Two conflicts, two enemies: Erdogan’s volatile security dilemma
12 Jul 2016|

Image courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photos

While ISIS is clearly a complex thorn in the side of the Turkish government, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a broad range of interconnected problems related to Syria that are destabilising the nation’s security and reputation. He’s perceived by his population as a strong leader, but his brand of autocratic power politics has the potential to deteriorate the situation further.

Turkey is involved in two conflictsone internally and one across its Syrian border, with two enemies, ISIS and Kurdish dissident groups. Internally, over the past 12 months Turkey has suffered 14 attacks, killing a total of 280 people, which have been attributed to both ISIS and Kurdish terrorists. The Turkish government and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) have a 40-year-long history of fighting, but with a 2013 ceasefire breaking in 2015 this conflict has again intensified and threatens to spiral out of control.

In 2014, Turkey agreed to become part of the US-led operations against ISIS in Syria, but resisted becoming directly involved in the air campaign. Turkish involvement has been further complicated by the US reliance on Kurdish forces operating on the ground in Syria and Iraq.

The emergence of a self-governing Kurdish entity on Turkey’s southern border in 2014 was interpreted as a direct threat to Turkey by Erdogan. Having supported all manner of Sunni jihadist groups fighting Assad in Syria since 2011, including Jabhat-al-Nusra, the Turkish Government continued to allow support (foreign fighters, illicit goods and weapons transfers) to flow through Turkey’s southern border. This benefited Daesh among others, undermining the Kurdish groups on its southern border. Later that year, ISIS massacred Kurdish civilians in Kobani on the border with Turkey—with Erdogan’s failure to respond increasing his tensions with Turkish Kurds (who make up 20% of Turkey’s population), and frustrating the US.

Subsequent pressure from the US and the EU during 2015 resulted in Turkey stepping up its efforts to tighten control of the southern border, and opening up Incilik air base for use by US aircraft against ISIS. ISIS responded by conducting an extensive bombing campaign inside Turkey, including the suicide bombing of a peaceful Kurdish march in Ankara in October 2015, which killed over 100 people and injured hundreds more.

A 2013 ceasefire between Turkey and Kurdish PKK militants abruptly ended in July 2015 after a suicide bombing in the south-eastern Kurdish city of Suruc, which killed 32 people and was claimed by ISIS. Kurdish groups blamed Erdogan’s government for not doing enough to thwart ISIS’s operations inside Turkey. In an attempt to respond with a show of strength, the government launched airstrikes against ISIS in Syria but also against the PKK in Iraq. What’s followed has been a Turkish effort, in Erdogan’s words, to ‘liquidate’ the PKK and its associates.

The International Crisis Group has reported that since the fighting resumed in 2015, at least 281 civilians, 525 members of Turkish security forces, and 553 Kurdish militants have been killed. Turkish government reports estimate that 900 security force members have been killed and almost 3,000 wounded in that time; and more than 7,000 rebels have been killed by the military. That level of operation is unsustainable for the Turkish military, and is leading to a Kurdish terrorist campaign. Killing on that scale will lead to further radicalisation of Kurds living in those areas and an increased disconnection from the Turkish state.

Erdogan’s autocratic leadership style and heavy-handed military moves have politically isolated him, both domestically and internationally. He’s shut down dissenting voices against him, both within his own party and amongst the broader population, in an effort to consolidate power. He’s in an open power play dispute with former ally Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and has charged almost 2,000 people with the crime of insulting the President.

The US has become tired with him over his lack of a firm approach to counter ISIS. President Obama stated in an interview that he thought Erdogan would be a ‘moderate Muslim’ leader who could assist in ‘bridging the divide between East and West’, but had lost faith and considered him a ‘failure and an authoritarian who refuses to bring stability to Syria’. Even when Erdogan strengthened his arm against ISIS, he alienated Turkey from Russia by shooting down one of their aircraft. That isn’t a healthy political direction for a NATO member and potential member of the European Union. Autocracy isn’t on the ‘acceptable’ list for membership of either.

Erdogan’s finally being forced to act against ISIS, due to constant US pressure and the impact that inactivity against the group has had on Turkish internal security. We’re now seeing the government response to the recent attacks on Ataturk Airport, with 13 arrests made across Istanbul and a further crackdown expected, tightening security along its borders, and further raids on known terrorist cells. Erdogan will continue with his robust response, hammering down on suspected ISIS members, as his actions play to his image as a ‘strong man’ prepared to wipe out any that oppose Turkey. He’s capitalised on the growing nationalist sentiment and polarisation within his country resulting from the conflicts with ISIS and the Kurds to bolster his political position.

Many inside the country see him as the only solution to Turkey’s problems. However, the growing conflicts with ISIS and the PKK—along with Erdogan’s increasing centralisation of power—make it unlikely that Turkey’s security situation will improve rapidly over the coming months and years. The situation has genuine potential to unravel completely, the consequences of which will have far-reaching consequences for Turkey and its surrounding region.