Turkey, an erstwhile U.S. ally long hailed as a bastion of secular democracy in the Muslim world, could be spiraling towards all-out civil war and potential dissolution as conflicts between Turkish security forces and Kurds and other ethnic minorities continue to escalate. These conflicts have been exacerbated by the catastrophic war in neighboring Syria, which has created a refugee crisis in Turkey, expanded Turkey’s bloody campaign against Kurds into Iraq and Syria, and pushed Turkish officials into a convenient collusion with ISIS.
The lurch toward a more Islamist, autocratic posture by President Recep Tayyib Erdogan has long worried regional and western observers, particularly his strong curbs on political speech and active political repression of the Kurds. That policy has taken a bloody turn with the repeated bombing of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds--both of whom have been anti-ISIS bulwarks--and, since July 2015, escalating crackdowns at home. The murder in November of Tahir Elci, a leading Kurdish human rights advocate and president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association in southeastern Turkey has dramatically increased tensions and violence inside Turkey and put the Kurdish issue—seemingly settled only a few years ago—back on the agenda. The killing, which Human Rights Watch called an “assassination”, demonstrated to the world how out of control the province has become.
On the economic front, Turkey has recently lost a lifeline of non-energy trade with Russia–including agriculture and textile projects, tourism and construction—that supports tens of thousands of jobs in Turkey. It was severed following Turkey’s downing of a Russian plane flying combat sorties in Syria, a dangerous move by the Turks that could have easily (and perhaps justifiably) led to a Russian counterattack and a larger war involving NATO. Russia held its fire, responding calmly when many expected escalation, and instead imposed economic sanctions against Turkey. This squeeze on vital elements of the Turkish economy could give rise to further internal discontent in Turkey. Lest we forget, bread riots helped start the civil war that toppled Egypt’s Mubarak, and economic issues sparked the fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia.
A more subtle but no less powerful force is also at work on Turkey: regional resentment. The region has a long memory of the “Ottoman yoke” which 100 years ago was ended by the Hashemite-led Arab revolt and finally the expulsion of the Turks from Arab lands. Turkey’s brash role in the region today—backed implicitly by U.S. and NATO firepower--is seen by some as coming at the expense of its Arab neighbors, especially as more evidence on Turkish involvement in illicit trade with the 'Islamic State' grows. Turkey’s assertive role in a new regional triangular power structure with Saudi Arabia and Qatar has also created greater diplomatic isolation from much of the region.
The confluence of these internal and external factors has put unprecedented pressure on the Turkish state as a viable entity. The conflict with the Kurds seems to be tearing the nation at its seams—the very idea of the secular, pluralist state is at risk. But other clouds—economic, diplomatic, and military—are looming over the horizon. What happens next is not entirely in Erdogan’s control. Will Russia’s military restraint hold? Will the fragile regional alliances against ISIS shift against Turkey? Will ISIS itself continue to shake the Turkish people’s confidence and sense of security? Or will it be Erdogan’s own policies that ultimately undermines the Turkish state?
Al Makahleh is a journalist and co-founder of Geo-strategic and Political Studies of the Middle East Media.