Last Thursday March 19 Sinan Ciddi of the Georgetown Institute of Turkish Studies spoke at Boston University on “Elections and the Struggle for Political Legitimacy.” His focus was the current state of Turkish democracy, namely how and why current President Erdogan has come to dominate all aspects of the Turkish government and the likely course of Turkish politics in the near future. Ciddi offered some thought-provoking and timely insights into the current trajectory of AKP rule and the possible outcome of the June 7th general elections.
Erdogan’s rise to power was until recently enthusiastically supported by Western governments and, despite his increasing authoritarianism, Ciddi reminded us that a large plurality of Turks still enthusiastically support Erdogan and his party. During the last ten years the AKP has transformed the economy and infrastructure of Turkey. Lower class and rural Turks in particular have seen a significant, positive change in their income and access to necessary services. Those Turks whose lives have been significantly bettered under Erdogan’s leadership are extremely loyal to his party and him personally and care little about the more abstract political issues at stake.
Ciddi characterizes President Erdogan’s efforts to convert the Turkish government into a Presidential system as “regime change.” The change is already de facto, but it is important that it has not yet been legally established. In other words, though Erdogan operates as if he already the official head of the Turkish government, the office of the Presidency still retains only limited official abilities to influence legislative functions. During the early years of AKP rule, the party and its leadership were hailed as denizens of [relatively] liberal, democratic change and shining examples of how Islam and democracy could co-exist. Now Erdogan is daily, and not undeservedly, characterized as an aspiring dictator by the international media.
Erdogan’s seeming transformation from a committed democrat to a committed autocrat has been distressing and puzzling to many of his former Western allies, but Ciddi believes that Erdogan’s current trajectory was in many ways set before he even ascended to the office of Prime Minister. Ciddi identifies Erdogan’s Islamist background as a significant influence in his current political vision and the instigator of his authoritarianism. For Turkish Islamists, Kemalism and its program of modernization and Westernization serve as their political foil, and Erdogan’s current political agenda is still significantly motivated by opposition to everything the “old” Turkey represents. Ciddi points out that though Erdogan insisted that he had accepted the secular, democratic nature of the Turkish state, he provided no proof of his reformation besides his declared conversion. Ciddi asserts that Erdogan never reformed his beliefs and deep down still maintained a commitment to the illiberal Islamist political vision. Ironically Erdogan is attempting to eradicate the monolithic ideologically of Kemalism, only to replace it with his own monolithic vision for a “new” Turkey.
Erdgoan’s actions are not pure motivated by political ideology however. Ciddi believes that there are two other significant factors driving Erdogan: a desire for revenge and the need to escape criminal inquiries. Turkey’s Islamist movements were subject to decades of political oppression and marginalization. Erdogan’s mentor, who was also the first Islamist Prime Minister of Turkey, was forced out in a virtual coup and the AKP party itself narrowly avoided being shut down by the constitutional court. After the constitutional court case against the AKP, Erdogan set about systematically crushing or usurping the power of all the institutions that previously targeted the AKP or its predecessors, in particular the military, the judiciary and the presidency. But Erdogan may have some even more unsavory rational for curtailing the independence of Turkey’s political institutions. The corruption charges that were brought to light a little over two years ago were never full investigated. While Ciddi refuses to say definitely that Erdogan, his son and his closest ministers were involved in graft, he rightfully insists that the allegations need to be fully investigated. However, it is very clear that the investigation will never see the light of day so long as Erdogan maintains his grip on power.
Ciddi concluded his talk with general observations and predictions about political future of Turkey. Turkish society is currently extremely polarized politically. largely thanks to Erdogan’s handling of the Gezi protests and his subsequent consolidation of power. Though the opposition parties remain divided, unpopular and ineffective, Erdogan has been unable to crush the grassroots opposition. The individualistic, disorganized nature of the popular opposition actually works in its favor. Erdogan can and will continue to arrest individuals who dare to speak out against him but the lack of organization and leadership means that he will never be able to silence even a fraction of his citizen critics. In this line, Ciddi expects that there will be social and political turbulence in Turkey for the foreseeable future. The Gezi protests made clear that Erdogan does not know how to manage popular protest movements, and indeed they are a new phenomenon in Turkey. Previous opposition movements were institutionally based, organized through unions and fringe political parties, and Turkish politicians have no political playbook for dealing with disorganized popular movements. Turkey has not seen such social unrest since 1978. At this point, “anything can happen.”
I am in general agreement with the majority of Ciddi’s analysis, with my major point of contention being the origins of Erdogan’s authoritarian ambitions. I have argued elsewhere that it is the illiberal nature of Turkish political institutions, not his Islamist roots, that set the stage for Erdogan’s consolidation of power. Ciddi’s introduction of the idea that revenge was a motive in Erdogan’s campaigns to crush the power of the military and judiciary is an interesting one. I don’t rule out revenge as a factor, in all probability it did play a role. However, I still believe that the major motivating factor behind the efforts to subvert the power of the military and judiciary, not to mention Erdogan’s coveting of the presidency, was simply to consolidate and retain power.
There were several interesting points brought up during the Q&A after Ciddi’s talk. Prescient of yesterday’s very public intra-AKP spat, Ciddi asserts that there are very real fractures within the leadership of the AKP and that the rank and file of the party are increasingly unhappy. He attributes some of this frustration to the fact that since become president, Erdogan has closed himself off to all but his most inner circle of advisers. During his years as Prime Minister, Erdogan had a very open and even collaborative relationship with his advisers and other party members according to Ciddi. He characterized party divisions and infighting as natural given Erdogan’s de-facto one-man rule. Such a political system is inherently a house of cards and all those within the system are aware of its weakness. Ciddi also posited that Davutoglu may not be the simply Erdogan puppet many are making him out to be and he may assert his independence after the upcoming election.
Regarding the most talked about component of the election, the Kurdish vote, Ciddi urges caution. He reminded us that the HDP and its leadership have their own ideological agenda centered around Kurdish nationalism and autonomy. and predicted that even if the HDP breaks the 10% threshold and is able to seat its candidates in parliament, they may very well be induced into forming an alliance with the AKP in return for greater Kurdish regional autonomy. Ciddi added that this would ultimately be a misguided political gamble as he believes that Erdogan in the end is not truly committed to meeting Kurdish demands for equal rights and political autonomy.
I agree with Ciddi’s assessment of Erdogan’s position on this issue but would posit that the HDP leadership, and even most ordinary Kurds, are well aware that Erdogan is largely disingenuous in his efforts toward Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation. It is like the Turkey-EU assention situation, Turkey knows that the EU will never actually allow it to join them but is unwilling to fully pull out of the assention process. In both situations the spurned party is willing to let talks go on as there is no desire to upset the status quo and risk returning to the bad old days. The HDP will indeed bring their own agenda if their candidates are seated in parliament, but unlike Ciddi I don’t believe they would acquiesce to being the AKP’s puppets. To become a partner in the AKP’s illiberal policy agenda would be to support policies that are likely to be disproportionally used against Kurds. If the Kurdish party earns more than 10% of the vote, and this is still a big if, it will be a significant net positive for Turkish democracy.
Ciddi believes that the AKP will still enjoy a majority in parliament after the June 7th elections, though they will not have enough seats to pass the constitutional changes needed to create a presidential system. As he himself confessed, Ciddi is not a fan of the AKP but he also could not envision any other current Turkish political party actually governing. The CHP is notorious among Turks for being corrupt and inefficient and the MHP is more than happy to remain a minority opposition voice. The takeaway from Ciddi’s talk: the AKP is not going anywhere, but that does not mean that Turks will sit by idly as Turkey is transformed into a one-party state.
Saturday night to Sunday the Turkish military carried out an operation into Syria to evacuate its remaining personnel at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman Shah. Before they left, they removed the remains and destroyed the building. These events came on the heels of rumors that the Turkish guards stationed there had been trapped by the Islamic State, rumors the Turkish foreign ministry denied Friday. The Kurdish PYD forces which control a defacto autonomous region in northern Syria aided this operation by allowing the Turkish military to pass through their territory on the way to the tomb and after the operation was over set up a new Turkish enclave in their territory to house the recovered remains.
Much was written about the history and importance of the Turkish enclave in Syria back in the Fall when the area was first overrun by ISIS- you can read more here and here. Certainly the tomb had/has symbolic significance for Turkey, especially fervent nationalists, and the decision to evacuate it may have political repercussions domestically. However, the transfer of the enclave to another location inside of Syria seems to be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of how to protect Turkey’s pride while also relieving a dangerous flashpoint. What is most interesting and most consequential for the future policies are the specifics of how and when this operation was executed.
For long time Turkey watchers, one of the most striking elements of this story is the fact that not only did the Turkish military cross through PYD territory, and specifically the recently besieged town of Kobane, and that they are also allowing Turkey to reconstitute their enclave on their territory. The Turks and the Kurds have a fraught history, to put it lightly. During the siege of Kobane, Turkey was heavily criticized for not intervening on the side of the Kurds and the frustrations of Turkish Kurds boiled over into deadly riots. This act of cooperation between the PYD and the Turkish military initially hinted at the possibility that Turkey is seriously changing its attitude toward what now seems like the inevitable reality of living with an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its southern border. More cynically, the current Turkish government could use its cooperation with the PYD to try to win back the political support of Turkish Kurds, who in the past supported the AKP in significant numbers.*
However, the political posturing that has come in the wake of this operation complicates the picture significantly. President Erdogan’s spokesman vehemently denied today that there was any cooperation with the PYD and called them a terrorist group. The PYD has stuck to its frankly far more believable claim that they coordinated with the Turkish military and the operation could not have been a success without such cooperation. The PKK for its part has suggested that Turkey must have notified and coordinated with the Islamic State as well in order to have evacuated its troops so smoothly. IS denies the PKK’s claims.
After official government communications showed and spoke of PM Davutoglu personally directing the Suleyman Shah operation on Saturday, today the President’s office claims that it was in fact Erdogan who personally oversaw it. It was also announced today that Erdogan will be chairing the next Cabinet meeting, something that it is within the powers of the presidency, but was only done in extraordinary situations in the past. This flexing of political muscle on the part of Erdogan could perhaps indicate a rift between himself, the Prime Ministry and/or the military. The potential to convert this successful operation and its aftermath into political gains with Turkey’s Kurds seems high, and Erdogan’s instance on burning bridges strikes me as shortsighted.
Meanwhile, whether it was preplanned or not, Turkey’s parliament took advantage of the distraction provided by the Suleyman Shah operation to Wag the Dog. The AKP members of parliament pushed through 10 parts of the controversial and illiberal security bill in an all-night session Saturday. As could be expected, the Turkish military incursion into Syria is top billing in the news today, rather than the legal encroachment on democratic freedoms.
*The upcoming June elections are a linchpin in the ruling AKP’s plans to amend the constitution to make President Erdogan the du jour instead of just the de facto head of state. The Kurdish party in Turkey, the HDP, has decided to run candidates in the upcoming election not as independents, as it has done previously, but as officially affiliated with the party. According to the election rules, if the Kurdish party fails to gain 10% or more of the total votes in the election, it will not be able to seat any of its members. The seats that it theoretically did win will go to the runner up in any given election, most likely the AKP candidate. Therefore, the future ambitions of Erdogan and the AKP are tied closely to how Turkish Kurds vote.
The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles. During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.
The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014. Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.
On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction). Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.
On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.
Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond. However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water. Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media. The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.
On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court. It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.
On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad. She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.
On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.
On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014. The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land. Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.
A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.
On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development. The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.
The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.
The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014. A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK. Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools. Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State. While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid. The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State. The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas. Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested. There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.
On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.” According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear. It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament. Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.
On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.
International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014. Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where. True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.
After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia. Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014. The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul. However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.
On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another. The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack. However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.
On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode. It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.
What’s in Store for 2015
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix. Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well. There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.
The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul. It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber. There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack. This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying. Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility. These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly. Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.
The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling. The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS. If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey. IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey. Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border. If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them. Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border. Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey. As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.
Note: I have had to take a hiatus from blogging during the last few months to focus my energy on a number of other writing projects. One of these was a paper I presented for the “Religious Symbols and Secularisms: Contemporary Perspectives from Canada and Turkey” panel at the American Academy of Religion annual meeting. I have revised and condensed some of my research for this paper into the blog post below. You can read the paper as it was presented on my Academia page.
Religion has played an important if under-studied role in the series of protests that have swept the globe over the last several years. During the Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring and Euromaidan protests, religious actors served to legitimize and at times even directly participated in the protests. In contrast, during the Gezi Park protests that took place in Istanbul during the summer of 2013, official religious actors were peripheral. Instead, these protests produced the unique phenomenon of lay persons utilizing religion as an instrument of protest. Religion has deep political undertones in Turkey and the Gezi protesters deftly manipulated these subtexts in order to make specific political statements. The AKP recognized the protester’s use of religion as a challenge to its hegemony over the political use of Islam in Turkey. Hence why some of the most particularly virulent denouncements of the protesters by the government specifically aimed to characterize the protesters as sacrilegious.
The rise to power of the current AKP administration marked a significant shift in the politics of religion in Turkey. Though the majority of the population has always been pious, for most of the history of the Republic the secular elites controlled the country’s political, educational and even religious institutions. When Mustafa Kemal established the Republic of Turkey in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottoman Empire, he subordinated and integrated the institutions of Islam into the Turkish state. To this day, the Turkish Ministry of Religious Affairs, known colloquially in Turkey as the Diyanet, is solely responsible for training imams, maintaining mosques and distributing pre-approved Friday sermons. This bureaucratic arrangement explains the absence of official religious actors at the Gezi protests.
The AKP has worked to break the previous social and legal conventions that restricted public piety. AKP members frequently use religious symbolism in their official statements high government officials conspicuously pray and their head-scarved wives appear at affairs of State. Despite their claims to represent the masses, it is important to note that the style of Islam that characterizes the AKP is not analogous to the traditional Islam of the lower classes. The AKP represents a “conscious,” modern interpretation of Islam that grew out of twentieth-century Islamist movements. Their brand of Islam is the Islam of the urban, educated nouveau riche that embraces the trappings of elite lifestyles. A whole industry has sprung up catering to the tastes of the pious upper classes. There are Islamic fashions, Islamic resort hotels and Islamic gated communities. As a lifestyle, it is just as exclusionary of the lower classes as the secularism of the old Turkish elites.
The Gezi protesters targeted the AKP’s elitists Islam with the most well-known of its religion-infused protest activities, the iftar dinners that were organized on Istiklal Avenue. The Istiklal Iftar meals were purposely arranged to create a sense of radical egalitarianism. Diners sat facing each other in two long lines along much of the length of the almost mile-long boulevard and ate donated food from paper plates set on table cloths or even just newspapers spread on the ground. All were welcome to attend, whether religious or secular, protester or bystander, those who had fasted and those who had not. The image of hundreds people sharing food while seated on the street was purposely meant to contrast the catered, closed, official municipal AKP iftar dinners that were taking place nearby. The iftar celebrations served to temporarily sacralize a formerly profane space, creating a peaceful haram (sacred) space in the midst of what at times was a violent and deadly period of protest.
Though the protester’s primary goal was to challenge the AKP and the current neo-conservative Turkish state, their acceptance of acts of public worship and accommodation of religious allies demonstrates that they were more than simply a reconstitution of the old secular elite. There are numerous documented incidences of secular protesters going out their way to going out of their way to include pious citizens in their midst. For example, on the night of the Mirac Kandil holiday, the park was declared an alcohol free zone and those who wished to could attend a sermon and communal worship service.
The Gezi park protests were a remarkable moment in Turkish history because they brought together elements of a number of previously mutually antagonistic classes of Turkish citizens. Represented among the protesters were environmentalists concerned about the destruction of the forests surrounding Istanbul; secularists and nationalists convinced that the AKP is undermining the secular nature of the Republic; minorities such as LGBTQ individuals, Kurds and religious such as Alevis who continue to be face institutional discrimination; and leftists and anti-capitalist Muslims who are opposed to the governments neo-liberal economic policies. Much has been made of the detente between the Kurds and nationalists in the park, while the interaction between secular and religious Turks has largely been dismissed as trivial. Most research done on the participants does indeed suggest that the majority of active protesters were both young and secular. However, ignoring the very real and significant shift in the treatment of public religion and its use as a method of protest during Gezi simply plays into the AKP government’s that only they can truly represent and protect the rights of pious Turks.
The Islamic State is advancing on the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria. Turkish Kurds and Kurdish refugees still huddled around the boarder are rioting. The take away of most international media observers can be paraphrased as “the Kurds are unhappy because Turkey is purposely letting Kobane fall.” As with most Turkish politics, the truth is much more complex.
Turkey is genuinely stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Kobane. Both the Syrian Kurdish leadership and the Assad government have flatly said that they would consider a Turkish military incursion into Syria a hostile act (although the position of the Kurdish regional government may be changing). About half of Turkish citizens are opposed to intervening against IS. Erdogan and Davutoglu are absolutely right when they insist that a half-hearted air campaign will never succeed in fully defeating IS and that a multi-lateral strategy is need. None of these issues of course excuses Erdogan’s equating the PKK (which the Turkish government has been in peace talks with for the year and half) with IS (which kidnapped dozens of Turkish citizens and has called Erdogan in infidel). Nor does it justify tear gassing Syrian Kurds trying to cross back into the Kobane region to help defend the city. However, it does explain why Turkey has knowingly given the US and the Syrian Kurds an impossible to fulfill set of demands that would need to be met before it would agree military cooperation against IS. This is also why Turkey will continue to urge the US to use airstrikes on IS and lash out against the US for not doing enough to stop IS, while simultaneously blocking the usage of the US airbase in Turkey for such a purpose.
Kurds are indeed frustrated with both the US and Turkey for what they believe is the former’s unwillingness to provide sufficient air support for Kobane and the later’s all but open support of IS. Both of these accusations are oversimplifications, but the tense situation right now means perception matters more than the truth. The political dynamics between Turkey, its Kurdish citizens, its Kurdish Syrian refugees and the Syrian Kurdish regional government complicates issues further. The Syrian Kurdish government does not want its previous autonomy disrupted by a partnership with or military intervention by Turkey. As Harold Doornbos, a reporter currently on the Turkish-Syrian border tweeted yesterday “There are some misconceptions, especially among Western audiences, regarding Turkey ‘doing nothing’ and ‘just watching how Kobane dies’ [sic]… Kurds [are] angry at Turkey NOT b[ecause] Turkish army does not intervene in Kobane, but b[ecause] Turkey blocks weapons, fighters from reaching Kobane.” Kurds in both Turkey and Syria are upset at what they perceive, accurately, as Turkey’s double standard when it comes to Syrian fighters. After letting Islamists cross the border essentially unimpeded for years, Turkey is now denying this same privilege to Kurds. Granted the greater border security has much to do with the rise of IS, but Turkey’s decision to prevent unarmed young Kurds, both Syrian and Turkish, from traveling to Kobane since this battle started has led many Kurds to perceive Turkey’s new border security as more anti-Kurdish than anti-IS.
Kurds began protesting in cities around Turkey and around the world Monday and on Tuesday night in Turkey these protests morphed into riots. Kobane is the spark, but frustration has been building for some time among Turkey’s Kurds. The Turkish-Kurdish peace talks have been stalled longer than they have been productive. The AKP government gave Turkey’s Kurds hope that they would finally enjoy equal cultural rights with Turks, only to have these hopes met halfway at best and indefinitely delayed at worst. Turkey was forewarned multiple times by Kurdish leaders that an IS victory in Kobane would lead to renewed Kurdish violence. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the situation should have been able to see these riots coming. The Turkish government should have also been able to predict that Kurdish protests, peaceful or not, would be met be counter-protesters from Turkey’s ultra-nationalist and extreme fundamentalist groups, all of which are known for their involvement in past violence. Whether out of malicious intent or simple stupidity (and again, Kurds will perceive it as malicious) the Turkish government seems not to have taken any steps to prevent or assuage the violence. Many police were off duty due to the holiday over the weekend and were only recalled once the violence peaked. Once again, citizens have reportedly been killed and seriously injured by police actions. Perhaps more disturbingly, the police failed to prevent multiple deadly clashes between Kurdish citizen and political groups and one or more extremest political groups. Reports indicate at least 14 dead (update: 18) most the victims of the inter-group clashes.
Some Turkey watchers have raised concerns that we may be seeing a return to the bad old days in Turkey- armed clashes between rival political groups, renewed PKK insurgency and government emergency rule. It is too early to make any solid predictions, but the events of the last few days have put the gains that Turkey has made during the AKP decade under serious threat, even more so than its recent slip toward authoritarianism. A return to unpredictable violence does not just threaten Turkey’s democratic institutions, but its economic and growth and social stability, the foundation on which the AKP has built its power. It is the best interest of all groups involved, the Kurds, the AKP and the Turkish nation at large for the Turkish government to find a way to deescalate this explosive situation. The first step is to address it’s pro-IS reputation. The Turkish government must stop simply saying that it does not support IS and find ways to demonstrate this stance, such as providing non-military aid and allowing Kurds to cross into Kobane to help defend the city. The government must also clarify its position on the PKK. As long as the PKK is engaging in military actions against the Turkish government, it makes no sense for the government to maintain that it is equivalent to IS. If the PKK and its members have no chance of being rehabilitated, what motivation do they have to hold the ceasefire? Of course, an Erdogan apology for this statement is out of the question, but Davutoglu or other government officials need to find a way to modify or qualify this comparison. Only if Turkey’s Kurds stop perceiving the Turkish government as the enemy, and vice versa, will there be any hope for a return to peace and stability.
The Islamic State, or IS, is a non-state actor which has quickly managed to invade and occupy large swaths of territory straddling the border of two established nation states. It declared its allegiance not to a political or military leader but to self-declared Caliph, a religious leader. IS is unflinchingly brutal in method of war and is a grave threat to the security of all the states in the region. However it is not, as some have claimed, proof that the concept of the nation-state has failed in the Middle East. The organization’s name change from ISIS to the Islamic State was not an arbitrary rebranding. The world needs to start treating IS as a territorial-based organization; a proto- nation-state where ethnicity has been replaced by religion as the national identity marker.
The current manifestation of the group can be roughly compared to the Taliban in Afghanistan . Unfortunately, IS has also learned from many of the mistakes of the Taliban made while attempting to govern Afghanistan. IS has imposed brutal rule based on its own interpretation of Islamic texts while simultaneously installing a bureaucracy, institutions and law-and-order in an area that has enjoyed few of these luxuries since the Syrian civil war began. IS has also broken from the Taliban model in centralizing its religious leadership. The spiritual leader of the group has declared himself the Caliph of all Muslims, the successor to the prophet Mohammad. Despite its declared universal religious and political ambitions (some members of the group have asserted that the group has ambitions to expand its reach as far as Istanbul) the realities of holding and controlling territory has begun, as Jeremy Shapiro of Brookings puts it, to change both the governors and the governed. In short, IS is following the Weberian model and transitioning from a charismatic, revolutionary organization into a routinized, centralized and bureaucratized state.
Establishing itself as a national instead of transnational, revolutionary organization makes IS less of a threat to Western states, but not necessarily to bordering states like Turkey. Therefore, while containment might be a reasonable strategy for the US, it is in Turkey’s best interest for IS to be “degraded and destroyed.” The establishment of the IS proto-nation, as opposed to a decentralized terrorist organization, makes it more vulnerable to traditional tactics for weakening a pariah government. IS’s ability to govern the territory it has seized must be interrupted by restricting the group’s access to capital, new recruits, resources and infrastructure. Turkey has already taken steps in this direction, cracking down on oil smuggling, a major sources of revenue for the group, and the movement of foreign would-be jihadists. Despite the fact that it is reluctant to do so, Turkey needs to allow the international community to help it further monitor the movement of people and goods across its borders. The efficacy of cutting off of supplies to governments via sanctions and trade restrictions for purposes of weakening governments is highly debatable. In this case however, as the IS government let alone state has barely been established and its popularity is strongly tied to its ability to provide services and stability, their likelihood of making an impact is much greater.
Even if Turkey does not get involved militarily (the domestic political price of doing so is likely prohibitively high) for its own long term benefit it needs to do everything it can to support countries who are willing to carry out military operations. Turkey also needs to get over its unreasonable fears of Kurdish autonomy in Syria and do more to support the multiple Kurdish groups that are bearing the brunt of IS’s assaults. Though directly supplying weapons is again politically out of the question, Turkey needs to be open to providing desperately needed non-military supplies as well as allowing Kurds to enter or re-enter Syria and Iraq in order to fight IS. Supporting the Kurds is critical for both halting the expansion of IS as well as maintaining the PKK ceasefire within Turkey. Many Kurds and members of the PKK in particular believe Turkey is favoring and supporting IS to the detriment of the Kurds. Whether or not this is true (and most experts agree that Turkey is not supporting IS) PKK leadership is threatening to break the current ceasefire and take up arms against Turkey once again. This would be disastrous for both Turks and Kurds and the Turkish government needs to do everything it can to (re)make peace with Kurds both in and outside its borders.
IS’s location straddling the former border of two states will most likely work against its ability to hold and govern its proto-state. The Taliban were largely left to themselves, and therefore was able to control Afghanistan for a decade despite its unpopularity, until the September 11 attacks because their brutal state was confined inside the established borders of one nation-state. As weak as it is, Iraq’s central government still exists and is still committed to the territorial integrity of the Iraqi nation-state. IS would have to conquer all of Iraq or convince the Iraqi government into agreeing to a truce, both of which still look unlikely at this point. On the Syrian side, Assad would probably be fine with IS taking over rebel held territory as long as his government was allow to hold onto its much-shrunken kingdom. However, it is unlikely that the multiple rebel groups will all agree make a similar concession and will continue to fight to hold on to the territory they control as well as to regain the territory held by IS.
There are no easy solutions for dealing with IS, it will take a combination of military strategies as well as continued international cooperation and coordination over a lengthy period of time. See the links below for additional useful discussions of the problem of IS from a Mid-East analyst perspective, some of which I drew on for my discussion above.
Brookings: What is ISIS’ strategy?
David Motadel: The Ancestors of ISIS
Carnegie Europe: What on Earth is Turkey up to?
Michael Koplow: The Politics of the Anti-ISIS Coalition
Marc Champion: Turkey’s Complicated Position on Islamic State
Henri J. Barkey: How the Islamic State took Turkey Hostage
Also see these excellent background stories:
Piotr Zalewski: Why Islamic State Wants to Conquer a Kurdish Border Town
Piotr Zalewski: How Islamic State Wages War
David D. Kirkpatrick: ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed
New York Times: Turkey Inching Toward Alliance With U.S. in Syria Conflict