Is Turkey sleepwalking into trouble?

Turkey may be entering crucial presidential elections but voters appear oblivious of how war has spr

The PKK warned the Turkish government not to support the Islamic State if it wants to continue the peace process, writes Athanasiadis [AP]

There are few things more pastoral – and misleading – than the drive into the town of Dersim in southern Turkey. It is a place where central Anatolia’s dry mountains explode into a fertile fantasy, complete with meandering rivers, flourishing vegetation and batteries of brand-new luxury apartment blocks overlooking the water. First impressions suggest that Tunceli is a prosperous, lively place.

But things are not as they seem. The town, predominantly inhabited by Kurds of the Shia Alevi faith, a heterodox Muslim sect, was the site of an infamous massacre in the early years of the Turkish state and is ringed by army and police observation posts. The surrounding villages lie half-abandoned, while the province boasts one of the highest rates of unemployment and emigration in Turkey. Tunceli, a place whose rebellious spirit has repeatedly been quashed, through massacres, social engineering and torture, is scarred by tragedy. It is the victim of its history and demographics, where old people are plagued by depression and suicide rates among the young are climbing.

On its graffiti-covered streets, few signs indicate that historical, landscape-changing elections are just around the corner. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, currently the front line presidential contender, amended the constitution in 2007 to allow for a popular vote electing the president. But in Tunceli, a town that traditionally voted for the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), Erdogan’s right-wing, Turkic Sunni Muslim synthesis is unpopular. The town’s walls are papered by the same posters and slogans from the heyday of the Turkish left, overlaid by a new skin commemorating the protesters who died in protests related to the Gezi demonstrations – all but one Alevi.

CCTV cameras and armoured vehicles patrolling the main streets betray Tunceli’s geopolitical importance. It holds deep historical and logistical significance for the PKK, a Kurdish militant organisation that fought the Turkish government for decades, and is now negotiating with it.

Tunceli is situated at the northwestern corner of what Kurds hope one day will become part of Kurdistan, a new ethnic nation. The PKK haunts the mountains around it and regularly dictates to locals how to vote in elections. Currently busloads of its fighters are being sent on the 200km journey south to the Syrian border to stem the advance of Islamic State fighters.

The Islamic State attack on Kurdish areas is not unhelpful to Erdogan’s negotiations with the Kurds in that it saps them militarily at a time when the Turkish army has been weakened. At the same time, Kurdish goodwill is key to Erdogan’s presidential hopes, as they provide the crucial swing-vote.

Looming threat

The Islamic State advances in recent days past the Iraqi border town of Sinjar and into Kurdish areas in Syria is bringing the map-altering chain reaction which began with the cancellation of the Syrian-Iraqi border dangerously close to Turkey’s borders. It is directly impacting the Kurdish quest for autonomy or an independent state too. Turkey’s Kurds find themselves defending territory that belongs to Syria, Iraq or Turkey today but which one day they might claim is part of Kurdistan, especially if they have shed blood over it.

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Some of Turkey’s mostly tamed media have openly accused Erdogan’s government of aiding Islamist groups fighting the Syrian regime. The PKK warned the Turkish government not to support the Islamic State if it wants to continue the peace process.

Erdogan explains his failure to condemn the Islamic State outright by saying that he cannot jeopardise ongoing negotiations for the release of Turkish diplomatic staff and dependents taken hostage by its fighters. But his absence of criticism of this group in the two years before the hostage incident undermines this explanation.

With such centrifugal tensions at play, it is surprising that the majority of the debate in the lead-up to the presidential elections has focused on the economy and domestic affairs. In personal meetings, political party leaders in Tunceli, Malatya and Elazig rarely brought up the events unspooling just to the south. They repeated tired slogans, reheated rivalries and objected to the candidacy of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a Cairo-born academic, diplomat and former head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as a betrayal of secularist principles. The idea did not occur to them that Ihsanoglu’s selection for the candidacy might be a tacit admittance that the taboo of religiosity in public life is now broken.

Exporting Islamism

But while Turkish politicians disregard the neighbouring conflict, many ordinary Turks are streaming into Syria to fight, often on opposing sides. While Turkish Kurds mobilise against the Islamic State, as many as several thousand Turkish Islamists might be fighting with different jihadist groups. Turkish Islamists and the Kurdish leftists fighting with the PKK hardly get on in Turkey, so their presence on opposing sides in Syria adds an additional layer of complexity and unintended consequences to an already fragmented conflict.

On the eve of Eid, bearded foreign men with large backpacks, scars and jilbabs queued to board Istanbul-bound flights at Hatay Airport, close to the gateway with Syria. About half of them spoke native Turkish. Some were English-speakers. Others chatted Arabic in a mixture of Syrian, Iraqi and Gulf accents, appearing visibly relaxed as they headed away from the battlefields of Syria discussing recent battles, dealing with snipers, and how to deal with the Shia.

Syria and Iraq have turned into the places where Turkey’s internal problems are exported to.

Once in Istanbul, they walked off into the hotel district close to Taksim Square. A day later, a video spread through Turkish social networks showing a large Eid prayer meeting held just outside Istanbul featuring public calls for jihad in Syria.

Turkey’s social fabric has been strained, first by the 20th century secularist experiment, and more recently, by several years of Erdogan’s confrontational and incendiary political style. Derogatory public statements directed to the remaining minorities and non-Sunni Turkish ethnic groups living in Turkey created the kind of polarisation that will take years to heal.

Now the tensions are spilling over into Syria, but the real risk for Turkey lies when those fighters stop treating their country as a place to rest in and seek to replace the Kemalist state with an Islamic one.

Already, several Turkish soldiers were injured in an incident when 3,000 armed men attacked a border outpost in 2013, in what the Turkish media claimed was an incident of clashes with “smugglers”. Several other serious security breaches in the heart of the country or as far away as Istanbul are given short shrift. But there is increasing proof that they are not isolated incidents but organised attacks with an ideological bent, such as attacks on two Shia mosques in Istanbul.

Syria and Iraq have turned into the places where Turkey’s internal problems are exported to. But rather than being distant, they are Turkey’s neighbours. In a sign that the Turkish state is finally realising the risk of what is going on, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu held two emergency meetings with top intelligence and military officials over the threat from Iraq. But is it a case of too little, too late?

Back in Tunceli, the debates are flowing as turgidly as the city’s river since a new dam stemmed its flow. A local Alevi imam siting by the stagnant waters remarks that “blocking the river took the life out of the people.”

“This is a struggle for the whole region and Turkey’s fate is part of this,” said Ergin Dogru, the head of the local chapter of the Kurdish Democratic Regions Party. “The government supported the Islamic State and this is going to come back to haunt us. You can’t support the Islamic State and at the same time be following a peace process with the Kurds.”

Iason Athanasiadis is a photojournalist who covers the Middle East. 

Iason’s trip to Tunceli was organised by P24, a Turkish  non-profit intended to support local journalists who have been penalised for not shying away from criticising the government.