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’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.
Originally published in Valdai
Turkish military incursion into north east Syria increased tensions with Kurdish movement in Turkey and with allies, heightening concerns it could fuel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency and enable resurgence of Islamic State (ISIS) threat. Turkish forces 9 Oct launched “Operation Peace Spring” against Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in north east Syria, following phone call between President Erdoğan and U.S. President Trump, and U.S. announcement that it would remove its forces from border areas (see Syria). Stated goals of Turkish operation, conducted alongside Sunni rebel Syrian National Army proxies, included removing YPG from border area (some 30/32km by 440km), combatting “terrorists” and establishing “safe zone” for resettling Syrian refugees; ten Turkish soldiers reported killed in operation by end-Oct, and twenty civilians in Turkish border towns by YPG shelling/shooting. U.S. 15 Oct also briefly imposed sanctions calling for Ankara to halt incursion; Ankara and Washington 17 Oct agreed deal for Turkey to halt offensive for 120 hours to allow YPG forces to withdraw. Erdoğan and Russian President Putin 22 Oct reached agreement giving YPG forces until 29 Oct to withdraw 30km from border to create “safe zone”, with Russian and Syrian govt forces facilitating withdrawal of YPG fighters in border areas outside Turkish control; Turkish military with its Sunni rebel proxies now controls 140km along border from west of Tel Abyad to Ras al-Ayn. International community strongly condemned Turkish incursion, with several European states and Canada suspending arms exports. Military operations inside Turkey against PKK tapered off slightly following start of Syria incursion, while air and land operations against PKK in northern Iraq continued. Govt maintained efforts to criminalise Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) through ongoing detentions and arrests of HDP figures on terrorism-related charges, particularly around launch of Syria incursion which prompted HDP-organised protests. Police continued crackdown on suspected ISIS operatives. Erdoğan condemned U.S. House of Representatives resolution 30 Oct recognising early twentieth century mass killings of Armenians in Ottoman Empire as genocide.
Gulf states are competing for influence in the Horn of Africa to control the Red Sea, transposing internal rivalries onto a fragile region. Horn governments should increase their bargaining power with their powerful neighbours, who should recognise the risks their policies pose to regional security.
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.
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.
L'EI constitue toujours une menace qui pourrait métastaser si les FDS voient leur attention et leurs ressources détournées [...] au profit d'une bataille défensive contre la Turquie.
[By deciding to withdraw its troops from North East Syria] the United States just threw away the last leverage it had.
Even if efforts to create a 'buffer zone' [in Northern Syria] succeed, the underlying source of tension will remain and with it, the potential for a Turkish military response to Ankara's perceived YPG threat.
Today's news that Turkey's suspended the readmission agreement with the EU will not make much practical difference for either Brussels or Ankara nor for refugees/migrants.
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.
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.