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Erdogan's security dilemma

The 20 July bomb attack in Suruç made it clear that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a long battle. The Daesh bombing of a leftist youth centre took 32 lives; it has not only shown that Turkey is now becoming increasingly vulnerable to such attacks, but also that the domestic political situation in Turkey is becoming very sensitive.

The best way to view the challenges facing Erdogan’s presidency is to picture him trapped inside a triangle. One side is the threat coming from Daesh, which is slowly but surely infiltrating the country; a second is the threat from the secularist HDP party; and the third is coming from the PKK. Although the latter is one of the strongest factions fighting Daesh, giving the Kurdish movement and the government a common enemy, it has one fundamental disagreement with Erdogan; the PKK is ultimately fighting to create an independent Kurdistan.

To understand the context behind the Kurdish question in Turkey, the history of the problem must be considered. Was there ever a Kurdistan? Or are Turkish Kurds, as it has been declared for the past 100 years, “mountain Turks who have forgotten their language”? Are the recent PKK attacks on Turkey’s infrastructure, which have been condemned by the UN, symbolic of the Kurdish struggle as a whole? In Turkey’s case, this all goes back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Turkey as a state was formed in 1923 when the Treaty of Lausanne replaced the Treaty of Sevres. It not only symbolised the complete collapse of the Ottoman Empire, but the rise of a man called Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the leader of a secularist group called the Young Turks. When he was in his political infancy, Ataturk spoke of creating a community between Turks and Kurds, but he was also careful to use the word “Turkey” in describing the post-Ottoman state for this purpose.

Having formed an official alliance with the Bolsheviks in March 1921 under the Treaty of Moscow, Ataturk felt more entitled to power than ever, which he did not shy away from exploiting. With the moral support and funding of the Bolsheviks, Ataturk forced his rise to power by attempting to undermine Islamic heritage and completely destroying the caliphate; he also “nationalised” Turkey and marginalised ethnic minorities, such as the Armenians and the Kurds. In fact, the Armenians were subject to genocide and Kurds were also massacred. Their language was outlawed and their ethnic status was removed, changing their official name to “Mountain Turks”. Because of Ataturk’s Bolshevik backing, the British and French Sykes-Picot agreement refused to create a Kurdistan, because of the fear of the spread of communism in the Middle East. It was seen as better to comply and turn the Kemalist regime slowly into a pro-Western capitalist regime.

Since then, the Kurdish people have been fighting for their sovereignty and for their national identity to be recognised, with limited success in Bashur, or what is commonly referred to as Iraqi Kurdistan. The fight against Daesh has given the Kurds legitimacy across the world, mainly in the Western countries which support their many armed factions. People who had never heard of the Kurds in 2012 now hail their bravery and are advocating their right to an independent state. This would mean the independence of south-eastern Turkey and turning it into Bakur, or northern Kurdistan.

From Erdogan’s perspective, this is clearly bad news and he views the PKK as a similar threat to Daesh, which explains why he is currently battling both at the same time. The past 30 years have shown an uneven pattern of violence and peace between Kurds and Turks; this latest violence stems from the end of a ceasefire between the Turkish government and Kurdish forces in 2013, creating a hostile environment between the two as Daesh make gains. Since giving up on the talks and the PKK taking up arms again, which have been used both to fight Daesh and to attack Turkish police and military personnel, Erdogan has started to condemn the movement openly and attack its forces in Syria to put the Kurds at a strategic disadvantage. He justifies this by the fact that PKK forces are killing Turkish forces that are also trying to fight Daesh along the Turkey-Syria border.

This gives the opportunity to Erdogan’s political rival, Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the secularist HDP, to condemn Erdogan and his party for his approach towards the PKK. Without any evidence, Demirtas has claimed that it was Erdogan who was behind the Suruç attack instead of Daesh; the Turkish president has, of course, denied his. Demirtas is a Kurd who views Kurdish emancipation as democratising Turkey to integrate Kurds into the Turkish system; he has never advocated what many Kurds wish for, which is their independence and right to a nation, thus leaving an ideological rift between the PKK and HDP, although it is unlikely to turn into a public disagreement at this stage.

It is unlikely that Erdogan will return to a softer stance towards the Kurdish factions for political reasons; unless the PKK puts down its arms, he can’t do anything without compromising the security of Turkey’s armed forces. At the same time, Daesh will feed off the conflict between the PKK and the ruling AKP.

In Erdogan’s mind, both the PKK and Daesh are there to divide and rule Turkey, be it through a self-proclaimed caliphate, or by independence. Because Daesh and the PKK are fighting each other, it is impossible to synchronise his power struggle with one faction without benefiting the other and, politically, avoid domestic criticism from the opposition.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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