Troubled Waters Under the Tigris and Euphrates Bridges
By Abdennour Toumi
Ankara, Turkey — Last summer I was in the southeastern province of Mardin, when social-demand riots erupted in the majority of Kurdish villages and towns. Burning tires and barricades blocked the roads as farmers protested the cut-off of electricity and especially of water needed to irrigate their corn fields. Outraged by the lack of both in the critical harvest season, many took to the streets in angry protest.
Scores of farmers and young protesters who had joined them blocked two sections of the main highway, as security forces tried to calm the crowd and attempted to remove the blockage from Mardin Airport’s entrance. The region is known as the “breadbasket” of the country so the farmers’ demands for restoration of these utilities is essential to their survival and the economy as well.
Young boys chanting anti-Ankara slogans and carrying the BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) banners (yellow marked in the middle by a pine tree), joined the farmers in Kiziltepe’s Liberty Square (Ozgür Meydan) and later they broke into the Deputy-Governor’s office burning office supplies.
Weeks earlier, the youth movement of the ex-BDP (now HDP) party demonstrated their anti-Syrian Kurdish refugee sentiment after a street fight broke out between young Syrians and local Kurds. There are about 25,000 Syrian refugees, mainly Kurdish, who fled from el-Hassaka and Aïn-el-Arab/Kobani and now live in the city of Kiziltepe and the Mardin region.
As it turned out, these riots were not only a matter of farmers and villagers fed up with the electric company’s greed, but clearly an expression of anti-Erdoğan/AKParti sentiment in response to the party’s decision to privatize the company. Further, people suspect this policy is the result of either cronyism or corrupt comportment in the AKParti system itself.
Yet, Ankara did not express any concern regarding these riots as at that time the government was in a negotiation process with Kurdish legalist movement representatives. Actually Turkey is in an armed conflict with the PKK. Although a bilateral truce was signed in 2013, the PKK is still pressing for an independent Kurdish state as it has been for more than 25 years, a struggle that has claimed more than 40,000 lives over that period.
Southeastern Turkey, notably the provinces of Batman and Mardin, is a vital region for Ankara because of the oil supply that passes through the center and into the northern regions of the country. The Kobani crisis occurred in September, 2014, when ISO militants invaded and forced thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee from Kobani and nearby towns and villages seeking refuge in Suruç,Turkey’s closest city and other villages and towns along the border.
The Syrian Kurds’ political party PYD and its military branch YPG both lean ideologically and tactically toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has been labeled a terrorist organization by Ankara and its Western allies.
The PKK used the social-demand demonstrations in Mardin as an opportunity for an upward political avenue. Further, the Kobani attack was not only to challenge the central government but to galvanize the Kurdish people across the region in a rebirth of Kurdish nationalism. This rebirth would signal the ultimate political concretization for the Kurds in Turkey, and beyond the 2015 Parliamentary elections, for the HDP to emerge as a key political player.
However, the PKK played the blame game with Ankara which led to the derailment of the negotiation process with the moderate Kurdish movement.
These elements together pushed Ankara into a panic mood and created a semi-institutional crisis in the country. Until today the AKParti leader and appointed Premier Davutoğlu still is not able to break through in his marathon consultations with the three party leaders to form a coalition government.
After rhetorical exclusion of the HDP for ideological reasons and the MHP for political caprices, the CHP is trying in a final swing asking the impossible to form a coalition government with AKP. The CHP wants two sovereign portfolios from the AKP: the Education and Foreign Affairs ministries.
In light of last months’ suicide bombing in Suruç, an attack seemed awkward. Although portrayed as carried out by ISO militants, the attack has never been claimed by the ISO which is unusual for a terrorist organization.
If this is so, as many observers believe, then ISO has signed its own death warrant, because until that time the only “friend” they had was Ankara, according to anti-President Erdoğan media and political opponents who held he was too passive in dealing with the terrorist organization.
But this time Ankara singled out its enemy and responded with aggressive military action and law-and-order measures toward ISO by destroying its “sleeper cells” in the country.
So Ankara changed its Syrian policy paradigm, preferred the baton over the carrot on two organizations that are now believed to be imminent threats to its national security and people’s daily business safety. Thus the government authorized the bombing of ISO bases inside Syria, the PKK bases in the Șirnak mountains and their bastions in northern Iraq. Also, there were news reports of Turkish army forces clash with YPG forces in Tel-Abeid and el-Hassaka.
The Kurdish riots of last year took place ironically on the same day as President Erdoğan’s oath-taking ceremony. His first presidential test in the Kurdish region occurred in the corn fields of irate farmers joined by sympathetic young who were waiting “round the corner” for any faux pas move from Ankara.
The new President and his Premier did not worry about the corn growers and their frustration with the continuous shortage of power, but eventually the time bomb that went off in Kobani revived the idea of an autonomous Turkish-Kurdistan region and roused national security concerns beyond its southern territory.
Did Ankara intend to declare itself and stake a firm foothold in the region? Because the Suruç attack changed from a zero-problem strategy to a multi-problem one with no strategy.
Kurdish people are more suspicious than ever regarding Ankara’s position on Kobani and the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Syria. This area is of concern for Ankara, who at the meeting with the President of PYD and Co-Chair of HDP two months ago, posed some conditions before agreeing to become directly involved in the dispute.
Specifically, Ankara told the PYD not to declare the north and northeast of Syria (Rojava area – Kobani, Afrin and Qamishli) as a de facto autonomous region like the KRG north of Iraq.
The sea change that Ankara has exercised toward ISO and the PKK since the Suruç attack has left President Erdoğan swimming against the tides and currents in the Tigris’ and Euphrates’ troubled waters. It is clear that no other NATO country member shares a border with ISO implementations, so Ankara has allowed its Western allies to use its military air base in Inçirlik, Adana.
American military experts have been crying out for this overture for more than three years. Ankara is also deploying its national military manpower to contain ISO and the PKK because it sees the threat from both organizations becoming more serious.
Neither ISO nor the PKK have reacted to Ankara’s actions yet, despite the daily attacks on military forces and polices in the southern provinces of Şirnak and Deyar Bekir — knowing the country is enjoying a decade of economic prosperity and a healthy democratic process, media and civil society thrives — in short, Turkey has become an attractive window boutique for many countries in the region and the Muslim world.
Still, the fog of war looms on the country’s horizon. ISO or PKK would see Ankara’s war-on-terror policy as an opportunity to turn sworn enemies into allies to provoke a wave of terror across the country.
In sum, the troubled waters under those bridges could turn the economic prosperity and the political stability into a societal nightmare by sudden terrorist attacks on soft targets in western tourist resorts in Antalya, or Bodrum, or even Istanbul’s metro, the Sultan Ahmet Mahale, or perhaps a remake of the Sousse syndrome.
The gate of hell threatens to swing open for a country whose leaders believed it was immune from the “ghost protocol” trap.
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