Faced with mass Kurdish street protests over his inaction in response to the ISIS onslaught in neighboring Syria, Turkish President Recep Erdogan isn’t backing down. On Thursday, the leader stated,“It’s very obvious that this game is aimed at sabotaging the peaceful environment in the east and southeast as well as the peace process and our brotherhood.”
Here Erdogan is referring to a delicate peace deal brokered on his watch with the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which was set to end three decades of violent rebellion. Now the agreement is threatened by Ankara’s wait-and-see approach to the growing turmoil across the border – namely the besiegement of the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobani. Erdogan’s reluctance to launch a ground assault against the ISIS insurgency stems, in part, from fears that such a campaign would bolster Kurdish autonomy in Syria and by extension Turkey. Indeed, the Turkish president has made it clear that he equates ISIS with the Kurdish PKK, noting “It is wrong to consider them as different from each other.”
The longer Turkey waits, the greater the danger that the tenuous peace with the PKK will unravel. The movement’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan has warned that the fall of Kobani will mark the end of the ceasefire with Ankara. On Wednesday, thousands of Kurds held street protests that ended in clashes with security forces; at least 19 people were killed. Yet Erdogan has little incentive to negotiate. After all the leader has already gotten what he wants – the presidency, and parliamentary wins for his Justice and Development Party (AKP). Both were achieved in part thanks to reluctant support from Turkey’s large Kurdish electorate. Erdogan is now hoping to expand his presidential powers via a constitutional amendment, which could ride on support from Kurdish lawmakers.
But don’t expect conciliatory measures just yet. Erdogan has enjoyed a trajectory reminiscent of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Think autocratic tendencies, a shift to more conservative social policies, and an at times insular foreign policy. Yet despite pushback from Turkey’s growing urban middle class, Erdogan has held on to his seat of power and garnered nearly 52% in August’s presidential election. Nonetheless, the Kurds have remained a thorny and critical issue throughout Erdogan’s tenure – three terms as prime minister, and his current term as president — as the Turkish leader attempted to court the Kurdish vote while avoiding a backlash from his nationalist support base.
Now, however, the PKK looks to be at a disadvantage; its militants are battling ISIS themselves on two fronts (Iraq and Syria) and will be hard pressed to renew the fight within Turkey. True, Ankara could still bend to international pressure and be pulled into the conflict in Syria – albeit on its own terms. But whatever strategy Turkey adopts, Erdogan will no doubt emerge unscathed.