By Brady Jewett
The Islamic State’s (IS) latest gruesome territorial expansion has targeted Kobani (Ayn al-Arab), a small Kurdish town, just south of Turkey’s southern border in Syria. However, while leaders and groups across the world have implored Ankara to act in support of the Syrian Kurds under siege in Kobani, Turkey has chosen not only to ignore such calls, but seal its border for everyone but Peshmerga forces attempting to supply Kobani’s resisters.
Ankara’s glaring inaction has sparked protests across Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, as well as its major cities. Rather than considering the merits of the domestic and international pressure it is facing, however, Ankara is sticking to its guns—carrying out a bombing campaign of its own on Kurds, targeting strongholds of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast after reports of violent PKK harassment of military checkpoints in the areas targeted.
Domestic implications for Turkey
In bombing the PKK, Turkey is likely to end the cease-fire that has allowed for revolutionary reconciliation processes to take root between Ankara and Turkey’s Kurds over the past two years. Should events move in the trajectory they appear to be moving as of late, a descent back to the full-on insurgency that characterized the PKK of the 1990s and early 2000s is not unthinkable.
In addition to the human cost in Turkey’s Kurdish areas, however, such a slide would hurt business inside Turkey in both the short- and long-term as well. Short-term risk has already begun to be priced into markets: the Turkish Lyra is down nearly 2.9% on the dollar over the past month, and Turkish equities have fallen sharply in the same period (see charts). Kurds, it must be remembered, comprise at least 18% of the Turkish population—a not insignificant minority. Should violent tensions with the PKK and Turkey’s Kurds as a whole increase, these slides are likely to accelerate as demand and investment retract in anticipation of broader instability.
Jeopardising relations with Iraq
As an aspiring regional leader, Turkey has made commendable strides in cultivating economic and political ties to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, and its role as arbiter in tensions between Erbil and Baghdad should be applauded. Much of the progress, however, is quickly being jeopardized through Ankara’s approach to Kobani and its Kurdish population.
Turkey’s relations with Iraq’s Kurds are far from simple. Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) two parties, the PUK and the KDP have collaborated uneasily for mutual benefit for decades. Turkey turned a blind eye on Iraqi oil smuggling across its borders during the years of Iraq’s sanctions, and the KRG was ambivalent towards, if not complicit in, the Turkish military’s incursions into Iraq’s Qandil Mountains to fight the PKK.
That said, the broader population of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is much more critical of Turkey. Turkey’s role in arming anti-Assad/anti-Kurdish forces in Syria thus far have angered many in the KRI, and Turkey’s seeming indifference to the suffering in Kobani is fueling ever more critical perspectives on Turkey from the KRI’s population. Further, while the KDP and PUK may see the PKK as a potential rival in broader Kurdistan’s political landscape, the Kurdish population in Iraq tend to feel a strong bond with Turkish Kurds and the PKK.
Over the past two years, Erbil’s rapprochement with Ankara has proven incredibly beneficial to both states—not just geopolitically vis à vis Baghdad, but also economically for both the KRI and Turkey. The KRI is a major consumer of Turkish goods and services. And without Turkey agreeing to export Iraqi Kurdish oil, the KRG would have no major, viable export routes. As Kurdish natural gas comes online, it will be a valuable source of diversification, stabilizing Turkey’s tenuous energy security.
All of this, however, could quickly be tempered if the Iraqi Kurdish public becomes angry enough with Turkey’s treatment of Turkish and Syrian Kurds. Especially as a new government in Baghdad may be more inclined to act inclusively toward Erbil, the KRG may find it politically expedient—and now possible—to shift its attention and energy from Ankara back to Baghdad. Such a move could likely hurt Kurdistan and Turkey economically in the short-term, and slow Turkey’s ambitions of regional leadership over the longer-term.
Reputation abroad and EU prospects
Finally, for much of the world to watch Turkey stand aside while Kobani is thrashed will do Turkey no favors. Turkey’s reputation, going all the way back to the Second World War, as a fickle partner of Europe and the West, will only be further entrenched through its current inaction. Should the AK party continue with its authoritarian, heavy-handed approach to domestic instability (which it appears to be doing), Turkey’s long-held dream of EU membership will only slide further away.
Now is the time, if ever, for Ankara to reconsider the costs and benefits of Turkey’s anti-Assad real-political calculus. Turkey has made unbelievable strides over the past decade through reconciliation processes with its own Kurdish population and improved ties with the Kurds across its border in Iraq. This stability—and Turkey’s growing role as a regional leader—have translated into major economic gains back home and improved livelihoods throughout Turkey and the KRI. Compromising these gains to maintain its stubbornly apathetic approach to IS is reckless and shameful.
(first published in Global Risk Insights).