Saturday,27 May, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Saturday,27 May, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

After the referendum

Turkey’s Erdogan is now moving to divert attention from a disappointing showing in the constitutional referendum, turning his attention back to the Kurds

After the referendum
After the referendum

Contrary to the “overwhelming” victory Erdogan had planned for the 16 April referendum on the extremely controversial constitutional amendment bill, not only did the polls deliver very dismal results compared to the 70-80 per cent win he had predicted, the “No” vote prevailed with significant majorities in all of Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul, where he began his political rise as mayor, and Ankara, the country’s capital. Therefore, instead of being cheered in the loud and raucous celebrations he thought would await him in the old Ottoman capital, where he had spent referendum night, he was forced to return to Ankara to face a continuous onslaught of criticism, not just over the “unlevel playing ground” that preceded the polls but also over the unprecedented amounts of rigging on polling day. He also was looking at an opposition movement that was gaining momentum in spite of all restrictions.

Something was needed to keep all that from snowballing and, true to form, Erdogan found his answer in the usual foe. Therefore, shortly before April was out, the Turkish media trumpeted the news that Turkish fighter planes, acting on his direct orders, delivered “debilitating” strikes against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in Shengal. Not mentioned was the fact that the strikes killed at least five members of the Iraqi Peshmerga instead. The planes also bombarded Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) locations east of Hasaka in Syria.

Suddenly, media focus switched from the referendum to developments coming from the tense and troublesome Iraq and Syrian areas to the south of the border. News bulletins, peppered with jingoistic rhetoric, listed the numbers of “PKK” dead, camps wiped out and ammunition destroyed. At the same time, the Turkish media lashed out vehemently against the US for backing and arming the SDF, which Erdogan regards as synonymous with the PKK. Anadolu news agency, moreover, featured video recordings of Syrian Kurds alongside soldiers who were described as PKK members boasting of possessing antitank missiles, missile launching pads, mortar bombs, armoured military vehicles, small reconnaissance drones and other US-made weapons. Thanks to this US-supplied hardware, the reports continue, the “terrorist organisation” (here referring to the SDF) succeeded in taking control over 65 per cent of the Syrian territory adjacent to the Turkish border “on the pretext of fighting IS.”

In response to Washington’s complaint that it had not been given sufficient advanced notice ahead of the attack that killed Iraqi Peshmerga (Washington and Moscow say they were notified about half an hour before the attack), pro-regime media pundits protested that if they had given proper notice the US would have cautioned their allies in Syria just as Moscow had done when it notified Al-Assad of the impending US missile strike against Shayrat airbase, enabling Al-Assad to clear out planes and other major equipment, thereby avoiding large scale damage.

Meanwhile, Erdogan, continuing to drum up nationalist fervour as he played the role of defiant leader challenging the US, threatened: “The terrorists in northern Iraq and Syria should know that our army is on the look out for them and could take them by surprise any night.” With his forthcoming visit to meet Trump in mid-May in mind, Erdogan added that unless a joint coordinating platform is created, the crises in the region will continue and, in all events, “we will be forced to take the matter into our own hands.”

Opposition forces naturally pointed to the latter threat as another example of Erdogan’s belligerent bravado and cautioned that this was merely a bid to divert public attention away from the situation at home. Interestingly, even voices from the “conservative Islamist” camp within Erdogan’s own party urged prudence and the need to study the map of conflicting forces and their supporters in Syria more rationally and realistically. They also advised decision-making circles in Ankara to appreciate the extent of support that not just the US but also Russia gave to Syrian Kurdish fighters in Syria, which has been plagued by a seven-year-long civil war that is spilling over into Turkey. Moreover, in the end, they say, Turkey may not be able to prevent the rise of an autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria in the post-IS (Islamic State group) phase.

Another faction within the ruling party went further to hold that Washington, itself, has chosen to eliminate Turkey from the battle plan in Syria and, in its own manner, will act as midwife to a Kurdish state or federal entity. Therefore, it would be wiser and more fruitful to pave the way to a reopening of the Ankara-PKK settlement process that Erdogan, himself, began several years ago. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), they said, should not miss the historic opportunity that is still at hand to end the internal conflict that has caused the most damage and attrition on Turkey since the founding of the Republic.

Indeed, in the early days of his meteoric rise, Erdogan, himself, had urged the pursuit of a solution to the Kurdish question as a strategic necessity in order to avert the dangers of foreign intervention and designs to divide the country. Since becoming president, however, he has had a mood change. For him, the Kurdish question has become a question of personal revenge. He holds the Kurds responsible for obstructing his authoritarian and irredentist dreams. Therefore, he never forgave the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for surpassing the 10 per cent parliamentary threshold two years ago and he will never forgive its co-chairperson Selahettin Demirtas for saying that his party and other Turkish democratic forces will never let Erdogan get his way. That was when Erdogan jettisoned a reform and reconciliation project in the name of “brothers in the same nation” and engineered the causes that would drive the Kurdish question back to square one.

What Erdogan may or may not know is that large and influential segments of Turkish society are on to him. They know that his recourse to the PKK card and Turko-centric chauvinistic rhetoric are merely demagogic attempts to cover up his failure to win the grand victory that he had predicted.

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