Category Archives: Turkey

Struggle against PKK needs multi-pronged approach

here is no doubt that the decades-old PKK insurgency has led to destruction and bloodshed in Turkey, none more so than within the Kurdish region itself. However, after decades of conflict and suffering, a true end to the insurgency needs a multi-pronged political and social approach by the government as much as continued military operations. Some of the roots of the PKK conflict lie in the regrettable discriminate policies of former governments in Turkey. While Kurds and Turks have lived side-by-side peacefully for hundreds of years and have been part of a common social fabric, past policies have alienated Kurds.

However, this hardly means that the PKK is a true representative of Kurds or that Kurds condone the bloody insurgency that has blighted Kurdish areas and overshadowed the need for development of the impoverished Kurdish region. As a significant group in the wider region, Kurds are a diverse population across the Middle East. The PKK, in terms of ideology and methods, is not and never has been representative of all parts of the Kurdish divide, let alone the Kurds in Turkey.

In fact, the Kurdish government in northern Iraq – the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – and generally, the local population there, has not tolerated the presence of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan. Strong strategic, political and economic relations between the KRG and Turkey have looked beyond the narrow prism of Turkey’s struggle against the PKK.

To serve and further their own agendas, regional and foreign actors often exploited the PKK in the past, with Kurds suffering the most as a result.

In Syria, there are dozens of Kurdish political groups, many of whom that are not aligned to the dominant political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or its People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces, which are extensions of the PKK. Yet, without a wider outreach to the Kurdish spectrum in Syria, the empowering of other Kurdish parties as well as other Kurdish military forces to dilute any PYD or YPG hegemony, Turkish military action in Syria risks adding to claims by the YPG that they are the defenders of Kurdish rights. It will also add to the view that Turkey is against Kurdish rights and political gains in Syria.

In Turkey, the Kurdish position has taken tremendous strides since 2002 under the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) spearheaded by first prime minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The implementation of many historic reforms in comparison to the policies of before heralded a welcome and unprecedented chapter in Turkey.

There are dozens of Kurdish AK Party deputies in Parliament today and there are hundreds of Kurdish mayors. There are ministers in the Cabinet of Kurdish origin. Elections in recent years have shown that the AK Party retains a significant Kurdish constituency that has proven pivotal to the party’s success in recent years.

This simple facts are enough to highlight that Kurds do not see the PKK as their sole representatives.

However, it is far from a finished job when it comes government policies on the Kurdish population. Without other approaches to deal with the PKK and dilute any appeal of such organizations, there is a danger that some government actions inadvertently serve the PKK camp.

Many Kurds are stuck between the PKK methods they reject and harsh government policies. These Kurds have become somewhat stuck in the middle. In fact, the people who suffer the most under the government fight against the PKK are the local Kurdish population, with the PKK insurgency leading to the loss of thousands of lives and destruction of infrastructure. This alone highlights why the PKK does not serve the general interests of the local population.

More importantly, the longer any insurgency endures, the more those vital resources are lost to rebuilding the disadvantaged region and improving the local economy.

Kurds are allowed the right of representation in Turkey today. However, the fight against the PKK has created a nationalist stigma against Kurds. Clearly, one should be able to express or support one’s Kurdish identity without any fear accusations of affiliations to violent groups such as the PKK.

Evidently, the decades of Turkey’s fight against the PKK has served no side, and is rather a cycle of violence. As many examples have shown, the military option alone is not enough to end an insurgency. With every drop of blood spilled on either side, the cycle of violence is merely fueled further. Unfortunately, those who suffer the most are ordinary civilians who aside from being a minority, want to live in peace and brotherhood and believe in political means to achieve their objectives.With vital elections around the corner in Turkey, Kurdish votes for the AK Party remain as important to securing victory as the conservative Muslim or nationalist base.

First Published: Daily Sabah

Can Turkish opposition overcome nationalist stigma, ally with Kurds?

The 2015 snap elections, failed military coup in 2016, and the successful referendum to introduce an executive presidency in 2017 has consolidated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s grip on power. Now, can the Turkish opposition unite, especially with the Kurdish minority, to challenge Erdogan?

Erdogan achieved his long-time dream of an executive presidency in Turkey, but like the national elections in 2015, it underscored a deepening polarization of the country.

The July 2016 failed coup tightened Erdogan’s authority with mass crackdowns aimed at supporters of Fethullah Gulen, spreading across the opposition spectrum.

Opposition to Erdogan may be strong, but so is his support base, leaving the opposition in a difficult predicament.

The pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the third largest party in Turkey with 59 seats, has seen several of their MPs arrested—including co-leaders Figen Yuksekdag and Selahattin Demirtas—with growing unease in Kurdish dominated areas of Turkey leading to government-PKK violence reminiscent of the 1990’s.

However, although the HDP has campaigned against Erdogan and led the opposition voice, unity with other Turkish opposition parties have not been as forthcoming.

The HDP, like numerous other Kurdish parties in the past, has struggled to escape the shadows of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the noose of tough security laws, factors the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has successfully used to dilute the HDP’s credibility.

As Kurds struggle for their rights in Turkey, and with a floundering peace process showing no signs of revival, the HDP’s quest for enlarged freedoms has been swept under the banner of terrorism.

Even as a prominent opposition force, there remains a stigma working with the Kurds that hampers the prospects of a loose alliance with mainstream Turkish opposition parties.

The case of the hawkish Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who have been vehemently against any expansion of Kurdish rights or peace deals with the PKK, may be understandable but with the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP), the biggest opposition party, there was more ground for cooperation.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu recently undertook a Justice March from Ankara to Istanbul he hailed as a “rebirth.”

While Kilicdaroglu criticized Erdogan stating that “we are facing dictatorial rule,” and “we don’t want to live in a country where there is no justice,” there was no specific mention of the plight of the HDP MPs or the Kurds in general.

With the Kurdish question remaining a sensitive national topic, opposition parties remain fearful of alienating their traditional nationalist support base.

Ironically, the cross-party endorsement of the bill that removed MP immunity from prosecution, principally aimed at the HDP, led to the imprisonment of CHP MP Enis Berberoglu and the subsequent justice march.

In fact, Erdogan has traditionally towed a careful line between appeasing Kurdish supporters and enticing nationalists’ votes when required.

The terror card and the end of the peace talks with the PKK helped to swell AKP votes in snap elections that saw the party resume power.

Erdogan has also used the AKP religious base to woo conservative Kurdish voters as a counter-weight to rallies around ethnicity.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has accused the PKK in the past of targeting the “faith of our Muslim, conservative Kurdish brothers” and striving to turn Kurds “atheist and Marxist.”

Rejecting the HDP as representatives of the Kurds, Erdogan recently stated, “Supremacy is not being Kurdish or Turkish. He who is closer to Allah is supreme.”

With national and presidential elections set for 2019, the opposition must make difficult compromises.

The opposition may need a loose alliance with the HDP to muster a coalition that can successfully challenge Erdogan. Aside from mass rallies and cross-country marches, the opposition needs an effective strategy to counter Erdogan.

Additionally, the opposition must identify a presidential candidate that can rival Erdogan. Until then, Erdogan is likely to tighten his grip on power further.

There are signs the CHP may work with the HDP with the recent public show of solidarity for the HDP’s justice march where CHP members, including the party’s Istanbul provincial head Cemal Canpolat and Istanbul lawmaker Sezgin Tanrikulu, attended the Kurdish rally.

Canpolat stated at the gathering in Kadikoy’s Yogurtcu Park, “We’ll be in a struggle to extend this solidarity. These problems cannot be solved with blood and tears.”

“We need to go through a reconciliation process for peace, democracy, and solidarity in the period that our country is going through,” he added.

Meanwhile, Tanrikulu stated, “In that march [in July], we were in solidarity with all of Turkey’s democratic forces. Today we are here to show the same solidarity.”

HDP’s spokesperson Osman Baydemir, rejecting a recent resolution by the Turkish government to ban the use of the words “Kurdistan” and “genocide” at the Parliament, vowed “we will not keep quiet” and “we will not bow to fascism.”

At crossroads, the opposition must make tough concessions to persuade the Kurds, if they are to muster a successful challenge to Erdogan.

However, with a polarized socio-political landscape in Turkey, even the opposition will struggle to overcome division.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

As Erdogan prepares to meet Trump, can US keep allies from bloodshed?

The timing of the Turkish airstrikes on Syrian Kurdish forces, weeks before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is due to visit the US President Donald Trump, is not a coincidence.

The attacks serve as a warning for the US, but it also aims to ensure Turkey retains an influence over proceedings in Syria, while simultaneously appeasing hawkish circles in Turkey crucial to Erdogan’s recent referendum win.

The attacks on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) bases near the Syrian town of Derik, which also included Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in the Shingal area in Iraq, led to diplomatic protests from the US.

The US is in a difficult conundrum. It relies heavily on Syrian Kurdish forces, whom they have stated many times as one of the most effective troops battling the Islamic State (IS).

However, keeping their once dependable allies in Ankara onside at the same time is proving an impossible balance.

Underlining this difficult predicament, Turkish airstrikes came as YPG led forces were in the middle of an intense battle to capture Tabqa from IS that would pave the way for the final assault on Raqqa.

The strong Turkish opposition to the growing ties between the Kurdish forces, whom they accuse of being an extension of the PKK, and the US is not new.

Turkey has attempted to pressure Washington on multiple occasions to sideline the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which the YPG forms as its largest and strongest contingent, and to propel Turkey, and its Syrian opposition allies, to lead the fight to drive IS from their stronghold of Raqqa.

This week, Erdogan stated the US-led coalition, working hand in hand with Turkish forces, “can turn Raqqa into a graveyard for IS.”

This suggestion of anti-IS alliance has been proposed countless times and has been evidently rejected by the US, which has increased their support of SDF forces in recent months.

Erdogan warned continued US support needs to stop “right now,” or risk bringing persistent strife in the region and Turkey while urging that without cooperation on the global fight against terrorism, “then tomorrow it will strike at another ally.”

The US has rejected the notion that the YPG and the PKK are one and the same. This places the US in an increasingly difficult standoff with Turkey.

According to Mark Toner, the former US State Department spokesperson, Washington had already communicated that “Turkey must stop attacking the YPG.”

Toner added the US supports “Turkey’s efforts to protect its borders from PKK terrorism,” but this stance fuels ambiguity in an already tense regional landscape.

The US policy towards the YPG forces, both now and in the future, remains incoherent and unclear.

Erdogan warned that “we may suddenly come at any night,” referring to further attacks on YPG positions. This would certainly undermine Kurdish support in the battle against IS.

For Erdogan to back down on his unwavering stance on the YPG now would risk a nationalist backlash.

It remains to be seen how far the US is willing to go to defend their Kurdish allies, who had even requested a no-fly zone.

The US had already expressed their disappointment over a lack of notice and coordination before Turkish strikes. Col. John Dorrian, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), described the time provided by Turkey as “inadequate.”

According to Dorrian, the US “had forces within six miles of the strikes,” while the operations box given by Turkey was too big to ensure the safety of US troops.

As a deterrence to further Turkish attacks, US armored convoys were seen patrolling some areas alongside Kurdish forces.

This came as US officers visited the site of the airstrikes, with reports of US forces attending funerals of YPG members killed by the air raid.

Deployments of US troops along the border areas was confirmed by Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis, who urged focus from all parties in the fight against IS as the common enemy.

An angry Erdogan remarked that “we are seriously concerned to see US flags in a convoy that has YPG rags on it.”

Erdogan is likely to protest strongly with Trump when they meet.

Ankara hoped Trump would abandon former US President Barack Obama’s policy in allying with the Kurds.

But, with the Kurds driving deeper in their assault on Raqqa, Trump has seemingly taken advice from his military leaders and stuck with the Kurds.

Any change now would spell bloodshed either way. Turkish forces would have to wedge through Kurdish territory, leading to certain conflict.

Conversely, Turkey’s resistance against the YPG would only embolden, especially as Kurds solidify their autonomous rule.

This regional powder-keg goes well beyond the question of who will take Raqqa. IS will be defeated, but the complex Syrian web from years of bloodshed will be much more difficult to untangle.

After IS, is the US willing to protect YPG forces at the continued expense of Turkey, or will it leave both allies to open a new chapter of bloodshed?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Referendum win is only start of battle for Erdogan, New Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved his long-time dream of an executive presidency in Turkey, but his narrow win came at a price, with almost half the population voting no, risking deeper polarization in Turkey.

Erdogan’s referendum win by 51.4 percent introduces sweeping new powers, with the biggest political revolution since the foundation of the republic.

The constitutional changes will transfer undisputed power to the hands of one man, allowing Erdogan to potentially rule until 2029, or even 2034.

Additionally, the president will have political, as well as judicial influence, and can dismiss parliament or ratify laws by decree.

The narrow victory came under controversial circumstances as the opposition accused the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of electoral violations and an unfair playing field.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and other electoral monitors were critical of the referendum campaign, with the Council of Europe stating the vote “did not live up” to its standards.

The criticism at home and abroad were brushed off by a victorious Erdogan, but he will remain acutely aware the battle in Turkey has just started.

The referendum victory coincided with the third extension of a state of emergency following the infamous failed July coup last year, which Erdogan blamed on exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, leading to a wide-range of crackdowns on the opposition.

With strained ties with the European Union, a floundering economy, a reenergized war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), terror threats across its borders, and an increasing national divide, Turkey’s next moves will have dramatic ramifications.

But, a further crackdown on media and the opposition, especially in light of narrow victory margins, risks driving Turkey into deeper instability.

Erdogan, Prime Minister in 2003, was instrumental in the revival of the economy, reigning in military powers, untying the secular constitutional noose, and bridging gaps with the long disenfranchised Kurdish population.

But his populism has become more regionalised, as a geographical heat map of voting indicated.

Strong support in conservative rural areas was in stark contrast to the larger cities, the Aegean and Mediterranean coast, and most of the Kurdish-dominated areas.

Erdogan and the AKP, must stem the polarization, loosen anti-terror laws, and stifling of opposition voices, or risk mass protests and instability.

One burning question is the Kurdish democratic opening which, after making positive strides, regressed back into a full-blown conflict with the PKK.

With the vote secured, Erdogan has a golden opportunity to dilute the strong nationalist hand vital to his victory, but a hindrance to peace with the PKK, and seek to resolve the increasing violence and instability that engulfs the Kurdish southeast.

In fact, voting in the Kurdish areas was not a rout by the “no” side by any means. The no campaign was victorious in 11 Kurdish provinces where the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) got most seats in the 2015 elections, but votes for Erdogan increased in comparison to AKP election faring.

The “yes” campaign won in 10 other Kurdish-majority or ethnically mixed provinces.

This was not something missed by Erdogan, who stated, “I kept watching the whole night. The times have changed. There is now a steady progress. I believe things will get better.”

However, the vote is not a comprehensive Kurdish endorsement of Erdogan. It is more likely a reflection of people tired of decades of war and turmoil on their doorsteps, placing them between repressive government policies and the PKK. 

Voting is acknowledgment Erdogan, as the strongest man in Turkey, holds the keys to elusive peace 

Another critical factor is economic health that is always a barometer of public sentiment.

As such, Turkey will need to revive the Customs Union with the EU, as their most vital trading partner, and mend tenuous relations.

Shortly after the referendum, Erdogan announced plans to visit Russia, China, and India.

Strong ties with these respective countries, including the US, where President Donald Trump gave a significant endorsement, calling and congratulating Erdogan, will help dispel any clouds of legitimacy. 

Turkey remains a vital player on the regional and international stage.

Moreover, EU leaders, as well as the US, will need a stable and pro-Western Erdogan now even more so with a consolidation of power.

However, the visit to regional powers on its eastern front will be used to ensure Turkey maintains leverage.

His threat to introduce the death penalty in Turkey, something that will certainly end any diminishing hopes of EU membership, is proof Erdogan is unwilling to be roped in by any side.

The referendum ends one chapter in Turkey and reopens another. But, the future stability and security are by no means concluded, and divisions between nationalists, secularists, Islamists, and Kurds will be difficult to heal.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Motives behind Turkey’s increasingly divisive EU rhetoric

Discontent has clouded relations between Turkey and the European Union (EU) in recent times, but over the past few weeks, it has escalated to another level, with aggressive and divisive language emanating from Turkey.

Turkey has witnessed a grave political fallout with the Netherlands and Germany over their refusal to allow the Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials to hold rallies in respective countries to support the April 16th referendum in Turkey, where voters decide on a proposed presidential system that would give Recep Tayyip Erdogan unprecedented new executive powers.

Netherlands and Germany cited concerns that such political rallies would spark unrest among their significant Turkish populations. Turkish anger was stoked further with pro-Kurdish protests held in Switzerland and Germany.

For Erdogan, the estimated 2.5 million citizens of Turkish origin with a vote act as vital swing votes.

Erdogan has made no secret he has been planning for such a presidential system since his days as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990’s. And with the outcome of the vote far from certain, Erdogan must not only lure the swing voters to his cause but ensure his support base vote for nothing other than a yes.

The strong rhetoric that followed the fallout with Netherlands and Germany go a long way explaining Erdogan’s desire to mobilize the nationalist voter base.

The issue has transformed into a matter of national pride, class and even religion, seemingly to ferment an emotional response in the Diaspora and at home.

Such divisive euphoria could do irreparable damage to Turkey’s hopes of joining the EU, with accession talks long-stalled; however, the ‘us versus them’ mentality plays into the hands of Erdogan, and the upcoming referendum takes a much greater precedence than the already fading dream of joining the EU.

Erdogan claimed that “the spirit of Fascism is running wild on the streets of Europe,” drawing parallels with Angela Merkel’s government and Nazism of the past on a number of occasions, and accusing the Netherlands of being “Nazi remnants” and a “banana republic.”

Erdogan underlined a struggle between the cross and the crescent, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, also accusing the EU of fascist sentiments, gravely warned, “You have begun to collapse Europe. You are dragging Europe into the abyss. Holy wars will soon begin in Europe.”

On the theme of a religious injustice, Erdogan implored Muslims in Europe to “make not three, but five children. Because you are the future of Europe. That will be the best response to the injustices against you”.

With motivations to blur the political and religious lines, opponents of constitutional amendments have even been referred to as “opponents of Islam” by a prominent Turkish cleric.

Leaders of Netherland and Germany have been irritated by the harsh rhetoric but have mostly kept to a diplomatic tone while stressing the Nazi comparisons must stop.

German Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schaeuble, expressed he was “stunned” over Erdogan’s rhetoric. Schaeuble warned, “In a short time, it willfully destroys the integration that has grown over the years in Germany. The repair of the damage will take years.”

Since last year, fallouts between the EU and Turkey quickly resulted in threats to dismantle the migrant deal signed in March 2016 after lengthy negotiations.

The migrant crisis, largely stabilized after the deal, remains a nightmare scenario for Europe, and Ankara is not shy to remind Europe of the sway it holds on this matter.

Turkish Interior Minister, Suleyman Soylu, warned European leaders, “If you want, we could open the way for 15,000 refugees that we don’t send each month and blow the mind.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan warned that “no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets” if they assumed the same course.

Nationalist sentiment is a card that Erdogan is all too aware of to court voters. In the same way, the resumption of the war against the PKK was instrumental in swaying nationalist voters at the snap elections in 2015, and curbing voters from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

The large-scale crackdown on the opposition in the aftermath of the failed coup of July 2016 may have resulted in EU criticism, but the surge in nationalism has transformed the Turkish landscape.

In reality, EU membership, however unlikely, would be a hindrance to Erdogan and the AKP as a presidential system gives them a far greater advantage.

All things considered, Erdogan has placed his eggs on winning the referendum. If Erdogan loses, this will forever stain his legacy and the political pillars he has erected.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Turkey’s migrant card coerces EU

Relations between the European Union (EU) and Turkey have often been weighed-down by the political, social and religious divide. Turkey has been trying to join the bloc for decades with formal accession talks starting in 2006. However, the non-binding decision by the European Parliament (EP) to suspend accession talks last week was a symbolic blow to relations and also threatened irreparable damage to the vital migrant deal.

The migrant deal agreed in March 2016 served as a landmark between the EU and Turkey. Not only did it stem the flow of thousands Syrian refugees that led to a massive crisis across the EU, but it set the foundation for a reinvigoration of ties.

As part of the agreement, Turkey would move to seal its border and receive financial aid in return. Crucially, Turkey would also get via-free access to the Schengen area and an acceleration of accession talks if certain conditions could be met by Turkey, including amendment of its tough anti-terror laws.

Even after the deal was struck, there was a level of unease between both sides and an increasing negative rhetoric.

However, after the failed coup in July, the Turkish landscape transformed on many fronts. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took drastic action at the coup-plotters and this lead to a wide crackdown of opposition circles and the media which shocked the EU.

This saw an increase in the language of threats on both sides. Ankara was disappointed with lack of a strong EU response to the failed coup and has seemingly ignored most of the criticism from EU over its crackdown and in turn looked to build new bridges with Russian and its eastern frontier as a warning to NATO and the EU.

Erdogan even threatened to extend the state of emergency, stating this is a decision for Turkey whilst telling the EP “What’s it to you… Know your place!”

With Turkey even threatening to reintroduce the death penalty, Turkey clearly lacks the conviction of joining the EU at any price.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim downplayed the decision by the EP as having “no significance as far as we are concerned.” Whilst Erdogan warned the EU that they could reinforce their relations to the East and join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), “The EU has been delaying us for 53 years. Why shouldn’t Turkey be in the Shanghai five?”

Turkey’s vital strategic position as a major power straddling Europe and Asia and serving as a gateway the Middle East meant that it was always going to have huge importance to the EU. But having a predominantly Islamic based Turkey as a full member of what many perceive as a ‘Christian club’ was seemingly a bridge too far.

More importantly, Turkey needed to drastically narrow the gap of EU requirements if it was ever going to seriously become a full member of the EU. And this gap, widening as ever, demonstrates the great difficulties of seeing a country, that borders Iraq, Iran and Syria and with its different values and political landscape of ever joining the EU.

Over the years, EU powers had to manoeuvre around their strategic reliance on Ankara with any criticism of its anti-terror laws, restrictions on freedoms and especially the treatment of its Kurdish population. The arrest of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leaders might have been a final straw that led to the EP vote.

An example of the cautious nature of the EU towards Turkey is the response of Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, to the EP decision. On the one hand, he urged EU member to “refrain from giving lessons” to Turkey on the refugee crisis as Turkey was taking a greater burden then Europe on the matter but at same time he warned Turkey that they must abide by migrant deal, and stop the authoritarian treatment of its citizens or be responsible for the consequences.

Whilst acknowledging democratic progress under Erdogan until 2014, Junker beloved that in the past two years, Turkey has “distanced itself from European principles and value.”

An angry Erdogan threatened to “open the border gates” and flood the EU with thousands of migrants if the EP went any further. This would spell obvious disaster for EU and is a scenario that no one in Europe wants to see.

One of the anxious EU leaders was German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she urged both Europeans and Turkey to meet commitments.  Whilst Merkel insisted the agreement is in the mutual interest of both sides, in reality it is Europe without a Plan B and that remains highly concerned by a new influx of refugees that stands to really lose.

However, how long does the EU continue bend in its ideals and freedoms, which it openly acknowledges are not matched in Ankara, in appeasing Turkey?

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Arrest of HDP leaders fuels vicious cycle of violence

The controversial arrest of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) co-leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdagalong along with ten other MPs for alleged links to terrorism ramped up an already tense climate in the predominantly Kurdish south east.

These arrests, as part of a greater crackdown on dissidents and opposition forces in the aftermath of the failed July coup in Turkey under a state of emergency, places a fresh cloud over Turkey while threatening further polarization and fuelling the vicious cycle of violence.

When the Turkish parliament voted to lift the immunity of MPs from prosecution in May, the HDP were key targets of this bill and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made no secret of this. In an apparent reference to the HDP, Erdogan stated “my nation does not want to see guilty lawmakers in this country’s parliament. Above all, it does not want to see those supported by the separatist terror group in parliament.”

With the arrest of HDP MPs, Erdogan has followed up his tough rhetoric with firm action. However, the notion of “guilty” under the framework of punitive terror laws in Turkey is always bound to stir tension.

Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have frequently accused the HDP of been an extension of the PKK, a claim that they have denied.

Demirtas stated after his arrest “in these days where our country is pushed further into darkness, our illegal arrest only served to intensify the darkness.” The HDP announced a boycott of parliament in response to the arrests.

The HDP is not just a small party. It made history by becoming the first Kurdish party to break the 10% parliamentary threshold, and with 59 seats, it is the third largest bloc.

The HDP is not the first Kurdish group to suffer under shadows of the PKK. Many Kurdish parties have been closed for alleged links to the PKK.

But with strong support amongst Kurds, accusing HDP of been an arm of a terrorist group is akin to charging millions of their voters of been terrorists.

The aged—old Kurdish question remains a sensitive topic and too often Kurdish nationalism is intertwined with supporting the PKK. It has been almost impossible for pro-Kurds not to be labelled as separatists or inciting terrorism.

However, such views only serve to strengthen the polarization of the country. The millions of Kurds need a way between the PKK, whom clearly not all Kurds support and harsh government policies.

The HDP could have been a bridge, and as witnessed with its widespread support, many had hoped that the HDP could herald a new era for Kurdish politics in Turkey.

The Kurdish issue needed a political stage in a state of peace. HDP was a vital interlocutor at the height of the peace talks. Though it seemed closer than ever before, the ceasefire collapsed, and violence resumed in 2015.

The end of the ceasefire helped AKP to garner nationalist voters and ultimately helped the AKP win a majority at the snap elections. At the same time, it benefited those in the PKK who did not favor disarmament.

Now these arrest threatens more violence and closes the political platform for Kurds.

Similar moves to remove immunity in the 1990s did not pacify security fears in Turkey led to some of the worst violence at the time.

These latest arrests may strengthen Erdogan’s hands. Firstly, it dilutes opposition voices in parliament with a likely vote on adoption of a presidential system. Secondly, if the HDP fails to achieve 10% threshold in the future, the AKP may secure more seats.

As the snap elections proved, the PKK is a ubiquitous noose around the HDP. As the violence resumed, the HDP lost many seats in parliament compared to their June electing fairing. AKP strives to deal the HDP a further political blow.

The PKK may retaliate to these arrests with an escalation of violence, which will embolden hawks in Ankara and justify the need for strict security and terror laws leading to a continued deadlock.

The European Union and the United States expressed their concern over the arrests. Martin Schulz, European Parliament President, expressed that the arrests “call into question the basis for the sustainable relationship between the EU and Turkey.”

However, Turkish leaders hit back at the criticism. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim vowed that “politics can’t be a shield for committing crimes”, whilst Erdogan brushed off the criticism and accused the EU of “abetting terrorism.”

As the middle ground and diplomatic channels seems to fade in Turkey, the vicious cycle of bloodshed over the last 3 decades that has benefited no side and produced no clear victor will merely.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Turkish jockeying for influence in Iraq

As the much anticipated battle for Mosul final began, the number of parties vying for a key role in the battle underscores the diverse and complicated ethno-sectarian landscape. Turkey, determined to protect its own interests, is intent on playing a key hand. However, relations between Ankara and Baghdad have become frosty and fueled by mistrust, whilst Kurds are in a difficult position between both sides.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lashed out at Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, telling him to “know his place” before adding “you are not my equal.”

Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim threatened Baghdad “not to talk big.”

The presence of Turkish troops at the Bashiqa camp in Iraq has led to deep friction and increasingly tough rhetoric.

Turkish forces have been training predominantly Sunni Muslim forces but also Kurdish Peshmerga forces since 2014. However, relations between Baghdad and Ankara worsened in December 2015 as Turkey sent hundreds of elite troops and tanks to bolster its existing force.

Ankara has insisted that the Turkish troops were deployed at the request of Iraq to train their fighters but Baghdad has viewed them as an occupying force.

Turkey is keen on ensuring that Sunni militias it has trained play a key role to dilute the influence of Baghdad and the powerful Shia militias aligned to Iran in the Post Islamic State (IS) era. The sectarian animosity in Syria and Iraq are very much interlinked.

The Kurds find themselves vital to the liberation of Mosul, but face a somewhat tricky position between Baghdad and Ankara.

The Kurds enjoy strong economic ties with Turkey with independent oil exports enabled by Turkey. In needs Turkish support to maintain economic prosperity, security, Kurdish control of areas liberated from IS and later even outright independence. Therefore, it cannot be an obstacle to Turkish interests. At the same time, Erbil cannot afford to antagonise Baghdad.

As Iraq struggles for any sense of unity, Turkey relies on the Kurds and Sunnis to serve its regional and strategic interests, away from any dependence on Baghdad.

The Turkish military intervention in Syria, after years of criticism that it was sitting on the fence, showed a new willingness for Turkey to play a more proactive hand in determining the outcome of regional storms.

It was faced with a choice. These political and sectarian fires, intensified with the rise of the IS, will forever change the shape of the Middle East. Either Turkey tries to influence these historical events to its benefit or such events force a new reality on Turkey.

The growing power and autonomy of the Syrian Kurds, where Turkey alleges their main force to be the same as the PKK, is a great example of an idle Turkey forced to face such realities.

Erdogan warned that they will take action they deem required to protect their interest, “we don’t need permission from anyone, nor are we going to ask for it.”

In no uncertain terms, Erdogan made clear that Turkish forces will not leave Bashiqa. The decision by Turkish parliament to extend the mandate of the forces in Iraq underpins the long-term role that Ankara views in Iraq.

“We will convey our request to coalition forces that we are determined to take our place in a coalition in Iraq. If they don’t want us, our Plan B will come into effect.” Erdogan said.

That Plan B is not clear, but if Turkey is not allowed to join the coalition in Iraq, then they will take matters into their hand. They are likely to bolster their existing force, embolden Sunni forces to play a crucial role and perhaps endorse the expanded Kurdistan borders.

Equally, Baghdad is likely to have its own Plan B, including the possibility of increased support to PKK or allowing the PKK a role in the Mosul battle.

By virtue of Erdogan’s statement, it’s not just about the liberation of Mosul but also the post IS reality that he wants to protect via direct force or certainly through further training of Sunni forces.

The eventual destruction of IS will end one danger but bring many dangers in its wake, not least potential for another influx of refugees from Mosul and regional proxy wars for sectarian supremacy.

Kurdistan also needs long-term stability in the area as it will face the direct heat of more sectarian bloodshed on its border.

Turkey is unlikely to withdraw their forces, certainly not at the request of Baghdad, placing the United Stated into a tough corner with two vital allies. On the one hand it must support the notion of a unified Iraq and thus central influence of Baghdad, but it can do little to influence the Turks, Kurds, Sunni and Shia, all with different goals and a level of autonomy in their decision making.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Failed military coup only tip of the ice-berg for a highly polarised Turkey

The dramatic failed military coup that sent shockwaves across Turkey and the world may have quickly subsided but the aftermath of the events will be felt for much longer.

Whether it was just a faction of the military or not, it was no small matter. The coup forces ranged from low-ranking soldiers to senior officers demonstrating the broad nature of the move. Furthermore, it was not a handful of troops but several hundred that were able to deploy tanks and helicopters and carry out their moves with a degree of confidence and clear planning.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan emerged triumphant by early Saturday morning but was clearly as shocked as any as the events initially unfolded with the government simply unable to comprehend the size and support of the coup. A president speaking by Skype on his mobile to address the nation speaks volumes.

Helicopters and fighter jets roaring above the sky, sound of heavy gunfire and explosions and tanks rumbling through the streets in Istanbul and Ankara hardly paint a picture of an isolated incident. However, the tide of the coup clearly turned as thousands of Erdogan supporters heeded his call and took to the streets.

The mass of supporters confronted the rebel soldiers and surrounded tanks. At time of reporting the government had stated that 104 coup plotters had been killed and over 2800 arrested whilst more than 90 people had died and over 1100 were injured.

Yet, it could have been a much worse bloodbath. Popular support against the rebel soldiers helped to quickly take the steam out of the coup attempt and any heavy handed retaliation against the supporters would have quickly turned into much wider scale of violence.

But the crisis is far from over and the post-mortem is likely to be painful and protracted. Erdogan was quick to blame the “parallel structure” in clear reference to influential exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen who denied any involvement but regardless of who takes the rap for the coup, the dramatic events shows the highly polarised nature of Turkey.

Erdogan may have strong support but he equally has many foes. Then there is battle of ideology, identity and nationalism seeing a deepening divide between Islamists and secularists, reformists and conservatists and not forgetting the great divide between Kurds and Turks with the PKK and government continuing to wage war.

A highly paranoid Erdogan has been swift to consolidate power and banish opposition voices. Now it seems that the failed coup justifies to Erdogan his instincts based on suspicion, distrust  and a sense of anxiety.

This means that Erdogan now holds even more ammunition to continue with policies against Gulen, dissident voices and those who he deems as terrorists. As Erdogan dramatically arrived in Istanbul on the morning of the coup he decried that “What is being perpetrated is a treason and a rebellion. They will pay a heavy price.”

The number of arrests in Turkey quickly accelerated and is likely to yield thousands more in the coming days.

The fact that Erdogan urged his followers to remain on the streets and in key public places in case of a second coup demonstrate the fragile nature of the state. Erdogan and the AKP clearly realise that the coup attempt goes much deeper than those soldiers and generals involved.

The post-mortem will be harsh and messy and may only lead to a deeper polarisation of opposing camps. Erdogan called the failed coup a divine gift so that certain conspiring forces can be weeded out. And ironically, the coup strengthens Erdogan’s hand than really weaken his grip, allowing him to move more confidently towards the strong presidential system he craves.

The coup against a democratically elected government, whatever the scale of the country’s polarisation, was always going to be denounced by European and global powers.

The West have always looked at Turkey as a model of democracy in a fiery region but Turkey is much of a powder-keg as any.

The polarisation of Turkey into many camps naturally weakens the fight against the Islamic State (IS) or attempts to ferment regional stability.

Many of the battles between the Islamic, secularists, nationalists and reformists span many decades and has never really subsided but only contained. One of these old battles is of course the Kurdish issue. For decades, Ankara has been cutting the branches and not dealing with the root of the problems that has led to vicious cycle of war.

Hundreds of people have been killed in south east of Turkey in recent months but this has received little coverage than any event in west of Turkey as it has simply become normal to accept bloodshed in Kurdish parts of Turkey and accept them as by-products of terrorism and not as one of the many imbalances in the setup or health of the state.

First Published: Kurdistan 24

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc

Failed coup attempt provides Erdogan with new ammunition

The failed military coup in Turkey was intended to usher a new order, however, in the end it was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that emerged with a stronger hand and a great opportunity.

Dramatic footage as the coup unfolded of heavy gunfire, tanks and helicopters resembled a war zone. A weary looking Erdogan addressing the nation via FaceTime on his mobile summed up the uncertainty and desperation of the government as the coup unfolded.

Thousands of Erdogan supporters heeded his call and took to the streets effectively blunting the coup and eventually allowing the pro-government forces to wrestle back control.

As a sense of normality seemingly returned to Turkey, the aftermath of the dramatic events will echo much louder.

Erdogan has long tried to dampen dissident voices and stifle opposition circles. Erdogan can now clearly argue that his suspicion and distrust of the so called “parallel infrastructure” was not so far-fetched after all. He now has strong grounds to consolidate power, move towards his ambition of a presidential system and deal with long-time foe and influential exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen who he accused of perpetrating the coup.

Gulen was quick to deny any involvement but the AKP strongly pressured Washington to extradite him.

As the arrests quickly stacked up in the aftermath of the failed coup, thousands more can be expected in the coming days. There is even talk in Turkey of reinstating the death penalty. Either way, the government will come down hard and will point to the thousands of supporters on the streets as testimony to the endorsement of his policies.

However, do the thousands of supporters that ultimately helped the government emerge triumphant really paint the full picture?

The simple answer is that a highly polarised Turkey has been on the edge for some time. There are conflicting camps of Islamists, secularists, nationalists, reformists and not to mention inter-ethnic strife with the Kurds highlighted by a raging war against the PKK and unrest in the south east.

Erdogan may enjoy strong support but this should not mask his many opponents either. The fact that Erdogan and the AKP urged their supporter to remain vigilant in the face of any secondary coup attempt highlighted the vulnerabilities and uncertainties that remain.

Whilst the failed coup gives the government a strong card, it hardly means that the polarisation is about to disappear. For example, any arrest of Gulen or his extradition to Turkey will quickly expose loyalties.

Furthermore, to just point to the coup as a work of a small minority is short-sighted. The coup plotters involved hundreds of figures from senior generals to low ranking soldiers. They clearly must have enjoyed support and encouragement from non-military circles. A coup doesn’t just come about at a moment’s notice without careful planning.

The coup plot may leave Erdogan with a stronger hand but not necessarily a stronger Turkey. It has too often skimmed over the hostility of rival camps or stifled dissident voices. With so many conflicting sides having different interests in the makeup and future of the country, further turmoil is only a natural by-product.

First Published: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Various Misc