Turkey’s Minority Crisis: Isolation In A Post-ISIS World

“The way to close one’s own dark pages of history is not by maligning another country’s history,” said, Mevlut Casuvoglut, Foreign Minister for Turkey, tweeted on the Turkish Twitter account. What could be a good lesson in your elementary school civics class was actually directed at the German Bundestag or parliament, where legislators passed a resolution regarding the killings of Armenian Christians during World War I a “genocide.” Last week, Germany joined 20 European countries in recognition of the Armenians long-held goal of international recognition for Turkey’s World War I conduct in Armenia while flying the Ottoman banner. The response by Ankara has been largely negative, as Recep Erdogan criticized Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government for attacking the foundations of the modern Turkish state. Surprisingly, Germany had always been a close ally of Turkey, and has stood with the Turks while others were quick to criticize them, either for recent rollback of democratic reforms and renewed war against the Kurds. But the challenge presented by the Bundestag speaks to the challenge of Turkey’s minority politics and its impact the unstable security environment in the Middle East.

The growing instability inside Turkey is largely attributed its struggles with minorities inside and outside its borders. Both the conflicts over recognizing the Armenian Genocide and the renewed war with the Kurds are part of a long history of Turkish policies to create a secular, national Turkish state, and were so under the democratic reforms since the early 1990s. Turning its back on the democratic agenda it adopted in 2001, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by President Recep Erdogan have renewed a policy of cultural repression of Kurdish identity inside Turkey. Abroad, Turkey has also supported its Sunni allies who are fighting both the government and the Kurds, while continuing to hold fast against increasing international pressure on the Armenian issue through promoting the Turkish national identity. As Turkey has turned inward under Erdogan’s leadership and casts aside its commitment to democratic values and the Kurdish peace process, Turkey threatens to leave itself isolated in a Post-Islamic State Middle East by rising and returning regional powers.

The New Turkey

Ask yourself, how often do we talk about post-World War I Middle East? It’s not a silly question when you think about how much emphasis we place on the Treaty of Versailles and so little on the news popular “Cradle of Civilization.” When the allies and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Sèvres in 1919 (and the later Treaty of Lausanne in 1923), the Middle East was carved up into mandates controlled the by the Western Allies, notably France and Britain. The Turks, led by Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, launched a war of independence on the occupying West and successfully created the modern state of Turkey out of the Ottoman Empire’s remains. The formation of Turkey as a nation was marked by a strong commitment to secularism and Turkish national identity. Under Ataturk’s leadership, the reform movement known as the Ataturk Reforms created a modern Turkish state that promoted secularism over religious faith, and proclaimed one Turkish identity within the new state. Due to the system of treaties that carved the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s war of independence, a number of minority peoples were incorporated into the state, including a large number of Armenians and Kurdish groups. Unfortunately, the Turkish state’s commitment to a national identity included widespread cultural suppression of these minorities and their identities, especially the Kurds and Armenians.

Just as in its domestic relations, Turkey has always striven for a “One-Size Fits All” strategy when it came to conducting its relations with its neighbors. Rather than strive to be a leader in one region or another, the Turks attempted to build bridges between Europe and the Middle East. Since 2000, Turkey exported democratic values under the AKP’s leadership across the Middle East, largely within the framework of Ataturk’s Reforms. The AKP also had a strong political motivation to make the case for European Union admittance, a signature accomplishment as a historic bridge builder between Europe and Asia. Even as Sunni and Shia countries continued to fight each other for influence in the balance of power of the region, Turkey remained a strong, impartial supporter of spreading democracy in the region and supporting US efforts to balance the region. But as the AKP began to turn inward and fight its domestic opposition over Erdogan’s expansion of presidential powers, it ran headlong into its Kurdish Question, as the Syrian Civil War challenged Turkey’s relationship with its largest minority group.

The Kurdish Dilemma

The Kurds have long been a political thorn in Turkish politics. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has been the leading organization representing the Kurds both in Turkey and internationally. Founded by Abdullah Oscallan, the PKK challenged Turkish policies suppressing the Kurdish language and culture, and started decades of war that peaked in the 1990s in the southeastern part of the country. As a member of NATO and close ally of the United States, Turkey convinced its allies to place the PKK on their terrorism watchlists. By denying the PKK legitimacy abroad, the group partnered with other Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and exiled communities abroad, not only preparing for war in the Kurdish territories, but building the case for international recognition. Meanwhile, the Turkish government under the AKP attempted to peacefully settle the Kurdish Question through negotiations with Oscallan and the PKK’s leadership. While the PKK claimed to be the leading voice of its people, the AKP had carried a strong following among Kurds not affiliated or loyal to the PKK’s program of Kurdish autonomy. Erdogan’s overtures aimed at bridging the gulf between the two parties by appealing to the common Islamic heritage, economic development, and loosening cultural suppression. While domestic politics over the AKP’s constitutional reforms to create an autocratic presidency are a likely cause of the peace talks collapse, the success of Kurdish militias against ISIS are the likely culprits for the PKK’s refusal to lay down arms.

The insurance policy behind Turkey’s strong position on the Kurdish Question has been its ability to count on international support from its allies. The United States and Turkey had a shared vested interest in maintaining the status quo in the region, tied both by a commitment to, and interest in promoting, democratic values in a region of autocracy. The collapse of Syria and Iraq, and reluctance of the Obama Administration to send ground troops to fight the Islamic State made proxy forces in both countries necessary to fight back. The Kurdish Protection Forces (YPG) have led the fight on the ground against ISIS and government forces in Syria claiming international recognition and applause. In the 2014 battle for Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border, the YPG and PKK-affiliated fighters held out against relentless ISIS attacks as the group attempted to seal the border with Turkey. Meanwhile, Ankara remained on the sidelines, refusing to intervene against ISIS other than accept refugees from the battle. Worse yet, the move by Ankara was seen as a tactic to weaken the Kurdish forces in Syria and denying the PKK a strong ally in a post-war Syria. Instead, with support from the United States, Kobani held and demonstrated the resilience and tenacity of the Kurdish forces, earning greater international support in the war against ISIS. With the Peshmerga pushing towards Mosul after the liberation of Sinjar, Turkey has run the risk of creating a contiguous system of autonomous, armed Kurdish groups with a large degree of international clout and the means to place greater pressure than any decade on a solution to Kurdish autonomy.

Russia Strikes Again

The impact of renewed war between Ankara and the Kurds are has created openings for a post-ISIS Middle East to be increasingly dominated by Russia. Russia’s withdrawal of its main combat forces followed the Kurdish declaration of autonomy in Eastern Syria, known as Rojava. Such timing may indicate Moscow’s strategy to build new allies in the absence of a strong Syrian state, creating a new strategic partner much like Iran does with non-state actors like Hezbollah. The Kurdish declaration in Rojava, and the de facto status of Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence from Baghdad demonstrates how both states are unlikely to recover their status as unitary states. If both Iraq and Syria were to become federal states under a peace agreement brokered by the rebels and their sponsoring countries, then it only strengthens Moscow’s hand. While Russia’s intervention in Syria was certain due to its strategic interests in Eastern Syria’s Lakatia province, Turkey’s minority policies have exacerbated the regional instability and strengthened Russia’s hand. The heightened tensions between the two countries following the Turkish downing of Russian fighter jet led to diplomatic brinksmanship between Erdogan and Putin. The renewed hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh region early this year, and the Turkish declaration of support for Azerbaijan against its rival Armenia not only demonstrated how close the Caucasus region was to the brink of war, but how both Russia and Turkey were willing to support their allies in a traditional region of conflict between the two powers.

Aside from Russia, Turkey is increasingly placing the United States and Europe in a precarious position of support “with caveats.” Turkish reluctance to directly engage in the Syrian Civil War drastically decreased the number of partners the United States had to fight ISIS or other radical organizations. Therefore, all that was left was the YPG units in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq. Long already independent in name only by the No-Fly-Zone created after 1991, the US created an opening for Iraqi Kurds to create their own autonomous territory just a few means short of statehood. As the Kurds press their newly elevated case for nationhood, the United States will be forced to either consider supporting self-determination or risk Russia or another major power moving in to fill the void. Continuing Turkish policy as it stands in the same capacity to Armenia will also exacerbate European relations if Turkey continues its quest for EU membership. While it remains to be seen how the refugee crisis will affect Turkish domestic politics, past actions indicate Erdogan will reflect Turkish insecurity over this and the Armenian resolution into an ever virulent nationalism aimed at his opposition, including the Kurds.

In the late nineteenth century, Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany embarked on program of rapid arming of Germany’s military forces, including a naval construction program that launched the pre-World War I arms race. According to Hans-Ulrich Wehler, a German historian of nineteenth century Germany, the policies of successive Chancellors and advisors following Otto Von Bismarck’s fall from power were aimed at distracting Germans from political upheaval at home (the Socialist Party came to power on the promise of protecting the working class from the excesses of Capitalism) by focusing their attention abroad. Vladimir Putin is arguably pursuing a similar policy by intervening in areas where Russia has a conceivable claim to ownership, such as Crimea, Eastern Ukraine, Georgia, etc, where large Russian populations exist or the country has a strategic interest. Erdogan is following a similar course by aggressively fighting the Kurds, especially during a time of domestic upheaval and accepting refugees from the European Union. Continuing this course of action casts a dark light over our NATO ally in the Middle East, as it becomes increasingly alienated diplomatically and strategically by a policy born of Turkish nationalism and European grand diplomacy. The United States should pursue a stronger dialogue with Ankara over its Kurdish policy and encourage both sides to come to an agreement over their future. Leaving Turkey in a greater feeling of isolation risks sowing the seeds of a future war where Washington has less control to monitor and mitigate its outcomes, especially if it involves the Kurds. But Turkey needs to have its own dialogue over what relationship it will have with its powerful and vocal minorities in a future Middle East, and whether that relationship can contribute to the country Ataturk once envisioned when he declared Turkey the successor to the Ottoman heritage.


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