While Turkey’s official narrative, with regard to the scope of operation Euphrates Shield’, is centred on eliminating the ‘militant’ PKK, ground realities hardly confirm it, and instead show that Erdogan’s current drive is mainly aimed at effectively cornering Turkey’s most important ethnic minority: the Kurds. Things that have transpired in Turkey since the failed putsch in July display a blatant political marginalization of the Kurds and a high-powered military operation by the Turkish military in the Kurdish-majority areas in Turkey (besides Syria and Iraq ), enforcing the widely held belief that, for Turkey, the most important security priority continues to be the Kurds. These developments have once again shown that Ankara is forcefully trying to ground the disciples of the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, at the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, as also in mountainous regions of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and the common border between Iraq and Turkey, in urban and rural areas inside Turkey and in northern parts of the Syrian territory, to provide the ground for complete collapse of the PKK and its actual and so-called affiliates.
This is exactly the same goal, which has been the most important security aspiration of Turkey’s leaders since last four decades, but has never been realized. Of course, the ruling Justice and Development Party is ready to stop a step short of this goal and suffice to greatly weakening of the PKK, if not annihilating it altogether; so weak that if peace talks began with any chance, the group would not have much of a bargaining power to demand big concessions. While this is the main goal, Ankara’s fight against PKK and has taken an ugly turn, leaving the Turkish Kurds to be the main victims, making them wonder if they really are Turkey’s citizens.
Consider this: in the Kurdish south-east of the country, which is primed for popular revolt, Erdogan has stripped almost two dozen elected mayors of their powers and installed friendly surrogates, while downgrading cities in Kurdish strongholds to towns and municipalities, bringing their budgets under Ankara’s direct control. At the same time, he has increased the military presence and stripped Kurdish leaders of parliamentary immunity, leaving them open to prosecution and potential removal from parliament. Any yet, the Turkish deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek says that Turkey has no problem with their “Kurdish brethren”!
Since the government quashed PKK efforts to control urban areas in the southeast, the fighting has spread to the countryside. Parts of the historical city of Sur remain sealed off and centuries-old bazaars, once packed with tourists, are empty; many businesses are closed for good. While Kurdish political parties have urged dialogue and Abdullah Ocalan himself has approved of it, Turkish officials have repeatedly said they would continue to fight the PKK until it is defeated.
While negotiations can immediately end the spate of violence, the Kurdish question has become much more complex than it was decades ago, and requires a lot of deliberation than mere quashing. For instance, the way Turkey has linked Kurds’ operation in Syria against ISIS with Kurdish presence in Turkey, as also in Iraq, shows in unambiguous terms that the Kurdish issue is no longer solvable within the national borders of any one country, for what happens in Turkey is intricately linked with the Syrian equation and vice versa. The issue is also not a simple counterterrorism matter either, for there is significant support for the Kurdish movement within Turkey too, and it is only a matter of time that the world, particularly the US and EU, start talking about this problem once the dust settles down.
For last many month or so, the US has largely ignored what Erdogan and his government have been up to in Turkey against Kurds. This silence owes its existence to the use Washington wants to put the Syrian Kurds to, and that too without annoying Ankara. Therefore, by turning a blind eye to the so-called ‘state of democracy’ and ‘human rights’ that the US and EU so often remain concerned about, the US is trying to appease Erdogan and further prevent it from making strategic shift towards Russia.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on his part, has said that the current moves are part of a campaign against Kurdish terror groups, billing it as the biggest operation yet against the PKK. As part of this operation, prosecutors have, however, pressed on with PKK-related terrorism charges against scores of elected lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, or HDP, while Erdogan has dropped, as part of his efforts at re(building) the so-called ‘political ties’, some 1,500 charges against other non-Kurdish opposition lawmakers for insulting the president.
“There is a systematic embargo against us,” said Figen Yuksekdag, co-chair of the HDP. “If the HDP is ostracized, that will raise the risk of a coup and civil war.” The danger of “civil war” is real because it is likely to pit, for instance, Turkey’s Kurds, Alevis (a large heterogeneous Shia minority) and west-oriented “secularists” against Mr Erdogan’s nationalist religious alliance in a permanent cultural and sectarian civil war.
While Erdogan continues to charge against the Kurds, Turkish officials continue to deny that any ‘ethnic crisis’ exits at all. This denial has compounded the sense that Erdogan has assumed dictatorial powers, and deliberately disallowed access to the restive Kurdish areas. Activists have argued that If Mr Şimşek believes that the Turkish government has no hostile policy against the Kurds, his government should authorize and not prevent the UN monitoring team, international human rights organisations and media outlets to investigate the human rights violations allegedly committed by the Turkish forces.
While the current drive against Kurds should have raised questions about the state of democracy in Turkey, the Western silence has directly magnified Erdogan’s unwritten powers. The Kurdish issue has always been a litmus test for the overall quality of Turkish democracy — affecting everything from free speech to elections. However, since the end of the peace talks with the Kurdish insurgents last year, Turkish democracy has been diminishing day by day, making the need for a mutually negotiated ceasefire and end of the crisis all the more essential—essential for fighting, if Erdogan really wants to fight, the real extremist threat: the Islamic State. On the contrary, if he continues to politically and militarily squeeze the Kurds, the conflict will spread from the southeast to Ankara itself.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.