Turkey's Manmade Disaster
ISTANBUL— Even in an otherwise remarkable year for the broader Middle East, the most recent developments have underscored the degree to which the strategic realities of the region have changed. The death of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was the latest consequence of the tumultuous Arab Awakening. The United States’ announcement of a final withdrawal from Iraq by the year’s end has raised further questions about the West’s traditional leadership and influence across the region. And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s high-profile blitzkrieg from Somalia to various post-Arab Spring capitals and the United Nations highlighted the role that Turkey — one of the region’s strongest democracies — is now playing in shaping the regional agenda. Yet twin disasters last week in the form of terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on the Turkish border outpost in Hakkari, which resulted in over 24 deaths and 18 injuries, and the 7.2 earthquake in Ercis and Van have raised important questions about the fragility of the Turkish model.
The timing of the Hakkari attacks could not have been more provocative. They occurred on the same day as a major constitutional debate among political parties in Ankara, a day after five policemen and three civilians were killed in a nearby border town, and three days after Turkish President Abdullah Gül visited troops in the region to boost morale. The deadliest PKK assault in several years, it appears to have involved over 100 terrorists in a carefully orchestrated set of maneuvers. On the same day that the United States announced the withdrawal of all troops from Iraq by the end of the year, Turkey launched a massive cross-border operation against Kurdish strongholds in the north of that country. This dangerous escalation of the Kurdish problem threatens the security of an important border region, while dragging one of the region’s last stable powers into region-wide instability.
While embracing the so-called Arab Spring and supporting the Palestinian cause, Turkey’s leaders have not accommodated Kurdish assertions of autonomy or freedom. Erdo?an’s government, while preaching the virtues of soft power — whether in the form of economic engagement, visa liberalization, or “zero problems” with neighbors — has also had to rely once again on traditional hard power. All of this makes it hard to imagine Turkey realizing its full potential until it is able to successfully address the Kurdish problem. Turkey’s approach to the PKK has also complicated its already tangled relations with other states in the Middle East and beyond. Only two weeks earlier, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, threatened to support the PKK in response to harsh Turkish criticism of his government, a move that now seems particularly ill-advised.
Tensions with both Iran and Saudi Arabia have also increased, complicating the delicate balance in Iraq. And Erdo?an’s out-of-the-blue and unsubstantiated accusation only a week before the Hakkari attacks that a German foundation was providing support to the PKK has also strained relations with the European Union. The only silver lining may be that the attacks serve as a reminder to Ankara of the importance of its alliance with the United States, which has offered it concrete intelligence and military support against the PKK for close to three decades. Turkey now faces serious challenges to both of its primary strategic objectives: advancing regional stability while enhancing its own influence. Its laudable objective of serving as an honest broker in some of the Middle East’s most intractable conflicts inevitably collides with the reality of having to deal with internal challenges to its own stability.
Ultimately, stability in the Middle East rests upon how regional players like Turkey answer their own populations’ demands in a responsible and timely manner. Despite the historic 2009 “Kurdish Opening” proclaimed by Erod?an, Ankara has resorted to ratcheting up its rhetoric to respond to populist outrage. While it is too soon to tell what the long-term impact will be on Turkish foreign policy, the domestic damage has already been done, with the rise of nationalist and populist sentiments that conflate the PKK with all Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin. Erdo?an’s signature project — rewriting Turkey’s constitution in a way that guarantees ethnic rights and fairness to all of its citizens — has now become that much harder. Unfortunately, overcoming Ankara’s natural disasters will be much easier than the remaining manmade obstacles along the way.
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.