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Kurdish Opening: Onto the Second Round

Kurdish Opening: Onto the Second Round

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Originally published in December 2009, this brief argues that now is the time to take stock in negotiations between the Turks and the Kurds, learn the appropriate lessons from the failures of the first phase, and move forward.
Originally published in December 2009, this brief argues that now is the time to take stock in negotiations between the Turks and the Kurds, learn the appropriate lessons from the failures of the first phase, and move forward.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: German Marshall Fund of the United States on Sep 30, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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ISTANBUL — On December 11,Turkey’s Constitutional Court unani-mously (11-0) decided to close downthe Kurdish nationalist DemocraticSociety Party (DTP) and banned 37of its members from active politicsfor five years. Among these were thehighly respected and dovish party co-chairman, Ahmet Türk, and his previ-ous co-chairwoman, equally dovishAysel Tuğluk. Their memberships inParliament would thus be terminated.The court’s decision was made publicby Chief Justice Haşim Kılıç in a pressconference. According to Kılıç, DTPwas closed down because it had or-ganic links to the terrorist KurdistanWorkers’ Party (PKK), and because it violated two articles of the constitutionand two articles of the Political PartiesLaw by its actions. The court deemedthese actions as being supportive of terror and violence. Kılıç explainedthat the court took into considerationthe relevant decisions by the EuropeanCourt of Human Rights in the case of the Basque nationalist party, Herri Ba-tasuna. Türk and Tuğluk were bannedbecause of, among other things, callingthe PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan, “re-spectable Mr. Öcalan.”It was difficult not to be reminded of Agatha Christie’s
 Murder on the Orient Express
.Although the Constitutional Courtwas the one that gave the final andfatal blow to the first phase of the“Kurdish opening” there were many who stabbed the victim numeroustimes as well. The government thatinitiated the process and then broughtit to an impasse by its ineptitude andmismanagement and arguably becauseof its lackluster devotion to a compre-hensive democratization project; theopposition parties that used harsh,polarizing, incendiary language,and scare tactics, and had neither aconstructive solution to the Kurdishproblem nor any commitment to amore liberal and democratic Turkey;the Kurdish nationalist DTP that couldnot take itself seriously as a politicalparty where the hawks nearly alwayswon against the doves, that alloweditself to be intimidated by its terror-ist confrere, the PKK, and that couldnot take a clear political distance from violence and terrorism; the PKKleadership that, once cognizant it wasto be sidelined and fearing eventualirrelevance, initiated a wave of vio-lence to provoke a harsh response andsecure the closure of DTP and thenfurther enraged the Turkish public by attacking troops in the north-centralAnatolian town of Tokat, killing sevenyoung soldiers; and last but not least,Abdullah Öcalan, an icon for many Kurds who is serving a life sentence inImrali Island and cares only about his
Kurdish Opening: Onto the Second Round
by Soli Ozel*
December 23, 2009
Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science and is a columnist for theTurkish daily
. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the GermanMarshall Fund of the United States (GMF).
, DC
Summary: Turkey had two options:Wage war and send the militaryacross the border to northern Iraq,where the PKK made the Kandilmountain range their headquarters,or engage politically with Iraqi Kurdsand seek serious reform at home.There is enough blame to go aroundfor the failure of this initial stageof the opening. But the processshould not be and indeed cannotbe reversed. Now is the time to takestock, learn the appropriate lessons
from the failures of the rst phase,
and move forward.
release from the dungeon and return to civil and perhaps topolitical life, and who ordered the latest wave of violence.They all participated in the murder. One could perhaps addthe invisible actors within the state apparatus who mightnot have been happy with the Kurdish political opening, butit was the errors of the principal actors that had given themsuch an opportunity.The starting signal for the “Kurdish opening” was given inMarch 2009 by Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, when hetold journalists accompanying him on his trip to Tehranthat “good things are expected to happen concerning theKurdish issue.The government keyed into the openingin August, after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took a beating in the predominantly Kurdish south-eastern provinces of Turkey in the municipal elections heldon March 29. Once Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğanowned up to this politically difficult but necessary project—that was critically short of specifics, timelines, and a com-munication strategy—he consistently, and at times bravely,defended it. In the process, he made some of the mosttouching speeches of his political career and brought thehuman, cultural, and emotional dimensions of the “Kurd-ish problem” to the attention of a public raised on the belief that no such problem, or even Kurds themselves for thatmatter, existed. Since then an unprecedented rich discus-sion took place in the country about the Kurdish questionand the Parliament debated the matter for the first time inits history, even if the content of the proceedings left a lot tobe desired.The general context of the opening that induced the govern-ment to undertake this bold move dates back several yearsand had both international and national dimensions.Nationally, both the public and the security forces finally came to the conclusion that the PKK could not be terminat-ed by military means alone. Somehow the Turkish politicalsystem had to address the Kurdish problem that gave rise tothe PKK in the first place.The last point of resistance to a more politically-basedapproach to the Kurdish issue was broken on October 21,2007, when the PKK attacked an isolated outpost near themountainous village of Dağlıca and killed 12 soldiers.Turkey had two options: Wage war and send the military across the border to northern Iraq, where the PKK madethe Kandil mountain range their headquarters, or en-gage politically with Iraqi Kurds and seek serious reformat home. Because allegations of army complacency anddereliction of duty immediately surfaced in the wake of Dağlıca, the military were on the defensive and it was dif-ficult for them to either propose or even carry out a crossborder operation. This gave the government and those whofavored a multidimensional approach the chance they werewaiting for. The second option was to try a new approachfor which the ground had already been prepared by Turkey’sintelligence services and that was supported by diplomatsand other principals. Such an approach entailed engagingwith Iraqi Kurds and opening a diplomatic front across theborder while undertaking serious political reforms insideTurkey.International issues also played a significant role. Towardthe end of the second Bush administration, Washington hadalready revised its policy toward Turkey regarding the PKK.Getting ready to withdraw from northern Iraq, the UnitedStates wanted to ensure that it could cooperate with Turkey while leaving Iraq and the integrity of the Kurdistan Re-gional Government would be maintained. The Iraqi Kurds,anticipating the U.S. withdrawal and in need of a protectorincreasingly looked to Turkey. The booming economic tiesbetween the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey was an added incentive for both sides to ameliorate theirrelations so long as the Kurds did not attempt a fait accom-pli in Kirkuk. For this to happen the PKK had to get out of the way.Thus, the meeting between former U.S. President GeorgeW. Bush and Prime Minister Erdoğan on November 5, 2007was a turning point. At the end of the meeting, Bushdeclared the PKK “an enemy of Turkey, an enemy of Iraq,and an enemy of the United States.” Turkey was prom-ised and given “actionable intelligence,” air corridors wereopened for the Turkish air force to enter Iraqi airspace andpound the PKK camps on Kandil, and finally in February of 2008 a ground operation of eight days took place.When the Prime Minister launched the Kurdish open-ing in the late summer of 2009, he found a country, a stateapparatus, and an international environment that were allfavorable to his daring move. The polls taken immediately 
after the launch of the Kurdish opening indicated that closeto two-thirds of the public supported the initiative eventhough they were not clear about its content. It now appearsthat the working assumption for the opening was that Öca-lan would cooperate and empower the DTP to negotiate justlike Sinn Fein did in Ireland and let the party help disarmthe PKK. The Iraqi Kurds in turn were expected to be moreforthcoming with their efforts to squeeze the PKK and forceit to leave Iraqi Kurdish territory.Although fully supportive of the aims of the opening, theIraqi Kurds would not militarily engage the PKK and theU.S. support would be limited to intelligence sharing thatthe Turks did not deem sufficient. Within Turkey, Öcalanstarted to fear that the process would leave him isolated.The DTP consistently deferred to Öcalan and claimed thatit had no desire to be the interlocutor of the government inthis process. Given the fact that for the larger public Öcalanis a hate figure, any hint of bringing him to the center of the negotiation process was a non-starter, or worse: a gamestopper.The critical event that precipitated the erosion of supportfor the opening and infuriated the larger public was thereturn of 34 PKK members from Kandil and the Mahmurrefugee camp to Turkey beginning on October 19, 2009,which was watched on live television. Upon arrival, PKKmembers said, because Apo (Öcalan) told them to do so.Though the government sent prosecutors and judges to theborder town of Habur to take the deposition of those whoarrived, they let them go despite the fact that they refusedto say what the law demanded for them to be set free. Thesight of PKK fighters in uniform, the crowd’s jubilation inHabur, on the road to Diyarbakır, and in Diyarbakır itself,had an overtone of victory celebrations for many non-Kurdsin other parts of Turkey. It caused an immediate backlash.The government looked like it was losing control of theprocess.Öcalan then began the escalation. On the pretext that hewas transferred to a cell half the size of his previous one (thegovernment took three days to inform the public that thenew cell conformed to EU standards and was only 0.0017sq.m smaller) the demonstrations on the anniversary of thePKK’s founding took a violent turn. Clashes in differentcities culminated with the attack in Tokat on December 7,2009. The closure decision on December 11 triggered yetanother wave of demonstrations and violence in severalcities. The PKK wanted to take the fight to major city centers where Kurdish populations, forcefully evicted fromtheir villages during the Turkish military’s “scorched earthpolicies” of the 1990s, now reside and thus offer a poten-tially fertile ground. Öcalan expected such demonstrationsto trigger a violent counterattack, create conditions of civilstrife, and thereby force the hand of the government tonegotiate directly with him.In some sense the court’s ruling was also a response to thischallenge. In an obviously political decision the Constitu-tional Court removed the cushion that the DTP, despite itsinsufficiencies, provided and upped the ante. This may yetprove to be a more sophisticated move than it first appearedif, as some observers argue, the PKK’s escalation of violencewould backfire. Indeed there are signs that the generalKurdish public whose expectations had risen considerably and had a taste of a more peaceful environment, is dis-turbed by the turn of events. Violence is far less attractivewhile a political opening was underway than it may havebeen in earlier periods. Indeed, the perception that the PKKand Öcalan put their particularistic interests before thegeneral interest of the Kurds may yet prove to be a boon forthe development of a more solid political space for Kurd-ish politicians. Furthermore, Öcalan’s plan to intensify thebattle by taking it from the mountains to the cities does notseem to have succeeded so far. Despite intifada-like scenes,the numbers participating in the demonstrations arerelatively sparse.Should the situation escalate, however, the reaction againstPKK agitation may take a much more robust and even vio-lent turn. Therein lies the major threat to Turkey’sstability. The perception of just such a threat is whatprompted many commentators to caution the general publicabout the devastation of ethnically-based civil strife.There is enough blame to go around for the failure of thisinitial stage of the opening. But the process should not beand indeed cannot be reversed. Now is the time to takestock, learn the appropriate lessons from the failures of thefirst phase, and move forward.

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