Gezi Park Undone While Conflict Breaks Out in Turkey’s East

A Syrian rebel fighter in the northeastern Syrian border town of Ras al-Ayn on Nov. 11. Source: Murad Seezer/Reuters/Landov. via NPR.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted and yet so many newsworthy things are happening in Turkey right now.

The first is the slow but near-complete reversal of any changes, minor though they were, to result from the Gezi Park protests.

This began when the police officer charged with killing a protester avoided prosecution because the public prosecutor did not ask permission of the police to try him.

There was also the earlier release of a machete-wielding shopkeeper, who fled to Morocco (allegedly to return) and subsequent imitation attacks on demonstrators.

This was followed by the attempted marriage of two protesters in newly opened Gezi Park — attempted, because the park was immediately closed and those assembled for the wedding were gassed by police.

But perhaps the highlight of this dismantling is the overturning of a court-ordered ban on construction in Gezi Park by a unanimous verdict of Istanbul’s Sixth Administrative Court.

Though the court’s verdict seemingly eliminates all barriers to construction, Erdogan promised during the apex of the protests to put the construction to a referendum, a proposal his opponents were deeply skeptical of.

So far the government has remained quiet on both the development plans and the referendum. Erdogan knows he will face a rerun of last month’s protests if he restarts the debate over construction.

Far more important than remnants of Gezi, however, is a rapidly deteriorating situation in Turkey’s east, where Kurdish militants are withdrawing under a very, very tentative peace and disarmament deal with the government.

A little under a month ago, violent clashes erupted in the eastern town of Lice over the construction of a new military outpost in a former Kurdish stronghold. Though this particular outpost was evidently planned before the withdrawal, according to the opposition Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) this is part of a new policy of agitation.

Before the ceasefire, much of Turkey’s east was under the de facto control of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and local tribal networks, part of a long tradition of non-participation in the Turkish state apparatus that has forever frustrated the republican aspirations of the central government in Ankara.

With the withdrawal, many of these armed groups that formerly ran the region are either putting down their arms and “reintegrating”, or else withdrawing to the north of Iraq or Syria where there are also large Kurdish populations (more on that later).

In their wake, the Turkish army is establishing a new dominant presence with the continued buildup of military assets in the area and a crackdown on cross-border smuggling, long a mainstay of local economic life. This has drawn ire from the PKK’s non-military “public order units”, which have clashed with local security services this week.

Locals may be reminded of similar efforts to establish state control in Kurdistan under the Ottomans, the nascent Turkish republic, and more recent military governments, which resulted in the sometimes brutal repression of Kurdish culture, language, and tribal networks that were seen as a challenge to republican unity.

Needless to say, this has threatened to unravel the ceasefire.

Those Kurds that do leave are ultimately causing trouble for Turkey anyway, crossing the border and assisting the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq or rebel People’s Defense Units in Syria.

In Iraq, the influx of Kurdish militants has led to an escalation in KRG rhetoric aimed at the central government, including the withdrawal of Kurdish soldiers from the Iraqi armed forces and the subsequent bolstering of local peshmerga militias. I’ve talked about some of this in previous posts.

In Syria, this has resulted in the Kurdish control of areas near Syria’s borders with Turkey and Iraq. It is an open secret that the PKK is assisting them in this regard, and in the aim of establishing a “temporary autonomous” Kurdish government in the north of Syria.

Such a development has already been met with condemnation and threats from the Turkish armed forces, who have clashed with Kurdish militia on the border in recent days. Kurdish autonomy in northern Syria would risk the creation of an united Kurdish state with the economic power of the KRG, drawn from oil dollars guaranteed in the aftermath of the Iraq War.

Such a state would be positioned to threaten the security of Turkey in the east and renew a conflict for a Kurdish homeland including parts of Turkey, and would foil plans to enact a “neo-Ottoman” policy of external influence, hoping to establish economic ties with oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan at the expense of the PKK.

Worst of all, it may draw Turkey into an armed conflict in Syria, something it has been trying to avoid through its sponsorship of rebel groups like the Syrian National Council (now all but irrelevant in Syria’s ever-changing conflict), hosted in Diyarbakir.

Further, greater Kurdish power in Syria complicates the situation for rebel backers by introducing a third party to the conflict.

The fiercely secular Kurds are no allies of Islamist groups, which comprise much of the rebel force and are supported by Gulf backers with Western approval.

In fact, PKK-linked militias recently captured the town of Ras al-Ayn on Syria’s Turkish border from the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front and other Islamist jihadi groups in retaliation for an attack on a convoy of female militants.

But they are also not allied to Syria’s Ba’athist secular government. Kurdish militias were actually allies of the West against Ba’athist Saddam Hussein, who brutally persecuted Kurds. When Hussein fell, the US-imposed a no-fly zone and guaranteed the safety of the KRG, who became their allies against Islamic extremism.

A larger Kurdish role in the Syrian conflict not only threatens Turkey’s regional integrity, but will almost certainly result in the balkanization of Syria. The question is, if an autonomous Kurdish state is threatening Turkish border security and clashing with Gulf-backed Islamist rebels in Syria, how can the West continue to support all parties — the Kurds, the Gulf, Turkey, and the rebels — at once?

It looks like, for now, the solution will be to rhetorically separate Kurds in Turkey (illegal) from Kurds in Iraq (legal) and Kurds in Syria (not sure yet) — but how long this absurd solution can last in the face of clear support between Kurds across borders, I don’t know. Something will eventually have to give.

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