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Why is Turkey Attacking the Kurdish Militants Instead of ISIS?
Turkey’s recent transformations caused a surprising degree of conflict. Economic growth was accompanied by the looting of public spaces, leading to social unrest. A bold new foreign policy saw Syria replaced by ISIS as Turkey’s southern neighbor. A peace process with the Kurdish National Movement raised expectations for reconciliation. But they crashed with the collapse of the ceasefire last month. The inability of the parliament to agree on a coalition government further increased tensions. The Turkish Lira fell to record lows against the Dollar and the Euro. Turkey is waging two wars: a low intensity war against ISIS and a high intensity war against the PKK. Meanwhile, there is no elected government in Ankara. How can we make sense of these dizzying transformations?
One way to clear the fog is to consider the main actors, their interests, and their interactions. There are five significant actors operating in two interlinked political landscapes. Their changing relationships in response to events outside of any single actor’s control limit the range of available options each could pursue. Their behaviors are not predetermined per se, but influenced by the changing context within which they try to realize their interests.
These actors are Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey’s elected president), the AKP (Erdoğan’s moderate Islamist party), the PKK (the illegal militant wing of the Kurdish National Movement), the HDP (the legal political wing of the Kurdish National Movement, which recently absorbed some leftist and liberal Turks), and ISIS. The first four of these actors are operating in the Turkish political arena. All five are operating in the broader regional politics of the Middle East.
Erdoğan’s priority is regime change in Turkey. He seeks a new system that will confirm him as a super-charged president. Comparisons with Russian President Vladimir Putin may not be too far off the mark. His authoritarian ruling style and cultivation of a large network of crony-capitalists already show that Turkey may be closer to a competitive authoritarian regime than a lackluster democracy.
In my recent article published in Politics & Society, I argue that the AKP gained support from non-Islamist voters and won consecutive elections by recruiting center-right politicians, businessmen, and other economic and social elites. It has now built a sufficiently large elite network to reap the benefits of crony capitalism. I show in another article, recently published in Democratization, that even Turkish civil society is in the business of seeking patronage from the AKP through insider party connections. Erdoğan no longer competes against his rivals in a level playing field. He uses all the might and wealth of the Turkish state, the crony capitalist class, and government-friendly media conglomerates to campaign against his opponents. Neither does he shy away from politicizing the presidency by overstepping constitutional boundaries. His party’s recent loss of parliamentary majority frustrated his designs.
The AKP has been undergoing a slow-motion purge under Erdoğan’s leadership. The alienation last year of Abdullah Gül, the previous president and one of AKP’s founders, made it clear that the new president does not tolerate rivalry. Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, another AKP founder, switched over to the pro-Kurdish HDP. Current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu seems unable to chart his own path. His failure to form a coalition government was partly the result of Erdoğan’s unwillingness to accept the current election results. New elections will likely take place in November.
The PKK is the Kurdish militant group that has been waging a war against the Turkish state since 1984. Its current demands from Turkey are rather vague. They range from “free Kurdistan” and a “democratic republican Turkey” to Kurdish cultural rights, local autonomy, and Turkey’s intervention against ISIS. The group agreed to a ceasefire in 2012 while negotiating a peace process with the AKP. Both recently fell apart. It is important to note that the PKK ended the ceasefire on July 11. The militants declared a new “revolutionary peoples war,” killed a soldier and two policemen. Turkey then launched airstrikes against PKK positions. PKK’s main motivation for its new policy was the changing natural environment in Kurdistan. The Turkish state is arguably shaping nature as a weapon. Dam construction projects that depopulate the Kurdish landscape, new roads designed for the military to improve its logistics, and the building of the “kalekol,” a neologism that combines the words “castle” and “military station,” led the PKK to renew its armed conflict with the Turkish state. The PKK leaders likely believed that a prolonged ceasefire benefited the state and disadvantaged them. But, the PKK also benefited from the ceasefire. It was able to redirect its military muscle to help the Kurds gain more territory in Syria. It also became a more robust actor in the politics of Northern Iraq.
The HDP is the pro-Kurdish party that recently increased its vote-share to 13 percent. Besides Kurds, it appealed to leftist and liberal Turks. This cost the AKP its parliamentary majority and frustrated Erdoğan’s ambitions. There may be some disagreements between the HDP and PKK as the former incorporates non-Kurdish voters. The PKK is demanding a more active confrontation with the state. But the HDP seems intent on building electoral support via regular political channels.
ISIS was the biggest beneficiary of Turkey’s policy towards Syria. The Turkish government rejects the claim that it helped ISIS. But the swift censorship of news covering weapons shipments to Syria raises uncomfortable questions. Turkey hesitated to engage ISIS directly despite the international calls for action. But ISIS always regarded Turkey as a legitimate target in its propaganda. When Turkey agreed to help the U.S. in Syria, ISIS threatened attacks inside Turkey.
Ankara is keeping its operations against ISIS quiet. Ankara’s main target is the PKK, and Erdoğan’s is the HDP. He recently accused the HDP politicians of conspiring with terrorists. According to Erdoğan, the liberal intellectuals who support the HDP are “traitors.” He may be looking forward to a repeat election after a process of bloody conflict with the PKK. It might presumably provoke Turkish nationalists to support the AKP, lead Turkish HDP supporters to abstain in response to PKK violence, and scare the public into voting for a one-party government. The likelihood of this scenario actually playing out is debatable.
The PKK seeks to deny the state the rewards of a prolonged ceasefire. The state’s military construction projects makes the conflict zone less hospitable to the militants. It also reduces confidence in the peace talks. But the PKK also benefited from the ceasefire. It expanded its military and political clout in Syria and Northern Iraq. The lack of violence enabled the HDP to broaden its appeal to Turkish voters. The PKK is a more vigorous organization than before. This reduces the state’s confidence that it will agree to a negotiated solution. If the PKK can reap more rewards later, why would it make a deal now?
The conflict between the two parties was avoidable. Both the PKK and Erdoğan could have chosen to take more political risks and reduce the tension. But, they didn’t. And the constellation of structural factors made conflict more likely.
Meanwhile, ISIS remains a sideshow form Ankara’s perspective. One of its militants killed 32 people in a bomb blast in July. Bus drivers, like the one I recently met, discover potential bombers among their passengers. Still, the Turkish government keeps its operations against ISIS at a policing level. And bombs that do not blow up are not yet making the news.