‘Frontline Turkey: The Conflict at the Heart of the Middle East’ by Ezgi Başaran (IB Tauris, 224 pages, $25)
This year has seen a flurry of “state of Turkey” books appearing in English. With such a rapidly changing news agenda it is difficult to write anything of length that remains relevant. And with so many books on present-day Turkey appearing in English, it is becoming increasingly hard for authors to distinguish their books from the avalanche of other work.
Ezgi Başaran’s “Frontline Turkey” focuses mostly on the country’s long-running conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Specifically, it centers on the development and collapse of the peace process between the two sides, officially ongoing from 2013 to 2015. The chaos unleashed after the failure of those talks is inseparable from the wider authoritarian descent that has gripped Turkey.
Başaran was editor-in-chief of the now defunct Radikal newspaper during the peace process. She has focused on the Kurdish question as a Turkish journalist for more than a decade, “interviewing almost all of the prominent figures who have shaped the course of the Kurdish movement in Turkey.” The issue, she argues, still “has the power to either make or break the country.”
The book’s major contribution to the English-language literature is its blow-by-blow account of how the peace process - which many hoped would put an end to a three-decade conflict that has killed over 40,000 people and ruined countless more lives - developed and collapsed. Amid rising ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and political meltdown, it is almost surreal to recall that not so long ago a peace deal between the Turkish state and the PKK seemed to be in sight.
Ironically, it was developments in Syria that pushed Turkey to both start and end the peace process. As Başaran describes, Ankara was keen to resolve the problem before the 100-year-old Kurdish issue became entangled with spillover from the war in Syria. However, as the situation across the border spiraled out of control –Syrian Kurdish cantons expanding with the tacit approval of the al-Assad regime - the peace talks in Turkey were brought to breaking point. Turkey equated the PKK affiliates in the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) with ISIS, while the PKK accused Ankara of directly supporting ISIS. The atmosphere became steadily more toxic.
Başaran suggests that if Turkey had continued its peace process while also helping the YPG against ISIS, “there might have been a viable plan for a truce in Syria, and both Turkey and the Middle East would now be safer and stronger.” But this is wishful thinking. In retrospect, Ankara’s ditching of peace talks and bid to roll back Kurdish gains in Syria look sadly inevitable. The fault-lines were there all along. Başaran describes how during a delegation’s visit to jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in February 2013, Erdoğan and Öcalan’s “red lines” on Syria were irreconcilable. “MP Sırrı Süreyye Önder passed on a message from Erdoğan, which said ‘he would come to an agreement with [Öcalan]. But there is only one red line: Syria. He said he would not allow a Kurdish entity to be established like the one in northern Iraq.’ Öcalan stopped him short and replied: ‘You tell him that we will not allow Kurds to remain in a centralized Syria, and that is our red line,’” she writes, quoting minutes from the meeting.
Also crucial was President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bid to shift Turkey to an executive presidential system. that the government would not receive the necessary support from Turkish nationalists while the peace process was ongoing. The June 2015 election saw unprecedented gains for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), it also saw a nationalist backlash benefiting the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which registered its highest share of the vote since 1999. In the subsequent snap election of November 2015 - after the peace process collapsed and amid fierce fighting in the southeast and sweeping curfews – the AKP regained its losses and rose nearly 10 percentage points. Erdoğan had learned a bitter lesson, and the right-wing front between the AKP and various other nationalists started to be consolidated.
The PKK also carries responsibility for the failure of peace talks. It believed the HDP’s success at the ballot box meant support for the PKK. “On the contrary,” writes Başaran, “it meant support for the peace process, for a ceasefire and for the HDP’s rhetoric on democracy and equality.” The PKK believed it had mandate to stir urban war and turn southeastern Turkey into another northern Syria – part of a wider political project plan. After stocking up on weapons during the peace process, its urban fighters were more than happy to declare war once talks collapsed. “The PKK thought it could declare certain districts in Diyarbakır, Hakkari and Şırnak autonomous, as the PYD/YPG had done in northern Syria,” writes Başaran. This was a deadly mistake. The masses did not rise up to join young urban fighters, and Turkey’s crackdown crushed rather than escalated the uprising.
The network of U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen has been central to events in Turkey over recent years. And Başaran is one of the few people who have consistently been proven right on the issue. Years ago she was targeted by the Gülenists for pointing out contradictions in evidence in the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases of the 2000s, when the AKP and Gülen were still arm in arm. In “Frontline Turkey,” she gives a solid account of the Gülenists’ rise and the AKP-Gülen rift, sparing no punches for either side.
An honest campaign to expose Gülenist wrongdoing and investigate how they infiltrated the state was necessary after the July 2016 coup attempt. But such a probe was politically impossible for the AKP and Erdoğan. “A lawful purge of the Gülenists who were more loyal to Gülen than the state would have to involve the AKP echelon that had given them ground in the first place … This would reveal the true nature of the AKP-Gülen alliance, which Erdoğan could not afford to be made public,” Başaran writes. As a result, we have today’s law of the jungle free-for-all.
The cover of “Frontline Turkey” is carries an admiring quotation from veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk, but don’t let that put you off. Başaran’s judgement is generally sound. She proposes that the Kurdish issue is overwhelmingly a question of rights, arguing that “there is no doubt that the Kurdish problem may be solved in an environment where individual rights and freedoms are fully respected and enhanced.” Rights violations have certainly determined the issue for many years, but it too simple to suggest that addressing them can be a silver bullet. Indeed, the PKK has itself played a significant role in preventing a freer climate from emerging; military and personal interests have built up among PKK commanders, as well as its rank and file, hugely complicating any attempted solution.
A sense of siege, fueled by conspiratorial paranoia, has taken an iron grip in the minds of the government in recent years. In its view, all setbacks on the march to national greatness are the work of dark forces bent on destroying President Erdoğan and therefore the country. These convictions are now shaping policy calculations and herald a very dark coming few years.
“Frontline Turkey” does an excellent job of charting how the country reached this precipice, weaving into a cohesive whole the disparate strands of the Gülen movement, the Kurdish issue and deepening authoritarianism. It is required reading for all English-language observers of Turkey.