Skip to main content

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a graduation ceremony in Ankara, Turkey, June 11, 2015.UMIT BEKTAS/Reuters

Less than two months ago, Turkey appeared on the cusp of a new era. Parliamentary elections had delivered a historic blow to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country's increasingly autocratic ruler, while a pro-Kurdish party made unprecedented gains at the ballot box.

Now the hopes generated by that election – for a more pluralistic politics, for progress in negotiations to solve the Kurdish conflict – have been dashed. Instead, Turkey stands at the edge of a dangerous precipice where old conflicts reignite, new threats emerge and instability reigns.

The best way to understand the dramatic developments of the past week is that Mr. Erdogan has ramped up his government's response to two perceived threats. First, following a deadly suicide bombing in the town of Suruc, Mr. Erdogan dropped his long-held reluctance to engage more deeply in the fight against the Islamic State. On July 23, Turkey signed an agreement allowing U.S. fighter planes to use its airbases and carried out its own strikes inside Syria.

But at the very same time – and under the same rubric of fighting terrorism – Mr. Erdogan launched airstrikes against the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, for the first time in almost four years. The PKK is the militant group at the centre of Turkey's longest-running violent conflict, which has lasted three decades and claimed 40,000 lives.

Since 2013, a fragile ceasefire has prevailed between the two sides. Now that truce is over. "It is not possible to carry on the peace process with those who target our national unity and brotherhood," Mr. Erdogan said on Tuesday before leaving for a visit to China.

Meanwhile, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization held an emergency meeting in Brussels following a formal request by Turkey to discuss the security situation on its borders. It was only the fifth such summit in the organization's 66-year history, and the members of the alliance voiced strong support for Turkey. Privately, they also urged the government to refrain from using excessive force in strikes against Kurdish militants and to continue the peace talks.

"Turkish officials have been anxious to equate the PKK and [Islamic State] and portray the military strikes as part of a broader commitment to combatting terrorism," wrote Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence, in a note on Monday. "However, in practice, the measures taken by Ankara make it clear that its main priority is the PKK." Mr. Piccoli noted that the vast majority of the airstrikes launched by Turkey were directed against PKK targets, not against the Islamic State.

Some observers deem Mr. Erdogan's response to the threat posed by Kurdish militants – who have killed several police officers in recent days – as disproportionate. They say that his hardline response comes at a critical political juncture: in the parliamentary elections held on June 7, Mr. Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority for the first time since 2002. Since then, it has held inconclusive talks with potential coalition partners. If no government is formed by late August, Mr. Erdogan can call snap elections to be held in November.

The timing of the new offensive against Kurdish militants is no coincidence, some say, since it serves as a means to stimulate nationalist sentiment – and votes – ahead of possible new elections. It also undercuts the gains made by the surprise star of June's election – the People's Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish outfit that supports a peaceful solution to the conflict.

"Mr. Erdogan is doing what he's been intent on doing since the evening of June 7, that is, to reverse the verdict of the electorate and take the country to early elections at all costs," said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul. By killing police officers, the PKK "gave him the excuse he needed" to launch a crackdown. It also puts the HDP, which renounces violence but shares roots with the PKK "between a rock and a hard place," Prof. Ozel said.

On Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan urged Turkey's lawmakers to lift the legal immunity of members of parliament who had links to "terrorist groups," a broadside clearly aimed at the HDP. The party's leader, Selahattin Demirtas, vehemently rejected such threats. "Our only crime was winning 13 per cent of the vote," he said on Tuesday, according to Reuters.

The trigger for the recent developments was a horrifying suicide bombing on July 20 in the southeastern town of Suruc near the Syrian border. The suspected Islamic State attack killed 32; many of the victims were young Turkish Kurds, who had gathered ahead of a trip to help rebuild the city of Kobani. The attack provoked a backlash from Kurdish nationalists, who accuse Mr. Erdogan and the Islamist AKP of tacitly or secretly supporting the Islamic State, something Turkey denies.

Now, by launching offensives against both the Islamic State and the PKK, Turkey could find itself vulnerable to reprisal attacks by those groups. Asked whether he is afraid of what lies ahead, Prof. Ozel uses an unprintable profanity. "You can say I'm concerned," he said.