As the battle against the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as they now call themselves) heats up south of Turkey's border, Ankara has been accused of awkwardly sitting on the sidelines as its allies fight the organization -- or, even worse, providing support to the group.
But is the Turkish government now preparing to enter the battle against ISIS? In recent days, Turkish tanks have been deployed along the Syrian border, in an area where Kurdish fighters are battling an ISIS advance (resulting in a wave of refugees entering Turkey). More significantly, the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forwarded to parliament a motion that would allow Turkey to send troops into both Syria and Iraq (a vote on the bill, which is almost certain to pass, is expected on Thursday). Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The mandate the Turkish government is seeking from the Parliament to authorize the army to send troops into Iraq and Syria to deal with growing threat of extremist jihadists does also include opening its bases to foreign troops, a senior government official has said, signalling about potential Turkish contribution to the international military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The rapid advance by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in northern and central Iraq and their takeover of the Turkish consulate in the city of Mosul is presenting Ankara with a host of new political, diplomatic and security challenges.
After ISIS fighters took over Mosul yesterday with barely a shot fired, members of the previously al Qaeda-linked group stormed the Turkish consulate, taking 49 people hostage, including the consul general and three children (this is in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers detained earlier by ISIS). The Turkish consulate in Mosul, the only foreign diplomatic presence in the city, a former Ottoman provincial capital, has been a source of pride for Ankara, which saw the mission as an important reflection of Turkey's growing political and economic presence in northern Iraq and its growing outreach to Middle Eastern neighbors.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, the fall of Mosul into ISIS's hands and the capture of the consulate dramatically changes Turkey's position and ability to operate in that part of Iraq. From the WSJ:
[ISIS's] capture of the mission also fuels mounting threats against Turkey's interests across its southern border, with diplomatic hostages joining about 30 Turkish truck drivers who were kidnapped Tuesday while carrying diesel from Turkey's southern port of Iskenderun to a power plant in Mosul.
"There is an emergency situation right now," a senior government official said. "(ISIS) is a very worrying organization and we can't be sure about how they're treating people and we don't know what to expect from them."
The massive Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, which helped send a large number of high-profile Turks (numerous generals among them) to jail on charges of planning a coup, were hailed by many as an important step in finally confronting the troubling history of Turkey's "Deep State" and in finally breaking the military's unhealthy hold on political life.
Those were certainly noble objectives, but from the beginning of those cases there were those who asked if the evidence in the trials really held up. Already in 2009, analyst Gareth Jenkins issued a highly critical report about the Ergenkon case, writing: "Despite its extraordinary length, the indictment produced no evidence that the Ergenekon organization it described even existed, much less that the accused were all members and engaged in a coordinated terrorist campaign to overthrow the government."
Economist and blogger Dani Rodrik (whose father-in-law was one of the generals caught up in the Balyoz (or "Sledgehammer") investigation) was also an early and constant critic of the cases and Istanbul-based journalist Alexander Christie-Miller produced some very good pieces noting the profound problems with the evidence used in the trials (take a look at this article in The Times (London) from 2011).
After a lengthy five-year trial, a Turkish court today delivered its verdict in the now notorious “Ergenekon” case, in which several hundred were accused of taking part in a plot to overthrow the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But while the court may have made its decision, the case leaves behind many unanswered questions about the fairness of the trial and the sentences handed down, as well as about whether the proceedings were able to succeed in fulfilling one of the original promises of the Ergenekon case: to shed light on some of the dark chapters of Turkey’s recent history.
At the heart of the trial was the discovery in 2007 of a stash of hand grenades found hidden in the home of a retired military officer in Istanbul’s Umraniye neighborhood. From there, Ergenekon grew into a sprawling and sometimes bizarre case that involved 275 defendants, many of them pillars of Turkey’s secular establishment, and 23 different indictments, each more complex than the other. What kept it all together was the state’s contention that there existed a widespread ultranationalist plot to bring the government down, through a combination of destabilizing violent attacks, the spreading of anti-government propaganda and other means (one indictment suggested investigators had found evidence that some of the defendants had drawn up plans to manufacture and sell chemical and biological weapons, using the proceeds to bankroll their other activities).
In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
The Turkish response has been swift. Along with responding with its own artillery, Ankara has beefed up its forces along the Syrian border, while the parliament approved yesterday a motion that allows the government to send troops into "foreign countries" if deemed necessary. The motion is valid for one year.
Along with the escalation in military activity along the border, there has also been an escalation in rhetoric. Although Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday that Turkey is "not interested" in starting a war, a speech he gave today was more strident. Reports Reuters:
Striking a belligerent tone in a speech to a crowd in Istanbul, Erdogan said: "We are not interested in war, but we're not far from it either. This nation has come to where it is today having gone through intercontinental wars.
After months and months of simmering tensions, Turkey and Syria have now stepped closer towards open military confrontation. Soon after mortar rounds fired from inside Syria today landed in a Turkish border town, killing five and wounding several others, Turkish forces replied with artillery fire aimed at Syrian military targets. "Turkey, within rules of engagement and international laws, will never leave unanswered the provocations of the Syrian regime targeting Turkey's national security," a statement released by the Turkish Prime Minister's office said.
The cross-border shelling represents the most serious and dangerous escalation yet between Ankara and Damascus, former friends which have been growing increasingly hostile towards each other since the start of the uprising in Syria last year and after Turkey started openly supporting elements of the Syrian opposition. Up until now, though, Turkey has refrained from engaging with Syria militarily, even after a Turkish jet was shot down this past June while flying off the Syrian coast.
Like so many other recent political and judicial moves in Turkey, the final verdict that was handed down the other day in the "Sledgehammer" case -- in which more than 300 active and retired military officers, among them some generals, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government -- offers little resolution, only further deepening the political divide in the country.
To be sure, the 21-month case and the sentencing of the officers were history-making, the first time that members of Turkey's previously untouchable military found themselves on trial and then convicted for planning to do the kind of thing that their predecessors had done four times in the past. Needless to say, the final verdict makes it clear that the power equation in Turkey has changed for good and that the powerful military has been neutered as a political force. The military's rather tame response to the verdict, saying that it "shares the sorrow" of those were convicted and their family members, is a far cry from the more muscular kind of pronouncements the Turkish generals used to make when they weren't happy with things.
As the Kurdish issue in Turkey continues to heat up, both politically and militarily, the question of how Ankara should deal with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) becomes one that's both more urgent yet also harder to answer.
In a new report released last week, the International Crisis Group steps into the breach, urging both the Turkish government and the PKK to step back from further confrontation and providing some very sensible suggestions that provide a way towards finding settling the long-standing Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
I recently sent Hugh Pope, ICG's Turkey analyst and the report's main author, a list of questions that follow up on some of the paper's observations and recommendations. Pope, a veteran Turkey observers who was previously the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in the country, was kind enough to provide some illuminating answers. Our exchange is below:
1. Many commentators are saying that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, is moving back to a harder, more nationalist stance on the Kurdish issue. Based on your research for your report, do you think this is a correct assessment?
Recent weeks have seen the Kurdish issue in Turkey intensify and become more violent, in many ways marking a return to the kind of activity seen in the 1980's and 90's, at the height of the conflict between the Turkish military and the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
In late July, PKK militants essentially took over a chunk of territory surrounding the town of Semdinli, near where Turkey's border meets those of both Iran and Iraq, and then fought a 20-day battle with the Turkish military before finally being dislodged. Last week, a PKK unit operating in eastern Turkey kidnapped a member of parliament from that region, releasing the MP -- Huseyin Aygun from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) -- after 48 hours. And although there has been no claim of responsibility, the Turkish press has been quick to blame the PKK for a large car bomb explosion that occurred today near Gaziantep in southern Turkey, in which at least eight were killed and 60 injured.
Meanwhile, the growing violence is starting to put a strain on Turkey's already polarized domestic political scene, pitting the country's major political parties against the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Several senior members of the party are being investigated by a prosecutor after they were seen in a recent video chatting with and hugging PKK members at a roadblock in southeastern Turkey.