Just before leaving on a trip to China this Tuesday, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan once again horrified people the world over.
It has become “impossible,” the Turkish president said at a press conference, to continue the peace process with the Kurdish PKK. Shortly before his announcement, Turkey’s air force had attacked Kurdish positions in Northern Iraq and, yes, even in the Kurdish city of Kobane in Syria, the same city where Kurds chased out the terrorist forces of the Islamic State (IS) to the cheers of a watching world.
Mr. Erdoğan’s gambit was well timed. The trans-Atlantic NATO council was coming together for a meeting called by Turkey to give the country strong political backing in its fight against IS. The military alliance didn’t waste a single official word on recent air attacks on Kurds in Iraq and Syria, meaning they were tolerated, even if some alliance partners such as Germany, have advised restraint.
This tore up the ceasefire agreement the PKK reached in 2013. Turkey now has placed itself in the paradoxical situation of not only fighting IS, but also its fiercest adversary, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian counterpart, the PYD.
Together with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army, Syrian Kurds have given IS such a bad time recently that it seemed Al-Raqqah, the virtual capital of the would-be caliphate, might be recaptured if the Kurdish-Arab coalition was sufficiently supported by the U.S. and Turkey. But since Ankara began shelling Kurdish positions with America’s consent, that’s over for now.
This has made Turkey a part of the anti-IS coalition. Yet simultaneously it has weakened the coalition by fighting the Kurds.
The harsh realities of war will prove over time just how untenable the Turkish position is. After all, who is supposed to conquer and hold the “IS-free zones” envisioned by Ankara and Washington, if not the Kurds? It can’t be accomplished with air power alone. On the other hand, neither the U.S. or Turkey wants to send ground troops into Syria. The much-touted moderate rebel force that is to march against the caliphate under the protective wings of the Pentagon so far consists of just 60 men.
Prior to the recent attacks on Kurdish positions, there was hope that Ankara would change its thinking, especially following the suicide attack on July 20 in the Turkish border town of Suruç that killed 32 supporters of a socialist youth movement who wanted to help rebuild the Syrian city of Kobane. It was the first attack inside Turkey the government blamed on IS. Now, after a lengthy period of hesitation, it has joined the alliance against the jihadists.
There had been much international criticism and speculation over whether Turkey was closing its eyes to IS within its own borders or even supporting it until, at long last, the Turkish air force and artillery attacked Syrian positions and Ankara finally gave the U.S. Air Force permission to attack IS from its base in Incirlik.
This has made Turkey a part of the anti-IS coalition. Yet simultaneously it has weakened the coalition by fighting the Kurds. How was this paradox created? The answer is bitter and rooted in domestic politics.
Mr. Erdoğan already has revealed his motives. “Whatever price must be paid, we will never allow the establishment of a new state on our southern frontier in the north of Syria,” he said four weeks ago when assessing the success of Kurdish forces that pushed IS from the Syrian town of Tell Abyad with the support of U.S. air power.
His comments summed up his government’s thinking about the changes in the region. While civil war was tearing Syria apart, Kurds in the north brought a large area under their control in the winter of 2013-14 and named it “Rojava,” establishing an autonomous government where all ethnic groups would have a say.
The Kurds, perennial losers in the Middle East and the only nation of people left empty-handed in the great period of nation-building from 1919 to 1932, have been repressed for long periods of time. Now, it was the Kurds suddenly redrawing a piece of the territorial map. Rojava, which consists of the three cantons, Jazira, Kobani and Afrin, was considered the most secure region in Syria.
At least, until IS advanced to Kobane in the fall of 2014. The world watched this small town, whose name was unknown to most, for weeks as the Kurds battled radical jihadists. One government capital in particular paid very close attention when it looked like the Kurds would defeat IS there.
If government representatives in Ankara weren’t already uneasy at the sight of a flag on the Syrian-Turkish border with Kurdish colors or the likeness of the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, they were now. The Kurds were hailed as heroes and Kobane was their symbol. Turkey, despite all the tanks massed at the border, was a bystander without a plan.
Quite possibly, the government hoped the militant Islamists and the Kurds would neutralize each other. The Kurds would keep jihadists away from the Turkish border and IS would contain Kurdish ambitions of autonomy in Rojava, but it didn’t turn out that way. Instead, the Kurds became stronger, while the attack in Suruç meant IS had carried the war onto Turkish territory. Instead of winning on two fronts, Ankara simultaneously lost both.
Tell Abyad followed Kobane. By reconquering this border town, the eternally stateless Kurds took a significant step closer to what is called the Kurdish Corridor, a strip running from the far northeast of Syria westward down to the Mediterranean. The capture of Tell Abyad filled a large hole in this corridor.
Nervousness increased in Ankara. The Kurds seemed unstoppable. Meanwhile, in the June elections, the pro-Kurdish party HDP was elected to the Turkish parliament for the first time on a promise not only to represent Kurdish interests, but to become a democratic party for all of Turkey. It also opposed Mr. Erdoğan’s ambition to establish a presidential system that would grant him more power as head of state.
The HDP immediately threw its support behind Kobane and the Kurdish cause in Syria. At the same time, it promised to help continue the popularly supported peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurds. Perplexingly, the president spoke of there not being a Kurdish problem.
The Kurds had become strong – not only in Syria and in the eyes of the world – but also inside Turkey. They became electable even for non-Kurds with the HDP, and this merger of Kurdish and left-wing Turkish groups was partially responsible for Mr. Erdoğan’s government party, the AKP, losing ten percentage points, a sharp setback for a party that had seen its percentage of votes increase from election to election. Such a humiliation is not easily forgotten.
Mr. Erdoğan’s party again is noting the close association of the HDP to the outlawed PKK, though the existence of the relationship is no secret. HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş recently said of the PKK in an interview with Die Zeit, “That is the political movement from which I come.” Such candor is unusual in Turkey because the HDP cannot be understood only as the parliamentary counterpart to the PKK, but also as a driver in the integration of the Kurdish movement in Turkish politics. That stands in contrast to those who recognize only friend or foe in this internal conflict.
Last Tuesday, Mr. Erdoğan suspended the immunity of HDP members in parliament because of their close association with the PKK. His prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, demanded the HDP finally decide between violence and peace. While it is true the HDP has not dealt self-critically with its association with the PKK, the government propaganda contains a certain contradiction, if not outright hypocrisy.
After all, the HDP has helped the government over the course of three years of negotiations with the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, to find a solution to the conflict. The pro-Kurdish party functioned as a go-between and was allowed to send a delegation regularly to the Kurdish leader on the island prison of İmralı. There were joint press conferences with government representatives, where statements by the enemy of the state, Mr. Öcalan, were read.
Including Mr. Öcalan in negotiations was a wise and courageous decision by the government. The conflict has been raging for 30 years and taken 40,000 lives without being resolved. But it seems the Kurds recently have become too strong for the government. Now, the HDP negotiation delegation complains they no longer are allowed access to Mr. Öcalan.
Instead, the government party has locked in on the HDP. Once again, as there was on election eve, there is talk of new elections. The reason is obvious. If the state creates a clear frontline, it would be able to nullify the gain in percentage points made by the HDP.
Although the Turkish people support the peace process with the Kurds, if the government decides to move against armed PKK forces, a large part of the population would support it. This enemy, after all, has been familiar for three decades, while IS is harder to comprehend. The Kurdish conflict is concrete. Every mother and father has spent sleepless nights while their sons were performing military service and might be deployed to the east for anti-terror operations.
Most Turks will support a strong, determined and authoritarian government that fights for national security, whether or not they are supporters of the AKP, particularly when the other side falls back on old knee-jerk reactions. PKK has claimed responsibility for some of the recent executions of police officers, attacks on Turkish soldiers, kidnappings and ambushes, but not all of them.
The HDP is being crushed between these fronts. The AKP demands it disarm the PKK, something not even NATO’s second-largest army has been able to accomplish in 30 years of conflict. HDP Co-Chair Mr. Demirtaş recently said he could talk all day about disarming, but ultimately the decision belongs to Mr. Öcalan. PKK headquarters promptly protested against such meddling.
Turkey and the PKK find themselves with an historic opportunity, even as they are plunging into this conflict. Who else can the Turks partner with at the moment besides their well-known foes? Most nations in the region don’t come into play. Yet Turkey is strong enough to deal with the Kurds as alliance and business partners.
In northern Iraq, for example, a de facto Kurdish state has been formed and Turkey still exists. It presents no danger to Turkey. On the contrary, it is a powerful and valuable ally in the fight against IS.
It would be smart if Turkey made a gesture toward the Kurds’ political party because it would strengthen their moderate outlook. And, at some point, the military arm of the PKK, which is attracting the largest number of recruits in a long time, would become superfluous. Such a Kurdish policy is in Turkey’s best interest. It’s also important this be said to Turkey in a way that also allows the Turkish public to hear the message.
Certainly, that wasn’t the job of the NATO, which had to demonstrate solidarity. But it wasn’t a brilliant diplomatic achievement that the criticism of Mr. Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish activities slipped into informal, closed-door meetings. After all, every member state is interested in beating IS.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org