief Abdullah Ocalan, appeared to be going swimmingly in March 2013, when the imprisoned Kurdish leader released an unprecedented statement on Nowruz — the once-banned Kurdish New Year — calling on PKK militants to lay down their arms and seek a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem.
But months later, Erdogan abruptly changed course, turning hawkish as he berated his own party members for considering Kurdish concessions and pushing through a security bill granting sweeping powers to the police — an anathema for Kurds who have faced Turkish police brutality. It was electoral politics, of course, that drove the increasingly autocratic Erdogan’s hawkish turn. The June 2015 general election was coming up and ever since he became president, “the strongman of Kasimpasa” — the tough Istanbul neighborhood of Erdogan’s childhood — has kept his eyes on the real prize: a new constitution that would increase the power of the mostly ceremonial Turkish president.
Erdogan’s political gamble failed, of course. The June election saw the HDP win 13 percent of the vote. The Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Turkey’s 78 million people, were giving up on Erdogan and his party, his AKP. The nail in that coffin, it seems, was Kobani.
The Kobani drive-in
In the fall of 2014, as the Turkish hillsides across the border from Kobani turned into a giant, morbid drive-in theater of sorts, with groups of squatting Kurds helplessly watching their brethren take on Islamic State militants, anti-Erdogan fever was running high. Ankara, at that time, was preventing Turkish Kurds from joining the fight in Kobani (under U.S. pressure, Turkey finally relented) while doing sweet nothing to stall the jihadi assault. There was a widespread belief that Turkey was in league with the Islamic State, an allegation Ankara has resolutely denied. In cafes, bazaars, homes, and offices across Kurdish-dominated southeastern Turkey, I was bombarded with Erdogan conspiracy theories while Kurdish language TV stations broadcasting from various European cities provided non-stop Kobani coverage, including funerals of “martyrs” slain in the fighting.
On the domestic front, dangerous cracks were opening up within the community. Sitting beneath a giant poster of her son in her Diyarbakir living room, Neslihan Cohan wasted no time identifying “the real culprits” behind the October 7, 2014, death of her son in clashes between secular and Islamist Kurds in the southeastern Turkish city. “My son was killed by the Huda-Par people,” she said, referring to the Kurdish Islamist party, which is linked to the banned Hezbollah, a Turkish group that has no connection to its Lebanese namesake. In the bloody 1990s, Hezbollah was widely believed to have been used by the Turkish “deep state” to murder PKK members and supporters before the authorities finally cracked down on the group in 2000.
Nearly 15 years later, Cohan believed the old, dirty games were still at play. “To be honest, the Turkish state is the murderer,” she continued. “Huda Par is like JITEM; they get support from the state,” she said, referring to the shadowy branch of the Turkish security apparatus responsible for numerous political killings during the 1990s.
The shadow of the brutal, dirty 1990s haunted Diyarbakir — Turkey’s largest Kurdish-dominated city — as Erdogan almost gleefully (and wrongly) predicted Kobani’s fall to Islamic State control and repeatedly stressed that the PKK was the real enemy. “For us, it’s like a movie, and it’s not a new movie — it’s from the 1990s,” said Cohan dully as her late son, a 23-year-old university graduate who was killed during a Kobani solidarity demonstration in Diyarbakir, smiled down from numerous photographs and posters on the apartment walls.
Huda-Par officials deny any links to the October killings, Hezbollah, the Islamic State, or the Turkish deep state. “They try to link us to whoever is not popular,” dismissed Huda-Par’s Diyarbakir provincial chairman, Seyhmus Tanrikulu, in a rambling interview in his party’s brand new office. “Last year, it was [al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front]. This year, it’s [the Islamic State]. They say we are a continuation of the deep state, that we are created by JITEM, and we’re funded by Iran. But they never have any proof of these allegations.”
There are plenty of experts who maintain Huda-Par is an offshoot of the Turkish Hezbollah. Some even claim its leaders were trained in Iran in the 1980s. The one allegation Huda-Par makes no attempt to deny is the party’s visceral hatred of the Marxist PKK and its contempt for the pro-Kurdish HDP.
The war and the polls
Since the Kurdish anti-Islamic State fight flared up last year, a long-standing lull in the once fratricidal conflict between Turkey’s Kurdish Islamists and leftists has come under considerable strain. In the October 2014 spillover of the Kobani crisis, clashes between HDP and Huda-Par supporters spread from Diyarbakir to other regions, resulting in an estimated 30 deaths in a week, before both sides pulled back from the brink and calm was restored.
Following the June 7 election, however, street violence broke out again when three members of the victorious HDP were shot dead just hours after the head of an Islamist charity linked to Huda-Par was killed. Responding to the violence, HDP leader Demirtas, blamed “dark forces” for trying to destabilize Kurdish regions, and accused the government of deliberate inaction. “They are nowhere to be seen. You would think they are waiting to allow the country to slip into civil war so that they can say, ‘Look at how valuable the [ruling] AKP is,’” he told reporters in Ankara.
Nothing, it seems, has changed. The AKP still has to prove its worth to the Turkish public ahead of likely early elections. Turkey’s direct entry last week in the anti-Islamic State fight has prompted a number of Erdogan’s critics to wonder if, by taking the country to war, the Turkish president is trying to rally popular support ahead of an election. History has shown that wars can unify the citizenry. But if they are ill-conceived, disastrous, or too expensive, the tide of public opinion can change.
Erdogan’s weakness in perceiving and acting on the militant Islamist threat has not won him extra friends on the security-first right. His autocratic Islamist style is losing him support on the left. And as for the Kurdish vote, well, he can just forget about it. History has also shown that seemingly invincible leaders can be forced to go gently — or not so gently — into that good night. The mighty Ottomans, after all, did not last forever. There’s no reason why a neo-Ottoman would either.
Photo credit: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
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