Kurdish protests have been taking place recently in Turkey regarding the country’s inadequate response against ISIS, and the lack of support for Kurdish fighters in the town of Kobane, Syria. The protests were peaceful in contrast with the riots of October, which resulted in the death of more than 30 civilians—most killed by protesters fighting with the “Grey Wolves,” an ultranationalist organization following Kemalist ideals.
The unrest of October was fueled by the release of rather disturbing videos and photographs of what seems to be ISIS activity in Turkey. Images of men with the appearance of Islamic fighters (long beards, shaved mustache) and wearing the ISIS logo onboard public transportation, of people attacking anti-ISIS protesters in Turkish universities, and videos of ISIS fighters alongside Turkish-speaking individuals have been all over the media lately. These, of course, do not necessarily indicate an official alliance between Turkey and ISIS, but it seems that Turkey has, in fact, allowed the Islamist fanatic group to do its “dirty work.”
The Perceived Kurdish Threat
Modern-day Turkey was built from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. The country went through a major reconstruction, spurred on by the rise to prominence of a central figure named Mustafa Kemal “Ataturk.” He was the officer of the Ottoman Army that, after the defeat of the Ottomans during World War I, led the Turkish National Movement in its resistance against the decisions of the Treaty of Sevres.
Ataturk tried to create a secular, modern nation-state. He built schools, granted women equal civil and voting rights, made education free and compulsory, even replaced the use of the Arab alphabet with Latin. Ataturk’s greatest reform was the relative separation of religion and state. A state that, as part of the Ottoman Empire, had been to that point greatly governed by religious laws.
Another of Ataturk’s major reforms was the policy of Turkification, an attempt to assimilate the minorities that were part of the multicultural Ottoman Empire and had remained in the Turkish republic. But not all minorities in Turkey wanted to assimilate. The Kurds, a minority that lost its recognition when the Treaty of Sevres was nullified by the Treaty of Lausanne, lost with it its chance for autonomy. The Kurds did not take the assimilating policy so well, attempting uprisings in 1925, 1930, 1935 and 1937.
In response to these revolts, the Turkish government isolated the Kurdish areas, designated them as military areas, and enforced the divide-and-conquer strategy between the Kurdish clans. In this way, they managed to keep the Kurds under control until the late ’70s. At that time, the social changes that happened in Turkey, the mass migration to urban centers, the poor living conditions of the internal immigrants, combined with the political influence of the era, revived Kurdish nationalism with the formation of groups asking for political, social, and financial reforms.
These were the groups that, in 1978, gave birth to the Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK)—a Marxist-Lenninist party, with the objective of creating a communist Kurdistan. The PKK used urban warfare in its attempt to achieve its goals. From 1984 to 2013, it conducted a guerrilla-warfare campaign against the Turkish state, launched from bases in Syria during the early years and from northern Iraq, later. This campaign ended with a ceasefire and talks of peace, in an attempt to find a solution to the problem that had cost about 40,000 dead, both Turks and Kurds.
The PKK withdrew its units to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Unfortunately, the spillovers of the Syrian Civil War turned the area once more to a battlefield, and thus gave the Turkish state the opportunity to settle some old scores with the PKK and YPD (PKK offshoot in Syria). The presence of these parties and their Kurdish nationalistic ideas is an everlasting threat to Turkey, as the Kurds make up approximately 20 percent of its population.
The Political Shift and the Geopolitical Focus
Turkey’s transformation through Kemal’s policies created a disjuncture in the society between the proponents of a secular European Turkey—with their eyes set on adopting the sociopolitical appearance of a Western society following Kemal’s ideals—and the religious sympathizers of the past—with their eyes on the east, the historical sphere of influence of the Ottoman Empire. With the election in 2003 of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of AKP as prime minister, these differences resurfaced. The electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party was perceived as a threat by loyal Kemalists because of its Islamic past.
The much-publicized cases of Operations “Sledgehammer” and “Ergenekon” prove that the threat was perceived as very real by Kemalists. Operation Sledgehammer was a coup plan intended to destabilize the government and overthrow it through provoked hostilities with Greece. Operation Ergenekon allegedly involved a clandestine, secular, ultranationalist organization with ties to the military and security forces, and was accused of terrorist acts against the government.
More evidence of this chasm in Turkish society became apparent during the protests of the Taksim Gezi Park, which began as an objection to the urban development of the park and transformed into an outcry about the erosion of the secular nature of the state by Erdogan policies. Policies that limited public expression of affection, alcohol and tobacco consumption, and banned social media.
The other lead character in Turkey’s political scene is Ahmet Davutoğlu, former foreign minister and now prime minister of Turkey. With his book Stratejik Derinlik, he highlighted the change in Turkey’s geopolitical direction from the west to the east, and the effort to gain influence in the Muslim world. Now the big question is, what part of the Muslim world does Turkey consider worthy of helping, and to what extent?
This past summer, the revelations of strange ties between Turkish intelligence service MIT and ISIS rocked the Turkish parliament. First was the picture of an ISIS commander allegedly receiving treatment in a Turkish hospital, and then a video believed to have been recorded in January 2014 (but surfaced in the summer) that showed an MIT arms shipment stopped along the Turkish-Syrian border by customs agents.
Turkey has also kindled the issue of the Cypriot EEZ, in which its aggressive stance displays complete disregard for international maritime laws. It is a rather safe deduction that their boldness in the area derives from the possession of strong bargaining chips in the matter of ISIS, and is preserved by the reserved reactions of the U.S. State Department and the EU.
Turkey has been taking advantage of its important geographical position and the necessity of its support in the fight against ISIS in order to promote its own strategic goals. An important issue that remains to be seen is that of the extent to which the international community is willing to tolerate this kind of behavior, and what they’re willing to sacrifice for the support of Turkey. In the past, the Ottoman Empire had been named “The Great Patient.” The most appropriate name for Turkey today is “The Great Pretender.”
(Featured Image Courtesy: AFP)