The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
Turkey has anticipated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s downfall ever since protests first broke out in Syria in 2011. It has been disappointed at every turn, though, and now it is not only Assad who is in trouble but Turkey as well. The way in which Ankara has responded to the violence across its border has upended its own political balance and re-empowered its military. It has also brought the peace process that Turkey started with the Kurdish movement to the brink of collapse.
On October 2, the Turkish parliament voted to allow Turkey to send troops across its southern borders into Syria to deal with “risks and threats against our national security along Turkey’s southern land borders.” The decision was widely interpreted as signaling that Turkey would be going to war with the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the terrorist group that has overrun much of Iraq and Syria. Yet the preamble of the troop authorization neglects to mention ISIS and, instead, refers to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the militant group that has fought against the Turkish state since 1984. On October 4, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended the authorization by stating that “ISIS and PKK are the same” and rhetorically asking why the world is not as enraged about PKK activities as it is about ISIS. In one fell swoop then, he raised serious doubts about his government’s intentions of taking the necessary steps to accommodate the Kurds and the PKK as part of ongoing negotiations
Kurds in Turkey and Syria even believe that Ankara is still offering covert aid to ISIS in its efforts to cleanse the Kurdish population of Syria from areas adjacent to Turkey’s borders. Such accusations first arose in 2012, when Rojava -- the Kurdish region in Syria -- declared autonomy. In response, the Turkish government retorted that “We are not going to allow any fait accompli in Syria” and then sent support to Jabhat al-Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate that attacked the Kurds. And now, as ISIS has laid siege to the Kurdish town of Kobani, which is held by a PKK-affiliated party, Turkey has come to face new accusations of complicity for failing to intervene. Last week, Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, warned that the fall of Kobani would end the peace process in Turkey. Cemil Bayik, the co-leader of the PKK’s civilian arm, said that if Ankara were to look the other way as Kobani fell, the war would restart in Turkey. He remarked that a “buffer zone (which Turkey plans to establish) would be targeting us. We cannot pursue [peace] with a power that crushes what has been achieved in Rojava.”
So far, at least, Erdogan and the Kurdish movement are still implicitly allied. Indirect Kurdish support has been, in many ways, crucial for Erdogan. The relative peace since the PKK agreed to a unilateral cease fire last year has benefited his regime. And it mattered that the Kurdish movement remained neutral, with a pro-government tilt, during the Gezi protests 2013. If the Kurds had also joined in, Erdogan would have faced a much more difficult challenge.
Öcalan hopes that accommodating Erdogan will pay off -- that the Kurds will get what they covet, namely some form of autonomy for the Kurdish-dominated parts of Turkey and that he himself will be released from jail. Yet that logic was always flawed. After all, it makes little sense that Erdogan would be prepared to (or could somehow be induced to) devolve power to the Kurds while he is otherwise concentrating all power into his own hands. The Kurdish leaders must know that Diyarbakir, the Turkish Kurds’ unofficial capital, will not get more democracy while Ankara gets less; however, they have had no choice but to put their faith in Erdogan.
Erdogan, for his part, has a continued interest in stringing the Kurds along. But the turmoil in Syria is forcing both sides’ hands. The Kurds have had to deal with growing anger among their younger generation, who are incensed at what they see as Turkish complicity in the assault on Syrian Kurds. That pushes the Kurdish leadership into a more radical stance. Meanwhile, the growing insecurity on Turkey’s southern borders is pushing Erdogan to be more attentive to the views and recommendations of the military.
On August 30 this year, the Turkish military high command went public with its displeasure with the peace process. Necdet Özel, the Chief of the General Staff, expressed dissatisfaction at not having been consulted by the government. He reminded the country that the military’s red lines -- the unity and the territorial integrity of the nation -- remain unchanged. He vowed that the armed forces will “act accordingly” if those red lines were to be crossed. Özel’s thinly-veiled message to the government was that Kurdish self-rule would not be tolerated.
Before the Turkish parliament voted to allow troops to intervene in Syria and Iraq, Özel and the army and air force commanders held a briefing -- the first of its kind in years -- for the government. The generals requested that the government move quickly to establish buffer zones at four points in Syria -- one of them including the Kurdish town of Kobani -- in order to preserve Turkey’s security interests. They said that this should be done even if the United States disapproves. The details of the briefing were reported in the main pro-government daily Yeni Safak, which observed that “The presidency, the military and the government nowadays speak with one voice.”
The last time the Turkish military was in a similar position to shape the policies of a civilian government was during the 1990s, when the war between the PKK and the Turkish state escalated. It is now set to wield power once more as security threats mount. The AKP had supposedly domesticated the military by jailing hundreds of officers and by asserting the authority of the elected government in the National Security Council, which used to be dominated by army generals. But the officers were freed earlier this year after the country’s constitutional court ruled that the officers’ rights had been violated. Perhaps in trying to make lemonade out of lemons as the military grows stronger, Erdogan has come to see military support as crucial to help him root out supporters of his erstwhile ally turned enemy, the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, within the state bureaucracy.
And, at any rate, Erdogan is a rightist, so it is not a terribly big step for him to embrace the generals’ views on the Kurdish issue. Historically, democratically elected rightist governments have been just as prone as the military to curtail freedoms and liberties. In this light, the anti-Kurdish alliance of Erdogan and the generals is but the latest affirmation of the nationalist–conservative identity at the core of the Turkish republic; civilian rightist governments and the military alike have subscribed to it.
But the effects of the Syrian turmoil could also be a catalyst for a political realignment that would put Turkey on a different, more democratic trajectory. For the Kurds, restarting hostilities is a dead end: They simply cannot defeat Turkey. The alternative for the Kurdish movement is thus to explore the possibility of an alliance with the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). A de facto alliance did in fact emerge during the vote to authorize the military incursion into Syria and Iraq. Against the pro-war camp -- which included the AKP and the anti-Kurdish Nationalist Action Party -- stood an anti-war coalition composed of the CHP and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The CHP and HDP share a common social democratic ideology, but they are also divided by nationalism. CHP has become more consistently social democratic under the leadership of Kemal Kilicdaroglu, but the party still has a vocal, Turkish nationalist wing that would not be comfortable with a broad Turkish–Kurdish social democratic coalition. Still, the strong showing of HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas during the recent presidential election might change some minds. Although the pro-Kurdish party does not usually attract more than six percent of the votes nationwide, Demirtas received nearly ten percent. He did so by highlighting liberal and leftist themes that resonated with urban liberals and Turkish and Kurdish social democratic constituencies.
The HDP and CHP are in the process of exploring the possibility of some form of cooperation in the upcoming parliamentary elections slated for 2015. For that to happen, though, both parties would have to undergo significant changes and distance themselves from their respective nationalist strains That is, in all probability, a long shot, especially in the case of the CHP. But if Turkish and Kurdish social democrats were to present a united front, Turkey would get what it has lacked since the 1970s, a strong social democratic alternative to the dominant, authoritarian right.
Unfortunately, given Turkey’s history, it is more likely that growing insecurity and heightened conflict is going to further entrench authoritarianism.