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 military’s security operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in south east remained low with few fatalities, while deadly Turkish air raids against PKK in northern Iraq prompted angry response by alleged PKK-sympathising Iraqi group. Major cross-border air raid in northern Iraq 20 Jan reportedly killed six; sources close to PKK claimed they were civilians, Turkish army said they were PKK militants. Hundreds of protesters 26 Jan stormed Turkish military base in Iraq’s Dohuk province; at least one killed and ten injured in clashes. Crackdown on individuals allegedly linked to PKK continued across Turkey. Authorities 12 Jan allowed imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to be visited by his brother Mehmet for first time in two and a half years. Hundreds of figures from the People’s Democratic Party (HDP)’s municipal affiliate party remain imprisoned ahead of March municipal elections. Strains in Turkish-U.S. relationship continued following U.S. statements that its planned withdrawal from Syria was conditional on Turkish guarantee not to attack “Kurdish fighters” (see Syria). Ankara expressed anger at remarks, renewing threat to carry out military offensive in north east Syria and reiterating Turkey’s main goal to clear “terrorist groups”. President Erdoğan and U.S. President Trump 14 Jan discussed possible 20-mile “safe zone” in north east Syria; following 16 Jan Islamic State (ISIS)-claimed bomb in Manbij that killed sixteen including four U.S. soldiers, Erdoğan said Turkey would start military takeover of Manbij if U.S. did not protect its borders via safe zone. Erdoğan and Russian President Putin met in Moscow 23 Jan; agreed on closer military cooperation in Syria’s Idlib, however Putin reaffirmed Moscow’s support for dialogue between Damascus and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As alternative to U.S. safe zone, Putin also said 1998 Adana agreement between Turkey and Syria could serve as basis of Ankara’s efforts to secure its borders and “fight terrorism”. Inside Turkey, security forces 13 Jan conducted first crackdown against jihadist alliance Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – which currently controls most of Idlib zone – targeting “civilian” cells in Adana, Istanbul and Ankara allegedly providing support to militants in 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.