September 18, 2015

TSG IntelBrief: Turkish Instability Amid Regional Crisis

• While international attention has been focused on the war in Syria and refugee movements into Europe, important events are unfolding in Turkey

• Turkey’s President Erdogan has not just resumed the military campaign against Kurdish separatists, but has rejected organized Kurdish participation in domestic politics

• With the rest of the region in turmoil, Turkey’s internal stability is of decisive importance

• Turkey’s elections on November 1 have taken on an even greater significance.


While the world has been taken up with the move of Russian troops and equipment into Syria and the flow of Syrian and other refugees into Europe, events in Turkey have not remained static. With a snap election scheduled for  November 1 in an attempt to provide the country with a majority government, and—if President Erdogan gets his way—a revised constitution that would provide the presidency with additional powers, Turkey is at a crossing point. At stake is the political and economic compact that has knitted the country together since the rise of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) earlier this century. The AKP has dominated Turkish politics since 2003, with one of its most significant achievements being the temporary halt to the long-running and often violent campaign by the Kurdish minority to achieve a measure of independence. That temporary peace, formalized in 2012, is now in tatters, with the levels of violence as bad as they have ever been.

On Wednesday, Erdogan made his position clear. He is not prepared to work with democratically elected representatives of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), whose victory in Parliamentary elections in June prevented the AKP from achieving a majority. Erdogan accused the HDP of sabotaging the peace talks and promoting the interests of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), regarded by Turkey and the U.S. as a terrorist group. He also suggested that the HDP had fixed the results of the election in which they had triumphed.

This was vintage Erdogan, presenting his version of events based on a mix of fact and speculation—all wrapped up in an ambiguous timeline. But the situation in Turkey is not just about Erdogan’s thwarted political ambitions or his thin-skinned tendency to retaliate against critics. Turkey, long aspiring for membership in the European Union, also sees itself as bridge between Europe, the Middle East, and beyond, as a vital link between the Islamic world and Western powers. In this respect, Erdogan has shown a level of assertive statesmanship that has impressed both at home and abroad. But Turkish voters are now asking: at what cost? While the rest of the world asks: is this a bridge we want to use?

It would have been hard to imagine even six months ago that the Turkish army would impose a curfew this month on the predominantly Kurdish town of Cizre in southeast Turkey in an effort to flush out PKK militants. The turning point in relations with the Kurds seems to have come during and following the so-called Islamic State’s campaign to take the Syrian border town of Kobani. The Islamic State failed to take the town—though it was left in ruins—largely due to the alliance between the U.S. Air Force and a PKK affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an organization of Syrian Kurds. The battle for Kobani saw no help, according to Turkish Kurds, from the Turkish army. The Kobani siege was followed in July by a bombing in Suruç, a Turkish town across the border, targeting youth groups who had assembled to help rebuild Kobani. Some PKK members blamed the Turkish state for the attack, and in so-called retaliation, killed two Turkish policemen.

Since then, the deaths have mounted on both sides; estimates of security personnel killed stand at well over 100, and Kurdish deaths at more than 1,000. This resumption of hostilities has put the anti-Islamic State alliance in a quandary. While some may argue that the fight in Syria is a more important matter, and that Turkey is right in not distinguishing between different groups of ‘terrorists,’ others may see a parallel between what is happening in Turkey and the behavior of President Assad, which ultimately led to the rise of the Islamic State and the current crisis.

This would be an exaggeration, and Turkey is not in danger of breaking up, if only because its governing system does not serve the political interests of a single individual, as it does in Syria. But with stability across the border a long way off—and even the viability of an Islamic State-free zone in real doubt, given the lack of an effective force to push the group out, beyond the militant extremist group Ahrar al-Sham—Turkey’s internal resilience is of vital importance to the region. Together with Iran, it will be the regional determinant of how things turn out. And if the close to 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey start to feel threatened, what is currently a trickle of Europe-bound refugees will become a flood.

The Turkish electorate will offer its comment on all these events on November 1. Whether Erdogan wins or loses, Turkey faces an era of change. If he loses, it will be the beginning of Erdogan’s decline; his party and the army will both move away from him so as to position themselves for the future. If he wins, Turkey may enter a period of unchecked autocracy that will, ironically, undo much of what the AKP has achieved in transforming Turkey into a world power.


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