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CSS Analyses in Security Policy CSS

ETH Zurich
N0. 221, February 2018, Editor: Christian Nünlist

Security and Stability

in Turkey
Recent developments in Turkey have far-reaching implications.
Domestic political instability, jihadist terrorism related to the war in
Syria, and the newly inflamed Kurdish conflict have led to a marked
deterioration in the country’s security situation over the last few
years. What are the causes of this development, and what does the
future hold in terms of Turkey’s stability?

By Fabien Merz

Turkey straddles the meeting point of Eu-

rope and Asia – geographically, politically,
and culturally. An emerging economy, it is
a member of the G20, the OECD, NATO,
as well as a candidate for EU accession. Its
geographic location not only makes Turkey
a key player in the region but also means
that the country’s stability is of strategic
importance to Europe and the West. As
such, Turkey is asserting its influence in the
civil war in neighboring Syria and plays a
crucial role in managing refugee flows, the
global fight against terrorism, and the secu-
rity of NATO’s southeastern flank.

About a decade ago, prime minister Recep

Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP ( Justice and Devel-
opment Party), a socially conservative party
with roots in political Islam but liberal in
economic issues, seemed to have success- After the attempted coup on 15 July 2016, police headquarters in Ankara were damaged. Orsal/Reuters
fully reconciled an explicitly Sunni Muslim
identity with parliamentary institutions,
democratic principles, and a pro-Western
stance. However, by the summer of 2013,
the limits of this course had become appar- country experienced a failed military few years. This analysis will take a closer
ent with the violent suppression of the putsch. The government responded with look at the driving factors behind this de-
Gezi Park protests against Erdogan’s in- sweeping “purges” that also affected large velopment, with a particular focus on their
creasingly authoritarian tendencies and his parts of the security forces. All this coin- implications for the security situation
policies increasingly perceived as creeping cided with a proliferation of jihadist terror- within Turkey.
Islamization. ism within Turkey spilling over from the
Syrian civil war. Furthermore, the Kurdish An Authoritarian Turn
Since then, the authoritarian tendencies of conflict has seen a massive re-escalation After the AKP and its co-founder Erdo-
Erdogan have indeed intensified. In July since mid-2015. All of these events con- gan rose to power through democratic
2016, amid political tensions and an in- tributed to a significant deterioration of elections in 2002, Turkey initially institut-
creasingly polarized Turkish society, the stability and security in Turkey in the past ed a series of reforms that led to strong

© 2018 Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich 1

CSS Analyses in Security Policy  No. 221, February 2018

economic growth and an entrenchment of There have also been repeated power strug- tively supporting jihadist militias operating
democratic principles, together with a pro- gles between different interest groups in Syria, including the “Islamic State” (IS).
Western stance. Official accession negotia- within the Turkish state – including be- The charges ranged from implicit permis-
tions between Turkey and the EU began in tween the AKP and one of its former allies, sion for personnel and material reinforce-
2005. the Islamic Gülen movement, which was ments to cross the border and purchases of
mainly entrenched in Turkey’s judicial and oil extracted by the IS to more active sup-
The first noticeable cracks in this new pic- educational systems. The AKP responded ply of weapons and material.
ture of Turkey appeared in 2008, when, re- with dismissals and arrests of political op-
sponding to internal power struggles, waves ponents, both within and outside the state It is currently difficult to assess the degree
of arrests and trials of political opponents structures. of veracity of these accusations indepen-
revealed Erdogan’s drift towards authori- dently. However, Turkish support for jihad-
tarianism. The true turning point however A Coup Attempt and its Aftermath ist militias could to some extent be ratio-
occurred in the summer of 2013, as the It is in this domestic climate marked by in- nalized on the basis of Ankara’s strategic
government violently responded to the ternal power struggles and an increasingly imperatives in Syria. At least in certain ar-
Gezi Park protests. These demonstrations polarized society that a military coup took eas – and especially in the initial stages of
had initially focused on protecting Istan- place during the night of 15 July 2016. The the Syrian civil war – there was indeed an
bul’s green spaces from construction proj- government blamed the Gülen movement undeniable convergence of Turkey’s inter-
ects but soon grew massively in size and for the attempted putsch. The ruling AKP ests in Syria with those of jihadist militias,
increasingly turned against Erdogan him- and Erdogan responded with mass arrests including, from 2013 onwards, IS. For in-
self and his authoritarian tendencies as well of suspected Gülen sympathizers in the stance, IS was engaged in bitter fighting
as his policy of gradual Islamization. The public administration, the judiciary system, with the Syrian Kurds in northern Syria,
Turkish government was admonished for and among the military and security forces. near the Turkish border. In the chaos of the
its crackdown on the protests, including by Within just a few days, tens of thousands of civil war, the Syrian Kurds had quickly es-
the US and the EU, which subsequently state employees had been suspended or ar- tablished control of the areas in which they
placed its accession talks with Turkey on rested – mainly soldiers, police officers, formed the majority, and had proclaimed
hold. judges, and state prosecutors. Among those the de-facto autonomous region of Rojava
arrested and dishonorably discharged were along the Turkish border (see map). Anka-
The tendencies within Erdogan’s AKP also more than 160 admirals
government to undermine democratic
standards and subvert the secularist prin-
and generals – which amounted
to almost half of the effectives in
Security has markedly
ciples enshrined in the Turkish constitu- these ranks. Further, under the deteriorated in Turkey over
tion have since become systematic in na-
ture. Erdogan’s government has, among
terms of the newly declared
state of emergency, around
the last few years.
other things, increased the pressure on civil 120,000 people had been sacked
society actors and the media, periodically and around 40,000 arrested by April 2017. ra regards the strongest of the Syrian Kurd-
limited access to various social media, and Observers point out that the government ish militias, the People’s Protection Units
passed laws that have further eroded the also used the attempted coup to justify even (YPG) and the Women’s Protection Units
constitutional mechanisms for controlling harsher measures against political oppo- (YPJ), as extensions of the Kurdistan
the executive as well as the principles of nents and critics of the government who Workers’ Party (PKK), and thus as terrorist
secularism. These developments led the had not been involved in the aborted coup. groups. Therefore, based on considerations
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of related to the Kurdish issue in Turkey, An-
Europe to note in a resolution in June 2016 In addition to the destabilizing effects of kara’s main priority has been to weaken the
that recent developments in Turkey per- the putsch itself and its influence on the Kurds of Syria as far as possible. Also, ji-
taining to freedom of the media and of ex- further stiffening of the government’s re- hadist groups, including IS, managed to
pression, erosion of the rule of law, and hu- pressive course, the “waves of purges” build themselves up as a counterweight to
man rights violations have raised serious among the security forces are of particular Bashar al-Assad’s regime within the Syrian
questions about the functioning of its dem- importance for the security situation in conflict from 2013 onwards, against which
ocratic institutions. Turkey, impeding the Turkish state’s ability Turkey had taken a clear position since the
to adequately deal with the other security start of the uprising in 2011.
These developments further strongly polar- policy challenges facing the country. In
ize the Turkish population. Erdogan is sup- these regards, jihadist terrorism spilling About-face: Turkey Changes Course
ported by the rural, often poorer, and more over from the war in Syria and the Kurdish Initially, Turkish authorities argued that
religious classes, while the coastal and gen- conflict, which has once more escalated concerns over retaliatory attacks prevented
erally more secular urban centers, as well as into open fighting, are particularly worri- a more determined stance towards IS. Ir-
the majority of the ethnic Kurds strongly some respective of whether accusations of Turkey
oppose his policies. Rural support has al- adopting a laissez-faire or even cooperative
lowed the AKP and Erdogan to decide Turkey and the “Islamic State” stance vis-à-vis the jihadists are true, it is
crucial elections in their favor, though One of the main security policy challenges notable that Turkey’s posture towards IS
sometimes only by slim margins. This in- currently facing Turkey is related to the ji- has significantly hardened since mid-2015.
cludes the parliamentary elections of 2011 hadist militias fighting in the war in Syria. The pressure US and its allies exerted on
and, after snap elections, also in 2015, as Especially until mid-2015, there had been Ankara to take a more aggressive approach
well as the highly controversial constitu- widespread accusations that Turkey was in dealing with IS might be one of the rea-
tional referendum of 2017. passively or in certain instances even ac- sons causing this Turkish about-face.

© 2018 Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich 2

CSS Analyses in Security Policy  No. 221, February 2018

event organized by a pro-Kurdish youth

Turkish Military Operations in Syria (Territorial Control as of January 2017)
party. Groups with links to the PKK retali-
ated with attacks against Turkish security
forces for their perceived inaction and com-
plicity. These developments set off a chain
reaction of Turkish air strikes against PKK
targets in northern Iraq, new waves of ar-
rests in Turkey, and new attacks by the PKK
and other Kurdish groups that ultimately
caused the peace talks to break down.

The cycle of violence culminated in a series

of attacks by the PKK and other Kurdish
groups and a large-scale operation by the
Turkish security forces in southeastern
Turkey, where most of Turkey’s ethnic
Kurdish minority lives. According to the
UN and various human rights organiza-
tions, the Turkish security forces also indis-
criminately assaulted civilians living there.
The International Crisis Group assesses
that about 3,300 people were killed in
clashes between the Turkish security forces
and Kurdish groups between July 2015 and
March 2017.The newly inflamed Kurdish
conflict in Turkey in conjecture with IS’s
At the end of July 2015, the Turkish au- injuring hundreds, which partially coincid- terrorist campaign have destabilized the
thorities carried out large-scale raids, in- ed with massive post-coup purges of the se- security situation in Turkey and caused it to
cluding against jihadist networks operating curity forces, caused a significant deteriora- further deteriorate.
on the country’s territory. Also, from late tion of the security situation in the country.
July 2015 onwards, the US was granted It is difficult to assess to what extent strate-
permission to use the Incirlik air base for The Kurdish Question gic considerations of the AKP regarding
its campaign against IS, which Turkey had The Kurdish conflict, which has festered in the July 2015 parliamentary election in
initially refused despite having been a Turkey for decades, has led to further nega- Turkey may have played into the escalation
member of the international coalition tive effects on the security situation and of the Kurdistan conflict. These elections
against IS since September 2014. More- stability of the country. From 2013 on- had seen the AKP lose its parliamentary
over, in August 2016, Turkey staged a mili- wards, progress had initially been made in majority for the first time since 2002 due to
tary intervention in northern Syria – offi- the peace talks between the Turkish gov- a stronger showing by the pro-Kurdish
cially, in order to push IS out of the areas ernment and the PKK. Despite these suc- HDP. Erdogan and the AKP were accused
under its control along the Turkish border. cesses, however, the peace was
However, that intervention simultaneously an extremely fragile one. Ten- IS responded to Ankara’s tougher
allowed Turkey to prevent the Syrian Kurds
from establishing a geographic link be-
sions flared up anew when the
Kurdish border town of Kobane
stance by stepping up the
tween the areas under their control in was besieged by IS in the winter number of attacks inside Turkey.
northern Syria, and thus weakened their of 2014/2015. During the ini-
position in Syria (see map). tial stages of the siege, Turkey refused to of stoking the conflict and using it to whip
allow any supplies to reach the city, which up nationalist fervor against the Kurds and
The “Islamic State” Strikes Back was cut off on the Syrian side by IS and the HDP in order to retake the parliamen-
From the summer of 2015 onwards, IS re- held by YPG and YPJ fighters. This tary majority at snap elections called in
sponded to Ankara’s tougher stance by prompted increasingly vociferous accusa- November 2015.
stepping up the number of attacks inside tions by Turkish Kurds towards the Turkish
Turkey. Unlike earlier IS operations within government for allegedly allowing IS to Outlook
the country, this wave of attacks was not operate on its territory, of instrumentaliz- The domestic political climate, marked by
primarily directed at Kurdish or Kurdish- ing IS against the Kurds, and even of ac- severe polarization in society and political
linked targets, but directly and systemati- tively supporting the group. As a result, jockeying, together with the rekindled
cally targeted the Turkish state and Turkish tensions and Kurdish protests broke out in Kurdish conflict and IS’s terrorism cam-
society. In October 2015, a bomb was deto- Turkey in late 2014. paign, added up to a unfavorable amalga-
nated in Ankara. In January and March mation of factors that have had severely
2016, Istanbul was hit by suicide attacks, A Conflict Rekindled deleterious effects on Turkey’s stability and
and in June of the same year, Istanbul’s In July 2015, IS carried out devastating at- security situation in recent years.
Atatürk airport was attacked. In January tacks against a gathering of the pro-Kurd-
2017, the chosen target was a nightclub in ish HDP opposition party, followed just While IS may be almost vanquished in
Istanbul. This campaign of IS killing and weeks later by a comparable attack on an military terms, its ability to carry out at-

© 2018 Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich 3

CSS Analyses in Security Policy  No. 221, February 2018

ings with the IS. In the long term, the pres- endum was adopted by the slimmest of
Implications for Switzerland
ence of jihadist groups in Idlib serves no- majorities that will massively strengthen
The security situation in Turkey also has body’s interests, including Turkey’s. IS’s Erdogan’s powers at the expense of the ju-
implications for Switzerland. In 2015, terrorist attacks should have clearly shown diciary and the parliament. It remains to be
Switzerland was the 12th largest interna- that jihadists can also target Turkey when seen whether this reform will stabilize the
tional investor in Turkey. Security of Swiss
citizens in Turkey is also of importance. In circumstances change. situation in Turkey, as its advocates expect,
2016, some 215,000 Swiss tourists visited the or whether it will reinforce the govern-
county, while 4,422 Swiss citizens were Despite the Turkish efforts to keep the ment’s authoritarian course by eroding the
residents in Turkey. In adition, events in Kurds of Syria as weak as possible, the lat- separation of powers, as the critics fear. The
Turkey can also lead to political tensions and ter currently control large parts of the bor- majority of independent observers in
even violence between diaspora communi-
ties living in Switzerland. der region on the Syrian side. They have Western Europe and North America be-
established themselves as a key actor in any lieve that the latter scenario, potentially
future solution of the Syrian conflict, and causing more instability, is the likelier one.
they benefit from support and political
backing from the US and Russia. The Turk- Turkey today finds itself at a crossroads.
ish military operation in Afrin, in northern Will the country manage to heal the
tacks in Turkey is by no means broken. Syria, which began in January 2018 with wounds of domestic strife and extricate it-
Moreover, in October 2017, Turkey inter- the aim of driving the YPG/YPJ forces out self from the destabilizing vortex of Syria’s
vened militarily in Syria’s Idlib province of the region, creates further considerable civil war? The answer will ultimately not
(see map) with the stated aim of establish- risks for stability and security within Tur- only determine the security, the stability,
ing a humanitarian corridor. However, ob- key. While the operation is in line with and ultimately the development of the
servers point out that Turkey also aims at Ankara’s security policy priorities – pre- country itself. Due to Turkey’s geostrategic
containing a possible Kurdish expansion venting the establishment of an autono- importance, it will also influence the stabil-
and encircling the Kurdish-controlled Af- mous Kurdish territory on its border – it ity and security of the entire region, of Eu-
rin region. There are furthermore indica- could also lead to more cross-border soli- rope and the West at large.
tions that Turkey to a certain extent seems darity among the Kurds, as was the case
prepared to tolerate jihadist groups close to during the Kobane siege of 2014/2015, and
al-Qaida that have a strong foothold in the therefore risks further fanning the flames
province. Whatever its motives, Turkey of the Kurdish conflict within Turkey. Fabien Merz is a Researcher in the think-tank team
risks creating new acute security problems “Swiss and Euro-Atlantic Security” at the Center
in the future due to its prioritization of an- The country will therefore continue to face for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. Among
tagonizing the Syrian Kurds, similarly to acute security policy challenges in the near other things, he is the author of “Dealing with
what it had also been accused of in its deal- future. In July 2017, a constitutional refer- Jihadist Returnees: A Tough Challenge” (2017).

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