Turkey at a crucial juncture

Turkey at a crucial juncture

The visit by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to Ankara on March 15 served as a welcome gesture of solidarity for President Tayyip Erdoğan, who had postponed his visit to Baku after the bomb attack in the Turkish capital on March 13 that killed 37 people. Aliyev’s rare diplomatic gesture was perhaps a boost of moral for Erdoğan, but it cannot ease Turkey’s current critical domestic and foreign problems.

Indeed, as the two presidents were hugging each other and started talks, the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul was closed to traffic for an hour - disrupting the rest of the day for the city of 15 million - upon suspicion of another car bomb. It turned out that a careless driver who had run out of gas had left the car unattended and walked away from the bridge, but the incident showed the level of alert in Turkey over more terrorist attacks.

Erdoğan’s chief security and diplomacy advisor, İbrahim Kalın, wrote in his column the in pro-government daily Sabah that because the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is “cornered” in the southeastern cities of Diyarbakır, Hakkari, Şırnak and Mardin, it is “carrying out terrorist attacks in Ankara and other big cities. Their calculation is that these attacks will create such public fear and reaction that the government will be forced to end its anti-terror operations against the PKK. Both calculations are wrong.”

“Turkey will not give in to terrorist threats from either DAESH or the PKK,” Kalın added, using the Arabic shorthand for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

New security operations in the country’s east and southeast prove what Kalın said about an escalated campaign. As the government announced that Diyarbakır’s Sur district was cleared of armed PKK militants, the PKK started to erect barricades and dig ditches in three other districts in the city, firing Kalashnikovs and displaying rocket launchers in public. 

The city center of Şırnak has been under curfew since the night of March 14 and reports have started coming into newsrooms about clashes in the town of Nusaybin on the border with Syria and Yüksekova on the border with Iran, where military forces are also using heavy weapons. This PKK aggression is in line with the words of Cemil Bayık, one of its chiefs, who threatened to spread terror across the country in a March 15 interview with The Times newspaper. The violence may escalate even further, as the PKK plans to turn the traditional Nevruz festival starting on March 21 into a day of riots.

What is happening in Turkey cannot be separated from the civil war in Syria. The Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian extension of the PKK, has been fighting against ISIL as a ground unit for the U.S. and also Russia. It is not clear how the situation will change, but Russian President Vladimir Putin started to withdraw his forces from Syria on March 14, apparently distancing Russian interests from the interests of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

Ankara is watching Russian moves with caution, considering the hostility between the two nations since Turkey shot down a Russian warplane for violating the Turkey-Syria border last November. As Kalın underlined, Turkey is hosting the anti-ISIL coalition planes at its strategic airbase in İncirlik and has been hitting ISIL positions in Syria in coordination with the U.S.-led coalition.

Syrian refugees tie all those problems to the European Union. Under pressure from within over turning a blind eye to rights violations in Turkey in return for a stemming of the migrant flow via Turkey and Greece, European leaders want to try to revise the conditions proposed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in the last meeting in Brussels on March 7. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, arrived in Ankara on March 15 to negotiate the terms for the next meeting on March 18, following an adverse answer from Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades earlier in the day. There is a common interest in both Turkey and the EU for a deal: To save themselves from even worse consequences of the Syrian civil war.

It looks like Ankara may have to take a few tough decisions over the next few days.