What exactly is happening in Turkey?
These days, most Turkey observers agree that Turkey is in deep trouble. They are deeply divided though, when it comes to explaining why.
The trouble has many aspects. There is the declining economy, the burden of 2 million refugees from Syria, the political uncertainty, the polarized society, the vitriolic media. Yet none of these problems are as grave as the re-escalated war with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
Since mid-July, this 30-year-old war has claimed the lives of more than 120 Turkish policemen or soldiers, and hundreds of guerillas of the PKK. This is already a very heavy toll, but there is more: PKK violence has sparked violent street protests by Turkish nationalists, who attack the buildings of the PKK-affiliated Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) and even Kurdish shop owners. The latter is especially a dangerous sign, hinting that the war, which for 30 years has been between the PKK and the state, may devolve into ethnic tension between Turks and Kurds.
But why did this war begin again, after 2.5 years of cease-fire? There are many Turks and Turkey observers that will give you simple and sexy answers. For some of them, who are passionately anti-Erdoğan, this is nothing but “Erdoğan’s war.” They say Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ignited it just to polarize the country more, and to get more votes in the upcoming elections on Nov. 1. For others, who are passionately pro-Erdoğan, this is in fact a war against Erdoğan and his “New Turkey.” The PKK is merely a “subcontractor” of the nefarious powers that relentlessly conspire against our re-Islamized homeland.
These are both simple conspiracy theories that try to explain a very complex situation by reference to a single conspiratorial actor.
The truth, in my view, is that the “peace process” failed due the interaction of various actors and dynamics. First, the PKK proved too fanatical and ambitious to settle for a modest peace that would grant Kurds more cultural rights and perhaps a Spain-like, reasonable degree of autonomy. No, the PKK wants to dominate Turkey’s future Kurdistan, as it does in Syria, and feels empowered thanks to its international prestige that comes from fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Second, the government, in particular “the Palace,” proved shortsighted and opportunistic enough to see the “peace process” as nothing but something that avoids “martyr funerals.” They did not see and address what the PKK really wanted, how the lack of progress disillusioned many genuine supporters of peace, and how their Syrian policy enraged many Kurds at home.
As a result, “peace” failed in July, mainly due to the PKK’s attacks on Turkish security forces. The government responded with force. In Cizre, a border town near Syria, the PKK declared “autonomy,” setting up barricades and stockpiling weapons. The government sent the military, erected a curfew, and initiated a controversial counter-insurgency that is still continuing.
In my view, this is the PKK’s war rather than Erdoğan’s. Plus, the fanatical reactions to PKK violence, such as attacks on HDP buildings and Kurdish shops, come more from ultranationalists rather than pro-Erdoğan Islamists.
Yet Erdoğan’s devotees are using this opportunity to demonize the opposition, especially the HDP, and intimidate independent media, such as the Doğan Group. Their stance on the PKK is, at least partly, right.
But their venomous propaganda on those who dare to oppose them is nothing but shameful and a big part of the problem.
The only way out is an urgent cease-fire and revitalization of the “peace process.” But the only man who can effectively call on the PKK for that, Abdullah Öcalan, is conspicuously silent.