The coming year may well prove to be the bloodiest yet in Turkey.
The figures for terrorist attacks and those killed in Turkey as a result in 2016 are staggering as the death toll reaches 300 with seemingly no respite from the relentless killings in sight. In the early hours of 2017, the attack on a New Year’s party at the Reina nightclub seemed to signify that the bloodshed on the streets of Turkey will continue.
The turbulence of 2016 has in no way given signs of an optimistic future for Turkey in its fight against either domestic terrorism in the form of Kurdish militants or indeed the continued threat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) as the authoritarian stance of President Erdogan looms large.
The July coup attempt was quashed quickly and the extent to which Erdogan went to consolidate his power was extraordinary, ruthless and capricious in nature as judges, soldiers, clerics and even teachers were incarcerated. The president has been quick to remove those who insult or criticize: In April he summoned the German ambassador to explain why a satirical poem could circulate in the public domain and demanded prosecution while closing scores of media outlets within Turkey and jailing scores of journalists.
While his grip on power may be strong, his ability to deal with the escalating terrorism threats has been calamitous. Within Erdogan’s dogmatic, aggressive approach to the Kurds is buried his fear of Kurdish nationalism and the potential drain on centralized power, heightened by the war in Syria and the Kurdish momentum. In recent months Turkey has softened its stance on President Bashar al-Assad in Syria as it has aligned itself closer with Russia, leaving rebels it had previously backed to overthrow the Assad regime stunned by the change in political course.
Lack of Direction
From a counterterrorism point of view, there is a clear lack of policy direction with little or no unified strategy to defeat terrorism, and there are several key components of the stance that resonate both historically and with the modern authoritarian nature of the government and President Recip Tayyip Erdogan.
Firstly, there is the tradition of the Turkish military (TSK) being heavily involved with domestic counterterrorism operations, and in turn being central to the development and conceptualization of a national security strategy. In recent years there have been increasing powers sanctioned to allow greater surveillance and detention ability—the internal security package.
This connection with the military and counterterrorism today lies at the door of the current attitude toward terrorism, particularly the prioritized fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey believes the PKK poses a credible and real threat to a loss of power and separation of territory—a direct threat to the state itself and its secular nature.
Thus, the PKK, despite its claims and previous involvement in peace talks, is not afforded political footing such as the Irish Republican Party (IRA) in Britain or Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) in Spain.
Its political claim to independence is ignored entirely—there is only a hard line against its position and no room, currently, to find a solution of inclusion, hence the militarization against the Kurds and the divisive language from both the central government and Erdogan in particular. The decision has been taken to defend the state from Kurdish independence at all cost. In doing so, the Turkish government has adopted a repressive formula, a concept of “us versus them”—a securitized approach to the PKK that has only intensified fighting and no doubt increased the resolve and determination of the Kurds who have continued to unleash deadly attacks.
No Kurdish Independence
With the emphasis firmly focussed on defeating the PKK, countering external international threats such as that posed by IS had taken a back seat. Because of the ambivalence shown to the regional defeat of IS by the Turkish authorities, the group has managed countless ruthless attacks that have claimed hundreds of lives, most notably the October 2015 attack at a peace rally in Ankara, the June 28 attack at Istanbul Airport and now the New Year’s Day 2017 shooting in Istanbul.
However, over the last 15 months there have been efforts made to collaborate with the international community, particularly considering some truly horrifying attacks by the group and the enormous problem Turkey faces with refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria and indeed the rule of IS.
There are even arguments that fighting IS could be detrimental to the security of the state as initially IS posed a real threat to the removal of President Assad while maintaining a grip over large sways of Syrian Kurds in the border towns with Turkey. Curbing any fresh momentum by not actively fighting IS, Turkey believed it was aiding the battle against the PKK and protecting the power of the state.
The openly robust approach to defeating terrorism in Turkey may well be entering a new phase as there is now a clear vision by the government and Erdogan that state security is imperative and intrinsically intertwined with government legacy, even if it means the dilution of civil liberties and the isolation of political ideas. There are early indications in America that securitization does not work with countering radicalization, as well as lessons from Europe on a more pragmatic approach to brokering peace—but only once a genuine understanding of a group’s political ambitions are understood and accepted.
2017 may well prove to be the bloodiest yet in Turkey as the alienation of the Kurds from society and their claim for independence is further ignored and fought against while IS continues to cast a long shadow of violence as it slowly dies in the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: ablokhin