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What’s Next for Turkey in 2016

The town of Cizre on the Syrian border. Photo: Mahmut Bozarslan

In a complex and ambiguous situation, the moves made by the Erdoğan government in foreign and internal affairs are tied to the fate of millions of refugees and the balance of Europe

Turkey has been hit by four terrorist attacks since the start of 2016, with the latest happening just days ago. Whether the perpetrators are the independent Kurdish militias or the extremists of the Islamic State, the country, at the border between Europe and the tumultuous Middle East, has been torn by an internal conflict for months. The political, economic and social situation is conditioned by the presence of millions of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq for European coasts. Ankara’s management of the migratory flows exacerbates relations with Brussels and with the international community. The agreement reached on March 17 aims to stop hundreds of people heading to Greece through the Aegean sea. For every illegal migrant sent back to Turkey from Europe, the Union will host a legal refugee now living in Turkey. Besides that, Turkey will be granteed €6 billion – €3 billion in addition to those already obtained with the November agreement – and the abolition of the Schengen visa. Oasis collected the analysis of several experts and observers about the challenges the country is facing in this delicate situation.



The Migration Crisis


“The subject of migrations has become transversal to all the other conversations on national, European and international levels,” said Gianpaolo Scarante, former Italian ambassador in Turkey, during a seminar at the Catholic University of Milan. “The migratory crisis began quietly, with the outbreak of the war in Syria,” and quickly involved Turkey, where the government of the Islamist Akp of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan immediately came out against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, welcoming refugees fleeing the conflict. Kerim Balcı, journalist of the opposition newspaper, Zaman — taken over violently by the government in early March — is very critical of the early decisions regarding refugees made by the Turkish leader. “After five years of conflict” Balcı said, “the pro-government press still refers to Syrians as ‘guests’ and not ‘refugees’.” “Furthermore, the Turkish government criticized the international community for not intervening with assistance sooner, without however pointing out that Turkey has a reservation on the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951.” According to this reservation, the country only assures refugee status to those fleeing events occurring in Europe. “For this reason, Turkey could not receive direct international aid for the ‘refugees’ from the international community.” This situation only broke through in 2014 “with the introduction of a temporary law that assures Syrians such a status.”



In the first period of the war in Syria, Ankara assumed that the conflict would not last more than a few weeks and that, after some time as ‘guests’, the Syrians would be able to return to their homes, bringing with them a renewed appreciation and gratitude for Erdoğan. “This,” ambassador Scarante said, “was the most dramatic political error in Turkish recent history.” In fact, it has been five years that “the flow of refugees has been in constant growth, reaching unthinkable figures and generating unmanageable conditions.


Recently, the Syrians already in Turkey have been thinking about settling in the country, while the ‘new arrivals’ consider it a transitory country.” Therefore, the Turkish government began to “tolerate if not encourage, the exodus across its borders, using it as a powerful instrument of political pressure on the European Union.” The inability of the European Union to understand and effectively manage the phenomenon plays in Turkey’s favor. As ISMU, Vincenzo Cesareo, said “the European fortress lacks a migration policy, and there is no leadership on the issue because it is fragmented internally.” The compromise reached with Europe and the signature of the “one-to-one” deal, allows Turkey to reopen the process of EU accession. In this regard, the Turkish journalist Kadri Gürsel, analyst for al-Monitor, said that “Europe is paying the price for not having offered Turkey an adequate EU accession procedure in 2004.” In his opinion, “the European influence would have been able to contain the authoritarian deviation of Erdoğan, while Europe is now trading in its own values.”



The Kurdish Issue


Gürsel identifies two Kurdish issues in Turkey: an internal one and an external one. The internal issue concerns the war in the southeast of the country against Kurdish militias, which involves terrorist attacks with increasing frequency, even in other parts of the country; the second on the other hand, is fought in northern Syria against Syrian Kurds. “The internal issue involves the military PKK movement, which is at war with the Ankara regime and considered a terrorist organization by the international community.” Since July 2015, the Kurds have been represented in the Turkish Parliament through the HDP party, whose main objective was that of being recognized as a party to all effects, becoming a full part of political life; however, after the terrorist attacks that hit Turkey in autumn 2015, the HDP was accused by the government for supporting PKK terrorists. On the other hand, the external Kurdish issue, Gürsel said, “concerns the Syrian Kurdish party, PYD, and its armed branch, the YPG, which, contrary to their Turkish counterparts, have no interest in opposing Erdoğan. While Ankara makes no distinctions between the two, considering both of them to be terrorist groups, the international community supports the Syrian Kurds, which constitute the front line in the war against the Islamic State.” This situation further complicated on March 17, when the Syrian Kurds declared the Democratic Federal System for Rojava - Northern Syria, an autonomous territory.


There is a significant difference of interests between Turkey and the international community: Turkey’s priority is to obstruct the consolidation of the independent Kurdistan on its borders, while the international community’s priority is defeating the Islamic State, considering the Kurds a crucial force. According to Kerim Balcı, the Akp government and the Kurdish militias in Turkey “missed an opportunity. They found themselves, for once, with a common enemy — the Islamic State — to ally against, but they were unable to do it.” The current situation, filtered by the censorship of media, involved a veritable internal guerrilla war, complete with a curfew and killing of civilians in the regions bordering Syria, and three terrorist attacks in Turkish cities since the beginning of the year.



The War in Syria and Foreign Relations


If Erdoğan’s goal is to impede an independent Kurdistan, then the tolerance towards the Islamic State is easy to explain. Gürsel believes that "the Ankara regime is the primary guilty partner of the exportation of Isis in Turkey, because of poor security along the borders. Turning a blind eye to entries in the country has allowed for the creation of jihad highway, making the Islamic State a true domestic threat. The government should stop the jihadists that use our country as a base.” Numerous Turkish journalists that were not afraid to condemn the leniency of the Akp against Isis, and denouncing the violence in the southeast of the country, were arrested in recent months.



Due to the war in Syria, Turkish foreign policy took a significant change of course. According to Balcı, “currently, Turkish foreign policy and involvement in Syria are directly influenced by Saudi Arabia and by the Gulf countries. The recent tension with Russia did nothing but accentuate the alliance with the Gulf States, politically and economically. It would be no surprise,” said the journalist, “if Turkey were to reopen its relationship with Egypt in the coming months due to its alignment with Saudi policy.” Even the decision to intervene militarily on the Syrian territory, however still in question, is strongly supported by Saudi Arabia's Sunni leadership.


Turkey is increasingly isolated. “Given our geopolitical position, we could have acted as mediators,” Balcı affirms with regret, “but the government decided to take sides” and Turkey is currently facing a complex and ambiguous situation, in the throes of the authoritarianism of its government and with the fate of millions of refugees and, maybe, Europe in its hands.