Three years ago, if I had been asked to choose three words that defined me, I would unhesitatingly have said woman, journalist, Istanbulite – in that order.
Now, I find myself struggling with two of these three descriptions, although they have been part of me since the year I began studying journalism at university. I still proudly call myself a journalist and an Istanbulite, but now I find myself in a strange position: these words are rapidly becoming old labels rather than having a tangible meaning.
I never thought of taking a break from journalism, nor did I want to. For that matter, I never wanted to leave Istanbul, the city I passionately love.
When the liberal-left newspaper Radikal, of which I was editor- in-chief, was shut down in March 2016 in a government crackdown, pursuing a decent journalistic career in Turkey became not only impossible but also very dangerous. Having already been offered police protection at the beginning of that year, I knew I was on the brink of a forced break from the newsroom. It was at this time that I came to St Antony’s College at Oxford University as an academic visitor. Since then, I have immersed myself in the world of academia with the curiosity and inquisitiveness of journalism, while also attempting to build a much-needed bridge between these two crucial pillars of intellectual activity. At Oxford, I have benefited tremendously from being among distinguished scholars from all around the world. This book relies on my interviews, reports and fieldwork of the last seven years and was written during my time at Oxford, where I had to watch in great sorrow as some of my close colleagues lost their jobs, had to leave the country for their own safety and that of their loved ones or ended up in jail on incomprehensible charges.
My knowledge and experience regarding Turkish and Middle Eastern politics come directly from the field. From the very beginning of my journalistic career, I reported from conflict zones and places in which political turmoil erupted from time to time: northern Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, North Ossetia and Malaysia, as well as south-east Turkey. During this period, I was fortunate to be able to interview many prominent figures in Turkish and Kurdish politics.
As I began writing in spring 2016, the violence in Turkey’s Kurdish conflict had reached a 40-year high. The two-year peace process between the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an armed militia which Turkey, the US and the EU regard as a terror organization – and the Turkish government had collapsed the previous summer, and the situation in my home country had become extremely volatile. Since early 2016, Turkey has suffered not only the PKK insurgency in the south-east but also major ISIS attacks in its cities. As if the spillover from the Syrian quagmire had not been enough of a security issue, a botched coup attempt on 15 July 2016 left more than 200 casualties, and in its aftermath more than 100,000 people from the state bureaucracy, judiciary, military and police were purged, almost 200 media outlets shut down and thousands arrested. A month later, Turkey launched its biggest military intervention in Syria since the war began. The main objective of this intervention, given the code name Operation Euphrates Shield, was to drive ISIS and Kurdish fighters away f rom Turkey’s borders. After retaking the towns of Jerablus, Dabiq and al-Bab, Turkey, a member of NATO, was confrented with Kurdish militias in Manbij, who were backed by coalition forces led by the US, also a member of NATO.
After the collapse of the Kurdish peace process, Turkey’s relationship with its Western allies sank to an all-time low, since Turkey was attacking the Syrian Kurdish militias closely linked to the PKK, and the PKK in turn were collaborating with militias on the ground in Syria. Turkey could not persuade the US either to push the Kurds out of Manbij or to exclude them from an operation to free Raqqa from ISIS control; on the contrary, President Trump approved the arming of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurds, to enable them to seize the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa.
This dealt a major blow to Turkey’s relationship with the US and NATO. While Turkey was going through a deep period of turmoil, a constitutional reform package that would give President Erdoğan more executive power and suspend all checks and balances was won in a referendum by a razor-thin margin.
The publication of this book therefore comes at a time when Turkey, whose geopolitical position is crucial for the West, is transforming politically, socially and militarily and making, breaking and cutting across conventional international ties. Turkey’s Kurdish conflict lies at the heart of this change and will continue to affect its domestic politics, civil and state institutions, social fabric and foreign policy.
The book tracks the sequence of events from the emergence of the AKP to that of the Turkish–Kurdish peace process. It also reveals a very little-known aspect of the unrest – the feud in the AKP–Gülen movement – which revolves around the Kurdish issue. As human memory is fallible, the chronology followed in this book may clarify events and essential issues for anyone interested in looking at the Middle East and conflict resolution from another perspective. The story of Erdoğan’s deeds in the context of the peace process can also serve to demonstrate how a populist strongman can instrumentalize people’s hopes to maximize his own individual power.
The consequences of the collapse of this Erdoğan–Kurdish peace process affected not only Turkey but also the EU and the US. The key variable that determines Turkey’s relations with the Middle East and the West is and will be the Kurdish issue. With the Syrian war, the Kurdish issue has just become a global one.