Middle East

Turkey is looking increasingly like its troubled neighbors

A picture shows a destroyed wall following clashes between Islamic State (IS) group fighters and Turkish special forces in Diyarbakir on October 27, 2015. AFP PHOTO / ILYAS AKENGIN

It should have been a moment of unity against a backdrop of horror. At a qualifying match this month for next year’s Euro 2016 football championship in the central Anatolian city of Konya, the teams of Turkey and Iceland stood, heads bowed, for a minute of silence honoring the 102 victims of suicide attacks in Ankara three days earlier.

But sectors of the crowd erupted in jeers and booing, shouting right-wing slogans and Allahu Akbar. Instead of a closing of national ranks, the moment spotlighted Turkey’s raw divisions.

The bombings, carried out by ISIS followers from inside Turkey, targeted the pro-Kurdish coalition the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), left-wing activists and trade unionists as they gathered for a rally against fighting in southeast Turkey between security forces and insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

It was the deadliest terror attack in Turkey’s history but, far from uniting the country, it increased the polarization. Turkey’s qualifying victory over Iceland was eclipsed by the rancor on show in Konya’s stadium.

“Don’t we have a heart that beats for them [the Ankara victims] and the lips to hush? What does it take to respect a person who passed away? Are we so unfamiliar with these feelings?” wrote former national team manager Mustafa Denizli in Hurriyet newspaper.

Turkey, a NATO ally and candidate for EU membership, risks sliding into the sort of ethnic and sectarian strife that has torn Iraq and Syria to its south. In the view of some alarmed analysts, Turkey is starting to resemble its neighbors.

“We are becoming more and more Syrianized and we are turning into more of a Middle Eastern country than a European country,” said veteran analyst Cengiz Candar.

Turkish officials dismiss such parallels. Turkey is a stable democracy, they say, and is not alone in feeling the flames of Syria’s war - the European Union too is suffering.

Until 2013, Turkey was seen as a pillar of stability. A decade of moderate Islamist government had cemented strong links with the West and influence in the Middle East.

But all that started to change in June 2013 when the secular cities of west and coastal Turkey erupted in protest at what they perceived to be a growing authoritarianism in then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule.

Erdogan put down the protests and clamped down on the media.

He began seizing judicial and security powers after prosecutors opened investigations into alleged corruption among his ministers and family. Erdogan denounced a foreign-directed plot to topple him.

Elected president in 2014, Erdogan overstepped the powers of a constitutionally nonpartisan office by campaigning to get the Islamist party he founded, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), a sufficient parliamentary majority to change Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system.

Turkish voters rejected the prospect of one-man rule, and at a general election in June this year the AK Party lost its majority for the first time since 2002.

After perfunctory coalition talks, Erdogan called a new election, for Nov. 1.

Turkey’s always polarized politics have since turned toxic.

Even before the June election, there had been dozens of attacks on offices and campaign rallies of the HDP party that had successfully united Turkey’s Kurdish minority and won support among secular, liberal and leftist Turks.

The HDP comfortably vaulted the 10 per cent threshold for entry into parliament. Its 80 seats, from an area that had previously leaned towards the AK Party, left the ruling party with 258 MPs, 18 short of even a simple majority in the 550-member national assembly. Erdogan was further than ever from achieving an executive presidency.

The situation deteriorated sharply in July when an ISIS suicide bombing killed 34 Kurdish and socialist activists at Suruc, just over the border from the Syrian town of Ain al-Arab, known in Kurdish as Kobani. The attack inflamed southeast Turkey and imperiled a two-year cease-fire with the PKK.

Not just Kurdish insurgents but Kurds in general and many Turkish opponents of Erdogan accused the government of complicity – a charge the government denied.

When the PKK responded by killing two policemen, Ankara launched an air campaign across its southern borders, targeting the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan.

There is widespread suspicion, within Turkey and among its Western allies, that by resuming the war against the PKK, Erdogan is looking to poach Turkish nationalist votes and push the HDP back below the 10 percent barrier. A big AKP majority would enable Erdogan to proceed with his plans for a French-style executive presidency, with minimal checks and balances.

Erdogan has rejected opposition claims that he is deliberately stoking unrest. The government says it launched airstrikes against the PKK in July in response to rising attacks on the security forces.

Some analysts say the Suruc bombing was an inevitable consequence of the government’s Syria policy. The practice of allowing militant volunteers to cross the border to fight in Syria has seeded Turkey with ISIS sympathizers.

Yet even when Turkish press reports identified cells in towns such as Adiyaman, little action was taken. The Turkish government denies it supports ISIS sympathizers, tacitly or otherwise, or that attacks were not properly investigated.

“Too many of the attacks against the HDP are not investigated,” said Hakan Altinay, from Washington’s Brookings Institute. “The social contract has been broken ... [And this is] key to [the Kurdish] sense of alienation. If you carry on that way the social fabric unravels.”

Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat who heads the liberal EDAM think-tank in Istanbul and is a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Foundation in Brussels, said the state’s response to the bombings has been inadequate.

“The government so far has been unable to come up with any convincing explanation why they failed to investigate correctly and accept responsibility for our freedom and security,” Ulgen said.

“Turkey is in turmoil [and] the flames are engulfing everyone,” the diplomat added, referring to the fallout from Syria.

Altinay said Turkey was beginning to resemble its neighbors: “Once you let that genie out of the bottle it’s difficult to get it back in.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 28, 2015, on page 9.




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