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Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

The Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Project Director, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

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Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel

The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria

Originally published in Middle East Eye

Directly arming one mainly Kurdish faction in Syria makes U.S. partly responsible for the fate of Syria’s Kurds. Given Ankara’s bitter opposition to the group, Washington should push its Kurdish partner to focus on regional autonomy in Syria, not its insurgency in Turkey.

With its 9 May announcement that it has decided to directly arm the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Washington has inserted itself even further into one of the region’s oldest and bloodiest conflicts: the 33-year-long fight between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the mother organisation of the YPG and a group deemed a terrorist group by not only Turkey but by the US itself.

In fighting the Islamic State (IS), Washington has been supporting the YPG indirectly for several years and meeting with its commanders. But the decision to provide arms directly further elevates the PKK’s Syrian branch’s status. By doing so the US risks a deep, immediate rift with Turkey, its sometimes difficult but critical NATO partner of 60 years.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them. It would therefore do well to use its enhanced leverage to push its Kurdish partner to make the right choices.

For the US, any assessment should begin with a sober assessment of who the YPG is. US officials privately concede that the difference between the YPG and its civilian arm (the Party of Democratic Unity, or PYD) on the one hand and the PKK on the other amounts to little more than a useful fiction.

While the rank and file is mostly Syrian, the YPG’s upper command levels are heavily dominated by cadres trained in the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq and steeped in the party’s ideology.

Likewise, the idea that it would be possible to support the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their advance against IS without simultaneously strengthening the YPG, who form the alliance’s core fighting force and top command, as previously claimed, has little bearing on reality.

Fateful choice

US support has enabled the SDF - and thus the YPG - to push way beyond the Kurdish-majority areas in Syria’s north-east. Working ever closer with the US-led international coalition against IS, the SDF is now closing in on Raqqa, the jihadist group’s unofficial capital.

Yet as it controls an ever-larger area, the YPG-PYD is rapidly approaching a fateful choice which Washington should seek to influence: whether to continue to back the PKK’s decades-old struggle with Turkey, or to devote its territorial gains and accumulated diplomatic credit to consolidating and protecting the status of de-facto self-rule it has achieved as a project in its own right.

Since 2012, the PKK and its Syrian affiliates have pursued a dual objective: improving their strategic position vis-a-vis Turkey by establishing a continuous militarised land belt along the Syria-Turkey border, and establishing what they refer to as “democratic self-administration” over the Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities that fell under their control.

Initially, those two objectives were mutually reinforcing: while the YPG-PYD worked to build “Rojava” (Kurdish for “West-Kurdistan”), the PKK exploited its affiliate’s gains to apply pressure on Turkey.

Yet this previously successful strategy of imposing facts on the ground and seizing territory under the cover of the anti-IS campaign has shown diminishing returns, and is now approaching a point where US military support today could leave the Kurdish militia dangerously exposed tomorrow.

Breaking point

Relentless territorial expansion means the YPG-PYD are now ruling over an ever-growing number of non-Kurdish communities, while the preoccupation with military matters has crippled their capacity to govern. Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch the governance model to breaking point.

Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch [the YPG-PYD's] governance model to breaking point.

More critically still, Turkish hostility has increased along with the SDF/YPG’s military gains. While officially aimed at ISIS, Ankara’s incursion north of Aleppo in August 2016 was for the most part geared to stem the PKK’s westward advance toward Kurd-populated Afrin. In April 2017, Turkey went further and bombed the group’s positions in northern Syria and northern Iraq, not withstanding US objections.

For the moment, the YPG-PYD feels itself protected by the alliance with the US Indeed, Turkey’s persistent opposition to Washington’s cooperation with the YPG has yielded little of substance. That the US is “aware” of Turkish security concerns and would control the use of the weapons it hands out apparently has made make little impression in Ankara: “Every weapon provided to the YPG is a threat to Turkey", said Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Yet once the YPG’s utility in fighting IS expires in the latter’s defeat, it is unclear whether the US will continue to devote resources to northern Syria, including post-IS stabilisation.

As a result, the YPG-PYD’s prospects could take a nosedive: trapped between a hostile Turkey to the north no longer hamstrung by the US and an opportunistic regime in Damascus waiting for the Kurdish areas to fall back in its lap, it will need new friends.

These are in short supply. Russia will almost certainly privilege its relationship with Damascus, and has shown itself unable to override a Turkish veto on the PYD’s participation in the Astana or Geneva talks.

YPG-controlled territories in Syria as an alternative supply route to its ally Hizbollah on the Mediterranean, but ultimately it remains committed to Syria’s territorial integrity and is therefore unlikely to support the YPG-PYD’s aspirations of regional autonomy.

This absence of a viable, long-term regional or international backer, and the pressure from hostile neighbours, makes the future of the PKK’s Syrian self-rule project uncertain. Between 2013-15, Ankara showed it might be willing to live with the PYD as a neighbour if the PKK were to suspend its fight and withdraw its militants, a position it would do well to restate.

Although the environment has changed a lot since then, it is conceivable that if Turkey’s main strategic concern – a PKK affiliate geared for military confrontation along its southern border – is addressed, Ankara might be willing to give regional autonomy in north-east Syria space to exist.

Risk of chaos

For this to happen, the PKK needs to allow the YPG-PYD to think beyond its parent organisation’s decades-long fight against Turkey, and instead invest in sustainable governance and regional autonomy that achieves Kurdish rights in Syria.

This will require giving up any ambition to forcibly link Kurdish territories in Syria, and to give its self-administration real power - rather than keeping it under the thumb of PKK-trained military cadres, as is the situation today. 

Unless it changes strategy, the group’s current accomplishments in northern Syria represent the maximum it can realistically hope to achieve, and pushing any further will likely put the project in existential danger. This risks plunging yet another, relatively stable, region of Syria into chaos.

The US has leverage to influence the YPG-PYD’s behaviour, and should use it.