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Turkey: Enemy Without, Enemy Within
The Turkish government’s intolerance to the idea of a Kurdish state only further compounds the country’s security challenges.
In the last decade, progress in Turkey has been of the “one step forward, two steps back” variety. The model of the secular Muslim state, Islam has slowly but surely seeped into the public space under Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s reign. Eight years of almost unbroken growth has given way to an economic malaise that exposed widespread corruption at the highest levels of government. Rapprochement between the Turkish state and the Kurdish minority, after decades of mistrust, has ground to a halt now that the latter might finally have the opportunity to form a state in portions of Iraq and Syria. Erdogan’s unwillingness to even consider such a possibility may further exacerbate the country’s very real security challenges.
Drive a few hundred miles southeast of Istanbul, the country’s glittering commercial hub, and you’ll find yourself in sparsely populated rural areas inhabited by the Kurdish minority, which benefitted little from the recent economic boom. Until 2013, Turkish troops were frequently attacked by Kurdish militant groups such as the PKK, which took advantage of the porous border with Syria to move men and materiel between Kurdish groups on opposite sides. Kurdish violence against the state largely abated in 2013, when Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned former leader of the PKK, urged the group to enter into peace talks. That progress is now being undone even though Turks and Kurds find themselves with a common enemy.
The rise of ISIS on Turkey’s doorstep forced Erdogan’s government to rethink its attitude towards the conflict, which it had largely ignored for years. Before the anti-Assad opposition began to show it’s extremist roots, the Turkish government had turned a blind eye to the steady flow of foreign fighters traversing the country en route to Syria’s holy battlefields. The conflict also forced the Turkish government to rethink its policy towards the Kurdish minority.
Kurdish paramilitaries in Syria and Iraq have held ISIS in check, providing breathing room for the Iraqi military, which is fractured, and the Syrian military, which is still unified but weary after years of conflict that have left much of the country in ruin. Those battlefield successes have stoked fears in Ankara that the Kurds might finally seize a state of their own, something unimaginable before Iraq and Syria tore themselves apart. Successive Turkish governments have made it no secret that they loathe the idea of an independent Kurdish state in the region despite granting southeastern provinces limited autonomy.
Kurdish successes against ISIS were met on 24 July by a massive Turkish airstrike against Peshmerga positions in northern Iraq that narrowly missed local U.S. military trainers, who were given no more than 10 minutes notice. That decision puts the U.S. in a difficult position as the Obama administration attempts to coordinate operations against ISIS with both the Turkish military and Kurdish groups, key allies in the region. Those efforts will grow even more difficult now that Kurdish militants in eastern Turkey have resumed attacks against military targets after a two year hiatus.
Despite some coalition successes, ISIS remains a formidable foe and battlefield losses have been erased by a steady flow of foreign fighters to the fledgling caliphate’s front lines. Further U.S. or Turkish airstrikes will need to be followed by ground operations that require extensive cooperation between U.S., Turkish, Kurdish, and moderate opposition forces. Erdogan and his government must accept that hard-fought Kurdish successes in the field might lead to an independent state. But that step forward will likely be followed by a few steps back.