Shock Waves From Syria Intensify Turkey’s Chaotic Times

Non-stop headlines - from the downing of a Russian plane to the assassination and arrest of journalists - have accompanied the first days of the new/old Turkish government. Lurking behind them all are the reverberations of the Syria crisis.

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Pro-Islamist demonstrators hold a defaced poster of Vladimir Putin during an anti-Russian protest in Istanbul, Turkey, November 27, 2015.
Pro-Islamist demonstrators hold a defaced poster of Vladimir Putin during an anti-Russian protest in Istanbul, Turkey, November 27, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

Last Saturday, on the streets of the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, Turkey’s renowned human rights lawyer and head of the city’s bar association, Tahir Elci, himself a Kurd, was murdered straight after an outdoor press conference he had held. Hours later, a video emerged of the gun battle, in which concealed attackers fired at Elci and people standing around him. It’s not clear whether he was shot right before, during, or after the gun battle. What was missing from the video was a clear picture of him actually being shot, leaving us only with a glimpse of Elci dead on the ground with a pistol lying next to him. The incident also left two policemen dead, with the perpetrators escaping free.

Regardless of who was actually responsible for his killing, Elci’s assassination - or his death as a result of being caught in crossfire - serves as a metaphor of the chaotic times with which Turkey has become all too familiar.

In fact, last week, just as the newly elected AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu presented his government to the parliament, the country was thrown into a whirlwind of events. From the Turkish Air Force’s downing of the Russian jet, to the arrest of Turkey’s main opposition newspaper’s editor, and the killing of Elci, Turkey watchers have been overwhelmed with non-stop headlines.

While seemingly unconnected, these events are all somehow related to the greater question of Turkish policy in Syria (even if not solely). With the war progressing into its fifth year, shock waves are continually being felt in Turkey, both domestically and internationally.

The shooting down of a Russian jet fighter over Syria caught all by surprise; however, in retrospect, it seems to have been a calculated action, meant to draw red lines for Russian involvement in Syria. Turkey was motivated by a determination to retain one of its last strongholds of influence in Syria and a buffer zone to prevent a Kurdish military presence there. Until now, Turkey has done its utmost at preventing Syria’s Kurdish forces from moving into this region, which would give them an autonomous and contiguous block situated along most of its southern border. However, now with Russia bombing its Turkmen allies, Turkey is in danger of losing influential territory to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army, a worst-case scenario.

This frame grab from video by Haberturk TV, shows a Russian warplane on fire before crashing on a hill as seen from Hatay province, Turkey, Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015.Credit: Reuters

This week also saw the jailing of Can Dundar, one of Turkey’s most influential journalists who serves as the editor-in-chief of the opposition daily Cumhuriyet, together with his journalist colleague, Erdem Gul. They were arrested on trumped-up charges of espionage as a result of their front-page story about a secret arms transfer to rebel groups in Syria. The Turkish government had claimed the shipment was humanitarian aid destined for Syria’s Turkmen community.

This wasn’t actually a new story: it first broke in January 2014, less than a month after massive corruption charges connected to then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government. Certainly, Dundar and Gul were not the first journalists to write about the arms delivery. However, their reignition of the debate last May, just days before general elections, hit at the heart of Erdogan’s Syrian soft spot, with speculation that these arms could even have been making their way to ISIS. This led Erdogan at the time to vow publically that he would punish Dundar for his newspaper’s actions. The irony of their arrest just last Thursday is that only days before, Erdogan bragged that it really did not matter if it was an arms transfer or not, begging the question why he was still so keen to put them in jail to await trial.

The significance of the jailing of such prominent journalists is that Erdogan is ready and willing to take on anyone within Turkey challenging his plans to take an active role on his terms in a post-Assad Syria. This determination can quite easily take the form of a personal vendetta for Erdogan, who won’t forget or forgive what he considers acts of disloyalty, even if the payback comes with a time lag.

Lastly, the killing of Elci can also been seen within the context of Turkish policy in Syria. The murder is representative of the chaos that has become part of the daily life of southeast Turkey’s Kurdish citizens since they largely split with the ruling AKP over the future of Syria. Last year’s peace talks between Erdogan and the PKK and the nation’s Kurds went astray when the two camps entrenched their loyalties into opposing camps. The Kurds, together with leftist Turks, formed the People’s Democratic Party, the HDP, a grassroots movement inherently connected to the social and political revolution of the Syrian Kurds across the border. The 2014 battle of Kobane, in which Syrian Kurds (including volunteer fighters from leftist groups in Turkey) and ISIS (ironically also including volunteers from Turkey) fought just meters from Turkey’s border, positioned the HDP in opposition to Erdogan’s attempts to block Kurdish expansion and self-defense. This led to claims that he was secretly supporting ISIS (in a variation of the ‘enemy’s enemy’ stratagem) , a position that was seemingly proven in Kurdish eyes by Erdogan’s apparent acceptance that Kobane would eventually fall to ISIS, and that Turkey shouldn’t intervene to prevent it happening.

The hatred between the ruling party and the pro-Kurdish party grew and grew. When the HDP’s grassroots support translated into a first-ever electoral win in the general elections in June, the peace process went off the rails, and these days PKK and Turkish forces are entrenched in daily fighting.

Not surprisingly, Elci was killed minutes after he called for peace between the Turkish state and the PKK. Just minutes before his death he declared: "We do not want guns, clashes and operations here." It was a scenario with ghastly similarities to last month’s Ankara suicide bombing of mostly pro-HDP demonstrators for peace, allegedly by pro-ISIS operatives, which left over 100 dead.

It was clear that Elci himself at the least felt he was a marked man. He was a clear opponent of the Turkish government and had recently spoken of credible threats against his life, especially following his appearance on CNN Turk earlier this year, when he stated that the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party, the PKK, “is not a terrorist organization. Rather, it is an armed political organization which has large local support.” This led to him being detained and released pending trial for spreading terrorist propaganda, with a hefty fine served on the television station.

While these recent events might lead some to argue that Turkey is certainly in over its head, its prime minister, Davutoglu, has proven to all that he and Erdogan are able to balance this intrinsic instability with glimmers of hope.

On Sunday, Davutoglu signed a comprehensive agreement with the European Union to receive 3 billion euros in return for keeping Syrian refugees tight and as far away from Europe as possible. Other major perks might come with this, such as visa-free entry into the EU for Turkish citizens, and the EU renewing Turkey’s hope of one day entering the union. For Turkey the timing could not have been better, offsetting the proposed Russian sanctions against Turkey, with wall-to-wall support from within NATO as well

On the other hand, for those journalists jailed in Turkey, or those who thought that Europe would speak out against human rights violations in Turkey’s southeastern regions, increasingly subjected to long military curfews and fighting in the streets, they shouldn’t hold their breath.

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu hugs European Council president Donald Tusk during a press conference at the end of a summit on relations between the EU and Turkey, Brussels, November 29, 2015.Credit: AFP

Nevertheless, despite the Western support, it does seem Turkey has its hands full, and that its role in Syria will continue to plague it with new challenges in the near future.

First, the agreement with Europe doesn’t take into consideration the wishes of the two million plus Syrian refugees themselves in Turkey. The chances of mending ties with the nation’s Kurds seems further than ever, with Elci’s death serving as a stark reminder of the bleak state of affairs. Turkey might be standing strong now vis-à-vis Russia internationally, but in the Syrian arena, Russia is continuing its campaign as usual, preparing the ground for what may be inevitable future conflict between the two countries.

Most ominously for those within Turkey and the rest of the world seeking to understand Turkey’s complex and increasingly opaque political environment, the arrest of senior journalists who defended their independence and integrity point to a serious escalation in the government’s clampdown on Turkish media, an act which will only lead to continuing strife in the country.

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has lived in Turkey and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @IstanbulTelaviv.

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