Editor’s Introduction: OneEurope contributor Fábio Ruben Paulos writes about the increasingly challenging situation in which Turkey has found itself. This non-chronological article provides an overview of some of the country’s political difficulties, helpfully centred around four distinct themes: the Suruç terrorist attack, the situation of Kurds in Turkey, the US-led coalition, and Turkey’s own Domestic Policy. A mosaic of facts and clashing political decisions and interests, this article will whet the appetite for further research into the demanding political context facing Turkey.
The Suruç terrorist attack
July, 20th, 2015 - this date marks one of the deadliest terrorist attacks to have happened in Turkey. Thirty-two people were killed and more than one hundred injured, in a small town close to the Syrian border. Most of the victims were Kurdish youth from the Socialist party, who had planned a trip to the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane to help in its reconstruction.
Kobane had already been under siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for more than six months. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) had the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the US-led coalition. After some hesitation, Turkey also allowed Peshmerga reinforcements to use its border in order to travel to Kobane.
After the Kurds regained Kobane, Turkey used the border close to Kobane to make a rescue operation of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah in Syria, which had been under Turkish protection. According to the Treaty of Lausanne, the place of the tomb is on Turkish territory; however more recently it has been relocated to a safer location close to the Turkish border, as a temporary measure to prevent an ISIS attack on the tomb and on the soldiers guarding it. This was the first Turkish incursion into the Syrian-Kurdish controlled area.
The Suruç terrorist attack came to destabilize the Peace Process with the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). The process had been happening in Turkey since the current President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, agreed a ceasefire three years ago.
The Kurds vs Turkey
Turkey does not want an independent Kurdistan in the region. Turkey had always wanted to attack the Syrian regime and take power from Assad, in order to prevent precisely what is happening now: the Kurdish contribution to the armed conflict against ISIS is increasingly more important. A PKK linked organization called YPG had been doing a tough job fighting ISIS. More recently, with the help of the US-led coalition, it has been making some advances against ISIS, as is the case in Kobane.
Politically, PKK enjoyed an important
victory in the latest elections for Turkish Parliament . The People’s Democratic Party (HDP) was able to pass
the 10% threshold and elected 80 MPs, preventing the Justice and Development
Party (AKP) from winning the majority and therefore from being able to change
the Turkish Constitution.
In the Southeast of Turkey - the Turkish Kurdistan -, Kurds celebrated this victory euphorically. The HDP victory, similarly to the ones enjoyed by YPG in the Syrian conflict, has given more vigour to the idea of an autonomous Kurdistan. But a strong feeling of victory amongst the Kurds is no good news for ISIS, who aim to destabilize the Kurds.
In addition to other attacks on Kurds which were likely to have been carried out by ISIS, it has claimed responsibility for the Suruç attack, despite no official confirmation. The first official ISIS terrorist attack inside Turkish border has triggered a shift in the Turkish defense policy.
AKP condemned the Suruç attack, but PKK has being arguing that they have plotted with ISIS against the Kurds. PKK believe that Turkey has it own responsibility for the Suruç attack. As a consequence, PKK has killed Turkish troopers and policemen over the last few days, while ISIS has killed one Turkish officer close to the Turkish-Syrian border . This situation and the fact that Turkey has started hitting PKK and ISIS targets, ultimately ended any remaining reluctance on Turkey’s part to contribute to the US-led coalition.
Selahattin Demirtaş, HDP leader, claimed that Turkey has no capacity to protect its citizens, saying that “our people have to ensure their own security”. Many interpreted this as a legitimation for the presence of PKK in Turkish-Kurdish cities. A possible result of this could be the creation of Kurdish controlled zones inside Turkey.
Turkey joins the US-led Coalition
On the 24th of July, the Turkish government launched a nationwide anti-terrorism police operation against ISIS and PKK members. That night, Turkish jets hit ISIS and PKK targets in their positions in Northern Syria and Northern Iraq, respectively. This was the first time that Turkey had attacked ISIS targets.
The interim Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, said “this was not a point operation, but a process”, showing determination to eliminate all terrorist threats against Turkey. The acts of the Turkish government can be questionable, given that no government has been formed yet, despite Turkey having held Parlimanetary Elections. Coalition talks have been attended by the four political parties represented in the Parliament, but as of yet no agreement has been achieved. This makes the current AKP government an interim one.
Despite this, Turkey opened its air bases for the US-led coalition, something that Washington had wanted for a long while, but the Turkish government had refused. In a phone call between Erdoğan and Barack Obama, the Turkish president agreed that the US can use the Incirlik air base for the attacks against ISIS. The air base was already a US Air Force base, having been used during the War in Iraq, but because of the Turkish veto the US could not deploy it to attack ISIS positions.
The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, told journalists that Turkey also defended the creation of safe zones and no-fly zones inside Syria, which would help end the refugee crisis that has affected Turkey since the beginning of the Syrian war. These zones will also be used as Syrian training ground against ISIS (and by consequence potentially against Assad).
The creation of safe and no-fly zone was confirmef by a US official on 27th of July. Together with Turkey, the US will create a safe zone called ISIS-free zone. With this name the US-led coalition wants to emphasize that this fight is not against Assad or Kurds, but against ISIS.
Turkey’s “neutral” position before Suruç has
become a very complex situation in the region. On the one hand Turkey is
helping the US-led coalition (YPG included) against ISIS, and on the other it is
aiding ISIS, by hitting PKK targets. Turkey is helping and fighting Kurds at
the same time.
The US have already argued that Turkish attacks on PKK targets have nothing to do with the US-led coalition against ISIS. In a CNN interview, Brett McGrurk from the US State Department said that Turkey has the right to respond to the PKK attacks, but also that PKK needs to stop these unacceptable attacks inside Turkish territory because they are a distraction for the US-led coalition. The US see YPG as an ally in the ISIS conflict.
Following Turkey’s request for Article 4 consultations, NATO held a meeting on the 28th of July. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, said in a press conference that all NATO members condemned all forms of terrorism, implicitly not only ISIS, but also PKK attacks. Stoltenberg also commented that Turkey did not ask for any military help from NATO allies and that it has the second biggest army of the North-Atlantic Alliance. While the US and Turkey are participating in talks concerning the creation of the ISIS-free zone, NATO will not be joining in.
Turkey’s Domestic Policy
To make the situation increasingly complex, we must not forget the internal problems of Turkey: Gülen movement (“parallel state”); split inside of the AKP (Gül vs Erdoğan); coalition talks for the new government; economic downturn; Secularism at risk; Gezi Park (the Council of State approved the project for the park); refugee crisis (two million refugees in Turkey alone); protests against the conflict, and Kurdish demonstrations. At the same time, Turkish population has been faced with an increased terrorist threat from ISIS and PKK.
The Turkish foreign policy started by Ahmet Davutoğlu when he was the Foreign Minister of Erdoğan’ government is “zero problems with neighbors”. This has created more problems, as Turkey has become more isolated in the Middle East. And there are Turkish voices that call for a change, such as the former President Gül and the opposition party CHP, who have already agreed that Turkey needs to change its foreign policy.
Now more than before, government attacks on Kurds and vice versa, have taken HDP out of the equation concerning coalition talks to form government. Despite CHP and AKP coalition talks, they have been unable to find consensus on important matters. CHP did not want a Syrian invasion. On the other hand, the anti-Kurdish MHP said they were not interested in a coalition because of AKP’s Peace process; now that Erdoğan said the Peace process is over, MHP may change its stance.
AKP-MHP would be the best option for Erdoğan, because an AKP-CHP would disempower him. The HDP accused AKP of preparing for new elections in November, dragging Turkey into a civil war. Time is running and if any coalition is achieved, Davutoğlu would remain as head of an interim government. When Erdoğan demanded the lift of HDP deputies’ immunity, Demirtaş said that HDP will submit petitions for their immunity to be lifted, and asked the AKP to do the same if they are not afraid.
Turkish people see the current PKK terrorist attacks as a revival of their old memories. This will provoke a change in the public’s view. Turkish nationalists will see PKK as a bigger threat to Turkey than ISIS. AKP and MHP can win more votes with this mentality, and Erdoğan would have majority and therefore will be able to change the Constitution in his favor.
The New Turkey is not yet over, but it is back to the old times when it was fighting the PKK. The Kurds that were pleased with HDP’s victory, are now seeing their rights at risk again. Western nations are happy to have Turkey on their side against ISIS, but the same cannot be said about the Turkish attacks on the PKK. Western nations want a Turkish-Kurdish dialogue in order to prevent any distraction from Turkey, and they also want YPG positioned against ISIS. YPG has already claimed that Turkey attacked its members in Syria, while HDP has accused AKP of supporting ISIS.
The Turkish government is fighting Kurds outside and inside its territory. HDP needs to bring PKK under its civilian role, and not the opposite. The US is also in a complicated situation, now that Turkey is in the coalition; the YPG can switch to a second plan, because of the Turkish attacks to Kurds. The US-led coalition can choose another partner on the ground in the fight against ISIS, leaving Kurds alone in a complicated situation again.