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Anti-Erdogan protestors in Istanbul. (Photo: REUTERS/ Osman Orsal)
Image: Reuters

'Where does Turkey go from here?'

Interview: Basak Özay
October 14, 2015

With a fresh election in Turkey just weeks away, the country is more unstable than ever, as evidenced by the recent bomb attack. Middle East expert Michael Lüders told DW why he believes the vote won't bring peace.


DW: Mr. Lüders, you are currently a visiting lecturer in Turkey, in Sakarya province. What is the mood like in the country after the bloody attacks in Ankara?

Michael Lüders: You can feel that most people are despondent. They worry that what happened in Ankara, this awful terrorist attack with so many dead, could also happen elsewhere in Turkey, in Istanbul, or in other cities. There are also many questions as to who the initiators of the attack really are. Was it the "Islamic State" like the Turkish government claims, or are there other actors playing a role in this?

And why is Turkey not allowing any grieving? Each and every trace of the attack in Ankara has been removed. Even public expressions of mourning have been banned. All of this is making people sad. And they're asking themselves: where does Turkey go from here?

Two large-scale attacks since July, dozens of people dead. Why is Turkey being attacked now, right before the elections?

The government's official explanation is that "Islamic State" terrorists were responsible, but that's to be taken with a grain of salt. Of course, we can't exclude that possibility because "Islamic State" has pretty good connections in Turkey. Some of the IS fighters who get sick or wounded are treated in Turkey. Turkish newspapers have even raised the suspicion that there are weapon deliveries going from Turkey to "Islamic State." With this in mind, though, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense for IS to launch a terrorist attack of this magnitude against its most important "ally."

Michael Lüders. (Photo: DW Quadriga)
Lüders: Ankara attack was related to the elections in November

Who's behind it? We don't know. The pro-Kurdish parts of Turkey's population assume the government's at least partly responsible for the attack. But of course there's no proof for this. We'll probably never know why exactly the attack took place, but it was definitely related to the elections scheduled for November 1. Whoever is behind these attacks wants to stoke fears among Turkey's population and add fuel to the already existing tensions between Kurds and Turks.

Is Turkey paying the price for faulty Middle East policies?

That's definitely one way to see it. Very early on, Erdogan's government agreed with the West, but also the Gulf States, that the regime of Bashar al-Assad needed to be toppled as soon as possible. That didn't work. The Assad regime is still in power - and Turkey's government is now paying the price in the form of destabilization of the Turkish border with Syria and Iraq in the form of all these refugees coming to Turkey.

The unsolved Kurdish issue is giving the Turkish government a lot to worry as well. After all, the Kurdish fighters in northern Syria have close ties to the banned PKK. That also explains the Turkish government indirectly letting "Islamic State" bomb the Kurdish border town of Kobani for weeks last year.

Following the terrorist attacks, various cities in Turkey have seen protests against the government. Especially Kurds take to the streets - and the government sometimes reacts with violence. Can we turn back the wheel and revive the peace process between these two parties?

That is definitely difficult, especially since we can't see a change of course within the Turkish government. As far as we know, the government in Ankara is not rethinking its strategy of taking up the war against the PKK again. On the contrary, the impression is that the Turkish government's intention to fight the Kurds militarily has grown even stronger. The government answered the one-sided PKK announcement of sticking to a ceasefire until the elections by bombing PKK bases. Against this backdrop, it's safe to assume that things will get worse in Turkey.

Turkish security forces and forensic police inspect the blast site in Ankara. (Photo: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)
The political clean-up after the Ankara attacks will take a long timeImage: Getty Images/G. Tan

Could there really be a civil war in Turkey?

I think that's extremely exaggerated. Turkey will not be the new Syria. But it's worrying to see that people go out with knives and baseball bats to hunt Kurds or Turks. It's an extremely bad development. And, of course, the security situation in public places with many people has become precarious now.

That goes for tourists as well: crossing Taksim Square comes with an uncomfortable feeling. If there would be an attack in Istanbul - God forbid - then Taksim Square would be a symbolic occasion and the people visiting feel that. If it continues this way, Turkey will have massive economic problems with tourists and foreign investors.

The early election takes place in three weeks. Do you believe that Turkey will calm down after that?

One can only hope. But if the course of the Turkish government doesn't change, tensions will rise still further. All the polls point to similar results as the last time. Erdogan's AKP will garner roughly 40 percent of the vote. The pro-Kurdish HDP will also make the move into parliament with around 13 percent of the votes. This means that the Turkish government will need an ally, a coalition partner. But over the last few months, there has been no willingness to enter serious coalition negotiations. Many Turks worry that Erdogan will simply continue to hold elections after this one until he gets the result he wants. This would massively destabilize Turkey.

Michael Lüders is an expert in the field of Islamic Studies and was the Middle East correspondent for German weekly "Die Zeit" for many years. Today, he lives in Berlin and works as a political- and economic consultant, publicist and author.

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