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Turkey: The Greatest Challenge Is ‘Internal Bleeding’ – Analysis


By Ihsan Bal*


The risk of rage and accumulated grievances leading to deeper splits within conflict-ridden societies aggravates the ‘internal bleeding’ from which such societies suffer, in turn creating an unsurmountable barrier on the way to reaching a lasting social contract.

Fates of nations are most likely to be determined by the ultimate results of domestic infighting rather than disputes with external actors. Indeed, we have inherited numerous proverbs which confirm this widely-accepted notion. Let us remember here the famous verses below that were articulated by the very poet who composed the lyrics of our national anthem, Mehmet Akif Ersoy:

No enemy can penetrate a nation before disunity does
No cannon balls can beat it as long as all hearts beat as one man

We have just left behind 2015, which will be remembered in our country as a year marked by rising security concerns. Considering that Turkey’s political leaders were once rightfully proud of being able to visit every single capital in the region – even acting as mediators or facilitators in certain conflict zones, the current situation in Turkey does not bode as well as it once had.

At the moment, Ankara needs to overcome great challenges and deal with utterly difficult tasks. Domestic peace and stability, which should be regarded as the most essential assets we need to protect in order to evade the complex and paradoxical crises surrounding our country, are under siege on several fronts. Indeed, at this point, the current state of domestic insecurity, unrest, and social conflict in Turkey corresponds to a more profound challenge than all external threats combined.


Terror and social trauma

All the challenges signified above are subject to various heated debates. However, before anything else, we need to place particular emphasis on the agenda item that falls under the heading of the “Kurdish issue and counter-terrorism”, which is yet to be fully-addressed and leads to the largest number of deaths. As a matter of fact, the problem essentially emanates from a ‘security dilemma’, which is regularly defined by scholars as a vicious circle involving two adversaries that are enmeshed in a defensive arms race due to mutual distrust, thus ultimately dragging the two into a seemingly unavoidable conflict.

On the one side, there are the PKK militants, who had spent the last three years stockpiling arms and digging trenches because they had no confidence in the peace process, thereby recently coming to take up arms and provoke urban warfare. The terrorist group’s leadership proclaims its fervent strategy as one of ‘self-defense’. On the other side, there is the government’s persistent struggle to suppress this irregular armed uprising through the utilization of all security measures and instruments at its disposal, an approach which stems from a fear that the rising terrorist threat can potentially grow completely out of control.

As things currently stand, it seems the main actors of the peace process that took place between 2013 and 2015 had no trust in each other. Both parties shared a view of the other as a potentially dangerous threat, and such perceptions gained root with each passing day until the moment came when renewed conflict was jointly rendered inevitable.

Handling the issue from a new perspective

Let’s now add some depth to the discussion by elaborating on the question of how to counter terror within the framework of the rule of law while admitting the legitimate use of force, all in light of the body of literature concerning the long struggle against ethnically-motivated terror in Turkey.

Above all else, such a struggle needs to have strategic and political objectives. To attain success in its implementation, our overall strategy against terror should recognize the sensitive balance between liberty and security if the political objective in the case of the Kurdish issue is to reach a consensus upon which all people in this country are able to enjoy equal rights as fellow citizens.

Nonetheless, there is also another way to counter terror, a method whose treatment causes more damage than the initial problem itself. Assuming such a course in the struggle against terror could force us to pay an even greater price in the future. Today, we aren’t sufficiently informed as to what is actually going on in the field. However, some images and scenes that appear on visual and social media hint at the emergence of several problems that may deeply traumatize the local population.

Cizre, a town in which citizens take shelter in their basements amid ongoing clashes; Silopi, where food, medicine, and other basic necessities are in shortage; towns like Bitlis, Diyarbakır, and Şırnak, where not a day passes without the news of martyred soldiers; Nusaybin, which turned into a city of barricades devastated by trench warfare; Sur, whose population has fallen from 24 thousand to a mere 2 thousand; children who are maimed or even lose their lives after finding themselves caught in the crossfire; bullet-riddled walls; bread queues; and aggrieved citizens who feel obliged to declare to a visiting MP that “We’re fed up with the clashes”, their eyes holding the high-level guest to account as if asking “What happened to us being brothers?”…

No doubt, whether it be the life of a civilian who was killed on the streets or the life of a law enforcement officer who was martyred during the operations, they both matter greatly in and of themselves apart from any consideration of the political and strategic aspect of the crisis. But the humanitarian tragedy in question should not be exploited as an excuse to justify more deaths. Instead, the most important thing that needs to be done in the name of bringing a solution to the problem is a call to end the killings, a call for life. Therefore, a completely different approach needs to be adopted.

For instance, taken alone, the murder of Tahir Elçi, who used to be the Chairman of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, was a huge shock for the entire country. In this sense, such individual incidents constitute the essential fuel of the conflict. And providing justification for the killings does not contribute in any way whatsoever to the resolution of the problem. We need to make a call to keep our fellow countrymen alive and to prevent violent deaths. Otherwise, the gunshots and clashes which have recently become part of the daily routine in numerous streets, towns, and districts of this country, let alone all the shockwaves of such incidents that have rocked already-sensitive social fault lines, will eventually force us to reconsider what kind of a social contract we can actually agree on.

The price of past mistakes

Psychiatrists, sociologists, political historians, and social psychologists need to be dispatched to the localities in question immediately. Memories that can haunt children and the youth in particular can lead to, in the words of Turkish Cypriot Emeritus Professor Vamik Volkan, a “time collapse”.

Today we are paying the price of the wrongdoings of yesterday. All works that focus on how the Kurdish issue transformed into an armed uprising necessarily give reference to the torture and maltreatment of convicts in the Diyarbakir Prison in the 1980s. Likewise, the stories of those children who were throwing stones at the security forces in the 2000s refer to the widespread practices of the 1990s.

People spend years imprisoned in a depressed state of mind resultant of the emotional collapse that is brought about by various traumas previously experienced. The latter half of 2015 bears the traces of such traumas, and at least we are confronted with these scenes that rightfully aggravate our concerns now, rather than later down the road.

Yet we have a serious problem at this stage, for experts have not yet begun conducting field work on the cost of the clashes for the society at large. That is why I’ve found it appropriate to employ the metaphor of ‘internal bleeding’ in the beginning of this column. Bringing a lasting solution to the problem will become more difficult as the diagnosis and treatment of the persistent loss of blood in one part of the country – i.e. bleeding within the same ‘body’ – continues to be postponed.

The price of elucidation

The worst case scenario that awaits us is the transformation of the conflict between the state and the PKK into one between Turks and Kurds. This is because the ethnic nationalist undertone and the wartime-enemy rhetoric that have been frequently employed throughout the struggle are semblative of a war between the military and a foreign foe rather than one between law enforcement agencies and terrorists.

However, considering that the shortest definition of terrorism is ‘propaganda by the dead’, preventing the dissemination of such material is the key to success for those who are fighting against terror.

For years, we had boastfully anchored all our relevant arguments in the popularly-affirmed thesis that “There are no problems between the peoples because Turks and Kurds are inextricably intertwined and highly integrated. The problem rather stems from state practices or from terrorists taking up arms in the mountains.” However, the official discourse used today, in 2015, sounds highly otherizing, demonizing, obliterative, and discriminatory.

In these days, when the drafting of a new constitution has again come to the top of the agenda, we need to recognize the pressing need for a broad-based social consensus in order to render what is written on paper credible in the eyes of the masses. In order to reach a common ground on the national level, all segments of the society need to be able to envision an inclusive state, of which being a part is be deemed pleasant and desirable. At the heart of the overall sense of belonging and shared identity lies the belief in a common future marked by harmonious coexistence.
To what extent a type of state-citizen relationship that lacks the required glue between different segments of the society as well as the political authority can prove extremely problematic has been revealed to us time and again. For societies within which conflicts are exacerbated while the risk of inter-group rage inflicting deep and lasting scars in communal memories has been consistently aggravated, agreeing upon a social contract becomes all the more difficult with each passing day. And the key symptom that ultimately transforms such an increasing level of difficulty into an unsurmountable barrier is no doubt what I refer to here as ‘internal bleeding’.

*Prof. Ihsan Bal is Head of the Academic Council at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK). Bal is a prominent expert on terrorism, ethnic conflict and security studies.


JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

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