Winter is Coming 1

A Turkish winter looks to confront an Arab Spring, and it is coming with unexpected consequences for the region.

By: Egemen Bezci

Turkey’s counterinsurgency policies under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed terrorist group, has provoked numerous debates regarding the intentions of the Turkish government both in Turkey and the international arena. Some have argued that the AKP government used this counterinsurgency campaign to oppress political opposition in the country, while others have argued that the AKP is not being forceful enough and is showing weakness in proposals to negotiate with terrorists. Iraqi officials repeatedly stated that Turkish army forces have been violating Iraqi sovereignty by targeting PKK bases in northern Iraq. With these conflicting assessments, it is difficult to analyze the motives and aims behind the Turkish counterinsurgency campaign, but at the core of the matter, Turkish policymakers want to enjoy a calm and stable domestic arena to prepare the new constitution that, they hope, will settle the longstanding conflict with Turkey’s Kurdish community. The priority now is to gain public support for the preparation of  new constitution.

Last summer did not pass as calmly as Turkish decision makers wanted. After the collapse of the clandestine Oslo negotiations between a cadre of PKK leaders in Europe and Turkish officials from National Intelligence Organization (MİT), both parties entered into a new phase. Cemil Bayik, a hawkish figure from PKK’s executive council, declared that the PKK’s primary purpose would be to weaken the AKP government. The AKP, since it came to power in 2002, has enjoyed a popularity primarily underwritten by the relative stability of the country, both economically and politically. This was especially noticeable after the 2007 presidential elections and the AKP’s maneuver towards balancing civil-military relations, a move which has resulted in a strong one-party rule with the AKP securing a majority of the seats in parliament. Moreover, the AKP has increased their share of votes in every election they’ve participated in since 2002. The AKP government would most likely want to enter the local elections in 2013 and presidential elections in 2014 within a stable and calm political environment, hopefully ensuring that, again, the AKP can increase its share of votes and hold the party together after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s term expires. (According to internal AKP regulations, it is not permitted to be elected for parliament three times in a row.) Erdogan and other prominent figures in the government are in their third and final term in parliament and are looking to manage the AKP’s transition to a post-Erdogan party while maintaining public support.

Events have intervened. First, economic growth figures didn’t match the government’s expectations. For the second quarter of 2012, Turkish economic growth stood at 2.9 percent and failed to meet the 4 percent criteria set by the government. The AKP’s economic success that has been a cornerstone of their political triumphs is shaking. Second, attacks on Turkish soldiers and citizens by the PKK is increasing aggressively. In fact, the PKK is on the brink of breaking the Turkish government’s monopoly on violence in the southeastern part of Turkey. The PKK has shifted its strategy from solely guerrilla attacks and mass protests in city centers to random bombings, kidnapping of Turkish officials, and assassinations. The intensity of the PKK activities is at its highest in the past decade, casting suspicion on the success of the AKP government’s counterinsurgency strategy. Now, the AKP is focused on how to regain their popular support before the coming elections. Part of this will be a large military campaign against PKK operation centers that they hope will slow PKK activities. As the seasons change, the government can hope for a relatively calm winter period. Due to the strong winter conditions in the region, PKK activities generally decrease in the winter months. However, this coming winter, even though the number of  PKK attacks is expected to decrease within Turkish borders, many fear that PKK activities will increase in targeted city centers. These activities demonstrate a clear doctrinal shift in tactics — tactics that would target symbolic government institutions and officials rather than civilian populations.

These next few months, the Turkish political agenda will be overwhelmed by a shuddering economy, increasing PKK attacks, preparation for the coming elections, and the dilemma of Syria. Each of these is complicated by the continuing instability of the Arab Spring. How the AKP government manages these problems will be an indicator on whether the status quo will remain in Turkish politics or not. If the party’s leadership can not manage these issues and the political transition tactfully, it could signal the approach of a Turkish winter.

Egemen Bezci is a Senior Editor at The Jerusalem Review.

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