Turkey Situation Report – September 2015
Turkey has always been a bright spot in the Middle East. The country is an economic and diplomatic leader in the region, a charter member of the United Nations, and a founding member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Seeds of Discontent
From 1984 to 2013, the Turkish government struggled to control the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK; a Kurdish separatist group fighting for self-determination for the thousands of Kurds living in Turkey. During that time, over 40,000 lives were lost, thousands upon thousands of Kurds were displaced, and Turkish security forces burned over 3,000 Kurdish villages. Peace talks were conducted in 2012 and a fragile truce was maintained until recently. PKK is now considered by many Western countries to be a terrorist organization, having attacked both military and civilian targets in Turkey, France, Belgium, and Iraq. Most of its training camps are hidden in the mountains on the border between Iraq and Turkey.
Alongside the ongoing Turkish-Kurdish conflict, government power began to erode with the Gezi Park demonstrations in 2013. On May 27, citizens flocked to Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul to hold a sit-in protesting the proposed demolition of the park by developers. When the police became violent, the sit-in devolved into an anti-government riot. Constantly compared to the Occupy Movement in the United States because of the numerous issues and decentralized leadership, the protests continued until late August 2013. The seed of disillusionment with the government was planted.
The Turning Point
On July 20, 2015, a bomb was detonated at the Amara Cultural Centre in the Suruc district of Turkey, killing 33 people and injuring over 100. Most victims were part of the Socialist Party of the Oppressed Youth Wing, a group dedicated to reconstructing the Syrian border town of Kobani, which had been completely destroyed by ISIL. The next day, ISIL claimed responsibility and ended Turkey’s policy of inaction towards the organization. Less than a week after the Suruc bombing, Turkish troops and ISIL militants were engaged on the border.
The Turkish government tried to avoid military action against ISIL because it was sure action would provoke and strengthen Kurdish militias. However, because of this unprovoked attack on its own soil, Turkey became a leader against ISIL in the region, agreeing to let the United States use Turkish military bases to stage airstrikes.
Really Just an Attack on the Kurds?
Soon after attacking ISIL militants, the Turkish government and President Erdogan began waging airstrikes on PKK camps in Northern Iraq and Syria, ending the delicate peace established in 2012. Expanding the scope of attack to include PKK, instead of just ISIL, has provoked an outcry from the international community, with some saying the government and its leaders are more focused on suppressing Kurds rather than fighting ISIL.
In August, PKK carried out a suicide attack on Turkish military police, killing two officers and wounding 31 people. The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Ergodan claimed peace with PKK is impossible at this point, and a collapsed ceasefire process has caused tension in the country.
On August 14th 2015, Turkey’s two political parties failed to form a coalition government, further increasing instability and making a fair election seem less likely. President Erdogan announced a new election will be held on November 1st, with the goal of breaking the impasse between the four political parties. Some Turkish people are not convinced this will solve the problem.
Why Does the International Community Care?
As of September 15th 2015, citizens have been fearful that civil war is on the horizon, the economy will plummet and bombings will continue to disrupt everyday life and tourism. They blame President Erdogan, accusing him of stoking nationalism against the Kurds and reigniting the old conflicts.
Many citizens and members of the international community are also worried about the economic situation, since Turkey has historically been a strong economic leader in the region. In the last few years, this picture has changed due to long-term structural problems, and experts like Foreign Policy magazine highlight issues like rising inflation, slowing growth, increased unemployment and overall debt as signs of trouble in Turkey. The IMF expects a growth rate of only 3% in 2015 and 2016, as opposed to past rates of 7%. Experts say fundamental economic reform is desperately needed, but with President Erdogan’s attention elsewhere, it is unlikely that will be a top priority soon.
Should We Be Hopeful the Situation Will Turn Around?
Opposition newspapers are increasingly threatened when they write anything negative about President Erdogan. Last week, angry mobs attacked Hurriyet, a prominent newspaper that opposes the president, breaking windows and trying to storm the building. During the last two weeks, opposition journalists have been deported, investigated, and raided. Although Turkey was never a safe place for journalists, ranking 149th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders freedom index, the recent attacks have been incredibly violent and mostly inspired by the country’s politicians. The president has barely responded to the attacks, drawing criticism from the international media.
The security situation in Turkey has escalated quickly since July, but most of the issues are decades old. Without any change in the developments, civil war is a very real possibility.
To find out more about safety and security for both international organizations and expats living abroad, check out the Turkey country risk assessment guide.