Turkey is challenged on multiple fronts: PKK, ISIS and Cyprus

The issue of Cyprus has always been a tough nut for Turkey to crack

Sinem Cengiz

Published: Updated:

Turkish foreign policy has been in a state of turbulence for a while now but is facing the toughest period as the fight in the Kurdish Syrian border town of Kobane between the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Syrian Kurds intensifies and the countrywide street protests against the government escalate.

Over the past few years, Turkey has been facing challenges in its foreign policy from multiple fronts, ranging from Iraq to Syria, Egypt to Israel, from Armenia to Gulf countries. However, with the recent developments in Kobane, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and ISIS have taken the top position in the list of fronts that Ankara is trying to cope with.

A series of street protests have resulted in the deaths of around 40 people, including police officers. In the past week, such protests managed to turn the crisis in Kobane from a foreign policy issue into a domestic policy issue in Turkey. Protesting against the government for not providing military assistance to the Kurds fighting against ISIS in Kobane, protestors vandalized the streets in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces.

It was indeed not a coincidence to see Greek Cypriots leaving the negotiation table while Turkey is challenging serious problems on its doorsteps

Sinem Cengiz

I feel that the protests may pose a serious risk to Turkey’s domestic stability if they persist and could harm the already fragile ongoing settlement process aimed at ending the decades-old Kurdish conflict.

Turkey should be careful to prevent a Kurdish insurgency in Turkey after these protests. Turkey’s fight with the PKK, which have a separatist political agenda and fought with the Turkish army for more than 30 years before participating in a settlement process with the government, has claimed about 50,000 lives. The fight between the PKK and the government has taught several lessons to both sides and the settlement process to end the conflict was launched with great hopes in 2012.

The Cyprus issue

At the time while Turkey is facing serious threats from the street clashes throughout the country and from both ISIS and the PKK, Greek Cypriots halted peace talks on Tuesday on reunifying the divided island in protest of Turkey’s attempts to search gas and oil in the divided island.

The Cyprus issue was seemingly the only foreign policy area where there has been progress; however, the issue now emerged as another front for Turkey to face in addition to ISIS and the PKK.

It was indeed not a coincidence to see Greek Cypriots leaving the negotiation table while Turkey is challenging serious problems on its doorsteps. It was a suitable time for the Greek side to pressure Turkey at a time when Ankara has focused its efforts on Kobane and the streets where the impacts of Syrian war are directly felt.

The issue of Cyprus has always been a tough nut for Turkey to crack. A historic development occurred in February when Greek and Turkish Cypriots resumed peace talks after a nearly two-year hiatus; however no progress has been made in talks due to disagreement on deeply divisive issues. Cyprus has been divided between the Greek Cypriot south and the Turkish Cypriot north since 1974, when Turkey sent troops to the island in the aftermath of a coup that sought to unite the island with Greece. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (KKTC) is recognized only by Turkey, which does not recognize the Greek Cypriot administration.

The suspension of talks, which was denounced by Turkey, is a setback for U.N.-mediated negotiations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated in a recent interview that Greek Cyprus administration was insincere in its approach to negotiations and that they left the negotiation table by using the natural gas survey as a pretext. “However, if this subject continues to be seen as a domestic political material for both Greek Cyprus and Greece, making progress will be challenging,” added Çavuşoğlu.

Cyprus and the PKK are the two ongoing problems of Turkey. Turkey has been dealing with the Cyprus issue for 40 years, while with the PKK for 30 years. From time to time, the problems affected Turkey’s relations with the European Union and the U.S.

Indeed, Turkey and the whole region would benefit from a settlement on the both issues because the risk of the escalation of these two problems simultaneously may provoke Turkey’s insecurities and lead to domestic chaos. The main task for Turkey is to secure the peace talks with both the Kurdish side and the Greek side; but how this task will be handled is still in question.


Sinem Cengiz is an Ankara-based Diplomatic Correspondent for Today’s Zaman Newspaper, which is the best-selling and the most circulated English daily in Turkey. Born and lived in Kuwait, Cengiz focuses mainly on issues regarding Middle East and Turkey’s relations with the region. Cengiz is also a blogger at Today's Zaman's blog section where she provides fresh and unusual accounts of what's going on in Ankara's corridors of power. She can be found on Twitter: @SinemCngz

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