Turkey’s bombing campaign against the Kurds will affect domestic parliamentary politics

Strikingly, during the hastily convened NATO meeting on Tuesday, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg refrained from directly mentioning Kurdish militant groups.

Julian de Medeiros
2 August 2015
Syrian Kurdish refugees protest against ISIS in Suruc, November 2014.

Syrian Kurdish refugees protest against ISIS in Suruc, November 2014. Demotix/Emre Caylak. All rights reserved. Last week a devastating blast tore apart a group of young Kurdish Turks who had gathered in Suruc, a small town near the Syrian border. The suicide bomber, who was later identified as Seyh-Abdurrahman Alagoz had travelled there from the conservative province of Adiyaman, a fertile radicalizing ground for jihadists. With his deplorable actions, the 20 year old has not only ushered in a potentially devastating chapter of Turkey’s involvement in the Middle East, indicative of the country’s failure to foresee the impact of its dual foreign policy of funding both Kurdish fighters and ISIS militants in the region, but has also offered the AKP a much-needed opportunity to strengthen its hand domestically.

As the previous week has seen the historic opening of Incirlik airbase to US and allied forces, as well as the equally unanticipated rupture of the Kurdish peace process, it is all too easy to oversee the significant ramifications that these events have already had on parliamentary politics in Turkey, and how they will continue to impact the coalition process in the foreseeable future.

To understand the effect that the current events will have on the parliamentary process, three pressing issues should take priority. These are - in no particular order, yet deeply interrelated –  (1) the increased likelihood of either early elections or an AKP/MHP coalition, (2) the vilification of the HDP, and (3) a renewed call for a strengthened presidency.

First, the widely condemned bombing campaign against Kurds in northern Iraq, and PKK targets could signal an opening for a coalition between the AKP and the MHP. The latter had previously stated that as long as the Kurdish peace process, formerly a hallmark promise of the Erdoğan administration, remained on the table, there would be no coalition possible.

With the resurgence of the conflict, and Erdoğan’s statement that a peace process was no longer feasible, such a coalition seems increasingly likely. Strikingly, during the hastily convened NATO meeting on Tuesday, secretary general Jens Stoltenberg refrained from directly mentioning Kurdish militant groups, signalling both the contentious nature of the air-strikes as well as the supposed extent to which the US has decided to turn a blind eye towards the AKP’s escalation of the Kurdish issue.

With the current number of air-strikes against Kurdish and PKK targets exceeding the amount of Turkish strikes against ISIS, observers have suggested that the current developments may have arisen as much out of a desire to implement an aggressive nationalist push to prevent an increase in Kurdish autonomy and influence in the Middle East, as they were to preserve security in the region by fighting ISIS.

On the other hand, the current Government’s nationalist policies could also indicate a desire to call snap elections, which would make the possibility of an AKP/MHP coalition seem less likely. As such, the idea of a grand coalition not only becomes less likely, the increased likelihood of early elections could also intensify strategic attempts to vilify the HDP in an attempt to bar the party from the political process altogether.

Which leads us to the second development; that the openly hostile stance of the current Government towards the Kurdish issue has already been felt in the Turkish parliament, and will almost certainly result in an increasingly inevitable showdown between nationalist forces and the freshly elected HDP. Already, the AKP Government has rather bizarrely accused the HDP of being directly responsible for the crumbling of the Kurdish peace process, and has taken first steps towards stripping the party’s deputies of the immunity from prosecution otherwise granted to politicians. 

In response, HDP deputies countered by offering to abandon their immunity themselves, and called upon other politicians to do so as well. In addition, the disproportionately large number of HDP members being arrested as part of a major sweep targeting ISIS and the PKK, should be interpreted as indicative of the way in which ‘security’ is being used to jeopardize and harass the HDP as a legitimate political contender. 

In short, the clash of ideologies has already expanded beyond parliamentary politics, and is currently being played out on the international stage. It is to be expected that these developments will deepen the divides in Turkish society, rather than preserve safety and security, even as they shift the allied efforts against ISIS into a new and more unpredictable phase. Whether the opening of the Incirlik airbase was worth the price of allowing the Kurdish peace process to implode, or even whether such a causal relationship is based on mere speculation rather than factual intent, will presumably become clear over the coming weeks and months, as the allied forces begin carrying out strikes using Turkish airbases.

Finally, it is to be expected – and can indeed already be felt by observing Turkish media reports – that the increased focus on securitization, and the fulfilment of the AKP’s longheld desire for military action in Syria, as well as the first steps towards a so-called ‘safe zone’ (although ‘security zone’ would be more accurate. the UN has pointed out that the term ‘safe’ could lead to a mass migration towards an area poorly equipped to actually enforce safety) will go hand in hand with a renewed call for a strengthened presidency along the lines of the Erdoğan-doctrine.

To a large extent such hopes rest on the President’s designs to implement a ‘safe zone’ in Syria, which would effectively constitute a no-fly zone, as a way to safeguard Turkey’s role as a significant force in the region, and to posit Erdoğan as a powerbroker dictating the flow of the Syrian conflict. This interpretation of events also points towards an increased probability of early elections, as the AKP will be able to make the case that Turkey’s security and international influence can only be secured by a continuation of the current policies and with the personal touch of Erdoğan’s efforts on the international stage. Despite recent tensions, it is likely that the US would look favourably upon such a consolidation of the AKP government, as it would prove easier to continue its current cooperation regarding the war on terror and the use of Turkish airbases.   

Whether this means that the AKP is leading the US on a merry dance in order to strong-arm their way back into a majority Government, or whether the tactical advantage will prove sufficiently decisive as to set the stage for the end of the fight against ISIS remains to be seen.

For now one thing seems certain, and that is that once again the Kurdish issue is being used to justify various political agendas in the Middle East, and that the AKP has shown no interest in tackling key issues of contention in Turkish society by means of parliamentary politics, but has instead reverted to the familiar antagonizing and securitizing of opponents.

That the guise under which these battles are fought comes in the form of a call for increased ‘security’ in the Middle East, comes as no surprise. Instead, the blatant way in which the AKP has used the bombing in Suruc, which itself targeted Kurds, as a justification to bomb the PKK should come as an unpleasant blow to the already incendiary logic of Turkish paradoxical foreign policies. Indeed, the logic is frail, and the attempts to justify the current military campaign to its allies will presumably only last for a limited amount of time.

This begs the question whether the current political climate isn’t indeed a direct attempt on the part of the AKP to build a momentum with which to delegitimize the HDP’s political mandate and to position itself for early elections. The only certainty is that the AKP either has until August 28 to put together a workable coalition, or else the country faces a return to the voting booths.

Unfortunately, all recent developments suggest that instead of embracing the democratic potential of parliamentary politics, the AKP has once again resorted to dividing, rather than bringing together, Turkish society.

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