November 7, 2016
State strength is measured in different ways and forms. While economic and military power constitutes the material and more tangible aspect of state strength, legitimacy is an abstract and less visible form of soft power. It is this legitimacy that often distinguishes Western democracies from a variety of authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world. Samuel Huntington, in his classic work Political Order in Changing Societies, calls this aspect of statehood “institutionalization,” or the “process by which organizations and procedures acquire value and stability.”
Of the four attributes Huntington uses to measure the level of institutionalization, (adaptability, complexity, autonomy, and coherence), the first refers to the capacity to change, adjust to the shifting environment. A strong state thus is not a crisis-free state, but rather one with high levels of institutionalization that provides a framework for navigation through difficult times without disintegrating or becoming dependent on its leaders or a social group. Lisa Anderson, in her examination of statehood in the Middle East and North Africa, likens “weak” states to a weak ego characterized by aggressive or defensive behavior. Strong states accommodate popular demands, while weak sates often resort to violence and suppression.
In the aftermath of the failed coup of July 15, 2016, Turkey has increasingly shown signs of state authority decaying. Post-coup Turkey has been characterized by fear, uncertainty, and serious questions over the future of the regime and country. Using the failed plot as a pretext to silence all opposition, President Erdogan-led Justice and Development (AKP) government has dismissed or arrested more than 110,000 police officers, military personnel, judges, and teachers.
The egregious attempts to label all opponents as traitors or terrorists along with the portrayal of the ongoing purge and military interventions into neighboring Syria and Iraq as a “fight” against the “enemies of Turkey” carry the potential for severe consequences. For example, these actions may further destabilize Turkey and the region by propping up an increasingly Islamist and authoritarian government. The recurrent theme in the staunchly pro-AKP Yeni Safak daily and public speeches by Erdogan and his followers clearly demonstrate the unrealistic and dangerous desire to revive the Ottoman past.
The AKP government, and its aspiration to squelch the Kurdish movement, silence the secular opposition, and regain control of former Ottoman territories, most notably the Kurdish parts of Syria and Iraq, is a recipe for further bloodshed. In addition, it is a harbinger of the impending demise of a secular and democratic Turkey. Recent developments in Turkey are reminiscent of the final days of the Ottoman Empire during which the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad ve Terakki) embarked on a similar journey with disastrous outcomes.
Dreaming of the “glorious past,” the AKP political elites have at times pointed to the Sri Lanka model, which has come to represent the use of military force to deal with ethnic insurgencies, as the AKP’s preferred approach to elimination of the Kurdish opposition. Notwithstanding problems associated with such a solution, such as a propensity to lead to an increased risk of ethnic civil wars, several key features of the Kurdish conflict render such a solution simply unrealistic. The sheer size of the Kurds and the lands which they inhabit, the division of the Kurds between four key Middle Eastern states (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria), and the collapse of state authorities in Syria and Iraq have resulted in Kurdish groups emerging as America’s most effective on-the-ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). This certainly complicates the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and demands that any solution, military or political, hence requires taking into account these rapidly shifting circumstances in the region.
While there are significant differences between the Palestine and Kurd conflicts, the Turkish State’s insistence of military solutions is likely to result in the “Palestinezation” of the Kurdish problem with potentially more destabilizing outcomes. The sheer size of the Kurds with an estimated population of 35-40 million and the size of the geography they inhabit that roughly encompasses the area between the northwestern Zagros and the eastern Taurus mountain ranges pose significant challenges to any military solution to the conflict. It should be noted that more Kurds live in Syria alone than the total Arab population in the West Bank.
As the region is undergoing significant changes, without a lasting and dignified solution to the Kurdish demands for equality neither stability nor democracy is achievable in Turkey. As one keen observer of the Kurds has recently pointed out, the AKP’s actions and foreign policy not only threatens democracy but also the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, as Turkey and U.S., two NATO members and long-term allies, are having serious disagreements over the emerging new Middle East.
Recent events have only solidified the Turkish government’s repressive and unresponsive behavior toward the Kurds. The arrest of the co-leaders of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), along with several other HDP parliamentarians, has drawn strong international condemnation. Significantly, it has blocked the peaceful, democratic mechanisms for voicing legitimate Kurdish demands. The arrests came after the removal of 30 elected Kurdish mayors from office, suspension of more than 11,000 teachers from the Kurdish region, and the shutting down of two dozen Kurdish media outlets, including a children’s television station that dubbed cartoons such as “The Smurfs” into Kurdish. Despite the show of force by President Erdogan, aggressive policies toward “Kurdish Smurfs” highlight the underlying state weakness and declining legitimacy.
Turkey-Kurdish relations are evolving into a phase with a colonial ambiance. Intensification of the armed conflict since July 2015, coupled with the Turkish army laying siege to several Kurdish cities and towns, has produced thousands of casualties and widespread destruction of buildings and property in the Kurdish southeast. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has voiced concern about alleged Turkish military abuses, such as allowing more than 100 people to burn to death while sheltering in basements in the town of Cizre and the deliberate targeting of unarmed civilians, including women and children. Such a rigid approach to the Kurdish conflict precludes flexibility and carries the seeds of the armed conflict engulfing the entire society, turning into a full-blown civil war between the two peoples.
Given the complexities involved, the most likely scenario is not the Sri Lanka model or even the Palestinezation of the Kurdish conflict. Instead, unless a real democratic compromise is found, the situation is more likely to result in the Ukrainization of Turkey in a weakened state and fractured society and country.
Dr. Mehmet Gurses is an associate professor of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. His research interests include democracy and democratization, ethnic and religious conflict, post-civil war peace building, post-civil war democratization, oil and democratization, Kurdish conflict, and Islamist parties in the Middle East.
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