Erdogan’s War

Turkey’s government has plenty of scapegoats for the current violence. But it should start by looking in the mirror.

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On March 13, yet another suicide bomb went off in Ankara, Turkey’s capital city, taking with it the lives of at least 37 people and wounding more than 70. This is the eighth deadly attack in Turkey since June 2015, and the third to strike at the heart of the capital in the past five months. More than 230 people have died.

A Kurdish group calling itself the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) has assumed responsibility for last week’s attack. Needless to say, there can be no justification for such acts, above all when they are committed against defenseless citizens. They must be condemned in the strongest terms.

But the government bears its share of responsibility for this appalling situation. Turkey’s elected officials are supposed to guarantee the security of the population. So far, however, neither the president, nor the prime minister, nor any of their cabinet members has accepted any share of the blame. No officials have resigned from their posts.

Turkish citizens would be well within their rights to demand such resignations, but the government has implied that anyone who dares to do so risks being accused of supporting terrorism themselves. Indeed, demonstrators who gathered in the aftermath of the Ankara bombing were not even allowed to express their anger. Their peaceful protests were answered with police brutality and pepper spray.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has many scapegoats in mind for the rise in violence. But it should also accept a share of the responsibility. The party’s unwillingness to complete the peace and disarmament process with the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), its suppression of individual liberties, press freedom, and freedom of speech, its contempt for parliamentary democracy and its embrace of authoritarian rule, its determination to polarize society, its disregard for the law, its dismissal of every criticism as treason, its reckless support of extremists in Syria — all of this has contributed to the dismal state of the country today. Rather than taking a look in the mirror, however, the government is determined to stifle its critics with a new wave of repression.

More divided than ever, Turkey is one step away from collective suicide. The economy, which used to be the strongest argument for the AKP, is in dire straits. The tourism industry has ground to a virtual halt as Europeans and Russians cancel their reservations. Relations with the country’s neighbors and traditional allies have fallen to new lows. The regime considers Russia, Syria, Iran, Israel, and Armenia enemies, and views both the United States and the EU with deep suspicion. And yet, despite the multiple security threats that now face Turkey, the AKP shows no interest in changing course.

After the first Ankara bombing in October 2015, which killed more than 100 and injured more than 400 people, it took President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu four days to visit the scene. Both blamed the attack on the PKK and its affiliate in Syria, as well as the Syrian government, which it accused of collaborating with the Islamic State. When the police identified the bombers as Islamic State members, and it became obvious that an Islamic State cell within Turkey carried out the attack, the president and the prime minister fell silent and made no effort to explain the intelligence failure. Nor did either attend any of the 104 funerals, presumably because they feared a backlash from mourners.

How did we get here? Since Erdogan ascended to the presidency in 2014, he has replaced the parliamentary system with de facto one-man rule. The free press has virtually disappeared, as dozens of journalists (including the editors of leading opposition newspapers) have lost their jobs or ended up behind bars for criticizing the government. Several newspapers have been shut down or seized on shaky legal grounds. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 110 journalists were arrested in Turkey between 2012 and 2015. Between 2014 and 2015, one person was indicted on charges of insulting the president, which carries a prison sentence of up to four years, almost every day. More than 92 percent of all court-ordered requests for the removal of tweets in 2015 came from Turkey. The government’s purge has extended to business groups and banks deemed to be in the opposition camp, unsettling investors. And it doesn’t end there.

Under the president’s orders, prosecutors have opened cases against thousands of academics and hundreds of intellectuals. Several have already been arrested on terrorism charges just for signing a petition calling for peace in the country’s restive southeast. Earlier this week, a British professor who has spent the past 25 years teaching in Istanbul was deported for “making terrorist propaganda.” With the opposition demonized and the free press silenced, there is no one left to stop the AKP government’s disastrous domestic and foreign policies.

It should come as little surprise that, in this deeply polarized environment, Turkey has returned to civil war. In July, as part of its effort to gain nationalist votes, the government broke off its peace negotiations with the PKK (they were likely torpedoed outright by the president). Using the end of the peace process as an excuse, the PKK resumed its terror attacks, destroying any remaining hopes for a peaceful resolution to the country’s conflict with the Kurds.

Not that long ago, the Kurdish-dominated People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which holds 59 seats in parliament, was calling itself a guarantor of peaceful Kurdish commitment to the political process, and aspiring to become a broader liberal-left party for all Turkish citizens. But the return of war has now left it completely marginalized, as both the government and the Turkish public accuse it of failing to distance itself sufficiently from the PKK. It is not even clear if the HDP will remain in parliament, since the government is about to strip its members’ immunity on terrorism charges. This leaves the PKK and its violent course as the only force that can still claim to represent Kurdish demands. The civilian Kurdish population, squeezed between the PKK and the Turkish military, has nowhere left to go. Surely this is not where the country ought to be.

Since the peace process collapsed, the government has resumed its campaign against the PKK with new ferocity, using long-term military curfews to turn several Kurdish cities into virtual prisons. According to an International Crisis Group report, the government imposed curfews in 59 cities experiencing Kurdish separatist activity since last summer. Life in many communities in the country’s southeast has virtually ground to a halt. Many areas have become uninhabitable; in some places more than 80 percent of the buildings have been destroyed in the crossfire between government security forces and PKK militants.

Meanwhile, human rights groups are blaming the government for serious human rights violations. Among other things, they accuse the military of imposing collective punishment on Kurdish communities. There are reports of violence against civilians. The number of civilian deaths is reported to be in the hundreds, from 3-month old babies to pregnant mothers and 80-year-old grandfathers. Thousands of children are cut off from schools, and in a number of areas medical services have completely broken down. More than a quarter of the population in these cities has been internally displaced. Turkish Health Minister Mehmet Muezzinoglu put the number of displaced people at 355,000. The gruesome images from these cities resemble Dresden after the Second World War. Meanwhile, the prime minister responds to criticism of the war by saying that, when the government rebuilds these cities, they will look better than Toledo in Spain.

What is particularly worrisome is the deafening silence both inside and outside the country. Preoccupied with the refugee crisis, EU leaders are more than happy to turn a blind eye to the plight of Kurds in exchange for a pledge from the AKP government to keep the refugees off European soil — all this for a bargain price of $3 billion. (It should be said that the EU’s earlier decision to push Turkey to its periphery by stalling Turkish membership negotiations also contributed to this rise of authoritarianism in the country.)

The United States is also walking a thin line to keep the Turkish government on its side in the war against the Islamic State. Given the AKP government’s annoyance at American support for the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, which it considers a terrorist group, Washington does not want to antagonize its NATO ally further. Turkey’s own secular nationalists, who feel equal dislike for Erdogan and the Kurds, are not very helpful either. This helps to explain why a significant and growing number of Kurds believe that Kurdish lives don’t matter.

The AKP government’s neo-Ottoman fantasies, combined with its nationalistic and sectarian Sunni Islam ideology, have torn the country apart. Not long ago, Turkey could boast that it was “exporting stability” to the Middle East and the Balkans in the form of its high-quality college graduates, skill-intensive manufactured products, UNESCO heritage sites, religious tolerance, and enticing beaches. Today, instead, Turkey has become an exporter of instability and civil war.

The people of Turkey and the rest of the world deserve better.

In the photo, the loved ones of car bombing victim Murat Gul mourn over his coffin in a mosque in Ankara, Turkey, on March 14, 2016.

Photo credit: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images

Firat Demir is an economics professor at the University of Oklahoma.