February 5, 2016, by Editor

Turkey’s war with the Kurds threatens ties with Europe

Written by Samuel Jaffe.

Human Rights Watch‘s (HRW) 2016 Report on Turkey isn’t the first to criticize policies undertaken by Ankara, but its damning indictment of Turkey’s new politics of fear requires further attention. Attention that is slowly being drawn that way by Johannes Hahn, the EU’s enlargement commissioner and Angela Merkel as she cuts a lone figure in dealing with the refugee crisis. They regard Turkey as part of the solution to Europe’s most pressing concern.

Despite Recep Tayyip Erdoğan combative nature and Turkey’s repressive government, foreign leaders are looking at Turkey as a solution and not the problem. There is a belief among leaders that if Turkey can be tempted and tamed then not only will Ankara provide the solution for the refugee crisis but also serve as an example for other reform-minded Middle Eastern states. The EU has already offered an “action plan” which promised money and firmer talks of Turkey’s accession into the E.U in return for greater cooperation with other powers in weakening Daesh and stemming the flow of refugees.

It would seem obvious for Turkey to close the 566 mile border it shares with Syria, the incentives are clear. Firstly, it can prevent the empowerment of Daesh, thus helping stabilize the region. Second, screening refugees would relieve the short-term threat of Daesh militants entering Turkey, preventing a repeat of the bombings seen in Ankara and Istanbul. Thirdly, the costs would be subsidized by the E.U and the benefits to its security and relations to European states would take it a step closer to EU membership.

Turkey under Erdogan however remains a truculent partner with the West, whose intentions in Syria have proven it is willing to chart a different course in Syria to that advocated by the EU.

The key question to ask is why is Turkey acting against its own interests ? Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan is increasingly being driven by paranoia and ideology, threatened by a repeat of the 2013 Gezi Park protests that threatened to unseat him, themselves inspired by the Arab Spring. Likewise he fears the possibility of a popular pro-Kurdish political opposition that denied him a majority government in June 2015. His belief in Turkish nationalism, tinged with political Islam and fears of a Kurdish resistance taints every area of domestic and foreign policy. Domestically his grip on power relies on the media supporting him and suppressing any information about the repression of large parts of South-East Turkey in the three-decade long conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). A ceasefire lasted from 2013 and broke-down last summer, in tandem with the rise of Daesh and the prominent role taken by Iraqi and Syrian Kurds in fighting the groups expansion.

This is no coincidence. Erdogan is vindictive towards the Kurds in his inaction against Daesh in Syria. He is unwilling to provide military support or engage in military negotiations because it considers the Kurdish groups fighting against Daesh to be an offshoot of the outlawed PKK. It has backed-out of any talks involving this key regional force, one of the few successful, moderate forces to resist Daesh. Furthermore, it turns a blind-eye to those who cross its border, allowing the free-movement of refugees to Europe. Turkey under Erdogan has also been accused of allowing Daesh militants, supplies and even oil-based cash to flow through the border via it’s trade links with Russia, Israel and Greece.

Although Erdogan may believe he has been handed an opportunity by Daesh to further suppress Kurdish resistance, his actions are naïve. His unwillingness to join talks in Geneva and its callous border control has frustrated allies in the E.U and NATO, its combative position and desire to oust Assad puts it in direct opposition to Russia, sparking increased tensions between two historic foes.

Erdogan will soon realize that he has overplayed his hand however. He simply can’t wield terrorism as a weapon against the Kurds because Daesh is not a rational actor. In doing this he has already isolated Turkey from allies in the region and from abroad by being passive to Daesh’s actions whilst pursing a brutal bombing campaign against the Kurds.

Europe now must do the following, work with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to stem the flow of refugees in Europe but confront his inaction against Daesh and end his war with the Kurds. Erdogan must be convinced that whilst Europe needs Turkey, Turkey also needs Europe.

Samuel Jaffe is a first year student at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by faruk/Flickr.

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