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November 13, 2009
Summary: Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has launched a bold campaign to end the country’s long-running Kurdish problem. The approach is multi-pronged. On the one hand, it is enacting a raft of domestic reforms tailored to respond to the Kurds’ demands for greater cultural rights. On the other hand, it is seeking a formula to disarm and disband the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK, which frequently resorts to terrorist acts against civilians, is based in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. Recent moves by Ankara to engage the Iraqi Kurds has helped win them support to move against the PKK. But a growing number of Turks worry that the government’s actions will further stoke Kurdish separatism and their fears are being fanned by leading opposition parties. It will take all of the government’s courage and skills to strike a balance between satisfying the Kurds and reassuring the general public that its plans will benefit all sides by ushering a new era of peace.
Turkey’s Kurdish Gambit: The Road to Peace
by Amberin Zaman*
ANKARA — On October 31, I watched history unfold as Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, flanked by the Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish flags, gave a joint press conference with Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan regional government, and delivered messages of friendship and peace. “Erbil feels like home,” a beaming Davutoğlu declared of the Iraqi Kurdish capital. His words were instantly translated into Kurdish. Until recently it would have been unthinkable for any Turkish official to be caught on camera anywhere near a Kurdish flag. Never mind that Iraq’s central government recognizes the federal status accorded to the country’s Kurds under its popularly legislated constitution—Turkey has long insisted on calling the region “Northern Iraq.” The dramatic turnaround—Turkey is now preparing to open a consulate in Erbil—is a central pillar of the “Kurdish opening” that was declared amid much fanfare by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this year.1 Davutoğlu’s groundbreaking trip, the first by any cabinet minister to Iraqi Kurdistan, came just days after some 34 Turkish Kurds, including eight members of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), made
the opposite journey to Turkey. Their return was intended to signal an end to their 25-year-long insurgency in response to a raft of reforms aimed at addressing the long-running grievances of Turkey’s estimated 14 million Kurds. Critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have accused it of caving into “terrorist demands.” Others have called it an “American plot.” And it didn’t help that the group was welcomed by thousands of Kurds chanting pro-PKK slogans. Images of the PKK fighters in their guerrilla fatigues being greeted like heroes and delivering fiery speeches in Diyarbakir provoked an outpouring of nationalist anger across Turkey. Mothers of Turkish soldiers slain by the PKK took to the streets. Wounded veterans cast off their artificial limbs in disgust. Pundits promptly declared the process was dead as the government announced that the returns had been suspended. Yet, Davutoğlu’s visit is the clearest signal that Erdoğan is determined to press ahead with the “Kurdish opening” on which he has staked his political future. Mismanaging the process could further polarize Turks and Kurds and boost support for Erdoğan’s nationalist and Kurdish rivals alike.
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Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). 1 Amberin Zaman (2009). “Turkey’s Kurds: Toward a Solution?” On Turkey series, June 4, 2009.
The Iraqi Kurds’ cooperation is key. Between 3,000 and 5,000 PKK fighters are thought to be based in the mountains separating their region from Iran. The Iraqi Kurds’ refusal to join the Turkish army’s battle against the PKK has long been a source of friction with Ankara. And AKP officials have long concurred that military measures alone cannot solve the Kurdish problem. Past efforts to coordinate an amnesty for PKK fighters (untainted by violence) with the Iraqi Kurds floundered in the face of tough resistance from Turkey’s hawkish generals. But last year’s elevation of General İlker Başbuğ to the chief of the Turkish General Staff offered an unprecedented opportunity. Tough as he is, Geneneral Başbuğ is the first Turkish army chief to repeatedly concur that guns alone cannot defeat the PKK. His support has been instrumental in promoting the new friendship sealed between Ankara and Erbil. The uproar caused by the return of the first batch of PKK fighters needs to subside before the government proceeds with further repatriations. Yet negotiations are continuing with the Iraqi Kurdish leadership (and the UNHCR) to arrange the return of some 11,000 Turkish Kurds based in the Makhmour refugee camp. These are mainly Turkish Kurd civilians—albeit PKK sympathizers—who fled the fighting in the early 1990s. Disarming and repatriating the PKK fighters is a far trickier business. Ten years into his captivity, the PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, remains in charge of his men. Millions of Kurdish nationalists are unabashedly sympathetic. Should Öcalan order the PKK to disband, its commanders in the field say they would obey. It is likely that the Turkish authorities are talking to Öcalan, albeit through third parties. But Öcalan wants public acknowledgement of his role and has claimed that continued pressure on the Kurds makes it impossible for further movement. The famously egomaniacal Öcalan’s strategy appears to be pinned on extracting better conditions, not so much for the Kurdish people, but for himself. He would like his solitary confinement to end and to have greater access to the outside world. Sources familiar with his thinking assert half jokingly that a television set might yet swing the deal.
He would be making a virtue of necessity. Recent developments are conspiring against the PKK. Since November 2007, Washington has given Turkey the go-ahead to bomb rebel positions in northern Iraq. The impending U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent threat of Sunni Arab and Shiite belligerence are among the biggest reasons why the Iraqi Kurds are seeking Turkish mentoring. The PKK is more of a liability than leverage against Ankara. Meanwhile, Washington is continuing to tighten the screws: It recently named three top PKK commanders as drug traffickers. Still, Turkey should count itself lucky that Öcalan is in control of the Kurdish nationalist movement. For now, a new generation of angry, unemployed urban Kurds venerate him. But if they decide that he hasn’t delivered, they may choose a different and more radical path. Another worry is the resurgence of Hizbullah. The Turkish Kurdish group (no connection to its Lebanese namesake) was largely a creation of rogue elements in the security forces that used to fight the PKK. But when it outlived its usefulness, the authorities cracked down, arresting thousands of Hizbullah militants and killing its leader in a shootout in Istanbul in 2000. Hizbullah is now furiously rehabilitating itself as a “civil society organization,” whitewashing its bloody history in glossy magazines, and organizing mass rallies on Muslim holy days. But under this veneer the mentality is unchanged. As one Hizbullah leader put it to me during a recent interview: “We want Shariah rule.” And they do not exclude reverting to violence to achieve their goal. A big question is where Hizbullah’s money comes from. (Its new headquarters are located in the fanciest office space in Diyarbakir.) The most likely answer is that it is being financed by Iran. And for all its recent collaboration against the PKK, the rebels continue to operate camps in Iranian territory. Cemil Bayık, a top PKK commander, who is opposed to peace with Turkey, is alleged to have close links with Teheran. The PKK is an outcome and not the source of Turkey’s Kurdish problem. So long as the Kurds grievances are not addressed, outfits like Hizbullah will continue to pose a threat. Government plans to scrap laws that have resulted in the jailing of thousands of teens—simply because they chanted nationalists slogans or hurled the odd stone at
police—is a first and necessary step in helping to check the radicalization of Kurdish youth. Other measures such as returning the original Kurdish names to Turkified villages, establishing Kurdish studies departments in universities, and easing restrictions on the Kurdish language, be it in the media or elsewhere, will create further good will. Jobs are also desperately needed. Turkey’s rapprochement with Iraqi Kurdistan is sure to create synergies that will generate employment in the mainly Kurdish southeast region. As Nechirvan Barzani, a top Iraqi Kurdish leader, told me recently, there remains many would-be saboteurs of the AKP’s Kurdish opening within the PKK and Turkish officialdom alike. And Turkey’s myopic opposition leaders seem bent on agitating nationalist sentiments in the hope of winning votes. It will take all of Erdoğan’s nerve and determination to see the process through. He’s weathered jail, abortive coup attempts, and court cases to ban his party. There is good reason to believe that Erdoğan will clear the Kurdish hurdle too.
Amberin Zaman, Correspondent, The Economist
Amberin Zaman is the Turkey correspondent for The Economist and writes a weekly column for the Turkish daily Taraf.
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.
About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www.gmfus.org/turkey or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.gmfus.org/reaction.
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