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Turkey’s risky double offensive

The Turkish government, with President Erdogan in the lead, has maneuvered itself into a daring conflict on two fronts. In the name of anti-terrorism the Turkish military is attacking both the Islamic state (IS) and the Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq. At the same time, Erdogan has seized this opportunity to discredit the pro-Kurdish HDP which broke through the 10% threshold in the parliamentary elections this June. The peace process with the Kurds is thus in jeopardy and Erdogan is risking a renewed escalation in Turkey in order for his party to regain a parliamentary majority.

An IS-attack had long acted as a red line to justify a military intervention by Turkey into Syria. Such an attack took place last month in Suruc near the Syrian border. The suicide bomber killed 32 people, including many young activists who were working to rebuild the Syrian border town of Kobane.

The Turkish government responded with a double whammy. Not only was its intervention directed against ISIS, but also against the Kurdish militias in Syria and Iraq. The Turkish government argues that it was hereby merely taking action against two internationally classified terrorist organisations. However, this military operation is striking in particular Kurdish bases rather than those areas where IS predominates. This foolhardy strategy has been widely criticised in the EU and Turkey, since the Kurdish militias are regarded as the only counterforce which has to date been successful in the struggle against ISIS. Turkey, however, has so far played an inglorious role in this struggle by granting the terrorist militia a free hand in Turkey.

Kurds and IS are merged into a single enemy

Now, however, Erdogan and his party, the AKP, are trying their hardest to merge Kurds and IS into a single enemy. In the pro-government media, the recent anti-intervention protests in Turkey have been represented as if the largely Kurdish demonstrators are taking to the streets in support of ISIS. From the perspective of the Kurds, such reporting must seem cynical, given the enormous casualties which they have suffered in the fight against IS.

With this approach Erdogan is risking the already fragile peace process. The AKP is utilising the fight against ISIS to clamp down on the Kurds within Turkey. In this context several hundred people with alleged links to ISIS or the PKK were arrested indiscriminately in recent weeks.

Backstabbing on the domestic front

However, it must be remembered that the PKK has also provided Erdogan with a pretext for the harsher crackdown against the Kurds. In retaliation for the terrorist attack in Suruc, PKK fighters killed two Turkish police officers on 22 July in the southern Turkish province of Sanliurfa.

The AKP is backstabbing the HDP domestically, too, in order to undermine voters’ confidence in their peaceful intentions. The pro-Kurdish HDP had overcome the 10% threshold for the first time in the June parliamentary elections. This could enable them to be involved in the process of rewriting the constitution. The surprising electoral success of the HDP was also a significant factor contributing to the loss of the AKP’s absolute majority. This dealt a serious blow to Erdogan’s party which had held the absolute majority for over a decade. Now Erdogan is demanding that the immunity of HDP deputies be lifted. Investigations have already been initiated against the two leaders of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag.

This is regrettable because the government’s relations with its Kurdish population have been making considerable progress in recent years. A peace process with the PKK was initiated two years ago and the ceasefire had been respected up until the recent attacks occurred.

A Faustian bargain

The AKP government is wary of the new relationship between the United States and the Kurds. In the past year, cooperation has intensified and the Kurds granted support by the United States in their fight against ISIS. With the crackdown, Ankara now seems to be aiming at undermining the Kurdish emancipation process. The perpetual fear of a sovereign Kurdish state on the south-eastern borders of Turkey and of a possible spread of such aspirations at home, is central to the Turkish state’s reaction.

The actions of the AKP are now casting shadows of the past on the wall. The unrest of recent days is a reminder of the 90s when daily attacks in the conflict between the Turkish Republic and the PKK instilled a climate of fear in the country. Erdogan’s calculation seems to be that conjuring up these fears will sooner or later remind the people of the AKP’s stable rule. In the case of re-elections, the AKP could then win back its lost majority.

The re-emergence of a new climate of fear in Turkey, however, could also deepen the divide in the country. If the peace process ultimately fails, or the HDP does not achieve the 10% threshold in an anticipated re-election, this would have far-reaching consequences. It would not only allow the AKP to regain an absolute majority, but could also trigger a new wave of violence. To weaken the Kurds in the name of anti-terrorism is a Faustian bargain. It threatens to inflame Turkey and further destabilise the region.

International reactions: Fear to affront the Turkish partner?

In this context it is surprising that the White House has come out in support of the new Turkish policy. So far, there has been a lack of any strong international criticism out of fear to affront a welcome partner in the alliance against the IS. Even in the EU reactions have been mixed. On the one hand, the EU has cautioned Turkey not to jeopardize the peace process with the Kurds. On the other hand, in a telephone call with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, praised the resolute approach of Turkey towards ISIS and other terrorist groups. Chancellor Merkel expressed a similar opinion in talks with the Turkish Prime Minister Davutoglu. Even if Turkey’s double offensive has met with some criticism in Europe, its role in the fight against IS seems ultimately more important than the Kurdish issue.

Lisa Haferlach is Dahrendorf Research Associate to the Working Group ‘Europe-Turkey Relations’ at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.