The conflict between Turkey and its Kurdish population has killed 40,000 people over the past three decades. Bringing about peace in this seemingly intractable conflict was a domestic priority for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during his time as prime minister and will remain so; Turkey saw a ceasefire agreed with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the development of peace talks, and much-improved relations with the energy-rich Kurdistan Regional Government of northern Iraq.
But now, it seems, that work has been undone quickly, as the situation in Iraq and Syria spills over into Turkey. The government in Ankara has watched with anxiety as an international coalition, led by the US, armed Kurds in Iraq to equip them to fight against “Islamic State” (ISIS) militants. Last week, the question of Turkey’s stance on ISIS and its willingness to get involved became more pressing, as the group pushed closer and closer towards the Turkey-Syria border. Militants moved in on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which is very close to the border. Turkish tanks lined up opposite Kobani, to prevent any incursions on their territory, but there appeared to be no efforts to cross into Syria and enter the city to assist the besieged population. For the most part watching passively, Turkish armed forces actually obstructed Turkish Kurdish fighters and weaponry from crossing the border to boost the city’s defences. Around 180,000 refugees have fled Kobani. They have been accepted as refugees by Turkey, but the country – a NATO member – has stopped short of joining the US-led coalition against ISIS, calling instead for the creation of a buffer zone and a no-fly zone.
Why the ambivalence? Given Turkey’s proximity to ISIS’s new caliphate, it stands to suffer greatly from the situation across the border. This was demonstrated by the 46 Turkish citizens kidnapped by ISIS in June and held for more than 100 days. The answer, though, can be found in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Turkey insists that it is opposed to ISIS and wants to halt its land grab, but officials in Ankara – including Erdogan himself – have equated ISIS with the PKK, a group outlawed in Turkey because of a long campaign of armed uprising, fought from 1984 to 2013. The PKK is affiliated with the Kurds who are defending Kobani. On Wednesday, an MP from the ruling party posted a tweet, which seemed to suggest that he preferred ISIS to the PKK, saying that the jihadi group killed but did not torture. The tweet was later deleted. Critics of the government say that it is tacitly allowing ISIS to extend its reach right up to its border, because it prefers ISIS-controlled territory to PKK-controlled territory.
Certainly, there has already been an abrupt worsening of relations between the Kurdish and Turkish populations in Turkey. Kurds make up around 20 per cent of the population across Turkey; they are broadly disenfranchised and tension sits just below the surface. Protests flared across the Kurdish south-east of the country and in Istanbul and Ankara, as demonstrators furious at Turkey’s failure to intervene set fire to buildings and Turkish flags. At least 18 people have died in the violence so far. In Kurdish cities, tanks have been deployed and curfews declared. On Wednesday, train services and flights were halted and schools and universities closed.
High tension over Kobani has undermined the peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK. In 2013, the PKK agreed a ceasefire and began withdrawing its fighters slowly to the Kurdistan Region of north Iraq, as part of what was called a “solution process” between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority. The PKK has been active in the fight against ISIS since mid-July, but the recent crisis in Kobani has led to an end to the ceasefire as it clashed with Turkish forces on the border. Talks between Ankara and the PKK to bring a lasting peace in Turkey have been totally eclipsed by the Kurds’ battle with ISIS.
The violence of protests across Turkey illustrates that tension and resentment remains from both ethnic Kurds and Turks. Almost 30 cities saw protests with highly symbolic curfews; they were the first in 22 years. The Kobani crisis has certainly undermined the peace process, and Erdogan’s party will fear a backlash at the next election if violence continues. Internationally, too, this continued animosity matters. It complicates Turkey’s already ambivalent attitude towards ISIS; since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, its priority has been to oust President Bashar al-Assad, and it has been accused of being too close to some of the Islamist rebel groups. Turkey’s continued inaction will further strain relations with Washington. Of course, on the other hand – and as policy-makers in Ankara have argued – direct involvement would risk retaliation attacks on Turkish soil. Whatever happens over the coming weeks and months, it is clear that this conflict will continue to have a deep and far-reaching impact on Turkey.