Fighting between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is heating up again after a two-year hiatus. In late July, the PKK murdered two Turkish policemen in their homes, and Turkish warplanes bombed PKK positions across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds is officially off.
Which means Turkey is less likely than ever to help the rest of the world cope with ISIS.
It has been obvious for a while now that Turkey implicitly sides with ISIS against Syria’s Kurds since the Kurdish militias there are on side with the PKK. Less understood is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also hammering the Kurds for purely domestic political reasons.
He’s doing everything he can to transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to an “enhanced” presidential system, and if he pulls it off he’ll wield most of the power. Think of him as a wannabe elected Roman dictator or Hugo Chavez shorn of the Marxism.
“Erdoğan is accustomed to winning,” Claire Berlinski writes in Politico. “Since the 2002 general election that brought his AKP to power, he has defeated rival after rival, imprisoned military officer after military officer, prosecuted journalist after journalist, tear-gassed protest after protest; and — most importantly — won election after election.”
Recently, though, he hit an obstacle—the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a united coalition of Kurdish nationalists that spans the political spectrum from the radical left to the socially conservative right. They united and won enough seats to derail Erdogan’s plans, handing his AKP its first parliamentary loss in thirteen years.
Plenty of Kurds voted for Erdogan in past elections, but one of the reasons the HDP won this time is because they know as well as the rest of us that Erdogan is implicitly siding with ISIS in Syria.
HDP party co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş is a reasonable and moderate man. He eschews the violence waged against the Turkish state by the PKK. No matter. Erdogan has him in the crosshairs, not because he’s a terrorist but because he won’t sign off on an “enhanced” presidency.
Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and has forgotten more about the ins-and-outs of Turkey's Byzantine politics than most of the rest of us put together will ever know.
By Turkish law, if no coalition is formed before August 23, snap elections must be held — a “re-run,” as Erdoğan has termed it. So he has until then to correct the Peoples’ Will. As the Turkish economist Emre Deliveli has pointed out, data from 2007-2015 shows, quite strikingly, that support for the AKP rises after episodes of political violence.
So if you look at it from Erdoğan’s perspective — it’s all about the Palace — Demirtaş has to go. The easiest way to ensure that is to fracture the Kurdish vote: make sure Kurds grasp they must choose between Demirtaş and chaos. Smear the HDP with charges that they and the PKK are one. Whip up nationalist rage (it is not hard to do, in Turkey). That may help recoup the 2.5 to 3 percent of the vote the AKP lost to the nationalist MHP on June 7 as well.
After the election, Burhan Kuzu, one of Erdogan’s advisors, said “Yes, the election is over. The people have decided. I said ‘Either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos. May it bring happiness.”
Erdogan’s party, as Berlinski notes, is now delivering chaos.
The Kurds voted for a party that eschews violence, but they’re not getting peace, not in Syria and not in Turkey.
The Turkish-Kurdish civil war has lasted more than three decades. More than 40,000 people have already been killed. If this spins out of control again—and it easily could—NATO member Turkey will become even more hostile to our only ally in Syria capable of taking on ISIS.
Wherever this is heading, it will not bring happiness.