Ranj Alaaldin is a Doctoral Researcher at the LSE and a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University, specialising in the Middle East.
The ongoing refugee crisis has prompted Europe to pursue a deal with Turkey that will provide Ankara with closer relations with the EU, substantial financial support, visa-free access to the Schengen border-free area and, potentially, accession into the EU.
But Turkey, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has become part of the problem and not the solution. Europe may be unable to avoid collaborating with Turkey but that does not mean it cannot pressure Erdogan to pursue peace with the Kurds, to end his toxic polarisation of Turkish society and, regardless of whether he garners a majority in the coming elections or not, form a reformist government that opts for reconciliation, rather than conflict.
The alternative will be dangerous for Turkey and the region – and it will not be sustainable. Since losing his majority last June, Erdogan has launched a military campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought the state for political, human and territorial rights for Turkey’s marginalised Kurds; he has attacked the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the pro-Kurdish party that entered Turkey’s parliament last June and that effectively ended Erdogan’s hopes of winning a majority; and has allowed pro-government mobs to attack HDP offices, Kurdish stores and businesses.
In attempting to divide the population, marginalise the HDP and whip-up nationalist sentiments by attacking the PKK, Erdogan has revitalised ethno-sectarian conflict in the country, as shown by the horrific Ankara bombing earlier this month that killed close to a hundred people and injured many more. That attack came only three months after another devastating bomb targeted a gathering of Kurdish students in Suruc, near the Syrian border, just one month after Erdogan lost his majority.
Erdogan’s dangerous game of divide and rule has taken Turkey back to levels of violence and instability not seen for decades. He hopes that this will create a climate of uncertainty in which the electorate has no choice but to vote for him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the coming elections.
But these tactics will not succeed. Erdogan’s tactics are of the past. His predecessors have little to show for their war on Turkey’s 20 million Kurds. Turkey has tried and failed to defeat the PKK over the past four decades, despite having the second largest armed force within NATO. Erdogan should learn not just from his predecessors but also Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, which destroyed Kurdish villages (as Turkey did in the 1990s), used chemical weapons and committed genocide against Iraq’s Kurds and still failed to end Kurdish resistance to the regime.
Erdogan is also losing friends, both domestically and internationally. Turkish society has become discontented with Erdogan’s suppression of progressive and liberal values over the past decade. Turks are also no longer oblivious to the realities of conflict with the PKK. Family and relatives of slain soldiers blame Erdogan and the AKP for taking Turkey down a path of unnecessary war. As one colonel and brother of a slain soldier bemoaned, “Why do those who have been saying ‘solution’ since yesterday now say war?” In the 1990s, this would have been unthinkable.
Erdogan and the AKP may assert the PKK and ISIS are indistinguishable but the international community and public opinion disagree. The PKK has negotiable objectives, whereas ISIS seeks the surrendering of fundamental human rights, values of tolerance and pluralism. The PKK and its sister group in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), have fought hand-in-hand with Western forces against ISIS and have emerged as an important partner in the campaign to defeat the jihadis. They have won widespread acclaim for their battlefield successes against ISIS, both in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey’s policies toward the four-year conflict in Syria have also been misguided and miscalculated. When the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011, Ankara believed the fall of Bashar al-Assad to be imminent and put its full weight behind hard-line Islamist groups and acquiesced to jihadist groups entering Syria via Turkey, as well as their use of Turkey as a transit point through which to smuggle arms and funds. Whether inadvertently or otherwise, Turkey has also acquiesced to a thriving black market on its territory, through which ISIS has been able to sustain its reign of terror.
Rather than legitimising Erdogan’s destructive policies, both at home and in the region, Europe should pressure Erdogan to end his suppression of civil society and liberal values, as well as end his campaign against the HDP, which is fuelling tensions between Kurds and Turkey in a way that undermines the progress of recent years. He should go back to the 2013 peace process that many believed, and still believe, is the only way the conflict with the PKK can be resolved.
Turkey also maintains an embargo on Syrian Kurdistan, where Kurdish towns and cities like Kobane have been liberated from ISIS but require urgent humanitarian assistance that Turkey continues to block. Lifting this embargo is crucial to resolving the refugee crisis, as it will allow for medical supplies and the reconstruction of communities that have been destroyed. It is only through these measures that Turkey can become the partner the EU both wants and needs.