Wrecking the peace process
Under the pretext of joining in the fight against IS, writes Esen Uslu, the Turkish state has unleashed a ferocious assault on the PKK
The old dictum has proved once more to be true: dictators tend to initiate a civil war before being deposed.
The president of the republic, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had dreamt of his party winning the June 7 general election by a large margin, so that he could amend the constitution to create an elected Sultanate position for himself. In the course of the campaign he started to realise that his party would not win enough seats to form a government. Facing a major setback, he put all the pretence of presidential neutrality aside and joined the electioneering fray in a desperate attempt to swing the outcome. His efforts were to no avail, and his party was stopped in its tracks by the electorate. Even religious Kurds who used to support Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) turned to the leftwing pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
His prime minister and cabinet have gone, but, although the AKP remains the largest party, they are not in a hurry to form a new government. It is apparent that the three-party opposition is unable to step in. So the AKP has the option of extending negotiations in order to form a coalition with one of the other rightwing parties. It could still declare it is unable to do so, thus sparking a mandatory new election in the autumn.
In the meantime the caretaker AKP government acts as if it still had its majority and is pushing ahead with its new policy line: in order to take advantage of the current world and regional order, it has to rid itself of the shackles imposed by the peace process with the Kurds. A side effect of such a change would be to provide a sop to the bureaucracy and military, thus helping to cohere the state. Also such a change would undermine support for reactionary nationalist and Kurd-hating opposition parties, as well as cutting into the HDP vote from liberals and religious Kurds.
The unilateral ceasefire declared by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) two years ago has been undermined through the undertaking of a shooting war in Kurdistan under the pretext of joining in the fight against Islamic State.
As the endgame in Syria approaches, the changing parameters of the region have been defined by a possible new era of rapprochement between the US and Iran. Naturally this is desperately opposed by Israel and Saudi Arabia - the principal regional allies of Turkey.
Despite the setback created by the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, when the Turkish ship taking aid to Gaza to beat the blockade was boarded by the Israeli military and nine Turkish activists were killed, Turkey and Israel have been very keen to improve their relations in the face of the US-Iran nuclear agreement. Israel’s illicit oil trade with IS became quite difficult to hide in the face of UN security council resolution 2199, adopted in February 2015. It requires every state in the region to “comply with the measures imposed”.
Turkey was in a similar boat. Saudi Arabia and Qatar were the key states supporting IS and other Salafist and radical Islamist groups in the region, and their funds and material supplies were channelled through Turkey into Syria. They have been unnerved by the US nuclear deal with Iran, and now they are keen to provide a new impetus to create a Sunni state on the lands carved out of Iraq and Syria by IS. Recent reports suggest that there are elements within the US administration and the British establishment who are willing to buy into that idea. And Turkish support for the idea of creating a ‘moderate’ Sunni state has been apparent. Hence the apparent shift in the policy: from tolerating IS to opposing IS.
Today, the days of IS as we know it seem limited and, if and when the new state appears, it is likely that today’s ‘extremist’ organisations would transform themselves into more ‘moderate’ outfits, providing an acceptable face for international public opinion. Sacrifices would have to be made, but they would be worth it for the sake of creating a Sunni state starting right on the outskirts of Baghdad and extending deep into Syria to almost Damascus, and from the Turkish to the Saudi borders.
In the meantime the first fruits of the new Turkish policy have been air strikes and artillery bombardments - not only against IS but Kurdish forces too. Turkey has also agreed to provide the US with airbases in southern Turkey and on the July 28 Nato meeting it asked for its reward. Firstly, Turkey wants further military assistance, secondly, it wants a free hand to attack Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey, Syria and Iraq - or at least a benign blind-eye.
The Kurdish guerrillas’ headquarters in the Qandil mountains in Iraq near the Iranian border came under heavy shelling for several days. However, even though some senior leaders were killed, such a move had been expected and defences had been prepared.
When the AKP ended the peace process and truce, the guerrillas started retaliatory actions in cities as well as in the countryside. The casualties are mounting and, as the Turkish armed forces seem to have battened down for a long campaign, an escalation of the conflict seems likely.
The Iraqi Kurdish autonomous administration, however, is keen to see an early end to the armed conflict, and Kurdish region president Masoud Barzani gave a conciliatory interview to the Turkish press, in which he praised the AKP government for its ‘peace moves’ and criticised the PKK for ending its ceasefire too hastily.
However, despite his hostile attitude to the PKK and open support for the AKP, Barzani still enjoys considerable support amongst the Kurds. If the AKP government changes tack again and seeks a way out of armed conflict, Barzani may come to play an important role in providing mediation.
For its part, the US seems, at least up to now, quite happy. It has overcome the stubborn resistance of the AKP government to allowing the US to use Turkish airbases. In return it is prepared to let Erdoğan unleash his forces against the Kurdish guerrillas. However, the US does not want any further trouble in Iraqi Kurdistan and the PKK has the potential to destabilise the autonomous administration.
Undoubtedly, the PKK is influential in Syrian Kurdistan. Despite that, Turkey had allowed heavily armed Peshmerga fighters to cross through Turkish territory in order to join in the fight at Kobanê. And though suffering heavy losses the People’s Protection Units, which are close to the PKK politically, gained the upper hand. However, everybody knows that the victory in Kobanê was gained in no small measure through close cooperation with the US. Attacks by US planes on IS forces were frequent.
The Kurdish guerrillas did not stop after victory in Kobanê: they pushed IS forces down to Hasake province in the south, and to the east they loosened their hold in Tel Abiad, in the end creating an IS-free zone along the Turkish border. On July 28 they declared that Sarrin near the river Euphrates had been liberated from IS forces.
Will the US allow Turkey to come into open conflict with a force that is spearheading the ground war? We will have to wait and see, but it seems highly unlikely to me. Probably the US will allow the AKP some leeway until it is satisfied that it has reaped the political benefits. Then it will rein Ankara in.
The PKK command was quite willing to take steps to avoid further escalation. A recent communiqué from its Qandil headquarters stated that it had not ordered any retaliation, but local forces had used their own initiative to undertake various actions. The same communiqué also stated quite unequivocally that it was not the PKK which had been responsible for undermining the ceasefire.
However, the ever increasing spiral of tit-for-tat actions is in motion. On July 27 a gendarmerie major commanding Turkish forces in the Malazgirt county of Muş province was killed - the highest-ranking casualty to date.
As the AKP was initiating its cross-border bombing campaign, simultaneously there was a large-scale police operation in working class districts, where alleged ‘IS terrorists’ as well as PKK and Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C) supporters were detained. The reported number of those held exceeds 1,500. During one raid a renowned female fighter, Günay Özarslan, was executed on the spot - it was claimed she had shot at the police.
Her body was transferred to the Alevi Assembly House, but the police did not allow a funeral procession to be formed. There was a stand-off which lasted three days, and there were constant clashes between the Alevi youth of the Gazi district and the police. The Alevi Assembly House and its environs were filled with CS gas. Many people were taken to hospitals, and at least one journalist was severely injured. A policeman was also killed. In the end, the stalemate was resolved through the intervention of HDP and CHP (Republican People’s Party) MPs, who negotiated a compromise with the governor of Istanbul. Finally on July 27 Günay Özarslan’s funeral was held.
Such repression in working class districts and police moves against any protest action, in conjunction with a despicable media campaign, are aimed at criminalising and discrediting both the HDP and the Kurdish freedom movement in the eyes of the population.
An HDP peace march called for July 26 was promptly banned, and all protests are likely to be attacked by the police. The HDP-initiated demand to recall parliament from its summer recess after the July 20 Suruç massacre - 32 pro-Kurd internationalists were killed by an IS suicide bomber - has fallen to deaf ears. However, with the intervention into Syria CHP and AKP jointly organised a parliamentary session on July 29 with a speech on behalf of the CHP and a statement from the AKP government.
The HDP, and the left organised around it, is standing firm in defence of the peace process and has demanded an immediate end to all hostilities. But its political statements are not given any space in the mainstream press, so left publications and social media are the only channels available. Meanwhile, atrocities committed by IS have been used to promote nationalist-fascist undercurrents in Turkish society.
As the AKP drapes itself in the nationalist flag, posing as a staunch supporter of a strong-arm policy against both the Kurds and the left, the power base of both the social democratic CHP and rightwing MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) is being undermined. However, this also opens up the prospects of an AKP-MHP coalition despite the ongoing negotiations between AKP and CHP. Such a coalition could allow AKP to get a more opportune election date, while at the same time continuing to undermine the MHP. Will the MHP fall into that trap? In view of the noises it made in support of the bombing campaign in Syria, that cannot be ruled out.
The initial effect of the bombing campaign may have boosted the AKP showing by a few percentage points in the opinion polls, but an extended conflict could also be damaging to it. If, for its part, the HDP successfully defends the peace process, continues to demand an end to hostilities through a renewed ceasefire and is able to keep on board the forces coalescing around its policy, it could not only maintain its popular support, but extend it. However, there are factors within the movement that may prevent it doing so. So in the short term many things depend on the maturity and foresight of the HDP core, as well as its stamina in standing firm against the nationalist onslaught.
In the long run, however, the Turkish army has already accepted the inevitable - its high command is openly stating that the war against Kurdish guerrillas is unwinnable.