December 23, 2009

Summary: Turkey had two options: Wage war and send the military across the border to northern Iraq, where the PKK made the Kandil mountain range their headquarters, or engage politically with Iraqi Kurds and seek serious reform at home. There is enough blame to go around for the failure of this initial stage of the opening. But the process should not be and indeed cannot be reversed. Now is the time to take stock, learn the appropriate lessons from the failures of the first phase, and move forward.

Kurdish Opening: Onto the Second Round
by Soli Ozel*
ISTANBUL — On December 11, Turkey’s Constitutional Court unanimously (11-0) decided to close down the Kurdish nationalist Democratic Society Party (DTP) and banned 37 of its members from active politics for five years. Among these were the highly respected and dovish party cochairman, Ahmet Türk, and his previous co-chairwoman, equally dovish Aysel Tuğluk. Their memberships in Parliament would thus be terminated. The court’s decision was made public by Chief Justice Haşim Kılıç in a press conference. According to Kılıç, DTP was closed down because it had organic links to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and because it violated two articles of the constitution and two articles of the Political Parties Law by its actions. The court deemed these actions as being supportive of terror and violence. Kılıç explained that the court took into consideration the relevant decisions by the European Court of Human Rights in the case of the Basque nationalist party, Herri Batasuna. Türk and Tuğluk were banned because of, among other things, calling the PKK’s leader Abdullah Öcalan, “respectable Mr. Öcalan.” It was difficult not to be reminded of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Although the Constitutional Court was the one that gave the final and fatal blow to the first phase of the “Kurdish opening” there were many who stabbed the victim numerous times as well. The government that initiated the process and then brought it to an impasse by its ineptitude and mismanagement and arguably because of its lackluster devotion to a comprehensive democratization project; the opposition parties that used harsh, polarizing, incendiary language, and scare tactics, and had neither a constructive solution to the Kurdish problem nor any commitment to a more liberal and democratic Turkey; the Kurdish nationalist DTP that could not take itself seriously as a political party where the hawks nearly always won against the doves, that allowed itself to be intimidated by its terrorist confrere, the PKK, and that could not take a clear political distance from violence and terrorism; the PKK leadership that, once cognizant it was to be sidelined and fearing eventual irrelevance, initiated a wave of violence to provoke a harsh response and secure the closure of DTP and then further enraged the Turkish public by attacking troops in the north-central Anatolian town of Tokat, killing seven young soldiers; and last but not least, Abdullah Öcalan, an icon for many Kurds who is serving a life sentence in Imrali Island and cares only about his

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Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science and is a columnist for the Turkish daily Haberturk. 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).

release from the dungeon and return to civil and perhaps to political life, and who ordered the latest wave of violence. They all participated in the murder. One could perhaps add the invisible actors within the state apparatus who might not have been happy with the Kurdish political opening, but it was the errors of the principal actors that had given them such an opportunity. The starting signal for the “Kurdish opening” was given in March 2009 by Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gül, when he told journalists accompanying him on his trip to Tehran that “good things are expected to happen concerning the Kurdish issue.” The government keyed into the opening in August, after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) took a beating in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern provinces of Turkey in the municipal elections held on March 29. Once Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan owned up to this politically difficult but necessary project— that was critically short of specifics, timelines, and a communication strategy—he consistently, and at times bravely, defended it. In the process, he made some of the most touching speeches of his political career and brought the human, cultural, and emotional dimensions of the “Kurdish problem” to the attention of a public raised on the belief that no such problem, or even Kurds themselves for that matter, existed. Since then an unprecedented rich discussion took place in the country about the Kurdish question and the Parliament debated the matter for the first time in its history, even if the content of the proceedings left a lot to be desired. The general context of the opening that induced the government to undertake this bold move dates back several years and 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 terminated by military means alone. Somehow the Turkish political system had to address the Kurdish problem that gave rise to the PKK in the first place. The last point of resistance to a more politically-based approach to the Kurdish issue was broken on October 21, 2007, when the PKK attacked an isolated outpost near the mountainous 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 made the Kandil mountain range their headquarters, or engage politically with Iraqi Kurds and seek serious reform at home. Because allegations of army complacency and dereliction of duty immediately surfaced in the wake of Dağlıca, the military were on the defensive and it was difficult for them to either propose or even carry out a cross border operation. This gave the government and those who favored a multidimensional approach the chance they were waiting for. The second option was to try a new approach for which the ground had already been prepared by Turkey’s intelligence services and that was supported by diplomats and other principals. Such an approach entailed engaging with Iraqi Kurds and opening a diplomatic front across the border while undertaking serious political reforms inside Turkey. International issues also played a significant role. Toward the end of the second Bush administration, Washington had already revised its policy toward Turkey regarding the PKK. Getting ready to withdraw from northern Iraq, the United States wanted to ensure that it could cooperate with Turkey while leaving Iraq and the integrity of the Kurdistan Regional Government would be maintained. The Iraqi Kurds, anticipating the U.S. withdrawal and in need of a protector increasingly looked to Turkey. The booming economic ties between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Turkey was an added incentive for both sides to ameliorate their relations so long as the Kurds did not attempt a fait accompli in Kirkuk. For this to happen the PKK had to get out of the way. Thus, the meeting between former U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Erdoğan on November 5, 2007 was a turning point. At the end of the meeting, Bush declared the PKK “an enemy of Turkey, an enemy of Iraq, and an enemy of the United States.” Turkey was promised and given “actionable intelligence,” air corridors were opened for the Turkish air force to enter Iraqi airspace and pound 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 opening in the late summer of 2009, he found a country, a state apparatus, and an international environment that were all favorable to his daring move. The polls taken immediately


after the launch of the Kurdish opening indicated that close to two-thirds of the public supported the initiative even though they were not clear about its content. It now appears that the working assumption for the opening was that Öcalan would cooperate and empower the DTP to negotiate just like Sinn Fein did in Ireland and let the party help disarm the PKK. The Iraqi Kurds in turn were expected to be more forthcoming with their efforts to squeeze the PKK and force it to leave Iraqi Kurdish territory. Although fully supportive of the aims of the opening, the Iraqi Kurds would not militarily engage the PKK and the U.S. support would be limited to intelligence sharing that the Turks did not deem sufficient. Within Turkey, Öcalan started to fear that the process would leave him isolated. The DTP consistently deferred to Öcalan and claimed that it had no desire to be the interlocutor of the government in this process. Given the fact that for the larger public Öcalan is a hate figure, any hint of bringing him to the center of the negotiation process was a non-starter, or worse: a game stopper. The critical event that precipitated the erosion of support for the opening and infuriated the larger public was the return of 34 PKK members from Kandil and the Mahmur refugee camp to Turkey beginning on October 19, 2009, which was watched on live television. Upon arrival, PKK members said, because Apo (Öcalan) told them to do so. Though the government sent prosecutors and judges to the border town of Habur to take the deposition of those who arrived, they let them go despite the fact that they refused to say what the law demanded for them to be set free. The sight of PKK fighters in uniform, the crowd’s jubilation in Habur, on the road to Diyarbakır, and in Diyarbakır itself, had an overtone of victory celebrations for many non-Kurds in other parts of Turkey. It caused an immediate backlash. The government looked like it was losing control of the process. Öcalan then began the escalation. On the pretext that he was transferred to a cell half the size of his previous one (the government took three days to inform the public that the new cell conformed to EU standards and was only 0.0017 sq.m smaller) the demonstrations on the anniversary of the PKK’s founding took a violent turn. Clashes in different cities culminated with the attack in Tokat on December 7, 2009. The closure decision on December 11 triggered yet another wave of demonstrations and violence in several cities. The PKK wanted to take the fight to major city centers where Kurdish populations, forcefully evicted from their villages during the Turkish military’s “scorched earth policies” of the 1990s, now reside and thus offer a potentially fertile ground. Öcalan expected such demonstrations to trigger a violent counterattack, create conditions of civil strife, and thereby force the hand of the government to negotiate directly with him. In some sense the court’s ruling was also a response to this challenge. In an obviously political decision the Constitutional Court removed the cushion that the DTP, despite its insufficiencies, provided and upped the ante. This may yet prove to be a more sophisticated move than it first appeared if, as some observers argue, the PKK’s escalation of violence would backfire. Indeed there are signs that the general Kurdish public whose expectations had risen considerably and had a taste of a more peaceful environment, is disturbed by the turn of events. Violence is far less attractive while a political opening was underway than it may have been in earlier periods. Indeed, the perception that the PKK and Öcalan put their particularistic interests before the general interest of the Kurds may yet prove to be a boon for the development of a more solid political space for Kurdish politicians. Furthermore, Öcalan’s plan to intensify the battle by taking it from the mountains to the cities does not seem to have succeeded so far. Despite intifada-like scenes, the numbers participating in the demonstrations are relatively sparse. Should the situation escalate, however, the reaction against PKK agitation may take a much more robust and even violent turn. Therein lies the major threat to Turkey’s stability. The perception of just such a threat is what prompted many commentators to caution the general public about the devastation of ethnically-based civil strife. There is enough blame to go around for the failure of this initial stage of the opening. But the process should not be and indeed cannot be reversed. Now is the time to take stock, learn the appropriate lessons from the failures of the first phase, and move forward.


The bulk of the responsibility to move the process forward still lies with the government. The Prime Minister must first consolidate his own party’s support for the process since the more nationalistic elements in it do not have their heart in this Kurdish opening. Next, he should extend a hand to the opposition. If opposition cooperation is not forthcoming, he should expose them for their intransigence and lack of interest in de-escalating the situation and avoiding further violence. Last but not least, the government must come up with a comprehensive proposal for democratization and place openings on many fronts based on universal principles rather than particular political interests. In the second installment on this theme, On Turkey contributor Soli Ozel will present the Kurdish issue in the larger context of Turkey’s democratization efforts.

Soli Ozel, Lecturer, Bilgi University; Columnist, Sabah
Soli Ozel teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University’s Department of International Relations and Political Science. He is a columnist for the national daily Haberturk and is senior advisor to the chairman of the Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association. Additionally, he is the editor of TUSIAD’s magazine Private View.

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