Long-considered one of the most influent states in the region, Turkey is now facing unprecedented challenges. While in November 2015, the victory achieved by the Justice and Development Party fueled Erdoğan’s attempts to transform Turkey into a Presidential system, the Kurdish issue has remained the most serious challenge since the 1990s. At the same time, an open confrontation with Russia and the interdependent nature of the regional conflicts make finding lasting political solutions especially difficult.
After 30 years of conflict between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state, negotiations with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have been conducted in different formats since 2009, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started a process known as the “Kurdish overture”. These attempts initially tried to win Kurdish voters by promising reforms, economic investment, and partial autonomy. While some advances have been made on the cultural level, little progress has been registered over thorny issues such as partial autonomy.
The historic ceasefire reached in 2013 collapsed with the murder of two policemen by the PKK in retaliation for the perceived Turkish involvement in a suicide bombing that killed 33 Kurdish and leftist sympathizers in Suruç, in July 2015. Ankara replied starting massive air raids against PKK positions in northern Iraq. In Erdoğan’s words the PKK faced two choices: surrender to the state or be neutralized.
Today, Turkey fights Kurdish forces on three separate, but interconnected fronts: in south-eastern Turkey; in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq (the base of the PKK); and, in Syria.
On the domestic front, while the pro-Kurdish, leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) was withdrawing its support to the President’s plan of transforming Turkey’s parliamentary system into a presidential one1, the harsh crackdown and curfews in South-Eastern city districts implemented by the army exacted a heavy toll on the region’s population and infrastructure2.
On the Syrian side, the autonomous Kurdish entity that emerged on Turkey’s southern border (Kurdish Federal Region in Syria as declared in March 2016) is viewed by Ankara as a threat at national and international level. Given the ideological, political, and organizational ties between the Kurds in Syria and the Kurdish movement in Turkey, the political and military success on the first side could provoke a spillover effect in Turkey.
Ankara’s attempts to bargain with the Syrian-Kurdish leader Salih Muslim, invited several times to Turkey in order to pry the Democratic Union Party (PYD) away from the PKK and to persuade it not to cross the Euphrates, failed. The movement’s self-rule in northern Syria and its strengthened position in northern Iraq put it in a better position than ever which it was eager to capitalise on. Moreover, the Kurds enhanced their international image by fighting ISIS. That is why Turkish government was also trying to sabotage Kurds’ successes supporting Islamic groups in Syria. This choice was not harmless for Turkey, and it was forced to witness its consequences when the Islamic State began carrying out terrorist attacks inside the country, the most recent of which killed 3 and injured 11 people on March 19 in Istanbul. The Southern town of Kilis is also bearing the brunt of Turkish involvement in Syria with 17 people killed, 61 others wounded in 46 rocket attacks launched by ISIS from January 18 to April 26.
In the international arena, Turkey’s biggest entanglement is with Russia, following the downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. Such an event created serious political and economic damages3 for Ankara and left Turkey dealing with the Russian threat both on its northern and southern borders.
Turkey’s relations with the U.S. have also been facing multiple frictions. Ankara hoped that its historical ally4 would overturn the Assad regime and blocked Russia’s intervention there. None of this happened. On the contrary, the U.S. refused to consider the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its People’s Protection Units (YPG), as terrorist groups, despite Turkish persistent requests5. Furthermore, the U.S. prevented the establishment of a “safe-zone” in northern Syria that would have provided Turkey with international cover to intervene and to the Kurdish autonomy.
Moreover, Turkey has poor relations with Egypt, by virtue of Erdoğan’s support to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, the financial support it used to receive from Gulf States, like Saudi Arabia, has declined as the price of oil fall, pushing further away the Turkish dream of regional hegemony.
With regard to Iran, it has increasingly been representing a threat in light of the Sunni-Shia divide, Teheran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria as well as its military ties with Russia. At the same time, with the lifting of international sanctions, Iran increased its leverage and its role of competitor for the regional hegemony. On the other hand, Ankara knows that Turkey could be the natural gateway for Teheran’s energy exports given the already existing gas pipeline network and its strategic geographical position. Despite the political tensions, the two countries never broke their commercial ties, especially in the energy sector6.
The unprecedented number of conflicts in which Turkey is currently embroiled helps to explain its eagerness to normalize relations with Israel, after these were severely damaged following the Mavi Marmara crisis in 2010. Once a useful boogie man used by Erdoğan to rally domestic and regional support, today Israel has become a pressing matter for Ankara and the decision to re-open their embassies is a first step in order to get out of regional isolation. The discovery of large gas fields in the South-eastern Mediterranean, mostly located between the territorial waters of Israel (Leviathan-Tamar), Egypt (Zohr) and the Republic of Cyprus (Aphrodite) has also a lot to do with the re-orientation of Turkish foreign relations.
Erdoğan, the EU and refugees
President Erdoğan’s strategy has been clear since the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2014. If elected, he would have a mandate to amend the parliamentary regime and turn it into a presidential system. The easiest way to transform Turkey into a presidential institutional architecture through a constitutional reform is by making HDP fall below the 10% threshold, which would exclude them from the Parliament. The current climate of violence and the resurgence of terrorism could radicalize the HDP’s positions and alienate those who voted tactically for them in 2015. In this context, the presidential system would then be presented not as a project born of Erdoğan’s personal ambitions, but as an issue of national interest, arguing that only a strong leadership can save the country.
After the November 2015 elections, when the AKP electoral power was not big enough to initiate a constitutional change, a deal with the EU was agreed. This deal was strongly pursued by German Chancellor Merkel. The deal set out the exemption of Turkey from the conditions of EU membership (the Copenhagen criteria) requiring rule of law and freedom of expression, a green light to suppression of the internal Turkish opposition and the Kurdish minority. The EU seems turning a blind eye on the media crackdown, marked by the arrest of journalists and takeovers of newspapers that dare to criticize the Turkish government. According to a report published in May, nearly 900 Turkish journalists have lost their jobs in the first 4 months of the year, and 33 were detained. Prosecutors have opened more than 1,800 cases against people suspected of insulting Erdoğan since he was elected president in 2014. Also, the EU-Turkey agreement of last March represents a potential threat to the human rights of the refugees. Besides, the deal gave a bargaining chip to Ankara: if the visa-free travel condition are not allowed, it could stop containing refugees, as Foreign Minister Cavusoglu pointed out to the state broadcaster TRT Haber on 7 June. On the other hand, if visa liberalisation does go ahead, Europe could lose much of its leverage over Turkey for democratic reforms.
The all-out war going on in the South-East is unlikely to stop anytime soon. The two recent terrorist attacks in the heart of Ankara and that carried out in Istanbul on June 7 signal that the conflict is now spreading to the West. However, while the PKK is in a better position in Syria, its fight in Turkey could lose support in the long-run. Civilians are heavily affected because of the urban war’s consequences and of the state’s harsh countermeasures. There are currently few players capable of taking a mediating role and even fewer who would be willing to do so. The European Union, and in general the international community’s attitude towards Ankara, allowed it to leverage nationalist sentiment in order to gain support for the referendum that will invest the President as an all-powerful leader. This is the rationale behind the violent and ongoing campaign criminalizing HDP party leaders for their alleged links to the PKK, culminated with the voting of a law that abolish the immunity of the Parliament representatives. Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s resignation and the appointment of Binali Yıldırım, faithful ally of the President, are just the latest signs of this drift toward an increasing centralization of power.
- Nerina Schiavo è collaboratrice del Programma "Nordafrica e Vicino Oriente" dell'IsAG.
1. The framework agreement (the Dolmabahce Agreement) signed in February 2015 was quickly disavowed by both the Turkish President and PKK hardliners.
2. The severe military crackdown has been described as collective punishment against the Kurdish population and has led some observers to draw parallels with scenes from Syria. For more on this issue Turkey, the government and the Kurds. Turning enemies into profits, Mediterranean Affairs, April 8, 2016.
3. The terrorist attacks and the crisis in relations with Russia have hurt tourism, which made a significant contribution to Turkey’s state revenues. Some 1.75 million foreigners came to Turkey in April, down more than 28 percent on April 2015, the tourism ministry said in its latest release.
4. Turkey has NATO’s largest military force after the U.S., and its allies may be forced to intervene on its behalf. Moreover, NATO members need access to Turkey's Incirlik air base to carry out air strikes in Syria, which is an important point of leverage in Erdoğan's hands, but still not sufficient to get what he wanted.
5. In fact, the U.S. has been supporting the YPG in Syria since autumn of 2014.
6. In 2014 18% of all gas imports to Turkey came from Iran. (BP, 2015).