Promoted for decades as a model for the Middle East, Turkey has turned from exporting its success to importing the failures of its neighbors, sinking into the Middle East’s familiar morass of disarray, discontent, and disappointment.
Turkey first struck turbulence after June’s elections left the country gridlocked in coalition talks, which led many to speculate that its results unleashed a trifecta of irreconcilable nationalisms—Islamist, Turkish, and Kurdish—that could unravel its fragile peace. Over the past months, these Cassandra-esque warnings have sadly come to pass.
Turkey’s present troubles are the last link in a complex chain of events. At their root, however, lies a long-concealed trifecta of irreconcilable nationalisms pulling Turkey apart at its ethnic, sectarian, and ideological seams.
Kobane and Ankara’s Failed Defense of Its Kurds
Before the June’s political gridlock could be resolved, late July saw the death of dozens in Suruc at the hands of an Islamic State suicide bomber, targeting a contingent of pro-Kurdish youth activists taking aid to Kobane, a Kurdish town in Northern Syria.
Since October 2014, Kobane had been the scene of a pitched battle between Islamic State (IS) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’s Party (PKK), which is widely listed as a terrorist group. While Turkey’s Kurdish population and its Western allies sought Ankara to throw in with the YPG, Ankara chose to remain on the sidelines, lest its support of YPG would give PKK a sanctuary in Northern Syria.
Ankara’s gambit strained its relations with its Kurds and brought to a screeching halt the years-long efforts to broker a peace deal with the PKK. HDP, a pro-Kurdish party in the parliament, also turned sharply critical of the government and decided to enter June’s elections on a national ticket. HDP’s gambit threatened to end the incumbent AKP’s fourteen-year single-party and thwart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aspirations for an imperial presidency. Had the party failed to receive more 10 percent of the total vote, however, it risked being completely shut out of the parliament.
Although not formally affiliated with the PKK, the HDP had a symbiotic relationship with the PKK, not unlike that between Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Erdogan and the AKP—whose future hinged on HDP’s game of high-stakes political poker—parlayed this symbiosis to a pivot toward Turkish nationalism in hopes of shoring up support from MHP, a Turkish-nationalist opposition party with forty seats in the parliament. Hence, AKP started to publicly assail HDP as the PKK’s political wing while also stepping up the military action against PKK positions in the Southeast and in Northern Iraq.
Since Kobane, there had already been a growing chorus of criticism that Ankara was turning a blind eye to Islamic State’s butchery of the Kurds.
Since Kobane, there had already been a growing chorus of criticism that Ankara was turning a blind eye to Islamic State’s butchery of the Kurds. Considering that Ankara kept its doors open to thousands of refugees from Kobane, this might be perceived as an unfair accusation. This conceit, however, resonated with the Kurdish public, especially after Islamic State’s suicide bombings.
For Turkey’s Kurds, Ankara’s stance on Kobane was evidence that the Islamist-minded government sided with IS in hopes of subduing the Kurds. Capitalizing on this perception of Ankara’s guilt-by-association, the PKK reprised to the Suruc bombing by murdering two off-duty police officers and declaring self-rule in the Kurdish-dominated Southeast. Ankara responded to this “Kurdish intifada” with a harsh crackdown using special forces, armored vehicles, artillery barrages, and weeks-long curfews. In return, the PKK hunkered down with trench warfare, makeshift barricades, booby traps, and street fighting. Amid the intense fighting that ensued, entire Kurdish towns like Cizre, Sur, and Nusaybin were reduced to rubble.
Escalating Violence in a Divided Turkey
The conflict hit its nadir in October 2015 after Islamic State suicide bombers tore through a pro-Kurdish political rally in Ankara and killed thirty-seven people. Following the October bombings, a hardliner faction of the PKK, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), took the war from Turkey’s Kurdish-dominated Southeast to the metropolitan cities in its West. In late December, TAK attacked Istanbul’s international airport with mortars. In late February 2016, it targeted a convoy of military personnel shuttles in Ankara and killed twenty-nine. In the following months, TAK struck again with car bombs that claimed thirty-seven lives in Ankara’s shopping district in March and thirteen lives targeting a military convoy in Istanbul in June, declaring that its attacks came in retaliation for the Turkish state’s continuing security operations in the predominantly Kurdish southeast.
As the Kurds stepped up their campaign, so did the Islamists, forcing the country to fight on two front at once. Three days after the March attack, an IS suicide bomber killed ten tourists in Istanbul’s historic district. Two weeks after the June attack, IS gunmen stormed Istanbul’s international airport, killing forty-five and surpassing the October bombing as the deadliest terror attack in Turkish history.
The country’s prospects are less than promising, to say the least. “Turkey is now a borderline failing state,” wrote Istanbul-based journalist David Lepeska in a recent op-ed for Al-Jazeera. “With a deadly civil conflict decimating cities in its southeast, a high-profile bombing every month, millions of refugees, terrorist cells throughout the country, and an increasingly authoritarian government.”
Amid this backdrop, Turkey’s polarization has reached heights shocking to even its most seasoned observers.
Amid this backdrop, Turkey’s polarization has reached heights shocking to even its most seasoned observers. “Nothing seems to be enough to bring Turks together these days, even for a shared moment of grief or triumph,” lamented Tim Arango in the New York Times after soccer fans interrupted with boos during the minute of silence observed for the victims of the October bombings in Ankara.
Many blame Turkey’s unraveling in one event or another, be it Ankara’s grossly negligent decision to involve itself in the civil war in Syria, Erdogan’s aspirations for an imperial presidency, or even the ludicrous conceit that Ankara is in cahoots with the Islamic State. Its politics is always reduced to some binary of ethnic, religious, or ideological divide: Turkish versus Kurdish, Sunni versus Alevi, left versus right, progressive versus reactionary, pro-Western versus anti-Western.
This conventional wisdom blithely ignores the fact that Turkey always stood on the brink; that behind the veneer of its relative peace lay a fragile society cracked in many places.
A Call for Renewed Unity
Turkey is a place where you could draw a line across a village, and its two sides will be at each other’s throats—which I say only half-jokingly for my grandfather’s ancestral village on Turkey’s Black Sea coast was indeed torn asunder over an irrigation ditch, and it is not even the only such story I know.
In Turkish politics, everyone almost always hated—and was hated—by everyone else. Sitting atop the pyramid was the regime, an equal-opportunity autocracy that indiscriminately decimated unleashed in sheer force on anyone rocking the boat, irrespective of race, religion, or creed.
This shared grievance was, to some extent, the force that kept Turkey together. In the Turkish public’s collective imagination, the adversary was never one other or even the state as a whole, for that matter. It was a faceless abstraction conjured in a khaki uniform or a gray flannel suit, an exclusive cabal lurking deep inside the gray concrete slabs towering over Ankara’s government district and feeding on the people’s blood and sweat.
Erdogan’s promise was to be the David that slayed the khaki-and-gray Goliath. In his bid to remain in office, he instead turned from a self-anointed prophet to a political Ponzi-schemer.
First, he allied with the followers of Islamist cleric Fethullah Gulen to purge the seculars; then, he allied with seculars to purge the Gulenists that he was now accusing of a conspiracy to gain control over the state. He first promised the Kurds peace, and then tanks rolled into their streets. He was cruising in the Turkish Riviera on a double-date with the Assads before he wanted Washington to rain cruise missiles on them. Vladimir Putin was Erdogan’s best buddy before he became his worst enemy. One day, he apologized for the Armenian genocide; another day, he attacked the Armenians with racial slurs. He spent years assailing Israel from behind every pulpit he could find, only to make amends with them one morning and to start pretending that nothing ever happened.
When the seculars stood in his way, Erdogan rallied with the Kurds. When the Kurds put a spoke in his wheel, he rallied with the seculars. When they united against him, as happened in the Gezi Park protests, he accused them of a phantasmagoria of international conspiracies that would put conspiracy-theorist Internet forums to shame.
Is Erdogan to blame? Yes, but only partly. Erdogan did what politicians do, flawlessly executing the spin cycle to the point of a fault. By shifting from side to side, ever the opportunist, Erdogan gave the Turkish public’s faceless adversary an actual face—that of one another—and crumbled to pieces the little desire they had for a shared future.
A civil war occurs when a community fights to dissociate from another and my homeland, Turkey, is sleepwalking towards that cliff. It has descended into a state of collective dissociation and perilously partitioned into three irreconcilable nationalisms with seculars along the coasts, Islamists in the Anatolian heartland, and Kurds in the Southeast. Each is living in a schizoid isolation from and with bitter enmity against the other. Many have lost their hope in the possibilities of politics and atomized in either apathy or acrimony.
Map: Turkish General Election Results by District
Erdogan, who was renowned as a great builder of tunnels, bridges, and highways, is leaving his most lasting legacy in the kamikaze plane he built for Turkey. Indeed, Turkey’s problems have reached a depth that even if there were some easy way to take Erdogan out of the equation—which there is not—the problems of Turkey’s societal division would not be easily solved.
To reverse the tide, Turkey’s many fragments need to unite. They need to reach across the aisle and find innovative ways to transition their politics from focusing on identities to pragmatically dealing with the issues. They need to rebuild their political culture, restart their public discourse, and restore their commitment to a future together.
As things stand, however, it seems like they would rather fall divided.
Cover Photo: Istanbul Resist, Murat Livaneli.