After months of silence, the EU has finally decided that it should do, or at least say, something about the civil war developing in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, which has plunged the country into one of its worst periods of violence since the 1990s.
On January 25, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called for an “immediate ceasefire” in Turkey's Kurdish-dominated region following talks with Turkish officials in Ankara, promising it is ready to contribute to any new peace process. The EU is worried that the situation there is in danger of causing instability throughout the region, “and in the broader sense, the EU”, Mogherini said.
What makes the current situation different and more dangerous from the 1990s is that since the collapse of a two-year ceasefire between Ankara and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in July, the violence has focused more on urban areas in the Kurdish south-eastern provinces, whereas in the past clashes between the security forces and PKK militants mainly took place in rural areas, the outlawed group’s strongholds. Members of the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H), the PKK's youth wing, have dug trenches and erected barricades in and around towns, aiming to prevent the security forces from getting in.
Around-the-clock curfews imposed by the Turkish government and fierce street battles have left residents facing dire conditions, sometimes with no electricity or water and limited access to health services. Reportedly around 200 civilians have lost their lives since July as well as hundreds of security personnel and PKK militants.
The civil war in next-door Syria where the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has made significant gains against Islamic State makes resolving the whole situation that much more complicated. Ankara regards the PYD as a terrorist organisation because of its close ties to the PKK. The Turkish government wants to isolate and undermine the Syrian-Kurdish group, arguing it should not be invited to the planned peace talks on Syria in Geneva. This is hampering international efforts to end the civil war there.
Thus the EU and other world powers need a solution both to the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and the Syrian conflict next door, which has turned the country into a hotbed of radical Islamist terrorists and triggered a wave of migrants flocking to Europe each day.
Europe’s Turkish dilemma
Critics in Ankara and across Europe have accused Brussels of turning a blind eye to the brutal conflict in Turkey’s southeast and the government’s increasing pressure on its opponents for the sake of getting help from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to stem the flow of migrants, betraying the EU’s fundamental democratic values.
The bottom line is, as bneIntelliNews reported two weeks ago, that Europe has been caught between its values and short-term geopolitical goals.
In December, the EU promised to revitalise Turkey’s long-stalled membership talks, liberalisation of the visa regime and €3bn in financial aid. In return, Ankara vowed to take the necessary measures to limit the flow of migrants to Europe. “The European Union has to do more to help Turkey care for refugees,” Mogherini said on January 25, reiterating that the promised €3bn would be delivered to Turkey, though failed to say when.
The EU’s lack of a comprehensive strategy towards the migrant crisis and its promise of billions for the Turkish government continues to divide Europe. According to media reports, Italy is blocking the EU’s €3bn plan with Turkey. “All of the €3bn should come from the EU budget, rather than national governments having to put up funds,” Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan said earlier in January.
Ankara says it has already spent close to $10bn to look after more than 2.2mn Syrian refugees. “Even €3bn may not be enough – nobody knows how long the crisis [in Syria] will last,” Tukish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said recently, signalling that Ankara wants to exploit the situation to win more concessions from Europe.
It is still not a done-deal and Europe expects to see further efforts from Turkey to stem the flow of migrants. “The number of migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece is still too high,” EU Vice President Frans Timmermans warned in January during a visit to Ankara. “Between 2,000 and 3,000 people are arriving in Greece every day, crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey. We cannot be satisfied at this stage.”
Europe is likely to see another surge in migrants when weather conditions improve in spring, so Brussels will probably have to ratchet up more pressure on Ankara. “Turkey and the EU agreed to step up their cooperation to reinforce the interception capacity of the Turkish Coast Guard and acknowledged the importance of maintaining a system of coordinated reporting on migration and refugee flows,” read the joint statement released after the high-level political dialogue meeting between the EU and Turkey in Ankara on January 25.
But big questions remain: how long can the EU keep compromising with Turkey over democratic rights just to achieve its short-term goals? And will Ankara accede to Brussels’ demands for a new ceasefire?
In a sign of how much Europe desperately needs Turkey’s help, the EU delayed the release of its annual progress report on Turkey until after the November snap election in 2015.
In the delayed report published on November 10, Brussels emphasised an overall negative trend in the country's respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights. After several years of progress on freedom of expression, serious backsliding was seen over the past two years, said the report.
The situation is, of course, getting worse. The ongoing clashes in the southeast have resulted in thousands of people being displaced and the civilian death toll rising. NGOs are reporting widespread human rights violations across the region. Amnesty International recently called for urgent action against curfews in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces. “More than 200,000 people live in the affected areas and some are unable to access food, medical care and face severe electricity and water shortages,” Amnesty said in a report.
Mogherini’s call on January 25 for an immediate ceasefire suggests the EU is finally waking up to the reality of what is happening in the southeast of the country. However, Erdogan has vowed to fight the PKK until the bitter end. In the run-up to November’s snap poll, Erdogan saw that strong nationalist rhetoric pays off handsomely: his AKP managed to steal votes from the main nationalist party MHP, whose share of the vote declined to 11.9% from 16.3% in the June election.
Erdogan probably thinks that appealing to Turkey’s nationalists by going hard on the PKK will increase his chances of winning a referendum on the executive presidential system, which the pro-government Star newspaper claimed on January 25 will happen in October if the Constitutional Reconciliation Commission fails to draft a new constitution.
“According to the [Star] daily, the ruling Justice and Development Party government is in the process of producing an alternative roadmap that involves switching Turkey's parliamentary system to a presidential system if the commission, which was recently formed from deputies representing the political parties in Parliament, fails to prepare a new constitution for Turkey,” Today’s Zaman reported.
If this is Erdogan’s strategy, there is little chance his government will end the military operations in the southeast anytime soon, regardless of how much pressure comes from the EU to do so.
Moreover, Erdogan still wants to be the key player in the Middle East and create a sphere of influence by promoting the Sunni version of Islam despite the setbacks he has suffered. He supported the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, though lost the gamble there when it was overthrown, and he has invested heavily in Syria to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
When the civil war broke out in Syria, Erdogan believed Assad’s days were numbered and he was too quick to throw his support behind the armed Syrian opposition groups, which included radical Islamists. But the conflict has been going on for years now and something unexpected happened: Kurds there, led by the PYD, have become stronger, making the situation more complicated for Erdogan.
The Syrian Kurds have established autonomous regions – what they call “cantons” – along Syria’s border with Turkey, alarming Erdogan. In October, Erdogan accused the Syrian Kurds of grabbing land and said Turkey would never allow Kurds to take control of northern Syria. The government in Ankara fears that an autonomous Kurdish government in northern Syria could stoke separatism among Turkey’s own Kurds.
Despite the People's Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s military unit, being Washington’s most effective ally against Islamic State in Syria, Ankara says the PYD should not have a place at the upcoming Syria peace talks, labelling it a terrorist group. This approach puts Ankara at odds with Washington.
US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Turkey earlier in January exposed this rift between the two key allies over Syria. Biden agreed the PKK is a terrorist organisation, but reportedly told a group of Turkish lawmakers in Istanbul that the PYD is different from the PKK. Biden also urged Ankara to engage in dialogue with all groups who seek a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
When in Turkey, Biden did not shy away from publicly criticising the government pressure on Turks who are critical of the government’s line. “When the media are intimidated or imprisoned for critical reporting and more than 1,000 academics are accused of treason simply by signing a petition, that's not the kind of example that needs to be set," Biden told a group of civil society representatives at a meeting in Istanbul on January 22.
In the early years of Erdogan’s rule, Washington considered Turkey as an example for the Middle East, combining Islam with a functioning democracy. But all that has changed in recent years as Erdogan began to consolidate his grip on power and silence the opposition. Turkey is one of the world's top jailers of journalists, according to the Committee to Project Journalists, and is ranked 149th out of 180 countries in the 2015 World Freedom Index, down from its 98th place (out of 161 countries) in 2006.
Top EU officials have also chided the Turkish government over freedom of expression. “Let me be clear on that. We want to move ahead step by step based on these shared fundamental principles underpinning our relations including, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, independent judiciary,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn said in Ankara on January 25. “These are not details. These are indeed for us fundamental and indispensable areas and issues.”
Given Erdogan’s regional ambitions and his goal of creating an all-powerful executive presidency, it is doubtful that Turkey’s most powerful man will listen to any advice from Brussels and Washington to end the war against the PKK and put the country’s wobbling democracy back on track.
The question is whether Erdogan, who survived the Gezi street protests in 2013 and managed to turn the defeat at the June elections into a victory by November, can once again show off his impeccable pragmatism and political skills to find a midway solution that would enable him to achieve his own goals while at the same time satisfies his allies.