Erdogan’s Kurdish Tipping Point

Turkish leader Erdogan made a name for himself by offering Turkey a genuine reform movement incorporating moderate Islamic reform, democratization of a heavily militarized state, and a good neighbor policy in the war-torn Mideast. But most of all, he moved toward a state policy, after decades of repression, of justice for Turkey’s Kurds. He stood up to Israel’s abuse of Palestinians, resisted U.S. military moves into the region, and advocated a nuclear compromise with Iran. In the wake of the Syrian civil war, the explosion of ISIS jihadi barbarism, and the strides of Iraqi Kurds toward independence from a hostile (be it Sunni-run or Shi’i-run) Baghdad, Erdogan’s claim to an honored place in history has now reached a turning point, and–perhaps no surprise–it is the morally-charged Kurdish issue that threatens to wreck everything Erdogan has claimed to stand for.

Turkey stands at a tipping point: either it makes a commitment to justice for Syrian Kurds, with all that implies for fair treatment of Turkish Kurds and acceptance of a greater political role for Kurds throughout the Mideast, or the delicate democratization of Turkey under Erdogan collapses under the dual weight of Turkish discrimination against its own Kurds and Turkish complacency in ISIS barbarism. Erdogan surely understands all too well the implications of defending the security of Syrian Kurds and the right of Turkish Kurds to help them. Recognizing Kurdish rights on the border implies recognizing the right of Turkish Kurds to be full citizens of Turkey, implies the right of Iraqi Kurds to political participation in Iraq or independence, implies the legitimacy of Kurdish militia units since they will inevitably be central to any serious effort to defend Syrian Kurds, and implies that Turkey will finally take a clear stand against the ISIS. A fateful and historic tipping point indeed.

Turkish police violence against Turkish Kurds desperate to cross the border or in some way contact and provide aid to the new flood of Syrian Kurdish refugees in combination with Ankara’s policy of looking the other way while jihadis use Turkish territory to expand their power offers a picture of moral turpitude too blatant for anyone to miss. Erdogan’s claim to being a great leader in a region desperately in need of great leadership will live or die on this issue, and–with some 100,000 new Syrian Kurdish refugees pouring across the Turkish border this week, now is the time for Erdogan to stand up and earn the reputation he has sought so long.

Here, on the Syrian-Turkish border, in the face of yet another ISIS campaign of massacre, is Erdogan’s opportunity to make fundamental changes in Turkey’s reputation and its domestic social system by standing up for the Kurds. But, no, he lets his police bully them. Does Erdogan imagine that fence-sitting will shock and awe al-Baghdadi?

The Turkish military now guards a border with nothing but chaos on the other side: no state exists, only barbarism, and if Turkey does not fill that vacuum of governance with a security blanket for its residents (those who have not already fled), then ISIS will create a state, and that state will by cultural osmosis flow north, radicalizing Turkey itself. That process is already being implemented: ISIS has put in place a highly successful process of recruiting Turkish youths into its military and those who survive the war will not have forgotten the land from which they came.  The traditionally dictatorial Turkish military will reemerge, and Turkish civil war between a secular military and a radicalized Islamic movement will emerge, aided and abetted by the gasoline that al-Baghdadi will pour on the flames.

And what if that prognosis is somehow avoided? Even then, Turkey will lose, descending into renewed sectarian conflict,with a heavy military hand in the background: the perfect recipe for extinguishing the green shoots of Turkish democracy. Turkish democracy, however imperfect it may still be, represents an invaluable hope for the chaotic Mideast, a huge region containing no other significant sign of non-sectarian governance except little Tunisia. Salafi radicals committed to violent jihad–even against other Muslims, even against other Sunnis, and certainly against all established Mideast states–seek revolution. No place in their vision exists for a semi-secular, Westernized society like that of modern Turkey. The tipping point now piercing the soles of Erdogan’s shoes is critical for the next century of Mideast history.

Turkish political analyst Ceylan Ozbudak is quite right that mindless counter-violence, as desired by various well-known war parties, is not the solution to the Sunni fundamentalist cultural/political challenge, but that does not mean that Turkey should use force against desperate Kurds when 100,000 of their relatives are being threatened with extermination by an ISIS blitzkrieg. It is precisely the unwillingness of powerful Turkey to take a firm stand in favor of security and justice for civilian populations that leaves open the door to ISIS violence. Ozbudak points out:

Turkey is seeking a way to dismantle ISIS without killing people, without using weapons as much as possible, other than for self-defense. Turkey is seeking a way to de-radicalize the people who happened to join ISIS after heated debates of Muslim grievances. Turkey is seeking to launch a worldwide ideological struggle to counter the narrative of ISIS. [Al-Arabiya net.]

Well and good. A peaceful strategy to marginalize ISIS is almost certainly the proper long-term approach. The strategy Ozbudak claims Ankara is following is a great strategy, but the issue this week is the genocide of Syrian Kurds. Strategy is long-term; tactics are short-term. Even if Ankara is sincerely committed to the strategy she describes, something by no means clear, an immediate tactical response to ISIS violence is required: when one’s beautiful glass beach house is threatened by a hurricane, the essential tactical response is not love and kisses but nails to board up the place.

What an opportunity for the peace teams described by Oregon professor Tom Hastings to make a difference! But, of course, as he points out, governments “almost never” appreciate the action of peace teams (just recall the behavior of Wisconsin toward…its own police!!! when they demonstrated peacefully for civil rights), and one can easily imagine the response of Turkish police to anyone advocating mutual understanding between Turkish border guards and impassioned Kurds trying to save their families from jihadi barbarians.


Update 9/24

Erdogan in the U.S. has both warned of the necessity of establishing a comprehensive plan for regional stability and announced support for the U.S.-led anti-ISIS bombing campaign. [Mideast Eye.] Strategically, if Erdogan can convince Obama to focus on regional stability before the U.S. bombing campaign accelerates out-of-control, Erdogan will be making a real contribution. Tactically, Erdogan needs to demonstrate immediately that he has a plan for stability in the small region of Syrian Kurdistan along his threatened southern border.

Ankara already appears to be laying the groundwork for precisely that, both by launching military planning and leaking to the media its interest in moving troops across the Turkish-Syrian border into the state-less Kurdish region that has now collapsed into open war. According to Today’s Zaman on 9/24:

According to information obtained from military sources, the Turkish military updated its current operation plans on Syria. Sources say if a buffer zone, covering parts of Iraq and Syria, is established, the Turkish military wants to be part of the operation by sending in ground troops.


  • Will Turkey combat ISIS recruiting within Turkey?
  • Will Turkey facilitate the provision of support to Syrian Kurds by Turkish Kurds, accepting the inevitable consolidation of regional Kurdish relations?
  • Will Turkey offer arms to the Syrian Kurds?
  • Will Turkey move to terminate ISIS oil sales inside Turkey?

One comment on “Erdogan’s Kurdish Tipping Point

  1. Pingback: Iran’s Strategic Calculus in the Broader Mideast Context | Shadowed Forest of World Politics

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