Is civil war coming to Turkey?

Turkish politics are slipping deeper into a state of chaos, with important implications for U.S. policy in the Middle East—and especially in Syria.

In the last couple of weeks, not a day has gone by without reports of military personnel and police officers killed by Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) attacks, civilians trapped in towns under curfew, and of Turkish Air Force raids on PKK hold-outs. Since the suicide bombing in Suruç on July 20, there have been at least 132 documented deaths of Turkish security personnel and hundreds of PKK fighters and civilians caught in the cross-fire. 

Clashes between security forces and the militarized Kurdish youth in Kurdish towns are also common, as the latter attempts to secure self-declared pockets of PKK rule. Media outlets are replete with footage of trenches and barricades, dug by the Kurdish fighters to block security forces. In retaliation, anti-Kurdish mobs have attacked Kurdish-owned businesses as well as offices of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) across Turkey. There are growing fears that this violence may spiral out of control, even to the verge of provoking civil war between Kurds and Turks of the kind the country has never experienced before. 

Should this situation persist or worsen, the United States risks losing a pillar of stability in a perennially turbulent region. 

After many years of relative quiet, accompanied with occasional expectations for a political resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey, what is now driving this sudden explosion of violence? Could it be that election fever is engulfing the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan?

Electoral rollercoaster

This escalation of violence is being driven by a confluence of events. Foremost are the inconclusive results of the general elections held early in June this year. The incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP), energetically supported by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, failed to obtain the necessary number of seats in the parliament to form a government on its own. This hurt Erdoğan’s own professional development plans, structured around the AKP obtaining enough seats to adopt a new constitution, that would furnish him with greater executive powers

Ironically, Erdoğan had also called for the resolution of the Kurdish problem in Turkey—a tactical move to generate political capital amongst the Kurdish constituency. It was AKP administrations that had introduced a series of reforms in support of Kurdish cultural rights throughout the 2000s, and it was Erdoğan who initiated a dialogue with the imprisoned leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan in 2012. These efforts bore fruit: In the 2007 and 2011 general elections, the AKP won 26 out of the 38 seats in Ağrı, Bitlis, Diyarbakır, Hakkari, Mardin, Şırnak, and Van—provinces that are heavily populated by Kurds. 

The Kurds go to Ankara

Much color has since faded from this rosy picture. When the Islamic State (or ISIS) besieged the Kurdish town of Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border in October 2014, the government was reluctant to support the Kurds. This, coupled with allegations that Turkey was actually supporting ISIS to prevent Kurds from consolidating their control of parts of northern Syria, fueled the resentment of the Kurdish community. 

The coup de grace came when Erdoğan implied it was irrelevant to defend Kobani. Instead, he bluntly predicted that it would imminently fall into ISIS’ hands. Against the backdrop of Kobani’s obliteration and the flight of more than 200,000 Syrian Kurds to Turkey, trust melted down between the Turkish government and the Kurds at large. In the meantime, assistance from Kurds in Turkey and Iraq, as well as from the United States, saved Kobani from ISIS in defiance of Erdoğan’s prediction.

However it’s parsed, Turkey seems destined for more instability.

All this motivated the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to compete in the June elections as a political party. Hitherto cautious and fearful of Turkey’s notoriously high electoral threshold of 10 percent to enter parliament, Kurdish politicians had previously run for parliament as independents. The charismatic leader of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtaş, successfully took advantage of the deep mistrust towards Erdoğan and won over the conservative Kurdish votes that had previously been cast in favor of the AKP. This time around, the AKP was able to win only 4 of the 39 seats allotted to the above provinces, while the rest went exclusively to HDP. 

Demirtaş’s liberal political agenda also attracted some of the “protest votes” against Erdoğan’s rising authoritarianism, especially in Western parts of Turkey. Not only did the HDP pass the threshold, it also won 80 seats—it’s now a key force in blocking Erdoğan’s aspirations to become the all-powerful leader of Turkey. 

What next for the AKP?

Many interpreted the results as evidence that voters wanted a transition into a post-Erdoğan era: After all, the need to form a coalition government was sure to curb Erdoğan’s ambitions. This upbeat atmosphere, however, did not last very long. Erdoğan blocked the emergence of such a coalition and instead called for a re-run election in November, just as violence in the country began to escalate. 

Since then, he has based his strategy on the assumption that this flare-up in violence would rally nationalist and conservative votes to AKP. He has beefed up this strategy by portraying HDP and Demirtaş as PKK allies, and hence perpetrators of the current instability. Nevertheless, polls suggest that the AKP may not secure a solid majority in parliament—that would leave the country without a strong government that could end the cycle of violence. Some analysts predict that the power-hungry Erdoğan may also seek a “re-run” of the “re-run” elections; this time around, he may even invoke the violence in some parts of the Kurdish-populated areas as an excuse not to place ballot boxes, which are otherwise very likely to contain votes cast in favor of HDP. 

However it’s parsed, Turkey seems destined for more instability. That is, unless Erdoğan reconsiders his strategy and returns to the AKP’s reformist, democratic, and inclusive roots. That was the Turkey that President Barack Obama aspired to have a “model partnership” with. The failure to revive that agenda is likely to aggravate the chaos in Turkey, risking the possibility of what some have termed the “Syrianization” of Turkey. Should this happen, the current challenges that the United States faces in the region will become even more daunting.