Turkey's 'risky' two-front war: political opportunity for Erdogan?

As Turkey takes on the Islamic State and Kurdish separatists, Erdogan says Kurdish lawmakers could face legal action. Their party's recent success denied the president's ruling party a majority in parliament. 

Emrah Gurel/AP
A missile-loaded Turkish Air Force jet after taking off from Incirlik Air Base, in Adana, southern Turkey, July 29. After months of reluctance, Turkish warplanes last week started striking militant targets in Syria and agreed to allow the US to launch its own strikes from Turkey's strategically located Incirlik Air Base.

Turkey’s abrupt shift to a two-front war against Islamic State militants and Kurdish separatists has plunged the country into a period of uncertainty, exacerbating political turmoil at home while raising fears of violent domestic unrest.

The past 24 hours have seen Turkey dramatically escalate its military campaign against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), with fighter jets pounding PKK positions in northern Iraq and in Turkey’s Kurdish heartland.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan effectively declared the three-year-old peace process with the PKK over, and suggested that Kurdish lawmakers might face legal action for alleged links to terrorism. In parliamentary elections in June, the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) won enough seats to deny Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) of an outright majority, leading to protracted and inconclusive coalition negotiations. Critics say Erdogan, who accuses the Kurdish party of PKK links, could be seeking political advantage from the current crisis.

“It is not possible for us to continue the peace process with those who threaten our national unity and brotherhood,” Mr. Erdogan said at a news conference in Ankara Tuesday. “Turkey has the strength to hold terrorists and so-called politicians accountable for the blood of our martyrs.”

“Executives of this party should pay,” added Erdogan, in an apparent reference to the HDP. The party's co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş denied Erdogan's accusations.

Election empowered Kurds

“Our only crime was winning 13 percent of vote,” Mr. Demirtaş said Tuesday in a speech to his group in parliament. Under his leadership, the HDP won 80 seats in June’s landmark elections, gaining the support of many non-Kurdish voters.

The victory was seen as a turning point for Kurdish-Turkish relations, politically empowering Turkey’s largest ethnic minority while raising hopes of a peace deal with the PKK, which fought a 30-year separatist insurgency that's claimed an estimated 40,000 lives. Now those hopes seem misplaced. 

“This is a very dangerous escalation,” says Michael Stephens, director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar. “You’re essentially opening up a two-front war against the PKK and ISIS at a time when Turkey’s internal political situation is incredibly fragile.”

“It’s very difficult to see which way things will go from here,” says Stephens, adding: “Civil war is not out of the question.”

Turkish military operations against the PKK were launched in tandem with the country’s first ever airstrikes against the Islamic State (IS), after a suicide bomb killed 32 people in the border town of Suruç last Monday. While Ankara blamed IS for the attack, Kurdish groups held the Turkish government responsible, accusing it of not doing enough to battle the militant group.

'Political convenience' to escalation

In reprisal for the Suruç attack, the PKK last Wednesday claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish police officers.

Violence has since flared in the predominantly Kurdish areas of southeastern Turkey. In recent days, the government has arrested more than 1,300 people in what officials described as a “full-fledged battle against terrorist groups.” At least 847 of those arrested were accused of having links to the PKK, while 137 were suspected of having ties with IS, according to government spokesman Bulent Arinc.

While the military operations progress, the coalition talks have stalled. If a government is not formed by late August, Erdogan will be able to call for a fresh round of elections to be held in November. And that has critics questioning his political calculus in focusing on the PKK.

“There is a political convenience in Turkey escalating violence against the PKK in that you can pressure HDP into having to pick a side,” says Erik Meyersson, an assistant professor at the Stockholm School of Economics. “The HDP would either have to denounce the PKK – and risk losing their Kurdish base – or adopt a more pro-Kurdish rhetoric, which would alienate Turkish voters and risk the ire of the judiciary, which could ban the HDP.”

A 'high-risk strategy'

Other critics have suggested that Turkey’s hard-line response is aimed at rallying nationalism ahead of possible new elections, potentially undercutting the gains made by the HDP.

“Erdogan views the pro-Kurdish HDP as the main barrier to his aims of amending the constitution to bring about a powerful executive presidential system of government,” says Fadi Hakura, a Turkey analyst at the London-based Chatham House think tank. “The current military campaign against the Islamic State and the PKK may burnish his nationalist credentials among Turkish voters and enable the ruling AKP to reclaim its simple parliamentary majority.”

Regardless of what’s behind the shift in strategy, analysts warn that Turkey is entering a period of political instability and violent unrest at a time when it is least prepared to handle the threats. 

“This is the worst possible time for Turkey to be dealing with dual offensives, managing a security disaster on the ground at a time when it hasn’t even formed a government,” says Amanda Paul, a senior policy analyst and specialist on Turkey at the European Policy Center, a Brussels think-tank. “It is an extremely high-risk strategy that is seriously undermining Turkey’s security.

“Now that Turkey has started a campaign against the Islamic State, there is a high chance of suicide bombs and other terrorist activities in Turkey from ISIS,” adds Ms. Paul. “Turkey can’t afford to be fighting a terrorist insurgency from two different groups.”

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