Assad and ISIL pose the biggest threat to Turkey

Turkey must realise that regional challenges are currently bigger than its century-old battle with the Kurds, says Joseph Dana

The humanitarian situation in Syria is out of control and threatening the country’s neighbours. Bashar Al Assad, using cover from peace talks in Geneva, is in the midst of an assault to take back Aleppo from rebel forces that have controlled parts of the city since mid-2012. With Russian air support, Mr Al Assad’s forces have made serious gains against the rebels and are ready to lay siege on Aleppo.

This is a devastating blow for Turkey. Not only is the country faced with as many as 70,000 Syrian refugees, but it is also seeing its proxy forces – which have been supported by Ankara and Qatar over the past four years – being destroyed by the Assad regime. Turkey’s heralded foreign policy of “no problems with neighbours” has completely fallen apart, leaving the country without a coherent foreign policy to handle regional challenges.

Making matters more complicated, Ankara has been locked in a renewed battle with Kurdish militants inside Turkey that shows little sign of abating. With so much chaos around it, Turkey’s decision-making at this pivotal moment is critical.

That is why the government's recent conditions on peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that amount to a rejection of the premise of talks is difficult to place in the greater regional picture. Turkey has been in a three-decade long battle against the PKK, who threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity and are classified as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States. Until last summer, an uneasy two-year-long peace process had been in place.

The peace process was called off and months of fighting have consumed the predominantly Kurdish areas of south-eastern Turkey. The fighting has overshadowed looming threats inside and outside Turkey’s borders. ISIL militants have already carried out several suicide bombings in the country. Waves of Syrian refugees are flooding the borders while Kurdish militants in Syria and Iraq continue to win favour in the West for their ability to fight ISIL. But the Turkish-PKK fighting has continued.

One can understand Turkey’s deep suspicion of the PKK but that doesn’t change the fact that there is a history of peace negotiations and there are bigger challenges facing the country at this moment. Before the renewal of hostilities last year, the peace process allowed the Turkish leadership to focus on those bigger geopolitical challenges. Now we simply see stalemate.

What exactly is behind the de facto rejection of peace talks with the PKK?

To begin with, the situation in south-eastern Turkey is abysmal. In Diyarbakir, one of the epicentres for the recent fighting, Turkish security operations have included the large-scale use of violence. The city has been subject to strict curfews and civilians have been trapped inside their homes for weeks on end. The destruction from the fighting has left parts of the city looking more like Syria than Turkey. At the same time, PKK militants have waged war on Turkish security forces around the country.

In his rejection of peace talks with the PKK, Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu unveiled a broad plan to help rebuild areas like Diyarbakir. He pledged 26.5 billion Turkish lira (Dh33.4bn) in investments that will aim to “bind up all the wounds” of the fighting with the PKK and “compensate the losses of all of our citizens due to terror”. Such investment carries a price tag: the PKK can’t be a part of the process unless it lays down its weapons.

Given the history of fighting and the continuing hostilities, it is unlikely that the PKK will accept the demands. The Turkish leadership understands this. On the surface, Ankara is out of ideas. The recent military campaign against the PKK is moving towards a stalemate. At the same time, regional pressures have ratcheted up on Ankara.

Domestic politics is also at work. The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which won a remarkable number of seats in the last election, has continued to campaign for a democratic solution to the conflict with the Kurds while not buckling under months of political intimidation. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even called for HDP’s leaders to be stripped of their parliamentary immunity so that they could be prosecuted for supporting terrorism.

HDP joint leader Selahattin Demirtas has recently argued that the solution to the Kurdish problem is tied to democratisation and more freedoms for Kurds in Turkey. From this perspective, accepting peace talks with the PKK could be conceived as a form of defeat in the narrow political imagination of the ruling AKP and would give a boost to the HDP in the minds of Turkish voters. As such, the AKP wants to keep the PKK at bay while trying to clean up the mess in the south-east.

Given all the threats the country is facing, Turkey has chosen the PKK as the primary target. From the government's perspective, defeating a terrorist group is hardly something to criticise, but given the multifaceted nature of the Kurdish people and the role that some Kurdish groups play in fighting ISIL and Mr Assad, it is right to question Turkey’s priorities. Diplomatic resolution is the ideal solution for lasting peace with the Kurds. While that might not be viable now, Turkey must realise that regional challenges are currently bigger than its century-old battle with the Kurds.

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