Turkey faces myriad internal and external challenges, including an escalating conflict with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, a crisis over three million Syrian refugees, threats posed by the Islamic State (ISIS), and growing social and political polarisation exacerbated by a July 2016 coup attempt. Crisis Group maintains a unique tracker of the death toll in the PKK conflict and conducts field research to prevent, mitigate or end deadly violence and its consequences. Our ten-year-old presence in Turkey puts us in a unique position to engage the government and all parties not just on domestic crises but also to help Turkey stabilise its exceptionally turbulent neighbourhood.
Turkey hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, half of whom are under eighteen. Despite European aid, tensions are rising as the country strains to accommodate the influx. The answer is smarter integration policies aimed particularly at meeting the needs of vulnerable youth.
Intensity of Turkish military’s security operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in south east remained low with few fatalities, while air raids by Turkish military targeting PKK positions in northern Iraq continued. Ahead of 31 March municipal elections, govt intensified crackdown on pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) members and suspected PKK sympathisers. Court 14 Feb sentenced two HDP MPs to fifteen and eighteen months in prison over terrorism charges. Differences between Ankara and Washington over U.S. withdrawal and “safe zone” in north east Syria (see Syria) continued; President Erdoğan 5 Feb criticised U.S. for delays in withdrawal of militants belonging to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from U.S.-patrolled town of Manbij and for lack of clarity on safe zone; also renewed threats to carry out military offensive in area to clear YPG, and vowed to set up “terror-free zone”. Erdoğan 14 Feb discussed situation in Syria’s Idlib province with Iranian and Russian presidents in Sochi, Russia, stressing that joint operations by Turkey, Russia and Iran against jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) possible if needed. Inside Turkey, detentions of alleged Islamic State (ISIS) and HTS-linked individuals continued, including armed forces’ capture of four ISIS suspects 3 Feb and four HTS suspects 7 Feb attempting to enter Syria.
Much of north-eastern Syria has been safe during the civil war. But in the event of U.S. military withdrawal, a mad scramble for control could be unleashed. Washington and Moscow should help their respective allies in Syria reach a decentralisation deal for the area.
Rivalry persists between Russia and Turkey in their shared neighbourhood of the Black Sea and the South Caucasus. But Moscow-Ankara relations have warmed overall. Building on their wider rapprochement, the two powers can work together to tamp down flare-ups of regional conflicts.
Ahead of Turkey’s presidential and parliamentary elections on 24 June, opinion polls suggest a tighter race than many anticipated. The country’s Kurds could be kingmakers, prompting politicians of different stripes to court their votes and opening much-needed debate about longstanding Kurdish demands.
The quarrel between Gulf monarchies has spilled into Somalia, with the fragile state now caught between the rival interests of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The competition has already aggravated intra-Somali disputes. All sides should take a step back before these tensions mount further.
Host community hostility toward Syrian refugees is on the rise in Turkey’s metropolitan areas. In order to defuse tensions and mitigate rising intercommunal tensions, Ankara and its international partners should support long-term strategies for the Syrians’ sustainable integration.
Turkey has only one interest, which is to defeat the YPG. So that is what it is going to do.
The sense of public spaces [in Turkey] becoming more unsafe is fed by the tendency of criminal networks to use Syrian men and women for theft, prostitution drug sales and the like, and Syrians are blamed for disruption of public order and safety.
[The rapprochement between Russia and Turkey] demonstrates a striking level of pragmatism in this relationship.
The success of the AKP-MHP partnership shows that the Islamist-nationalist fusion is alive and kicking in Turkish society.
Russia needs both the Syrian regime and Turkey. So it has to give a little bit to both and it has to ... make them equally angry, if that's what it wants.
The most worrisome development that we saw was that among Turkish citizens there is a negative stance towards the long-term integration of Syrians across the political spectrum.
Crisis Group's Middle East & North Africa Program Director Joost Hiltermann participated in the 2018 Körber Policy Game, designed to explore possible outcomes in the event of a crisis between Turkey and the West in Syria. While the exercise underscored many of the Syrian conflict's complexities, it also revealed that a strong desire by stakeholders to find common ground can help overcome them.
Originally published in Russia File
Crisis Group's Europe & Central Asia Program Director Magdalena Grono talks about the relations between Russia and Turkey as they reflect on the Black Sea and the South Caucasus.