Is Turkey heading towards civil war?

Is Turkey heading for civil war?

I wrote this piece for News Hub a few weeks ago, but it seems apt now following the awful bombings in Ankara. Can read it on News Hub here.

Things are not looking good for Turkey. The Turkish lira is at a record low against the US dollar and society is polarized over ongoing clashes between Kurdish rebels and Turkish security forces. Last week, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish political party, the HDP, warned that the country is on the verge of a civil war.

With violence escalating, it seems worryingly viable. Old tensions between the Turkish state and the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) – which they consider to be a terrorist organisation – have been well and truly reignited in a conflict that has seen 40,000 people killed since 1984.

The PKK were first to break a two-year ceasefire in July. They claimed responsibility for the shooting of two Turkish policemen – a reprisal, they claimed. Many Kurds sympathetic to the PKK blamed the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for being complicit in, or at least passive towards, an Isis-blamed suicide attack that claimed the lives of 32 activists in Suruc, close to the Syrian border.

Days of fighting followed and when Turkey finally announced airstrikes on Isis militants in Syria, it only took until the next day for the guns to turn instead onto PKK targets in Iraq. Suspicions of the vehemently anti-Assad AKP government’s ties to Isis are never far away. The government denies any link. However, while Kurdish fighters remain the biggest resistance against Isis, these attacks will have done little to hinder the jihadists.

Since then, a series of nationalist protests, car bombings, arson attacks and sieges have brought violence well and truly back to the streets of Turkey. The government have been accused of fanning tensions for their own political means. If Turkey is heading towards a civil war, it’s increasingly believed that it’s by design rather than accident.

In June, just before the peace was broken, the AKP failed to win a political majority in a general election for the first time since 2002. The party’s rule had become increasingly authoritarian, swaying the secular country towards Islamification. They were denied their majority by Demirtas’s left-wing, pro-Kurdish HDP who surpassed the steep 10% threshold – with 13% overall – in their first general election.

The streets fizzed with excitement that night, a real sense of euphoria after years of oppressive rule. HDP had the young and the alienated on their side, both Turkish and Kurdish, and channelled the revolutionary spirit of 2013’s anti-government Gezi Park movement.

However, coalition talks, which appeared a non-starter from the off, collapsed and a new election has been scheduled for November 1st. Beyond simply retaining control, the AKP and their controversial president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who undertook the largely ceremonial role after hitting a three-term prime ministerial limit last year – seek a majority so that the constitution can be revised, ushering in a new presidential system. A move no doubt learned from Russia’s Vladamir Putin.

The subsequent frosting over of Kurdish-Turkish relations seems too convenient to be coincidence. As Marxist theory goes, the best way to end a revolution is with a counterrevolution. Years of massive economic growth led to increased inequality, with the poor now paying the price for the current crisis. Yet divide people on national lines instead of class ones, and it becomes far easier to sway the vote.

If Turkey did somehow engineer PKK retaliation over their handling of the Suruc bombing – or subsequent skirmishes – would Erdogan really be willing to throw the country back into bloody conflict just to win an election?

He is certainly a figure of scorn to his critics, trailing in his wake a string of corruption scandals, inflammatory comments about women’s role in society and incessant attacks on the press. He has shut down pro-Kurdish TV stations, online content is frequently blocked and many journalists have been arrested and even deported for daring to question his government.

Erdogan’s policies are uncompromising, everyone who disagrees with him is soon publicly branded a terrorist, or said to be aiding terrorists. When tapes were released claiming to contain recordings of him ordering his son to dispose of millions of dollars of incriminating cash amid one corruption scandal, he refused to step down, dismissing it as a plot to bring down the government. He’s no Mother Theresa, but as to whether he would risk thousands of lives for a game of political chess is not for me to say (see journalism prosecutions above). However, growing numbers of Turkish people believe so and it’s a feeling that’s not going to be easy to shake.

Either way, it’s the Kurdish civilians who are left baring the brunt of the country’s power struggles. Street attacks on the Kurdish minority are growing, and their cities are under siege. Few feel protected by official forces. According to even the pro-government press, 1,100 Kurds have died since the recent unrest compared to 150 soldiers. If civil war is brewing in Turkey, it’s because at least one side wants peace. They are, however, willing to fight for it.

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