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“Pakistanization” of Turkey: Kurds are turning from a marginal into a system force

A Turkish soldier at the border with Syria. Photo: thedailybeast.com

With the Middle East on fire, Turkey is facing the real prospect of a civil war. Experts in Turkey and abroad are signaling a threat of instability coming from both internal and external challenges. And this is not only about the recent wave of terrorist acts in that country. Things are much deeper here.

There is a risk that Turkey may turn into a new Pakistan. Just like Pakistan once tried to gain control over Afghanistan by wreaking havoc there, Turkey is now trying to build a “new Syria.” And for this purpose, the Turks are making advances to a number of radical groups fighting there. As a result, they are facing today almost the same situation as the Pakistanis faced in the early 2000s: some of their counteragents have run riot and are beginning to act against their own selves. The same happened in Pakistan, when the Taliban came there to spread rather than to prevent terrorism. Two recent terror acts in Turkey have clearly shown who is going to come to Turkey and what for.

At first sight, it might seem that Turkey is a different story: that country is close to the West, is a NATO member and enjoys quite good ties with the United States. All this looks like a real guarantee against external threats. But the problem is that after 13 years of “moderate Islam” (or “conservative democracy”), Turkey is facing a new political reality in its domestic policy.

The key principle of Erdogan’s “conservative democracy” doctrine is that modernization is impossible without morals and religion. As a result, after so many years, the Turkish leader is still in power and enjoys support from businessmen, clergymen and countrymen. But today his system is beginning to falter as his many-year partner Abdullah Gul has been pushed aside by Ahmet Davutoglu, whose foreign policy is “strategic depth” camouflaged as “zero problems with neighbors.”

Though moderate in words, the present-day rulers of Turkey are quite radical in their actions. As a result of their rule, today Turkey has as many as 85,000 mosques - 1 mosque per 920 people against 1 hospital per 60,000 people. In fact, today “moderate” Turkey has more mosques per capita than much more conservative Saudi Arabia and Iran have. Moreover, it has much more imams than it has doctors or teachers. In 2002-2007, the budget of Diyanet, the Turkish Directorate for Religious Affairs, grew from 553 trillion TRY to 2,700 trillion TRY. (1)

As a result, the Turkish leaders are beginning to lose the sense of proportion and the balance between their “moderate Islam” policy and the secular government system.

Another internal problem is Erdogan’s continuing confrontation with Fethullah Gulen, the leader of Hizmet, living as a political emigrant in the United States. This is a kind of a war of personality. Erdogan is fiercely warring against Gulen’s people in business and judiciary as he is eager to dominate. He has already forced the army out of politics, now it is the turn of Gulen, the leftists and, most importantly, the forces acting on behalf of Turkish Kurds – more specifically, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

With so many internal problems, it was really dangerous for Turkey to trigger escalation in the Middle East. As a result of his “moderate” religious extremism, Erdogan and his team have faced a new wave of Kurdish separatism. During the first years of the Syrian crisis, they were able to keep this problem in control, but their external ambitions spoiled everything. According to a number of Washington-based Turkologists (2), until recently Erdogan and his party could rely on Kurds but this summer things turned about. Erdogan’s war with PKK came into homes of ordinary Turkish Kurds.

For almost a week the small Kurdish town of Cizre was besieged by the Turkish army. For a whole week, the town was left with no electric power, phone services and internet, while the Turkish troops were actively “cleaning” it from Kurdish “separatists.” The riot was suppressed but it was a clear signal for the Turks that from now on the Kurdish factor will be a serious trans-border challenge for them. The air of freedom is quickly spreading over northern Iraq and northern Syria. In fact, it was the first time that a Kurdish riot in Turkey was organized by external forces. Syrian Kurds have joined their Iraqi brothers’ struggle for political rights. So, now it is the turn of Turkish Kurds.

The last parliamentary elections revealed a serious shift in the ethnic-political balance in Turkey. The voting has shown that Turkish Kurds have turned from a marginal into a system force. Now they have not only influence in the southeastern provinces but also 80 seats in the 550-seat Turkish parliament. And this is a serious step towards their goal: constitutionally warranted autonomy in the southeast of Turkey.

This is really annoying Erdogan and his government. As a result, they are beginning to act illogically. Quite recently, the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned Russia and the United States against supplying arms to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. And their key argument was that they have no guarantees that the arms would not be given to PKK. The question is, What were the guarantees when the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) supplied arms to extremists in Syria?

Today Turkey keeps blaming Russia and the United States for supporting forces that are undermining its security. And they became very serious in their warnings when the Americans began dropping ammunition to Syrian Kurds and when Russian emissaries arrived in the north of Syria to negotiate with the YPG commanders.

It was the first time the Turks were rough to the Russians. Until recently, they have tried to avoid contradictions. Erdogan had lots of economic plans concerning Russia but as its military plans in Syria began to fail, he lost his temper and warned that Turkey might stop some of its joint projects with Russia, this referring to gas supplies and Akkuyu NPP.

It seems that in both cases, Erdogan’s emotions prevailed over good sense. In 2014, Gazprom exported 27.4 billion cubic meters of gas. Only German buys more Russian gas than Turkey. Turkey’s other gas suppliers are Azerbaijan (5.3 billion cubic meters) and Iran (8.9 billion cubic meters). Russian gas meets almost 60% of the country’s energy needs. So, the question is, Where are the Turks going to find alternatives if they decide to stop buying Russian gas?

The Akkuyu deal was signed in 2012. Since then its cost has grown from $22 billion to $27 billion. Russia has already invested $3 billion. The plant is supposed to produce 7% of all energy in Turkey. Presently, Russian universities are training over 300 Turkish nuclear engineers.

So, no matter how emotional Erdogan may be, he has no right to stake these and many other joint projects (tourism, construction, mutual investments) as he may face serious economic and social consequences – especially now that his country is facing mid-term elections, where his party has no 100% chances (3).

What Erdogan has as a result growing imbalance between internal and external factors. His policy has proved to be not very effective. So, the best way for him now is to stop confrontations and to try to find common grounds. Civil war is the last thing Russia wants to see in Turkey as this may trigger crises in Europe and the Caucasus.

Turkey has enough time to think it over. Erdogan’s Sept 23 visit to Moscow was not the last Turkish-Russian meeting this year. The Turkish and Russian presidents are expected to meet in Antalya and Kazan.

(1) Imtiaz Gul, Pakistanisation of Turkey // The Express Tribune, October 8, 2015.

(2) Soner Cagaptay, Turkey Is in Serious Trouble // The Atlantic, October 2015.

(3) Today the rating of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party is stagnating at 41%, with no changes observed since the June 7 parliamentary elections. During the Nov 1 mid-term elections, Erdogan’s party is expected to get the same 258 seats in the 550-seat Turkish parliament.

EADaily’s Middle East Bureau

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