If someone told you that there was a country whose government sealed off a district and cut off all information to the outside world and its own citizens for weeks in order to fight violent separatists, where a member of parliament was kidnapped by a terrorist group, where there are thousands of refugees streaming across the border, where the army is engaged in a virtual war inside its own borders but the parties in parliament cannot agree to even meet to discuss the best course of action, you would be justified in thinking that the country being described is well on its way to being a failed state. I am of course listing events that have taken place over the past month in Turkey, which is certainly nowhere close to being a failed state, but I do so to illustrate just how quickly Turkey’s fortunes are slipping. By any measure, Turkey has had an incredible run over the last half decade as its economy has boomed and its global clout has increased, but as Turkey deals with chaos next door in Syria and chaos at home with the PKK, it appears that darker days lie ahead.
To a large extent, all of this is out of Turkey’s control. Irrespective of how shoddily the government has dealt with the Kurdish issue, the PKK is a terrorist group that cannot be allowed to run free in pockets of southeastern Turkey. Similarly, there is nothing Turkey could have done to prevent the Syrian civil war (even if it is not handling the situation so well now). The problem is that Turkey’s politics is increasingly looking broken, and a dysfunctional political system exacerbates all of the dilemmas that Turkey currently faces.
On the Kurds and the PKK, the dysfunction starts at the top. Erdoğan has moved from the standard nationalist/Kemalist policy he inherited to the short-lived Kurdish Opening to a more limited recognition of Kurdish identity that does not go nearly far enough in solving the problem. All signs point to the AKP and the MHP banding together to ensure that Kurdish identity and Kurdish rights are buried in the new Turkish constitution, and Erdoğan believes that eradicating the PKK will solve all problems. This is not a policy as much as it is wishful thinking, and the reluctance to sit down and figure out the hard but necessary steps to be taken is not an indication of a strict zero tolerance policy on terrorism but an indication of political amateurishness. It is incredible – and I mean this in the literal sense of stretching the bounds of credulity rather than in any positive sense – that the AKP and CHP cannot agree to both attend a special session of parliament to talk about PKK attacks in the aftermath of Hüseyin Aygün’s kidnapping and whatever is going on in Şemdinli. Imagine if Nancy Pelosi called for a special House session following al-Qaida attacks in New Mexico that were met with an overwhelming but secret military response, and John Boehner and the GOP simply refused to attend so as not to legitimate al-Qaida. It demonstrates the astonishing arrogance of the AKP and the feckless impotence of the CHP, and neither of these things make for a functioning and efficient political system.
A similar dynamic is at work when it comes to Syria. Nobody is going to look at the Turkish government’s Syria policy and describe it as successful. Erdoğan clung to Assad for too long, and then cut him loose with assorted threats on which Turkey has not and cannot make good. The endless whispers of buffer zones and calls for international intervention are entirely hollow since they have zero chance of happening, and because Turkey is hamstrung, it could not even mount an effective response to shots across the border or the downing of the Turkish jet (and as Claire Berlinski has extensively pointed out, we still don’t know the full story of what happened). The CHP has been hammering away at the AKP’s ineffectiveness on Syria, and yet it’s ever so brilliant plan is an international conference. Have you ever heard of a more uninspired, platitudinous, hopelessly naive solution than the following one expressed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu? “After expressing their views on the issue at the opening of the conference, the Syrian administration and opposition should negotiate under the supervision of the secretary-general of the UN. In the final portion of the conference, a document of agreement prepared by the secretary-general of the UN, reflecting an agreement between the Syrian opposition and administration could be submitted to the UN Security Council.” This is the best that Turkey’s main opposition party can come up with?
A dysfunctional political system with parties that cannot agree to even talk to each other without a bevy of flying insults and outrageous accusations is not a hallmark of a rising power. It is the mark of a state bound to crash against its own limits. An important component of Turkey’s foreign policy is crumbling as its relations with Syria and Iran deteriorate to open hostility, but Ankara should be paying more attention to its own domestic political problems, because Turkey’s external strength is supported first and foremost by its internal political foundation, which is dangerously teetering.