Turkey on the Road to the Precipice

A few days ago, Turkey hosted something called the World Humanitarian Summit, shortly after its parliament passed a bill that would allow its government to  lift parliamentary immunity and throw in jail members of parliament whose opinions do not agree with those of its increasingly dictatorial Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  This puts paid to any remaining pretensions Turkey had of being a democracy and guarantees that this NATO member is headed for disaster.  To understand why this is now inevitable, a closer look at this pernicious bill and the background to it are needed.

After coming to power with a huge majority in 2003, Erdoğan, who never hid his ultimate intentions to pursue the radical Islamization of Turkey, introduced a number of policies that were well received.  One of them was to enter into reconciliation talks with the large Kurdish minority and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)  representing it, which had been the key factor motivating the bloody Kurdish insurrection that claimed 40,000 victims in the 1980s and 1990s.  Two of these policies, the ability to use the Kurdish language and elect their own mayors in the vast Kurd-dominated southeastern part of Turkey, were particularly popular, and the PKK unilaterally declared cease-fire in March 2013 after months of negotiations between Ankara and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In the meantime, however, the geopolitical circumstances of the large Kurdish minorities in the region had changed dramatically, encouraging greater strivings for autonomy.  The Kurds in northern Iraq had de facto become independent and had also distinguished themselves as the only military force capable of standing up to ISIS.  Something similar happened in northern Syria, where Bashar Assad  withdrew his forces early on and the majority-Kurdish areas also became autonomous, as well as the main opponent of the Islamic State terrorists, who were tacitly or directly supported by Erdoğan.

Erdoğan's relations with the Kurds took a turn for the worst with the siege of the Kurdish-Syrian town of  Kobani and the occupation of 350 Kurdish villages by ISIS terrorists in September 2014.  Ankara's failure to come to the assistance of Kobani triggered violent anti-government riots across the Kurdish areas in Turkey that were brutally put down and poisoned relations further.  The end of the efforts at reconciliation came after the parliamentary elections in June of 2015, when the Kurdish party, HDP, received over 13% of the vote and not only entered parliament, but denied parliamentary majority to Erdoğan's AKP.

It was at this point that Erdoğan must have decided to destroy the HDP by force by accusing them of terrorism and initiating massive repression efforts by the military, resulting in thousands of civilian victims in Kurdish towns since last fall.  For the Islamist Erdoğan, the HDP represented yet another political challenge.  The elections showed that the Kurds' liberal platform was increasingly appealing to secular Turks of all ethnic backgrounds.

Return to the present, and Erdoğan's strategy becomes crystal-clear.  He began arguing publicly as early as January 2016 that the HDP parliamentarians were terrorists and should be tried and jailed.  After that, it was only a question of time for the AKP and its nationalist allies to pass a bill on May 20, 2016 to lift the immunity of the Kurdish deputies and possibly others as well.  The bill is written so broadly – i.e., "providing physical, spiritual and moral support to terrorism" – that even an opinion in favor of Kurdish autonomy or other "objectionable views" could qualify one as a terrorist.

There is no doubt anymore that Erdoğan has opted out for brutal political oppression to achieve his objective of turning Turkey into an Islamist dictatorship with himself as the unquestioned sole authority.  And this may not be the end of his ambitions.  As many who have followed his radical Islamist career have noted, he has never been shy in presenting himself as the hope of the entire Muslim world and Turkey as its legitimate leader, as the Ottoman Empire once was.  The only question that remains to be answered is whether he will succeed.

And here there are serious reasons to question his prospects, both domestically and internationally.  Domestically, there is little doubt that Erdoğan's brutal tactics will further enflame the Kurds, drive thousands of new recruits to the PKK, and likely to result in a major flare-up of violence, not only in the traditional Kurdish territories in the southeast, but also in the major cities of western Turkey, where Kurds now live in compact masses.  This is a nightmare scenario to which there is no military solution.

No less serious are the foreign-political implications of Erdoğan's repressive tactics.  It is already clear that the European Union is not going to grant Turkey the Merkel-conceived visa-free travel if it does not change its terrorism legislation, which Erdoğan will not do, since it is his main political intimidation and blackmail tool.  The Europeans may also be getting fed up with being constantly abused by the Turkish president for their ostensible "slavery-and-colonial-era-mindsets."  This means that Turkey will remain ostracized and politically isolated in both Europe and the Middle East as never before in its modern history.  

Perhaps worse still is the looming and inevitable conflict with America in Syria.  It is well proven by now that Turkey under Erdoğan has never been serious about the fight against radical Sunni terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Israr al-Sham etc., but in fact has aided and abetted them.  This is no longer tolerable, as the U.S. and its allies are gearing up for some decisive battles against ISIS, from Falluja and Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria.  And on all of these fronts, the Kurds are America's most reliable and battle-hardened allies, from the Peshmerga in Mosul to the PYD in Syria.  The latter, for instance, make five sixths of the Syrian Defense Force (SDF) of 30,000 arrayed against ISIS.  The U.S. has already embedded 200 special operations troops in the PYD units (with 250 more on their way) and closely coordinates air strikes and operations with them.  No amount of protestation by the Turks that the Kurds are terrorists is likely to make much difference to Washington, given the experience on the ground.

And it is the logic of the conflict that sooner or later, if not in this administration, then certainly in the next one, America will have acknowledge that Islamist Turkey had long ceased to be  a friend of the West and act accordingly.  It won't be a minute too soon.

Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (cbbss.org).  He tweets on national security at twitter.com/alexieff and can be reached at alexievalex4@gmail.com.

A few days ago, Turkey hosted something called the World Humanitarian Summit, shortly after its parliament passed a bill that would allow its government to  lift parliamentary immunity and throw in jail members of parliament whose opinions do not agree with those of its increasingly dictatorial Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  This puts paid to any remaining pretensions Turkey had of being a democracy and guarantees that this NATO member is headed for disaster.  To understand why this is now inevitable, a closer look at this pernicious bill and the background to it are needed.

After coming to power with a huge majority in 2003, Erdoğan, who never hid his ultimate intentions to pursue the radical Islamization of Turkey, introduced a number of policies that were well received.  One of them was to enter into reconciliation talks with the large Kurdish minority and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)  representing it, which had been the key factor motivating the bloody Kurdish insurrection that claimed 40,000 victims in the 1980s and 1990s.  Two of these policies, the ability to use the Kurdish language and elect their own mayors in the vast Kurd-dominated southeastern part of Turkey, were particularly popular, and the PKK unilaterally declared cease-fire in March 2013 after months of negotiations between Ankara and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

In the meantime, however, the geopolitical circumstances of the large Kurdish minorities in the region had changed dramatically, encouraging greater strivings for autonomy.  The Kurds in northern Iraq had de facto become independent and had also distinguished themselves as the only military force capable of standing up to ISIS.  Something similar happened in northern Syria, where Bashar Assad  withdrew his forces early on and the majority-Kurdish areas also became autonomous, as well as the main opponent of the Islamic State terrorists, who were tacitly or directly supported by Erdoğan.

Erdoğan's relations with the Kurds took a turn for the worst with the siege of the Kurdish-Syrian town of  Kobani and the occupation of 350 Kurdish villages by ISIS terrorists in September 2014.  Ankara's failure to come to the assistance of Kobani triggered violent anti-government riots across the Kurdish areas in Turkey that were brutally put down and poisoned relations further.  The end of the efforts at reconciliation came after the parliamentary elections in June of 2015, when the Kurdish party, HDP, received over 13% of the vote and not only entered parliament, but denied parliamentary majority to Erdoğan's AKP.

It was at this point that Erdoğan must have decided to destroy the HDP by force by accusing them of terrorism and initiating massive repression efforts by the military, resulting in thousands of civilian victims in Kurdish towns since last fall.  For the Islamist Erdoğan, the HDP represented yet another political challenge.  The elections showed that the Kurds' liberal platform was increasingly appealing to secular Turks of all ethnic backgrounds.

Return to the present, and Erdoğan's strategy becomes crystal-clear.  He began arguing publicly as early as January 2016 that the HDP parliamentarians were terrorists and should be tried and jailed.  After that, it was only a question of time for the AKP and its nationalist allies to pass a bill on May 20, 2016 to lift the immunity of the Kurdish deputies and possibly others as well.  The bill is written so broadly – i.e., "providing physical, spiritual and moral support to terrorism" – that even an opinion in favor of Kurdish autonomy or other "objectionable views" could qualify one as a terrorist.

There is no doubt anymore that Erdoğan has opted out for brutal political oppression to achieve his objective of turning Turkey into an Islamist dictatorship with himself as the unquestioned sole authority.  And this may not be the end of his ambitions.  As many who have followed his radical Islamist career have noted, he has never been shy in presenting himself as the hope of the entire Muslim world and Turkey as its legitimate leader, as the Ottoman Empire once was.  The only question that remains to be answered is whether he will succeed.

And here there are serious reasons to question his prospects, both domestically and internationally.  Domestically, there is little doubt that Erdoğan's brutal tactics will further enflame the Kurds, drive thousands of new recruits to the PKK, and likely to result in a major flare-up of violence, not only in the traditional Kurdish territories in the southeast, but also in the major cities of western Turkey, where Kurds now live in compact masses.  This is a nightmare scenario to which there is no military solution.

No less serious are the foreign-political implications of Erdoğan's repressive tactics.  It is already clear that the European Union is not going to grant Turkey the Merkel-conceived visa-free travel if it does not change its terrorism legislation, which Erdoğan will not do, since it is his main political intimidation and blackmail tool.  The Europeans may also be getting fed up with being constantly abused by the Turkish president for their ostensible "slavery-and-colonial-era-mindsets."  This means that Turkey will remain ostracized and politically isolated in both Europe and the Middle East as never before in its modern history.  

Perhaps worse still is the looming and inevitable conflict with America in Syria.  It is well proven by now that Turkey under Erdoğan has never been serious about the fight against radical Sunni terrorist organizations, such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, Israr al-Sham etc., but in fact has aided and abetted them.  This is no longer tolerable, as the U.S. and its allies are gearing up for some decisive battles against ISIS, from Falluja and Mosul in Iraq to Raqqa in Syria.  And on all of these fronts, the Kurds are America's most reliable and battle-hardened allies, from the Peshmerga in Mosul to the PYD in Syria.  The latter, for instance, make five sixths of the Syrian Defense Force (SDF) of 30,000 arrayed against ISIS.  The U.S. has already embedded 200 special operations troops in the PYD units (with 250 more on their way) and closely coordinates air strikes and operations with them.  No amount of protestation by the Turks that the Kurds are terrorists is likely to make much difference to Washington, given the experience on the ground.

And it is the logic of the conflict that sooner or later, if not in this administration, then certainly in the next one, America will have acknowledge that Islamist Turkey had long ceased to be  a friend of the West and act accordingly.  It won't be a minute too soon.

Alex Alexiev is chairman of the Center for Balkan and Black Sea Studies (cbbss.org).  He tweets on national security at twitter.com/alexieff and can be reached at alexievalex4@gmail.com.