Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Erdogan’s Political Gamble: From Peace to War?*

With each passing day, Turkey is falling deeper into a chasm of violence. Pictures showing funerals of Turkish security forces are splashed across the news, together with reports of Turkish airstrikes hitting at strongholds of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), located deep in the mountainous regions of southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. With this news, it is easy to forget that Turkey has been steadily working toward a peace agreement with the PKK since 2012. It has become one of the most prized policies of the former prime minister, and now president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This sharp turn in events occurred just days after an Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) sympathizer led a suicide attack on the youth wing of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed (ESP), which is affiliated with the mostly Kurdish leftist bloc, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The attack occurred on July 20 in the southern town of Suruc, taking the lives of 32 people. The victims were mostly university students, on their way to deliver goods to the Kurdish-Syrian border town of Kobane, whose People’s Protection Units (YPG) had resisted a massive Islamic State onslaught just last fall. It is important to note that the YPG has numerous leftist Turkish citizens fighting among its ranks, much to the dismay of the government and radical Islamist groups in Turkey.

Once news broke that the suicide bombing in Suruc was the work of an ISIS sympathizer, the interim Turkish government, led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, opened a military front against the organization, arresting members in Turkey and conducting airstrikes against it in Syria. This move was welcomed by the United States, which was becoming impatient with what appeared to be Turkey’s “hands-off stance” – or even, at times, preferring Islamic State over the Kurds in Syria. In June, after ISIS lost control of the Syrian border town of Tel Abyad to the Kurds, Sabah – a staunchly pro-Erdogan newspaper – went so far as to run a headline stating the Kurds posed a greater danger to Turkey than ISIS.

The problem, however, went up a notch when Turkey didn’t just suffice with hitting Islamic State, but also used the opportunity to embark on a bombing campaign against what now appears to have been its real target, the PKK. This came after the PKK assassinated two Turkish police officers, claiming they had collaborated with ISIS in the Suruc attack. While Turkey certainly has the right to retaliate, its response was disproportionate, leading one to ask why it has taken a path that is clearly working on collapsing the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) much-cherished peace process.

Unfortunately, the answer boils down to Erdogan himself, who is still running the show and maintaining a strong hold over Turkey’s prime minister, Davutoglu, who took the AKP reins when Erdogan became president last summer. Even before the June election – when the AKP failed, for the first time in 13 years, to secure a parliamentary majority – Erdogan made clear time and again that if peace was to be made with the Kurds, it would be done on his terms and his terms alone. He even softly threatened the Turkish electorate that it needed to give the AKP an overwhelming majority if they wished to change the system “peacefully.” The AKP didn’t get a majority, and Turkey is now farther than ever from peace.

Unsurprisingly, the AKP’s war of words against the PKK has swiftly turned into a delegitimization campaign against the HDP, amid claims by Erdogan that it has “links to terrorist organizations,” and that its members’ parliamentary immunity should be lifted, with prosecutors opening investigations within days. One can only marvel at the irony that the very people who were acting as intermediaries between Erdogan and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan just months ago could now be placed on trial. And if found guilty they will be sent straight from parliament to a jail cell, essentially barring them from any potential snap election.

Even more worrying is the fact that all this is happening as the AKP is serving as an interim government. In other words, the military offensive against ISIS (which has repercussions not discussed in this article) and the PKK come without a mandate, and make you question who Davutoglu is actually referring to when he declares, “We are ready to sacrifice our sons.” In the meantime, the muscle-flexing PKK has shown in the last two weeks it is still able to hit hard at Turkey, with daily attacks on the Turkish army and police. It has pushed Davutoglu into a corner, leading him to react in similar fashion to previous leaders who also believed military power could silence the Kurdish question.

With optimism at a low, one can only hope the HDP’s charismatic coleader Selahattin Demirtas can convince the PKK to adhere to a cease-fire – since, like Turkey, it has little to gain from the current escalation. It is important also to commend the main opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu (Republican People’s Party – CHP), for not getting dragged into the wild nationalist rhetoric used by Erdogan, Davutoglu and, most recently, Devlet Bahceli, the nationalist MHP (National Action Party) leader. The CHP has opted to take a high road and, by not undermining the HDP’s role in Turkish politics, is proving to be an important stabilizing factor.

Let us hope Turkey is able to overcome this sudden turn toward violence. However, this is unlikely to happen until the AKP accepts the outcome of the June election, which can be interpreted as an overwhelming vote for a continuation of the peace process together with a resounding “no” to Erdogan’s plans for a presidential system. Until Davutoglu and other AKP members take this fact to heart, and recognize that the peace process belongs to the people and they don’t have a monopoly over it, it seems Turkey could be on its way to much darker days.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on 8 August 2015, please click here for original

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