With the new year comes a bloody reminder that the destabilisation of the entire Middle East region continues, and may even accelerate during 2017. There may be a fragile ceasefire in the Syrian civil war – the peace of the graveyard – but the last few years have seen the fracturing and destruction of entire nations in a way that would have seemed unimaginable for much of recent history.
Like dominoes, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have all suffered, and terribly, the human cost still being paid by the injured, bereaved and homeless. Egypt seems poised on the margins of meltdown. Now Turkey, a regional superpower, Nato member and long thought more a player than a victim in this pitiless saga, is being pulverised by violence.
That violence, ominously, is perpetrated by a variety of forces: Islamist extremists, Kurdish separatists, the secular forces behind the botched military coup in the summer, and the more brutal elements within President Erdogan’s regime. Not since the fall of the Ottomans a century ago has the very unity and future of the nation been so precarious, and its power so obviously waning. That is bad news for the region, for Europe, and for the world.
Low level terror has become almost a norm in Turkey. Almost every month there is some act of indiscriminate or political murder, targeting wedding guests, airports, military convoys, party-goers, the Russian ambassador and, now, the leading nightclub in the country – a symbol, presumably, of the dissolute ways of the Turkish secular elite in eyes of some religious fundamentalists.
The usual reaction from President Erdogan is a further crackdown on civil liberties, legitimate political dissent and a purge of the police and other state institutions. It hasn’t worked. Nor can it while Turkey’s foreign and security policies remain so confused and shifting.
At times, the nation has seemed on the brink of war with Russia, only to find that the two countries have an overwhelming shared interest in suppressing Isis at almost any cost to Syrian civilians, hence the recent ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey. Turkey relies on the US for military support, yet chides it for harbouring Fetullah Gulen, the opposition leader held responsible for the attempted coup. Most dangerously foolish of all, Turkey had previously turned a blind eye to Isis for as long as it seemed a useful force to fight the Kurds, which Isis did with a ruthlessness that even Mr Erdogan would flinch from. Before that, the Turkish Government had been alternately for and against the Assad government. Like the West, it has never been quite sure what to do with Jabhat al-Nusra, now renamed, complete with its variable links to al-Qaeda.
None of which has done Turkey, or Mr Erdogan, much good. It betrays the fact that Turkey’s government has failed to understand the nature and the enormity of the threats facing the nation.
The Kurdish question will not be solved unless there is a proper consensual accommodation with the legitimate desire of the Kurdish people for self-determination. A de facto Kurdish homeland and multi-ethnic political entity has already established itself in its autonomous northern province in Iraq and the federalised Rojava region of northern Syria, running the length of the Turkish frontier. Turkey can no longer rely on Saddam and Assad to insure itself against Kurdish nationalism.
Of course a political deal with the Kurds is unacceptable to many in Turkey, and could well mean the secession of the Kurdish territory, and Turkey’s territorial integrity. But that may happen anyway, as the inevitable end point of the current trend of violence and oppression in the region.
Turkey faces the possibility of collapse as a unitary, secular democratic state unless it neutralises the least lethal threats to itself, such as that presented by the Kurds. Under President Erdogan, in partnership with his new friends in the Kremlin, that seems a forlorn hope – even at this most hopeful time of the year.