Latest atrocity shows Turkey at risk of spiralling out of control
Urban warfare a possibility as EU-Turkey relations become more complex, writes Aengus Collins
Published 20/03/2016 | 02:30
Yesterday's suicide bomb attack in Istanbul, in which at least two Irish citizens were injured, has again brought terrorist violence to the very heart of the Turkish republic.
Coming only a week after a much deadlier suicide car bomb attack in Ankara, and following an upsurge in political and military violence last year, it suggests that the country is at risk of spiralling out of control.
Istiklal Caddesi, where yesterday's attack occurred, is to Istanbul something like what Grafton Street is to Dublin: a pedestrian thoroughway that plays an integral role in the city's life. Istanbul is too vast and sprawling to have a single central zone, but Istiklal is one of its pulse points. Almost everyone who has visited Istanbul will have walked it. For a suicide bomb to have detonated there will be almost unimaginably traumatic. It will not go unanswered; things are going to get worse.
It is not yet clear who was responsible, but there are only two real possibilities: Kurdish militants aligned with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), or members of Islamic State or one of its satellite groups. At this early juncture, the former seems more likely. The Ankara attack a week ago was claimed by an off-shoot of the PKK and came only days after an alarming interview with one of the PKK's leaders, Cemil Bayık, in which he said the rules of engagement were changing and that all Turkish targets would now be deemed legitimate.
The roots of Turkey's predicament run deep, but the politics of the last few years have done much to push the country towards the abyss. All political life in Turkey now revolves around the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who first came to power in the early 2000s, and who has been charting an increasingly polarising and authoritarian course for the country since at least 2007.
When it suited his political ends, Mr Erdogan made steps towards resolving the Kurdish question that none his predecessors had dared to make. There were moves towards improved cultural and political rights for Turkey's large Kurdish minority, and the initiation of a once-unimaginable peace process, including negotiations with the PKK leadership.
However, Mr Erdogan's commitment to this process was purely tactical. As soon as his needs changed, so did his policy. That happened last year. Mr Erdogan needs his party in parliament - the Justice and Development Party (AKP) - to achieve a super-majority so that it can initiate a process of constitutional reform that will transfer executive powers to him in the presidency. (He was previously prime minister, but he wants the more centralised power of a presidential system.)
In a general election last June, however, far from achieving a super-majority, the AKP lost its simple majority, triggering a period of instability and a new set of elections in November. It was between the two elections that Mr Erdogan upended his Kurdish policy, demonising Kurdish politicians as terrorist sympathisers and renewing the military's attacks on PKK bases in northern Iraq and elsewhere.
His electoral aim was twofold: to win votes for the AKP from hardline Turkish nationalists and from moderate Kurds. It worked. In a second general election held in November, the AKP restored its overall majority.
Ostensibly, this returned Turkey to the pre-June status quo. But the seeds had been sown for the chaos that is now beginning to unfold.
The Kurdish conflict began about four decades ago; tens of thousands of people have been killed, particularly in the 1990s. Worryingly, if the conflict slides back towards high-intensity violence, there is every likelihood that it will be significantly worse than in the 1990s. Back then, the conflict was largely contained in the predominantly Kurdish and heavily militarised south-east of Turkey. And a lot of it involved clashes in remote areas between PKK militants and Turkish armed forces.
The demographics and geography are very different now. Huge numbers of Kurds have moved from the poorly developed south-east to Turkey's biggest cities - Istanbul has become the city with the largest Kurdish population.
The risk of urban or guerilla warfare has increased greatly. So too has the risk that younger, less disciplined and more extreme militant groups will supplant the PKK.
All of this is taking place at a time when Turkey is at the heart of the EU's efforts to deal with the refugee crisis. It won't be true for long, but it is true at this current moment: the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. However, we shouldn't read too much into this. It is unlikely to alter significantly the prospect of Turkey eventually joining the EU, which, in my view, is close to zero.
Yes, the EU had to bend its knee to Mr Erdogan and his prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. And yes, the Turkish government has made some big demands in return for its co-operation with the one-for-one deal with which EU leaders hope to prevent the refugee crisis tearing the EU asunder.
But the fundamental political realities are these. First, for Turkey to join the EU would require the unanimous agreement of all 28 existing member states. To put it mildly, it would require a sea-change in political sentiment across the European continent for this to occur.
Second, the Turkish government may frequently rail against the unfairness of the accession processes - Turkey has been seeking membership since the 1960s - but much of this is an assertion of national pride rather than an expression of real political will to join.
Mr Erdogan has spent most of the last 10 years side-lining any domestic institutions or individuals that have had the scope to constrain his authority. The idea that he might want to submit himself to the myriad constraints of EU membership is implausible.
The biggest risk that stems from the current state of EU-Turkish relations isn't that Turkey's membership application might be fast-tracked as part of some refugee deal.
It's that EU leaders are too preoccupied with their own crises to prevail on all parties in Turkey to step back from the brink of a potentially disastrous conflict.
Aengus Collins is Chief EU Analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit. He was based in Istanbul from 2007 to 2011