Western coverage of Turkey has lauded its recent crackdown against ISIS, but Turkey's simultaneous strikes against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) are inflaming the country's Kurdish problem into an even bigger challenge.
Turkey quickly rallied against ISIS following a July 20th suicide bombing--attributed to ISIS--that killed 33 people in the southeastern city of Suruc. Turkish planes began bombing ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq and the government inked a deal allowing the US to do the same from Turkey's Incirlik Air Base. And Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan basked in international approval for having finally, finally proven his mettle against ISIS after years of waffling and lip service.
But despite the crackdown, ISIS sympathizers attacked again on October 10th, killing 102 people at a train station in Ankara. (In a surreal twist, one of the alleged Ankara bombers was identified as the brother of the Suruc bomber.)
Turkey reiterated its commitment to ending domestic terrorism. Unfortunately, its bungled attempts to do so are actually compounding the problem. President Erdogan may have gotten serious about ISIS, but he also seized on the Suruc tragedy to justify the launch of a broad "anti-terror" effort that hit the Kurdish separatist PKK just as hard as it hit ISIS--probably harder.
Turkish media bragged about arresting hundreds of terrorists within days of the Suruc bombing--but pro-government outlets failed to mention that most of those rounded up were alleged PKK supporters, not ISIS members. Bombings, too, focused more on PKK targets in southeastern Turkey and northern Iraq than on ISIS-held areas. In Kurdish-majority cities like Cizre, authorities met protests with restrictive curfews and clashes that ultimately killed dozens of fighters and civilians.
Cynics wonder if Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought vengeance against Kurds after the June 2015 Parliamentary elections, in which the AKP failed to win an outright majority for the first time since 2002. Also for the first time, the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) exceeded the 10 percent threshold needed to enter Parliament, ensuring Kurds' formal national representation.
Turkey's crackdown on the PKK seems especially heavy-handed given that the government and the PKK were formally part of peace negotiations until just before the Suruc bombing (though the negotiations had declined in the preceding months).
That peace process kicked off with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan's March 2013 declaration of a unilateral ceasefire. In return, the PKK demanded greater Kurdish cultural rights, regional autonomy, and amnesty for fighters (much tamer conditions than their erstwhile insistence on outright separation from the Turkish state).
Kurds in southeastern Turkey, following decades of instability, expressed relief. But officials in Ankara were split between those who earnestly welcomed the negotiations and leaders like Erdogan, whose grudge against the Kurds (compounded by a neo-Ottoman desire to prove Turkey a strong regional leader, not to be trifled with) couldn't be stamped out, even in favor of peace.
Government opponents criticized the Turkish government's negotiations of having been insincere all along, a smokescreen designed to win Kurdish votes. They envisioned a twitchy Erdogan ready to pull a hair-trigger against the Kurds following the election results (though the PKK is certainly not blameless, with deadly PKK attacks against police officers and military outposts rising in the last year). With Suruc in smoke, the story goes, he was able to set in motion a renewed offensive against Turkey's longtime internal enemy. And Turkey has, at its worst, treated all its Kurdish inhabitants--not just PKK fighters--more like enemies than citizens.
Turkey's behavior is particularly troublesome to Kurds because they were the main targets of the ISIS suicide bombings: in Suruc, several hundred young socialists, most of them Kurds, were marching in opposition to ISIS before traveling across the border to Kobane, Syria, where they planned to help rebuild the Kurdish town following a months-long ISIS siege that finally ended in January 2015.
In Ankara, too, those convening at the train station on October 10th were attending a rally co-sponsored by the HDP. The rally meant to protest, irony of ironies, the violence between Turkey and the PKK since the Suruc bombing three months earlier.
Despite all the tension that has unfurled since Suruc, the PKK declared a unilateral ceasefire once again on October 10th--except for retaliatory hits should Turkey continue to attack the group. An AKP representative for the government admitted that the declaration is a positive step, but gave no indication that the PKK will remain anything but the center of its anti-terror policy.
A government coalition never came together after the inconclusive June election, so President Erdogan announced a snap election to take place on November 1st. Given the recent anti-Kurdish crackdown, Kurds are likely to assemble against the AKP even more decidedly than they did in June. And with Kurds comprising approximately 20 percent of Turkey's nearly 80 million people, the AKP may be facing the ire of 16 million seething Kurds. Leaders like Erdogan would be wise to ease tensions with the Kurds if only for their own electoral chances.
Unfortunately, it's not just politics hanging in the balance, but actual violence. Of course ISIS's suicide bombings are a major and immediate threat to Turkish security, but Turkey has been foolhardy to inflame the Kurdish situation, effectively instigating a second front of its war effort. Turkey should recommit itself to securing the peace process just as it focuses on undermining ISIS. Otherwise, civil strife will harm Turkey even after ISIS is gone.
This article was originally published on the New America Weekly Wonk.