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Turkey: the challenges ahead

By Ali Jaswal
December 19, 2015

What was once the centre for great civilisations of human history has again become caught in international politics, due to its extremely strategic geographical location.

Turkey, an important Nato member and one of the strongest Muslim states there are, is surrounded by endless turmoil what with the increasing entanglement of the global power-brokers in the Middle Eastern region, specifically Syria.

Although the recent Turkish elections created some stability within the political framework of the country, the extent of challenges are growing every day. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has successfully managed to attain a clear majority in parliament – 317 seats – while the pro-Kurdish movement secular People’s Democratic Party (HDP) slightly crossed the 10 percent threshold of the total votes required in the Turkish parliamentary system to get recognition as a political party.

The Secular Republican People’s Party secured 134 seats in parliament, the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party got 40 seats and the HDP managed to get 59 seats. In the last elections, the HDP emerged as a strong force that apparently changed the political dynamics of Turkey. It was largely supported by the Kurds and the secular segment of society.

The decline of the HDP in the latest elections has numerous implications for Turkey as well as for regional politics. The deadly bomb blasts in July and October this year targeting the Kurds had affected the Kurdish movement in Turkey and politically sidelined their cause, apparently creating some sort of political stability for AKP.

Till now Turkey has played very cautiously in the conflict in Syria and Iraq. It has been targeting the Kurds in Iraq and Syria together with supporting many factions of the Syrian rebels fighting against the Assad regime. Turkey has also been accused of supporting Isis since it did not crack down on the support base of Isis at home until the two blasts this year. Moreover, Turkey did not seal its border, which is some think has led to an influx of Isis militants in Iraq and Syria.

A major challenge for Turkey arose with the Russian entanglement in Syria in support of Assad. Turkey has long been backing efforts to overthrow Assad. With the involvement of Russia in the conflict, there is a severe national security crisis in Turkey.

The downing of the Russian warplane has brought the two states into conflict. Russia and Iran are accusing Turkey of purchasing oil from Isis through the black market; this, they say, is providing economic strength to the de facto state of Isis. Beside these allegations, Russia is also looking to halt economic cooperation with Turkey.

Russia and Turkey had developed good economic relations over the last decade, despite long historical hostility. Turkey gets 55 percent of its natural gas and 30 percent oil from Russia. Russian statistics show that in 2014, Russia sold $24.5 billion of products to Turkey, while Turkey just got $6.7 billion from its exports to Russia.

According to the Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, the economic sanctions by Moscow could possibly cost around $9 billion to the Turkish economy. But things will not remain simple for Moscow either as the Bosphorus channel is the only route that it can utilise to approach the oceans of the world.

Relations between the two further intensified with the recent rocket launcher incident in which military personnel on a Russian naval war ship pointed the rocket launcher while passing through Istanbul. Turkey called the Russian ambassador and protested against the incident, terming it an act of ‘provocation’.

Furthermore, Russia is calling for a closed-door UN Security Council session to denounce Turkey’s military intervention in Iraq and Syria, whereas Turkey is blaming Russia for the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Syrian Turkmen. It has announced economic sanctions in retribution if these acts are not stoppsed. An old conflict, between Turkish-supported Azerbaijan and Russian-supported Armenia, has also recently started to accelerate. This could possibly cause a clash in the Southern Caucasus region.

The contentious rift between the two countries is a serious crisis. During the Great Game period, in the first half of the 19th century after defeating Napoleon, the Russians were just a few miles away from Constantinople. Keeping in mind the Russian strategic policy towards Ukraine and their engagement in Syria, the situation is alarming for Turkey.

However, this is not the only challenge to Turkey. The growing Kurdish control in Iraq and Syria is the mother of all challenges. Peshmerga, YPG and PKK are successfully gaining ground. Although the PKK has been declared a terrorist organisation by Nato and the EU, on the battleground of Iraq and Syria it is getting immense support from the US and Russia. This is encouraging the Kurdish movement in Turkey, where one in five persons is a Kurd.

Iraq and Syria have practically lost their international boundaries. In this complex scenario the Kurds’ struggle for a separate Kurdistan State is gaining vigorous momentum across the Kurd-dominated areas in Iraq, Syria and Turkey. This is a major national security challenge to Turkey when one looks at the strong support given to the Kurds by the US, Iran and to some extent Russia now.

In the current multi-polar world politics, the formation of the ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition by Saudi Arabia – involving 34 Muslim countries including Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia and Egypt, and excluding Iran and its partners Iraq and Syria – is an important development.

Turkey is facing serious security challenges both internally and externally. As one of the strongest Muslim countries it has an important role to play in the expanding conflict within the Muslim world. The augmenting polarisation in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Horn of Africa on the one end, while the growing insurgency in Central Asia and Caucasus on the other end would directly or indirectly have a profound impact over Turkey.

Especially with respect to the ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition, militants all across the world might perceive Turkey to be a vital target to establish a strong command and control centre, since it is connected with Iraq, Syria along with the Caucasus and Europe. The majority of the forces in the coalition some way or the other are influenced under the banner of different global powers and have diverse policies towards different insurgent groups. But they all are, to some extent, against extremism.

Turkey has to critically read the international political chessboard in terms of the power struggle between the global power-brokers in the battleground staged in the Middle East. With the strong growth and expansion of trans-national actors, the traditional organs of the international establishment –the IMF, World Bank etc – are getting irrelevant and the conventional status quo is losing its grip.

Apart from multiple loopholes, the alliance – if handled carefully – has the potential to establish a new political house of cards in the complex multi-polar sphere of world politics.

The writer is a research analyst.

Twitter: @Ali_Jaswal