By Afro-Middle East Centre
Of the myriad political and social developments since the spectacular rise of the Islamic State group (IS) in mid-2014, it is perhaps the movement’s ability to exacerbate and capitalise on existing fractures between and within Syria and Iraq and regional powers Turkey and Iran that has dramatically altered the nature of politics in the region. IS can be perceived as less a cause than a symptom of the failure of state-building processes in Iraq since the US invasion and occupation in 2003. The operation to retake Mosul from IS began one month ago, but as alliances and rivalries are ever-shifting in the fight against IS, Baghdad has attempted to prevent Turkey from participating in the US-Iraqi campaign to recapture the strategic city.
Mosul, where 5000 IS fighters are based, has historically been an important crossroad for trade and ideas, and was once a major cultural centre of the Islamic world. While it and the Syrian city of Aleppo share an Ottoman past that remains a point of cultural affiliation with Turkey for the people of northern Syria and northern Iraq, Mosul has been the external frontier of Turkey’s war against the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) – whose power and access to arms . That area in Iraq is also a centre for Turkish military support to Ankara’s ally, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of Masoud Barzani.
Turkey’s military goes back to the early 1990s when a brutal civil war broke out between two Kurdish political groups – Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under Jalal Talabani. Barzani has always been wary of the latter’s close relations with Baghdad and Tehran, and gave Ankara the green light to pursue PKK militants in the Kurdish area of Iraq under KDP control. His difficult relations with PKK leaders enabled a closer relationship between Erbil and Ankara. In the past few years, Turkey’s military has also had military training programmestohelp professionalise the KRG’s Peshmerga forces.
From the end of 2015, Baghdad began vocalising its desire to limit the Turkish presence in Iraq, throwing the generally stable relationship between the KRG and Ankara into stark relief. As the region saw greater Kurdish political consolidation as a result of the two-year battle against IS, Barzani has become less willing to sacrifice himself for the Turkish cause. In December 2015, the Iraqi president, Haider al-Abadi, under pressure from sectarian networks in Baghdad, called on the United Nations Security Council – with Russia’s assistance – to force Turkey to withdraw its troops from Iraqi territory.
Turkey’s refusal was met with attacks on its operating bases, for which both IS and Iraq’s Kata'ib Hizbullah claimed responsibility. The Iraqi government’s most recent refusal to allow Turkey to join the Mosul operation that beganmid-October was reluctantly accepted by Turkey, and it is believed that an agreement between the two limited Turkey’s combatant role to air support in exchange for it maintaining its bases in northern Iraq, particularly the key Bashiqa base.
Arguing there was a possibility of a spillover of the Mosul operation through the porous Iraq-Turkey border, Turkish Armed Forces and combat vehicles amassed in the border town of , prompting Abadi to threaten: ‘If a confrontation happens we are ready for it. We will consider [Turkey] an enemy, and we will deal with it as an enemy.’ Ankara’s response was as undiplomatic, with its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, publicly challenging Abadi: ‘If you have the strength, why did you surrender Mosul to terror organisations?’ and ‘If you are so strong, why has the [PKK] occupied your lands for years?
Cavusoglu’s comment exposed a sore point for the Turks: the uncomfortable reality that its strategic relationship with the USA is being tested by the shift towards ethnic and sectarian politics in the region, which, since the rise of IS, has favoured the Kurds (including those in the PKK and the Syrian PYG that Turkey regards as an existential threat) and Iranian-backed Shi'a groups in Iraq. The institutionalisation of ethnicity as a means to attain power is largely a by-product of state reconfiguration initiated by the USA during its Iraqi occupation, when it distributed political power and financial support on ethnic and sectarian bases. Whereas Turkey could previously rely on its NATO membership and on the KRG to check the PKK’s influence, rapprochement between the USA and Iran, Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict, and the legitimation of the Syrian PYD (a PKK ally) have limited Turkey’s ability to decisively influence what happens on its borders. The role of the Shi'a militia, the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), and abuses by some Kurdish groups against Sunnis have allowed Ankara to argue that Turkmen and Sunni Arabs in Tal Afar, in particular, will be targeted in revenge attacks, and thus Turkish presence is necessary.
Turkey’s key strategic objective is to limit PKK activities in northern Iraq, and to prevent the armed group from joining with the PMU in Sinjar, east of Mosul, which would create a long stretch of territory connecting the Syrian YPG with the PKK in Iraq. Additionally, Turkey has lost prestige as the guardian of Mosul, Sulaymaniye and Kirkuk – regions which historically had significant numbers of Iraqi Turkmen. These areas were ceded by the Ottomans after the breakup of the Ottoman empire following World War I, a sore point for Turkish nationalists like Kemal Atatürk and his successors.
Apart from , Turkey also regards Mosul, together with Aleppo in Syria, as the last outpost of the cultural and historical connection between Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Should the city be destroyed, three territories considered ‘disputed territories’ between Baghdad and the KRG will be at the centre of the rebuilding of a new Iraq and, by extension, a new Middle East. This uncertain outcome requires greater attention. Where will IS members seek refuge if not in the porous border region? Who will be responsible for millions of Iraqi refugees? How long can a military battle against IS (or the PKK) be sustained without completely engulfing the region in protracted warfare? To what extent can the politics of sectarianism be exploited at the expense of inclusive and democratic states in the Middle East?
With the operation against IS in Raqqa, Syria, underway at the same time, and with the YPG playing a key role there, Turkish anxieties about the creation of a Kurdish entity on its doorstep are heightening. Should IS continue to be tenacious,and should the war stretch out longer than planned, Turkey may enter the conflict regardless of the Iraqi position. This could no doubt raise serious legal questions, but would also signal a sharp change in the relations between Ankara and both Baghdad and Washington. ISmight be on its last legs as a pseudo-state, but there is little doubt that it has reshaped the nature of the state and politics in the Middle East for some time to come.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
While being a violation of the sovereignty of a neighbouring country, Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory along the Syria-Turkey border and its attacks on Islamic State group (IS) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions there have not been heavily criticised except by the USA and various Kurdish groups. It has received mild criticism from the Russian and Syrian governments, and significant support from the Turkish population and many Turkish opposition groups. The intervention – called Operation Euphrates Shield – is expected to be a longterm one, and is set to worsen already-tense relations between Turkey and the USA.
The operation follows several fatal operations in Turkey by IS and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in the wake of state security weaknesses after the July coup attempt. The Syrian YPG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and has strong links with the PKK, which Turkey considers a terrorist group. While the US also considers the PKK a terrorist group, it regards the PYD/PYG as an essential element of its anti-IS armed forces in Syria, and a component of what it calls ‘Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)’. Relying on two diametrically opposed actors – Turkey and the YPG, both US allies – to fight a common enemy presents the USA with a tactical and strategic dilemma. Soon after Turkey’s incursion began on 24 August, the USA called on YPG forces to move east of the Euphrates River, a key demand of Turkey, but on Wednesday US spokespersons criticised Turkey’s moves against the group. With the YPG refusing to relocate, USA faces the prospect of losing the largest component of its SDF if it pushes too hard. The head of US Central Command, Joseph Votel,announced at a Pentagon press briefing this week that the YPG had moved east of the Euphrates, but the lack of agreement on whether this is true will exacerbate relations between the two NATO allies.
Turkey had been unable to convince its allies to impose a no-fly zone on the Syria-Turkey border which, Turkey claimed, would help keep millions of refugees safe; Operation Euphrates Shield is likely to create a de facto ‘safe zone’ for refugees and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Turkish planes had begun the first movements in the operation, bombing IS targets in the northern Syrian area of Jarablus. Two hours later 1 500 Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters crossed over from the Turkish region of Karkamis, accompanied by an armed battalion of twenty-five M60A3 tanks, and close fire support from the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). The FSA troops include Faylaq al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, which Turkey considers ‘moderate’ – particularly after the FSA sidelined al-Qa'ida-affiliated groups two weeks earlier.
The operation involves 350 TSK soldiers, 200 troops from mechanised units, and 150 special forces. They are supported by heavy aerial operations conducted collectively by the anti-IS coalition. In addition, seventeen Turkish war planes are participating in the operation, including eleven F16s. Turkey is also using newly-acquired Bayraktar TB2 unarmed drones. An armed brigade is on reserve at the border area of Karkamis and security analysts suggest the nearby base at Kilis Elbeyli will coordinate air support and medical evacuation with FSA units. Based on the type of armaments used by the TSK, Turkey is likely intending to have a longterm presence in Syria’s north with, possibly, a military base in Jarablus that serve as a coordination and training area for FSA fighters. Turkey hopes the FSA can prove its mettle in the field, and then be able to capture the IS stronghold of al-Bab. Should the FSA take that city, it will favour the opposition politically, and deprive the YPG of its status as the most efficient anti-IS force.
This is the first occasion that a NATO member puts boots on the ground in Syria since the war there began in 2011, and comes at a critical time for Turkey, which just six weeks ago experienced an attempted coup that dealt a severe blow to the TSK’s prestige. Caught between its membership in NATO and the deterioration of domestic security, Turkey extracted much benefit from the recent turnaround in relations with Russia to secure Moscow’s assurances that Russian aircraft will not fire on FSA and Turkish troops during this complex operation. The Russian foreign ministry has officially said it ‘is concerned about Turkey’s incursion into Syria’ and that actions against IS should be coordinated with Damascus. Syria itself responded with a statement complaining about the violation of its ‘sovereign rights’, but not suggesting it would do anything more about it.
Turkey’s direct involvement in Syria reflects a change in Ankara’s regional policy from one that claimed humanitarian issues at the core of its policy to a return to hard security goals by national interest. A key political and security aim is to prevent the creation of a contiguous area controlled by the PYD on the 822-kilometre Turkey-Syria border. To achieve this it becomes necessary for the FSA and other rebel factions to unite under a single political banner that regards the territorial integrity of Syria as a precondition for peace talks. Realising this political aim will require the FSA to secure more than just the Jarablus area, and to extend its control to terrain to the west up to the Rai-Azaz / Jarablus-Cobanbey line. Should it gain control of this area, Turkey will be able to cut off IS supply routes and isolate the PYD in the town of Afrin. Turkish warplanes and artillery targeted YPG targets in Afrin on the second day of Euphrates Shield.
The quiet responses to Turkey’s incursion by Russia and Syria (whose response was limited to a written statement) reflects their similar objective that Syria’s integrity be maintained; they thus would be unhappy to allow the PYD to set up an autonomous Kurdish area. Syria’s Iranian allies are also unhappy about what message Kurdish autonomy in Syria might send to Iranian Kurds – especially since recent clashes between the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI) and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and reports that the USA might be supporting the PDKI. Tehran has already said it tacitly supported Turkey in its anti-PKK effort although the Iranian Foreign Ministry said Turkey should halt operations that challenge Syria’s against central government authority, suggesting that Iran remains sceptical of Turkey’s intentions in northern Syria.
Qatar, another regional actor which has supported the FSA, will support Turkey in its push against IS and the YPG as the two countries share similar perspectives on key issues. Qatar has sought to diversify its defence partnerships with the setting up of a Turkish-Qatari military base in the emirate state, which also reflects the rapidly changing security architecture of the region.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Barack Obama are due to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in China on 4 September, but it is unlikely that any substantive movement on a Syrian peace deal will be announced as fighting between the government and rebels continue in the key area of Aleppo.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The evening of Friday, 15 July, saw one of the most severe attacks on Turkey’s democracy since 1997, as a small faction of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) attempted to wrestle control of the state. With more than 200 people killed and 1 500 wounded, a state of emergency was declared days later for a period of three months. As the government began its clampdown against those it accuses of being participants in or complicit with the coup attempt, questions have already been raised about the nature of the democratic process in Turkey, the clampdown by the state, and the stability of the strategically important Eurasian country in an already politically volatile region. Much of this discussion is spiced with a range of conspiracy theories.
How the coup attempt unfolded
The coup operation began around 19:30 Turkish time, and was initially met with shock as many citizens assumed the military presence suggested an imminent terrorist threat; the terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport two weeks earlier was still fresh in Turkish minds. But as tanks rolled onto two Bosphorus bridges in Istanbul, and social media showed military planes flying low over Istanbul and Ankara, it was clear something was awry. A short while later Prime Minister Binali Yildirim confirmed that Turkey was under threat of a coup d'état. The coup plotters did not, however, expect a strong civilian opposition to tanks, attack helicopters and armoured vehicles. After President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s public call on citizens to oppose the military action by those he claimed were members of the movement of US-based Turkish businessperson and preacher Fethullah Gulen, Istanbul and Ankara streets became sites of determined civilian resistance.
The coup plot seemed to have been organised well in advance, and was supported by a significant number of senior officers of the TSK’s air, navy and ground forces. Importantly, the chief of staff, and the heads of the airforce, naval and ground troops refused to cooperate with the plotters, resulting in the breakdown of communication within the army. Had the heads of these strategic arms of the army cooperated, a substantially different picture might have emerged. The putschists incorrectly assumed that they would receive the support of a significant part of the armed forces.
The execution of the plot seemed to have been accelerated by about six hours because of security warnings issued by the National Intelligence Organization (MIT) to senior TSK commanders that afternoon. The operation was planned to begin in the early hours of Saturday morning. The confusion resulting from the change of plan helped make the coup a failure. Another failure followed the disorientation of conscript soldiers who faced public resistance, and who were unaware of the intentions of the putschists, having been told they would be performing an anti-terror exercise. The plotters’ strategy was severely weakened by the fact that they failed to shut down satellite communications, and media was was able to broadcast messages from the prime minister. Further, they seem to have been blindsided by the calls from minarets around the country for civilians to oppose the coup. The Turkish media played a major role in encouraging resistance to the coup, and, in a rare show of unity, media outlets from across the political spectrum declared the coup illegal and a threat to Turkey’s democracy. (In contrast, some western and Arab media such as CNBC and Al Ahram falsely reported Friday night that Erdogan had fled, and sought asylum in Germany.)
Whose coup is it anyway?
From the first announcement about the unfolding coup by Erdogan, Yildirim and other government sources linked the operation to Gulen and his Hizmet movement. His followers around the world are estimated at between three and six million. US court records estimate his institutions’ worth as being between 20 and 50 billion dollars in the USA alone. Some figures put the total global assets as 150 billion dollars. Some opposition groups, notably the fiercely secular Hurriyet newspaper and the opposition Republican Party (CHP) – both extremely critical of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – also pointed fingers at Hizmet. Hurriyet’s Ahmet Hakan, one of the loudest critics of the AKP and Erdogan, also dismissed the theory posited in western media that the president had planned the coup to strengthen his grip over the state. A number of other theories also allege conspiracies, with some accusing the USA, including the claim that the CIA had plotted with Gulen; and others adding that the MIT had been pre-emptively informed of the coup by the Russians as part of their attempt to strengthen relations with Turkey. These theories were spurred on by the fact that western politicians waited for the coup to fail before condemning it, and that the aircraft involved in the coup took off from Incirlik military airbase where the US airforce fighting the Islamic State group (IS) is based.
The timing of the coup attempt is likely linked to the fact that the government already had plans to shake up the top ranks of the army before the end of 2016, with a number of officers, it is suspected, being dismissed, retired or tried. In addition, the annual meeting of the Supreme Council of Ministers, which is tasked with the appointment of military personnel, is to take place in August 2016, and Gulenists expected that meeting to result in a purge of their members in the army. An MIT list of alleged Gulen ‘infiltrators’ was to be used at the meeting, and it is likely that a number of the putschists’ names were on that list. The July coup would, then, have been their last opportunity to protect their positions and oppose Erdogan and the government. Many of the coup plotters, government sources claim, had graduated from Hizmet schools.
The Gulen-AKP alliance and split
The Gulen movement – now outlawed in Turkey as a terrorist organisation – has a long history in Turkish politics dating back to the early 1970s when Gulen's exceptional oratory skills made him a popular preacher, and his network of schools was started. Gulen’s views on the need to mainstream Islam within the major organs of the state in the 1980s, when the Turkish state was a secular fundamentalist state ruled by an anti-religious military junta, gained it favour with Islamists such as those from Necmettin Erbakan’s MilliGorus (Felicity) Islamic Party. Erdogan, a former student of Erbakan, became the mayor of Istanbul in 1996 on a MiliGorus ticket. Although Erbakan remained sceptical of Gulen’s ideology, the AKP, a MiliGorus breakaway that won national elections in 2002, perceived Gulen as an ally against a hostile state that positioned the military as the guardian of the republic.
Erdogan saw Gulen as politically significant precisely because Hizmet, although never openly contesting for space on the Turkish political stage in its forty-year history, was regarded as apolitical. This perception allowed the preacher to cross the boundaries between politics, religion, power and influence. A core arm of Hizmet is its huge school network which includes around 930 schools in Turkey – many catering to the upper echelons of Turkish society, and whose graduates have occupied significant positions in the state apparatus since the mid-1980s, as well as about 2 000 schools in 160 other countries around the world, including South Africa. These cater for a total of around 1.2 million students.
There is little doubt that Gulen wields significant influence, and that millions of dollars flow through his global education network and associated business, media and other organisations. The ease with which Gulen schools operate around the world, employing hundreds of teachers, enrolling thousands of students, and with strong government and civil society contacts, has resulted in allegations that its activities are convenient for intelligence gathering and exercising political influence. Unlike various Middle East Islamist parties which have usually been met with sanctions, Hizmet has become an influential lobby in the USA. It cultivates the image of a ‘moderate’ Muslim group led by a ‘moderate’ Muslim personality who focuses on what Hizmet calls ‘cultural Islam’ – as opposed to ‘political Islam’ . This brand of Islam made Gulen popular in the West, particularly in post-9/11 USA where Gulen became a significant voice in the US ‘war against terror’.
The Gulenist emphasis on interfaith dialogue and its relaxed attitude in some circumstances on issues like alcohol attracted the attention of states that view Erdogan and the AKP as more extreme. As important for his critics is the fact that Gulen never criticised Israeli policies or US foreign policy in the Middle East – even when this seemed detrimental to Turkish interests. Gulen was scathing in his criticism of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ that attempted to ferry aid to the besieged Palestinian territory of Gaza. In contrast to global condemnation of the murder of nine (Turkish) civilians on board the Mavi Marmara, the lead ship in the 2010 Freedom Flotilla, by Israeli security forces, Gulen blamed flotilla organisers because they did not obtain Israeli permission. He also said those in the flotilla knew that they had put their lives at risk, suggesting they deserved the treatment they received from the Israelis.
The AKP’s first decade in power helped strengthen Gulen’s power base in Turkey. The AKP-Hizmet alliance proved useful for both parties – even after Gulen criticised Erdogan for the Mavi Marmara debacle – until 2012 when MIT head Hakan Fidan was arrested. Fidan was leading secret peace talks with the leader of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. The arrest was seen by the government as an attempt at sabotage by Gulenists within the judiciary who were loathe to see reconciliation between the Kurdish rebel group and the state. In response, the government sponsored a bill which, after it was passed in 2014, threatened closure of Hizmet’s chain of preparatory schools in Turkey. This was followed by corruption allegations against AKP politicians, leading to the arrests of top AKP officials, and a number of resignations and dismissals of officials. The AKP alleged this was a campaign by Gulenists in the judiciary who were part of what the AKP began calling a ‘parallel state’. Relations between the former allies descended into distrust and acrimony, with tit-for-tat actions that included banning of pro-Gulen media and judicial attacks against AKP members.
Aftermath and impact
The most obvious result of 15 July was the mass arrests that include people from the military, police, judiciary and the education sector. The coup attempt provided the AKP government an opportunity to crush Hizmet and get rid of its members in state structures, and also to clamp down on other dissenting voices. Around 10 000 people have been detained, with around 9 000 of those being soldiers, and there have been allegations that some detainees are being tortured. In addition, around 40 000 military officials, police officers, judges, governors, teachers and academics have been suspended or dismissed.
While most Turkish opposition parties have expressed support of the government’s security efforts after the defeat of the coup attempt, various western governments have been vocal in their criticism of the mass arrests and clampdown in Turkey. In particular, European and US spokespersons have repeatedly insisted that Turkey must deal with the coup within the ‘rule of law’ – even before the arrests had begun.
This places Turkey on a collision course with the USA. Although a formal extradition request for Gulen has not yet been submitted to the USA, various Turkish officials – including Erdogan – have emphasised that it will be. US officials, including secretary of state John Kerry, have responded by insisting that such a request will only be considered if sufficient evidence is provided that Gulen is guilty as claimed. Relations between Turkey and the USA – fellow NATO members and ostensible allies – have been rocky for the past few years. Despite the US use of Turkey’s Incirlik airforce base to launch attacks against IS, the relationship is fraught. An extradition demand, together with the warming of relations with Russia, will likely make US-Turkish relations even more tenuous.
Turkey’s relations with the European Union and various EU member states are also likely to sour. Erdogan’s ignoring of European demands regarding the mass arrests are set to be significantly readjusted. Anti-EU sentiment has risen in Turkey, reflected in the opinion columns of newspapers. This is a result of what many in Turkey see as the hypocritical stance by the EU that was reflected in its slow reaction to the attempted coup, and threats that Turkey might will disqualify itself for EU accession should it reinstate the death penalty will help ensure that Turkey becomes even more distant from the possibility of EU membership. However, the manner in which . Turkish officials believe that if their country had not been able to join the EU after fifty-three years, it is unlikely to succeed now. EU accession has been used as a carrot by the bloc and its members, they believe, to garner Turkish support in the Middle East with little benefit to Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, has been a benefactor for NATO states. With Turkey’s interest in the EU waning, the country seems more concerned in rebuilding relations with its neighbours.
Relations with Russia are set to improve. The coup attempt came three weeks after Turkey began a rapprochement with Russia, following a break in relations after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet. Turkish-Russian relations have been tested by Russia’s airstrikes on the Turkmen region of Bayirbucak in Northern Syria. However, the soldiers responsible for downing the Russian jet have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the coup network. Some Russian officials suggest that their government has accepted the Turkish version that the Russian jet was shot down as part of a Gulen plot. Russia having been one of the first governments to condemn the coup, and with Erdogan and Russian president, Vladimir Putin, set to meet in weeks, Turkey will seek to advance its political and economic relationship with Russia. Turkey’s suggestion that it will improve relations with Syria will likely be taken forward – with Russian help. And relations with Iran – with whom there is already booming trade – will also likely improve.
A key question relates to the seeming intelligence failure that allowed the plot to proceed as far as it did. Erdogan’s irritation at the lack of intelligence has been plain. Fidan’s role as MIT head will likely be reviewed, with questions already raised about why, if Fidan’s office had information about the plot, it was not timeously directed to the presidency.
The instability in the intelligence sector and armed forces will definitely impact upon Turkey’s war on the PKK, with the Kurdish group being handed an opportunity as a large number of senior officers are removed from the army. As the instability is exploited by Turkey’s southern nemesis, Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, matters will be further complicated for Turkey by the PKK’s links to the Syrian Democratic Union Party (PYD). Syria has, previously, successfully used Kurdish grievances against the Turkish state.
Domestically, the AKP will use the fallout from the attempted coup to its advantage. With Erdogan riding a wave as a saviour of Turkish democracy, it is possible that at the end of the state of emergency there will be either a snap election or a constitutional referendum on the question of a presidential system, which Erdogan could not have won before the coup attempt but which could now turn out favourably for him. Already there are indications that most opposition parties will support constitutional amendments, although it is unclear what precise amendments they are referring to.
There is no doubt that after the dust has settled in the squares and the sense of unity that is generally being felt across the country in response to the coup becomes less tangible, Turkey will be faced with greater challenges than the overt violence of a week ago. The Turkish state is fragile, and state institutions could either be stabilised or could further weaken as a result of the current purges. Should the Gulen movement be legally charged with subversion, its networks in Turkey and globally could be seriously affected. This could have implications for Turkey’s foreign relations, especially its policy towards countries that maintain links with the Hizmet movement, and, in particular, with the USA where Gulen resides. Turkey’s view of and its role within NATO could also be considered more carefully, given that no assistance was given to a member whose institutions were being attacked from the air by hostile forces. Whether Turkey will be able to weather the storm in the long term will depend on the willingness of all political forces to cooperate in the best interests of the broader society, and whether the government considers the rights of its citizens as important as it does the security of the state. Of course, as long as the legitimate grievances of its Kurdish population are not addressed, the Turkish state will remain in a state of uncertainty and instability. It also remains to be seen whether Turkey decides to reprioritise its domestic and regional imperatives over those of its global alliances.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Turkey’s Kurdish question: Historic foundations and contemporary issues
After about eighty years of marginalisation and persecution, Turkey’s Kurdish population had a glimmer of hope for the resolution of the ‘Kurdish question’ through talks between the Justice and Development (AKP) government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2013. The PKK had pursued an armed insurgency against the state since 1984, but proximity talks between Turkish National Intelligence Service and PKK representatives in Oslo in 2009 suggested the possibility of a new dawn. The talks developed into a dialogue with PKK leader and ideologue, Abdullah Ocalan, who had been serving a life sentence in the Imrali Island prison since 1999. In 2013 both sides declared a ceasefire, which substantially held until 2015. In September 2015 Turkey and the armed PKK renewed hostilities, effectively terminating two years of peace talks. Since then, the Turkish military has bombed PKK bases in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains and implemented martial law across Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast, as a string of bombings rocked Turkish cities, and an uprising erupted in various Kurdish urban centres.
Numbering between 15 and 20 million, Turkey’s Kurds form the largest part of the Kurdish community, which is split across Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the Caucasus. Since the division of these areas following the Second World War, Kurdish groups across this region have called for increased autonomy from central governments, and, often, complete secession that would allow the various parts of the Kurdish community to unite into a new Kurdish state. That discourse has changed over the past few years, with new ideas of democratic autonomy diluting the push for succession which once dominated the Kurdish national movement.
Victims of Ataturk’s nationalist project
After the First World War, with the Ottoman empire divided into several new states, a group of former Ottoman Officers headed by Mustafa Kemal, a charismatic general known among Turkish nationalists as the ‘father’ of modern Turkey, or Ataturk, led the Turkish War of Independence which resulted in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In his vision for a secular republican Turkey, Ataturk pursued a programme of social and political reform which included the abolition of Islamic institutions; the introduction of western legal codes, dress, and calendar; and the latinisation of the Turkish language from the Arabic Ottoman alphabet. The reforms formed part of a Turkish nationalist project which championed the primacy of Turkishness over other ethnic identities. Secular Turkish nationalism ensured that development in the Kurdish regions was stymied, and the Kurdish language was banned in public spaces, including schools, resulting in disproportionately high illiteracy levels among Kurds. The effects of this policy persist. The channelling of state development projects to West Turkey resulted in the underdevelopment of the east, which was used as a cheap reservoir of labour. The 1950s were years of major political upheaval for the Kurdish southeast; feudal relations suffered as numerous rural uprisings took place against the state, increasing urbanisation.
Roots and evolution of the PKK
In the 1960s, educated and unionised Kurdish counter-elites gained control of the Kurdish national movement from its more traditional and conservative support base. Years of cultural patronisation and economic neglect stemming from Ankara’s Kemalist socioeconomic policies radicalised Kurdish youth. The combination of socioeconomic factors and renascent Kurdish cultural idioms produced a new Kurdish movement. Soon the leadership began to use a Marxist discourse, mainly within trade union movements – the only legal avenues for Kurdish political thought and action. In 1978 Ocalan and a number of radical Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals established the PKK with the aim of seceding from Turkey and joining with other Kurdish regions to form a Kurdish state – a call which grew stronger among Turkish Kurds after military rule in 1980. In 1984 the PKK’s armed wing, The People’s Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARKG) began an armed insurgency against the state. Although the armed campaigns enjoyed rural support, there were also Kurds who were opposed this strategy. This section of the Kurdish community was mostly tribal, conservative and religious. Ankara, aware of these fissures, sought to divide support for the PKK through increased urbanisation programmes, and the introduction of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as The Village Guard, ostensibly to protect Kurdish villages from PKK insurgents. Rogue elements in the Turkish security apparatus also provided support to the Turkish Hizbullah (no relation to the Lebanese Hizbullah), a militant Islamist group which fought the PKK, adding another dimension to Kurdish infighting.
Nevertheless, by the 1990s the Turkish state was unable to destroy Kurdish identity and political expression, and the PKK and other armed Kurdish groups were unable to secede from Turkey through armed force. In 1993, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ocalan began discussing autonomy for the Kurdish regions, promoting self-rule within existing states, and abandoning the notion of secession to create a Kurdish state. This ‘Democratic Confederalism’ project, as he called it, would provide for the development of autonomous sociocultural systems with defined independent economic domains aiming to move away from the central state and parochial nationalism, diversifying governance from the ‘bottom up’, and championing localised governance whilst celebrating ethnic and linguistic difference. The PKK reframed armed resistance as ‘self defence’, and the ARKG changed its name to People’s Defence Forces (HPG). Inserted into the Democratic Confederalism discourse, ‘self-defence’ was a way to address the contradictions between the continued existence of an armed wing, and the official policy of peace.
Kurdish participatory politics
Between 1993 and 2008, Kurds attempted to create political parties which could contest Turkish parliamentary elections. Seven were launched in this period, and all were banned by Turkey’s constitutional court. They also suffered state repression in the form of imprisonment and assassinations. Although some parties had ties to the PKK, many were banned due to their policies of autonomy – consistent with the Democratic Confederalism model – which they attempted to institutionalise in municipalities that their members controlled. Since 2005 the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which promotes Democratic Confederalism through assemblies and grassroots participatory politics, has expanded its operations. With a similar objective, the Democratic Society Congress, a brainchild of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) – one of the seven banned parties, was formed in 2007, aiming to further autonomy in Kurdish areas.
By 2007 Kurdish political leaders regarded the hegemonic Kurdish nationalist discourse as the cause for poor performance at the polls, and for consistent legislative attacks from the state. In order to address this, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) aligned with twenty socialist parties to form the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK); it won thirty-six seats in the 2011 general elections. In 2013 HDK was given a historic opportunity to push its pluralist agenda to an even broader audience after the Gezi Park protest movement erupted in central Istanbul, driven by objections to gentrification in Istanbul and deteriorating press freedoms. The Gezi Park movement offered the HDK a mouthpiece within Turkish urban centres. In October 2013 the HDK established the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the most inclusive Kurdish-led political party thus far, which appealed to anti-austerity, socialist and progressive Turks who had found a platform at Gezi.
As Kurdish political parties grew throughout the 1990s, Islamist Turkish parties emerged. The roots of these parties lie deep within the Turkish social fabric, and date back to the founding of Turkish nationalism, when Turkish identity was founded as a derivative of Islam. The military junta played a role in the mid-1980s in laying the ground for the entrance of Islamist political discourse into the fiercely secular Turkish political scene. As part of its attempt to combat the rise of left-wing politics, it introduced ‘Islamisation from above’ policies which included compulsory religious education, and the reopening of religious schools and institutions. More profoundly, it fused Islamic symbols with nationalism in the hope of combating the revolutionary Islamic thought emanating from post-revolutionary Iran. It also introduced deregulation reforms which strengthened the emergence of an Anatolian bourgeoisie which had strong roots in Islamic culture. This, together with the elitism of Kemalist parties, resulted in the emergence of the Welfare Party, the Islamist precursor to the AKP.
In1997 eighteen ‘28 February Recommendations’ by military and Kemalist leaders were issued, designed to stem the growth of Islamism Turkish politics. The military gave the Welfare party-led coalition government an ultimatum over issues regarding secularism and political Islam. A year later the Welfare Party was outlawed. Despite the retaking of the political realm by Turkey’s military elite, the growth and popularity of Islamic politics had been established, and it had captured the imagination of groups of people – particularly conservative or religious Turks and Kurds – who had been marginalised by elitist, secular fundamentalist and nationalist politics. The AKP emerged in 2001 within this context, and secured substantial Kurdish support by utilising the influence of religious Kurdish groups, particularly the Naqshbandi Sufi order. From the 2002 to the 2007 parliamentary election the AKP doubled its support in the southeast due to the support of conservative and religious Kurds.
The 2012 Peace Process
AKP victories at the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections symbolised the return and victory of Islamist politics within Turkey. These electoral wins were secured partly through consistent support from the southeast, where the Kurdish electorate saw the AKP as the only party willing and able to resolve the Kurdish question and to secure a lasting peace with the PKK. To address the Kurdish issue decisively, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opened a dialogue with Ocalan and the PKK high command in late 2012. He wanted to finally resolve the problem of Kurdish marginalisation, while securing a diplomatic coup for his party. The PKK claims, cynically and in retrospect, that he also wanted to create a peaceful environment in the run up to the 2014 elections, and to build support for a presidential system in Turkey among Kurds.
The emergence of the HDP as the voice of participatory and radical Kurdish politics, however, challenged the AKP’s position as the sole political force for peace. The HDP could not be ignored in any peace process, and was chosen as a courier between Imrali Island and Ankara, and, at points, to represent Ocalan in negotiations with government. A February 2015 meeting between HDP leaders and the deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, at the Domalbache Palace resulted in a ten-point roadmap for a final resolution. Erdogan, however, rejected the Domalbache agreement, blaming continuing violence between state security forces and the PKK, and criticising the HDP for not condemning the Kurdish group.
The PKK’s main complaint about the peace process was that it only guaranteed the rehabilitation of PKK fighters, and gave few guarantees regarding demands for autonomy. This strengthened an environment of distrust, intensified when Ankara began building military bases as PKK fighters were withdrawing. As a result of this PKK scepticism, its military units began to return from the Qandil Mountains in 2014, enforcing checkpoints and imposing taxes, resulting in pitched battles between PKK militants and the army, and skirmishes between PKK youth and Kurdish Islamists. By late 2014 the PKK had accused Ankara of negotiating in bad faith, and of marginalising the HDP. This saw an increase in militancy within the PKK and other groups such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), with them undertaking bombing campaigns and armed attacks. The situation exploded early 2015 with Erdogan’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State group’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, which was controlled by PKK-affiliated Peoples Protection Units. This perceived complicity in the siege saw two dramatic developments for the tattered Kurdish peace process: the PKK called on youth in the southeast to rise up against the state, and the significant Kurdish vote the AKP had enjoyed gravitated to the HDP and another Kurdish party, Huda Par, in the June 2015 parliamentary election.
Future for Turkey’s Kurdish question
In the subsequent October 2015 elections, the HDP lost a large number of votes to the AKP and lost twenty-one of its eighty parliamentary seats. With armed battles and deep suspicion now characterising the relationship between the PKK and the state, it is unlikely that talks between them will resume anytime soon. In this context, the AKP hopes to solve the Kurdish issue unilaterally, without negotiating with Kurdish representatives.
With the HDP’s loss in the October election, many frustrated Kurds that had been drawn to the party’s participatory narrative became more amenable to PKK militancy. However, the PKK does not enjoy complete support in Kurdish areas, and has made a number of strategic errors in 2015. Its call on urban youth to revolt, for example, failed to attract broad support among Kurds. The instability on the Syrian border, and the emergence of the PKK-linked PYD as a potential power broker in any Syrian solution has complicated the Kurdish question for Ankara. Failure to engage meaningfully with the political forces ranged against it has emboldened those in the PKK who advocate a violent response.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports of secret meetings between Israeli and Turkish officials in Switzerland in February suggest Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) is softening its attitude towards Tel Aviv. Any rapprochement will likely include compensation for the Turkish victims of the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010, access to Gaza for Turkish aid ships, and a Turkish statement to crack down on Hamas operations from within Turkey. Less public agreements will likely include a reopening of arms deals between the two former allies, a united front on the diplomatic stage concerning Iran’s regional influence, possible energy deals concerning Israel’s eastern Mediterranean gas reserves and the exchange of intelligence on various non-state actors, particularly Kurdish groups. The talks in Switzerland may signal a watershed, but broader strategic imperatives, overlapping rivalries and new geopolitical realities have been coalescing behind the scenes to nudge Turkey towards Israel.
The killing of the nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara – part of the Freedom Flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010 – had been preceded by a dip in relations caused by a tirade by then-Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Trade Forum in Davos in 2009.
Benefits for Turkey
In 1998 the Turkish government planned to invest 150 billion dollars over twenty-five years in the modernisation of the country’s armed forces. Turkey’s main strategic goal during this time was to develop its local arms industry through the acquisition of advanced military knowledge, technology and materiel from suppliers who placed no conditions on sales. Israel was perfect since it chose to ignore Turkey’s egregious human rights record at the time, unlike EU arms suppliers. Israeli arms companies supplied Turkey with over 389 million dollars in weapons between 2001 and 2014, including ten Heron drones purchased under an AKP government. With old and new threats to Turkish security emanating from the resurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Islamic State group (IS) respectively, Turkey seems to again be aiming to diversify its arms’ procurement. The Turkish defence minister sent a special envoy to meet with Israel’s security establishment on 1 March to negotiate financial terms on a number of weapons deals which reportedly will include drones. The planned purchase is a major component of the rapprochement.
Israel’s position as a world leader in cyber-security will also entice capital from interested public and private parties in Turkey. Turkish Ministry of Transport and Communications report covering 2013-2014 stated that Turkey was developing a comprehensive cyber-security programme. The fact that Syrian regime ‘hacktivists’ were able to wreak havoc on top-secret Turkish agencies in 2013 and 2014 suggests that this programme is still in its infancy. Thus, sourcing technology, expertise and equipment Israel until its own programme is underway could be useful for Turkey to counter the cyber threats it already faces.
There are also energy-related reasons that Turkey would want to upgrade ties with Israel. Russia’s entry in the Syrian civil war in support of the regime creates an energy dilemma for Turkey, which imports about fifty-five per cent of its natural gas supplies from Russia (and another eighteen per cent from another of Syria’s allies, Iran). Turkey is opposed to Moscow’s backing of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and has genuine fears that Russia might use gas as a geo-strategic bludgeon, not least to keep open the strategic Bosphorous strait which is the throughway for Russian ships taking supplies to Syria, and which, under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits, is under Turkish control. The discovery of billions of cubic metres of gas off Israel’s coast, and in Gazan waters controlled by the Israeli navy, provides the possibility of an alternative energy source for Turkey that could make it less reliant on Russia. Israel is not poised to immediately satiate Turkish demands due to various complications over Israel’s development of these fields. Nevertheless, energy diplomacy remains a factor bringing these two states closer together.
The combination of détente with the West, and its presence in Syria – through proxies and its own forces – has granted Iran considerable weight in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the USA and Russia. This has sent Turkey’s Syria policy into a tailspin, as the ISSG’s fixation on battling IS has contributed to a ceasefire which technically grants Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces the right to fight Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebels. The more pressing issue, from Ankara’s perspective, is that the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has gained from Russian bombing campaigns along northern Syria. PYG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the main militia for the Kurdish Supreme Committee whose autonomous canton of Rojava in Syria is regarded by Ankara as a security threat because it serves as a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and because the Rojava model for Kurdish autonomy is inspiring for Turkey’s Kurdish population. Israel’s close relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, with which Turkey already good relations, is useful to Turkey as the KRG is a competitor to the PKK-PYD for leadership of the Kurdish movement. Ankara sought to exploit these rivalries during the IS siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobane in 2014 when it allowed KRG Peshmerga forces access to liberate the town in an attempt to prevent a YPG-PKK symbolic victory. Israel is also able to provide Turkey with intelligence on the YPG and PKK.
Benefits for Israel
Military agreements between Israel and Turkey during the 1990s reaped considerable dividends for Tel Aviv. The 1996 signing of the ‘Military Training and Cooperation Agreement’ between the two states enabled Israel to participate in war games with NATO members, and granted it a strategic alliance with NATO. Israel was able to deepen its strategic depth abroad through utilising Turkish airspace, which it often exploited to monitor events in Lebanon and Syria. The downgrading of these relations in the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid left Israel more vulnerable at its northern frontier, with an inability to exploit airspace to monitor Hizbullah and Syrian personal movements. Recent Israeli artillery and war games around the Lebanese border reflect this insecurity. Israel is now looking to shore up its capabilities in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal and Hizbullah’s reported procurement of advanced Russian ballistic weapons, a return to the past agreement in which an informal military alliance is in place is not imminent, but the Israeli defence establishment will remind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a return to the tacit military pact of the 1990s would benefit Israel as the Syrian quagmire deepens.
Turkey’s diplomatic capital with Syriane opposition groups, particularly Islamists, and members within the Gulf Cooperation Countries and their allies provides Israel with a critical ear among Muslim states opposed to Iranian ambitions. With the paranoia in Israel that the nuclear deal with Iran between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – USA, Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany) has imperilled Israel’s monopoly of force in the region, the diplomatic capital gained by Israel through improved relations with Turkey cannot be overstated. Coordination with the GCC, and especially Saudi Arabia, in countering Iranian ambitions will be a foreign policy objective for Israel in the coming years. Despite bilateral (albeit secretive) alliance building in the gulf by Israel, official links with Ankara can develop these links without further compromising Riyadh, Doha and Dubai, which require the pretence of aloofness from Israel for reputational purposes.
Furthermore, Israel hopes that Turkey’s influence on Hamas will provide it with a partner that can pressure the group when needed. Turkey has played patron to Hamas, and wields some influence within the group’s politburo.
Implications for the Palestinians
The Palestinian issue plays an important tactical role in the AKP’s foreign policy, and Turkey was in the throes of a diplomatic crisis with Israel at the apogee of Erdogan’s national and regional popularity. His public admonishments of Israel have been common spectacle, especially with regards to the situation in Gaza, a cause celebre for the Turkish population. Erdogan will want to rebuild his shattered image within the region, and he will therefore want a renewal of relations with Israel to be premised on agreement for at least one Turkish aid ship to Gaza. The situation in Gaza is reaching breaking point, with the territory going into its ninth year of siege and on a ‘disastrous trajectory’, according to the UN.
A complete removal of the blockade as a result of Turkish demands is unlikely, but Israel may allow limited entrance of Turkish aid into the besieged territory. Israel would prefer Hamas having Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as patrons rather then Iran, and thus Israel’s allowing a trickling of Turkish aid into Gaza is possible. Furthermore, tepid comments from the US State Department with regards to Israel’s human rights transgressions have frosted the historically special relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. By allowing Turkish ships, possibly after being searched and monitored by Israeli agents, to enter Gaza, Israel will portray itself as a benevolent force granting its subjugated population a limited reprieve. The humanitarian public relations coup this could bring for Israel could be significant, as could be the ammunition it provides its supporters in the USA.
The Palestinian faction which will benefit most from a Turkish-Israeli accord is Hamas. Any reprieve for beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza will give the movement more popular appeal in its heartland. Former Fatah member Mohammad Dahlan, who has designs on the presidency of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and has been strengthening his support base in Gaza, risks seeing his support weakened if aid enters through Hamas diplomacy. Dahlan is planning a comeback that is being funded primarily by the UAE and supported by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi has already stressed he opposes Turkish ships docking at Gaza’s port. Sisi and Erdogan already have a tempestuous relationship after the former’s coup which overthrew President Mohammad Morsi in 2013.
Developments in the region have compelled Ankara to reorganise its foreign policy, and new and resurgent security challenges have compelled it to reconsider its alliances and its source of high grade military technology. Its overreliance on Russian energy has also made it wary, and made the possibility of sourcing gas from Israel more attractive. Erdogan’s grip on Turkish foreign policy has resulted in some disastrous decisions which have scuppered his reputation as a darling of the region. Supporting besieged Palestinians in Gaza in a manner no one else is able to is a good way to reassert himself regionally and attempt to reverse some reputational damage.
Israel has little to lose by rebuilding ties with Turkey. A ready customer for its gas and weapons will provide the economy with a rich windfall. Closeness with a NATO country, especially after a very public spat between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu and disagreements with the EU, would be warmly welcomed in Tel Aviv, especially in defence circles.
For Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is unlikely to result in any significant and medium-term improvement in their living conditions. There will be short-term humanitarian benefit (and political benefit for Hamas) from a Turkish aid flotilla – the best possible scenario for Gazans, but that will not lift the siege. And even such aid is not certain; it still needs approval by a hawkish Netanyahu cabinet, whose objections will be bolstered by loud calls from Cairo, and quieter calls from Ramallah where PA and Fatah leaders would be loathe to see aid reach Hamas-controlled Gaza.