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Monday, 6 November 2017

Frontline Turkey: the conflict at the heart of the Middle East

On 1 November 2017, Ezgi Başaran, award-winning Turkish journalist and coordinator of the Programme on Contemporary Turkey at SEESOX, launched her book Frontline Turkey: the conflict at the heart of the Middle East. The event was chaired by the BBC journalist and author of the book The New Turkey, Chris Morris.

In presenting her book Ezgi Başaran narrated the history of the Kurdish problem in the context of a decade and a half of AKP rule in Turkey. She described how Turkey’s most troublesome and persistent conflict had brought Turkey’s democratic institutions to a state of collapse just when a solution seemed in sight. As a journalist who had been following the Kurdish issue in Turkey for more than ten years, she had interviewed almost all of the prominent figures who shaped the course of the Kurdish movement in the country. Based on this unique material she outlined the chronology of events leading to the launch of a peace process between Turkey’s President Erdogan and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), and focusing on the dramatic and very intense period that followed, up to the collapse of the process in 2015and the coup attempt in 2016.

According to Başaran, Turkey’s peace process with the Kurds collapsed principally as a result of both the expansion of the Syrian Kurdish cantons adjacent to the Turkish border and the ambitions of then Prime Minister Erdogan to create an executive presidency for himself. Opposed to the YPG, the mainly-Kurdish militia in Syria that had rescued the Yazidis and fought with US backing in Kobane, President Erdogan saw no problem in having an open border policy for the Jihadists in Syria from the end of 2013 to 2015. This turned Turkey into a hub for Jihadists from all over the world, including ISIS recruits, creating huge security vulnerabilities for the country and, by extension, for Europe as a whole. In addition, the collapse of the peace process triggered a series of events that made politics and social life in Turkey particularly volatile, exacerbating the turmoil in Syria, and also bringing international relations between Turkey and several countries in the West and the Middle East to their lowest ebb. Başaran argued however that those on the other side of the table, the Kurds - and PKK in particular – should also share the blame by miscalculating their actions from the moment the peace process failed. Başaran concluded a fascinating exposé and explanation of the series of dramatic events in this extraordinary period in Turkey’s history, with a plea for a viable and sustainable resolution to the Kurdish issue. As she graphically noted, this long-standing issue, which has emerged as a global problem with detrimental implications for the Middle East, has in the end the power to make or break Turkey.

Chris Morris praised this fascinating book. He particularly stressed its value in setting out in detail the inside story of the dialogue and negotiation between the Turkish state and the PKK, including the role that Fethullah Gülen’s movement appeared to have played in effectively sabotaging the peace process - a layer of complexity many people outside Turkey overlooked. In his presentation, he focused on an earlier period, from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, when he was based in Turkey for the BBC and the Guardian. He argued that remarkable progress had been made in subsequent years in the context of Turkey’s accession negotiations, before everything fell apart. Consequently, he also put the blame on the EU for its hesitancy in the accession negotiations, especially from the late 2000s on.

Manolis Pratzinakis (Onassis Fellow, SEESOX, St Antony's College, Oxford)

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