Fading hopes: Turkey must sort out its Kurdish problem, because it is destroying the most effective weapon against Isis


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The Independent Online

Only a few years ago, Turkey was widely regarded as a model for the Middle East: an evolving pluralistic democracy with a robust economy, with an Islamist tinge, to be sure, but whose political stability needed no longer to be underwritten by the military. In foreign policy, it kept a reassuringly low profile, and the gates of the European Union seemed to beckon. Today, alas, that image is little more than a distant memory.

Following the collapse of talks between the two largest parties, new general elections this autumn seem inevitable, just months after June’s inconclusive vote that upended the political landscape. The economy is weakening, as testified by the fall of the Turkish lira to new record lows. Terrorist attacks inside the country are multiplying, and after years of a cautious peace process, the government has resumed conflict with the militant Kurdish PKK.

Belatedly, Ankara has joined the coalition fighting  Isis. But to the anger of its allies, notably the US, it is using that commitment as cover to launch air attacks against Kurdish positions in northern Iraq, and this at the very moment the Kurds have proved themselves the most effective – many would say the only effective – force on the ground against Isis.

Yet one constant remains. The key figure in the crisis is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist-leaning former Prime Minister who has dominated Turkish politics since the start of the millennium, leading his Justice and Development Party, the AKP, to three consecutive election victories before being elected to the presidency in 2014 – a position from which he continued to pull the strings that matter. But in June, the AKP lost its outright majority, mainly because of the rise of the left-wing, Kurd-sympathising HDP party, which became the third-largest group in parliament.

That setback severely dented Mr Erdogan’s ambition to change the constitution and hand more powers to the presidency. Though he denies it, many suspect he is now quietly working to secure the demise of the current caretaker AKP administration, with the aim of winning outright victory in a new election, and driving the HDP back below the 10 per cent threshold of support required for representation in parliament. Hence, it is argued, the new confrontation with the PKK to attract support from conservative nationalists. Some opinion polls suggest the strategy may be succeeding.

The move against Isis has a similar domestic political dimension. It was precipitated by terrorist attacks carried out inside Turkey by Islamic extremists. But it also counters charges that Mr Erdogan in the past has failed to act against the radical group, not least because of a shared objective in overthrowing the Assad regime in Damascus.

It was inevitable that Turkey, a Nato member and an Islamic country bordering violence-racked Syria and Iraq, would at some point be drawn directly into the conflict and chaos of the region. But its domestic instability and conflicting ambitions – is the main enemy Isis or the Kurds? – threaten only to complicate matters.

For all Mr Erdogan’s manoeuvrings, early elections offer no guarantee of an unequivocal outcome. Right now, the country’s best interests would still be served by a durable coalition between the AKP and the second-largest parliamentary party, the secular CHP, the Republican People’s Party, whose roots go back to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of modern Turkey. There is, moreover, still time for a deal: the formal deadline for the talks is not until 23 August. In the longer run, Turkey must make a new effort to solve its Kurdish problem, both in the interests of the war against Isis – and its own.