Geopolitics and Turkish Contemporary Politics

by Robert Olson

Turkey‘s contemporary politics are full of Sturm und Drang and it is difficult to know when the current turmoil will subside or the sides will reach some kind of political agreement.

There are many internal reasons for the current hostile and bitter relations between the political parties in Turkey. There are also extremely bitter relations between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Hizmet movement, in spite of their common origins within the Sunni Hanefi mainstream of Turkey’s politics. An even more vexing challenge is the deteriorating relationship between the AKP, other political parties and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)/Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) (Koma Civakên Kurdistan), not to mention the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

Domestic politics is one of the most important determinants of what direction a country is heading — at least politically. I argue that the geopolitical and geo-economic position in which a country finds itself at any given period is also essential for the people and leaders of the country, as well as foreign countries, to understand what geopolitical forces contribute or, to what degree they are contributing, to current domestic infighting, differences, armed conflict and even civil war.

In this regard, I want to broach four geopolitical challenges in which Turkey finds itself and which need to be discussed, negotiated and resolved.

The first challenge comes from the need Turkey apparently feels to emasculate the PKK/KCK. This is evident from the current fighting now taking place between the state, the PKK/KCK and the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) (Yurtsever Devrimci Gençlik Hareket/Tevgera Ciwanen Welatparêz Yên Soresger). The involvement of young, non-PKK Kurdish youth in the resistance to Turkey’s state and provincial police forces in the Southeast and elsewhere indicates the extent of the challenge.

In addition to the challenges from Kurdish nationalist forces and groups, the AKP and the state now also have to meet the challenges of some of Turkey’s liberal and dissenting civilian population and its professional and academic cadres. The recent arrest, interrogation and intimidation of threescore or more academicians at some of Turkey’s most well-known universities for signing a petition (1,128 signatures) underscores the increasing challenges to Turkey’s and the AKP’s current war in the Southeast of the country.

As I have written previously, the intention of the AKP and the state seems to be to sever to the extent possible the cooperation between the PKK and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) (Hizb al-Ittihad al-Dimoqrati) of Syrian Kurds. Turkey thinks it needs to do this in order to further emasculate the PKK and the HDP/KCK. Ankara wants no threat to its control of the border between Turkey and Syria, which is implicit in the challenge of the PKK/YPG/PYD challenge. In combatting this challenge, Ankara has the support of the US and the EU.

The second major challenge confronting Turkey is to determine its policies toward the estimated 2.2 million Syrian refugees in the country, many of them in the Southeast but many now spread throughout southern and western Turkey, including Turkey’s large cities. Turkey would like to utilize some of these refugees and to foster economic relationships between them and Turkish and Kurdish businessmen in Turkey in order to penetrate further into the economy of northern Syria when conditions permit.

According to published accounts in Turkey, more than 1,000 economic and trading partnerships have been established. The establishment of such partnerships also helps to explain the generous behavior of Turkey toward the refugees, so poignantly different from that of European countries and the US. However, unlike the EU and US, the geopolitical requisites of Turkey’s economy demand that it has a prominent role to play in developments in Syria’s economy during the coming decades. This should also help to explain why Turkey’s government has been so generous in providing work permits and language instruction to young Syrians. In other words, Turkey’s relations with northern Syria will resemble its relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, which now has some 1,400 Turkish companies that dominant the KRG energy and non-energy economy.

Turkey’s magnanimity toward the refugees allows Ankara to utilize the refugees against the challenges of the PKK/KCK and the PYD/YPG. The Syrian refugees in Turkey have proved to be the most effective antidote to the challenges from the Kurdish nationalist organizations both in Turkey and in Syria. Turkey’s policies toward the Syrian refugees may yet turn out to be one of Ankara’s strongest geopolitical advantages in the competition to engage in Syria’s economy in the aftermath of the military defeat of the Islamic State.

Prepositioning Turkey’s economy to take advantage of economic opportunities in the denouement of the Syrian civil war also coincides with developments in the energy sector. Turkey’s current difficulties regarding its relationship with Russia makes it imperative in the coming years to increase its supply of oil and gas from other sources. This is the same imperative that is driving the politics for the resetting of Turkey’s relations with Israel.

According to Selin Nasi in a report on Jan. 11 in Hürriyet Daily News, Bosphorus Energy Club Chair Mehmet Ögüçü said the infrastructure to “carry natural gas from the KRG to Turkey will be ready in three years and that the bid to build the Sirnak Natural Gas Pipeline is expected to open in February [2016].” Needless to say, Sirnak is right in the middle of the current fighting between the Turkish army and police and PKK forces in the Southeast. It is also right between the PKK and YPG forces. Access to energy resources is a major factor in the current fighting between the Turkish military and police forces and the PKK. This situation resembles the war between these same forces in the 1980s and 1990s, when Turkey and Azerbaijan were building oil and gas pipelines from Baku to Erzurum.

Energy matters are also one of the reasons for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent outbursts and harsh language against the PKK and Kurdish resistance throughout the Southeast, such as exclaiming that the PKK would/was trying to destroy and weaken the 90 dams and hydro-electric plants in the Southeast, which are essential to Turkey’s economic future. The building of even more dams and hydro-electric plants in the Southeast and northern Turkey on the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers and their contributories also serve to weaken and threaten the economy of Kurds in the Southeast even more.

The PKK and Kurdish nationalists in general are also concerned with the hundreds of police stations (karakol) that Turkey’s armed forces have built in the region during the past 10 years in particular in order the protect the dams and prevent sabotage of the dams and plants by PKK forces. The dams impeded PKK maneuverability as well as destroy the ecology of the region. In addition, they facilitate and strengthen the relationship and cooperation with the KRG, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Masoud Barzani, a solid ally of Ankara in combating the PKK/KCK. The KDP also does not want war between the PKK and Turkey’s military to hinder the carrying of KRG oil and gas to Turkish markets.

There is close connection of the geopolitical considerations mentioned above and President Erdogan’s charge on Jan. 14 concerning the arrest and detainment of scores of academicians made this clear: “A group of people who call themselves academicians has emerged and spewed hatred against their state and nation by publicly taking sides with the terrorist organization [PKK]. My brothers, do you know who, which group, the biggest enemy of these dams is? It is the separatist terror organization and politicians and academics who support it.”

The rancor caused by some of these geopolitical requisites of Turkey and of the Kurdish nationalists’ movements in Turkey, Syria and Iraq should be addressed in order to reach some peaceful accord between the contending parties.

This article reprinted, with permission, from Today’s Zaman.

Robert Olson

Robert Olson is Professor of Middle East history and politics at the University of Kentucky (Emeritus). He is the author of ten books of various aspects of Middle East history and politics. His major books are: The Siege of Mosul and Ottoman- Persian Relations: 1718-1743; The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion: 1880-1925; Turkey's Relations with Iran, 1979-2004;The Kurdish Question and Turkish-Iranian Relations:From World I to 2000; Blood, Beliefs and Ballots: The Management of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey, 2007-2000; The Kurdish Nationalist Movements in Turkey: 1980-2011; The Goat and the Butcher: Nationalism and State Formation in Kurdistan-Iraq since the Iraqi War War. He is the author of 75 referred research articles and 60 edited research articles. He was distinguished Professor of the University of Kentucky in 2000. He is married and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.