Can Turkey find a way out of its impasse?

Sunday 18/09/2016
Old problem refuses to go away

Having been dragged into the vortex of a new wave of punitive measures en masse, with a seemingly unend­ing institutional purge that has led to the dismissal of nearly 100,000 state employees and paralysis of the media, Turkey is once more facing an old problem that refuses to go away.
Meanwhile, the Kurdish issue is knocking at Ankara’s door with urgency, signalling further political and social crises.
It did not take a long time before the euphoria stemming from the defeat of the putschists July 15th to turn the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s eyes into alienating parliament’s third largest elected group, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), by way of threats and punishment.
Emergency rule, which was introduced a week after the coup attempt had, from day one, raised concerns that the decree regime would be instrumental to hammer the vast electorate in south-eastern provinces of Turkey, which election after election, solidly stood behind the secular, pro-Kurdish HDP.
As expected, it is now put into practice. Backed by a decree, which was accompanied by the loud approval of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the government ordered seizure of 24 municipalities in the mainly Kurdish provinces under the control of the HDP, based on the accusations that their local funds were channelled to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its branches. No clear evidence was made public and Kurdish rage is rising.
Jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was allowed a visit — the first in almost two years — by a relative and his message was short.
“What goes on is an endless war, with no winners,” he told his brother. “It was not us who ended the (peace) process. If the (Turkish) state is ready, we can solve this issue in six months.”
The message has not echoed positively in government circles. Erdogan said the seizure of municipalities was a “delayed measure”. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim implied that other HDP municipalities would be seized and run by appointed trustees, signalling a stronger showdown.
Another top figure of the AKP, Bulent Turan, went further, saying that “the very HDP party must be taken over by a trustee”. Newly appointed Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu joined the chorus, announcing: “We will be ruthless.”
Against the backdrop of deepening tension, with the HDP remaining defiant, there are even more signs of showdown.
Abdulkadir Selvi, a columnist close to the AKP, wrote that the takeover of the municipalities, would be followed by arrests of some HDP deputies, whose parliamentary immunity has already been lifted. There are already eight of them subpoenaed and the leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, stands next to be called to interrogation.
The picture is rather clear: After the coup attempt, the AKP seems to have forged a new alliance with the old hard-liner forces of the state and the new strategy is two-fold. Somewhat copying the Sri Lankan model, which annihilated the Tamil guerrillas out of efficiency, Erdogan is gambling on attempting the same. The reasoning that seems to have enveloped Ankara has also a fallback plan — an “exit B” — which is inspired by the way Israel deals with the Palestinian issue: a sustainable crisis.
Its political self-esteem fortified by the rule by decree regime, Erdogan relies on two elements. First is the decision he made in July 2015, before turning down peace talks that imposed Turkey’s National Security Council and the staunch support of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) for the new hard-line policy.
These two elements, he hopes, will lay the ground for him to introduce an almighty presidential system in Turkey, in case of success.
Tactical changes in the counterinsurgency are already under way, as new details emerge through the analysis of some army experts:
The military strategy in the rural areas will no longer be based on employing mobile combat units. With the decree, the government-sponsored village guards, made up of pro-government Kurds — about 90,000 strong and who know the terrain well — will be deployed not only in their home provinces but all over the south-east. The rumours have it that an unknown number of paramilitaries would also be engaged.
Ankara plans to install in cities a neighbourhood guard system, similar to village guards, by arming pro-state Kurdish youth in critical towns. It was what Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said of Oman did in the 1970s when he deposed his father and inherited a war in the southern province of Dhofar. It was the only success story of a rebellion in the Middle East coming to a peaceful end and in which both sides in the dispute got what they wanted.
Regionally, Ankara will try to isolate the PKK by strengthening ties with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, cooperating more closely with Iran on border security and undermining the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party domination of northern Syria.
There is nothing new about most of this. Cynics say it is like applying the same experiment over and over, expecting a different result.
What is new is that the old choreography has a different, larger stage — regionalisation of the Kurdish issue. It remains to be seen whether Erdogan’s high gamble will drag Turkey deeper into the regional quagmire or, as many doubt, out of it.