How Turkey’s War on ISIS Is Imperiling a Kurdish Peace

In joining the Western alliance against ISIS, Turkey is fighting its own shadow war as well.
Author:
Publish date:
Ahmet Davutoğlu turkey obama

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu arrives at a rally before this year's general election. (Photo: thomas koch/Shutterstock)

Turkey's three-year-old peace process with Kurdish rebels is in tatters amidst fears of a return to the bloody days of 1990s.

On July 20, just around noon, a massive explosion rocked the Suruç district of Turkey's Şanlıurfa Province, leaving 32 people dead and more than 100 injured. Only four days after the explosion, Turkey opened its airspace and Incirlik base in Adana to coalition forces, and fighter jets began to bombard the group Turkey had blamed for the Suruç bombing: ISIS.

That Turkey's deal to assist the coalition forces came with fine print became clear a few days later, when Turkish jets started bombing camps belonging to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq. Turkey was evidently looking to kill two birds with one stone: under the aegis of an alliance with Western powers against ISIS, Turkey managed to escalate its conflict with the PKK into a bombing campaign.

The Suruç bombing was followed by killings of policemen and soldiers in various Anatolian cities and the bombings of PKK militants' camps in Northern Iraq last week that brought the peace process between the Turkish state and Kurdish rebels to a sad end. For moderates on both sides, the ceasefire and the process of disarmament that started in 2012 had seemed like a solution to Turkey's century-old problems with its Kurdish citizens who were forced, over the 20th century, to reject their cultural identities, not speak their national language in public, and call themselves Turks.

The roles had changed dramatically since the foundation of the Turkish republic in the 1920s. Back then, Kurds were seen as terrorists by the Turkish state. Now, Turks are in the unflattering position of appearing to support terrorism.

Since 2012, when the upper echelons of Turkish government started direct talks with the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, a fragile peace process has been underway. At that time, Öcalan shifted his position from advocating an independent Kurdish state inside Turkish borders to working with Turkish politicians in the conservative AK Party, alongside left-wing members of the Republican People's Party, to reform Turkey into a properly democratic state—one in which all citizens would have equal rights. The current constitution defines all citizens as Turks; the Öcalan-Erdoğan idea was to re-write it with more inclusive language: instead of “Turks,” everyone would be “citizens of Turkey.” There were also plans to give more powers to local politicians, something Kurds have demanded for a long time. In return, Kurdish militants would begin a process of disarmament.

Over the past year, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq has unsettled this tenuous peace process. After the Turkish government failed to make a prompt intervention when ISIS besieged the Kurdish-held Syrian city of Kobane, Kurdish leaders began drawing parallels between the leaders of Turkey and the leaders of ISIS. "Turkey cannot continue ISIS support," Selahattin Demirtaş, Turkey's leading Kurdish politician, said.

If Kobane complicated Kurdish-Turkish relations, Turkey’s negotiations with ISIS last summer to secure the release of 48 hostages (including spouses and children of diplomats kidnapped from the Turkish embassy in Mosul) had similarly deleterious effects. The release of the hostages meant that Turks had probably made backroom deals with ISIS, as Turkish newspapers reported at the time.

It will be an embarrassment for the U.S. if it turns out that Turkey is more interested in eliminating PKK than ISIS.

In other words, the roles had changed dramatically since the foundation of the Turkish republic in the 1920s. Back then, Kurds were seen as terrorists by the Turkish state. Now, Turks are in the unflattering position of appearing to support terrorism.

What happened on Syrian soil had an enormous effect on domestic politics in Turkey. The general elections on June 7th this year saw a 10-percent drop in support for Turkish nationalist politicians, allowing the left-wing Kurdish party HDP a place in parliament. Kurds had viewed the battle of Kobane as a war for their very existence and were shocked by the Turkish government’s account of the conflict; according to the Turks, Islamist and Kurdish terrorists had fought each other in Kobane, and that was the end of the matter.

This week’s developments will derail the peace process even further. The United States seems to have tacitly approved the bombing of PKK camps in return for the right to use Turkey's Incirlik airbase, whence coalition forces are bombing ISIS targets in Syria. American diplomats disclaim knowledge of doings at the PKK camps, but it’ll be an embarrassment for the U.S. if it turns out that Turkey is more interested in eliminating PKK than ISIS. For many Kurdish politicians this is a stab in the back by Turks and Americans. For their part, Turks see PKK attacks on their security forces as a similar betrayal.

There remains one last option for peace, a slender chance for optimism. If the HDP’s leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, or prime minister Davutoğlu manage to quell the rising waves of violence with a message of peace and calls to resume co-operation, voters could reward their stance in the snap elections expected to be held before the end of this year. This dovish message would cost hawkish votes on both sides—but the polls suggest that an overwhelming majority of Turks and Kurds are in support of peace. According to a survey conducted by the private polling company KONDA, 81.3 percent of citizens supported the peace process in May 2013; unless conservatives capitalize on anti-Kurd sentiment to boost their votes, or Kurds shift to a more nationalist rhetoric, this popular support for peace will continue.

Until the elections, then, things will get messier here in Turkey every day. Hundreds of HDP members have been detained during police raids this week, and yesterday a state prosecutor demanded a 24-year prison term for Demirtaş, whom the prosecutor accused of “provoking people.” There are fears that secret kidnappings of Kurdish activists will begin by forces in the deep state, which would return Turkey to the bloody days of 1990s. This would mean two things: a triumph for terror, and a sad end to a hard-earned peace.

Related