Behind the Lines: Erdogan’s Kurdish gambit

Turkish PM has not committed himself on any core issues in peace talks with the Kurds; no ‘historic compromise’ on the horizon.

Kurdish PKK workers marching 370 (photo credit: Azad Lashkari /Reuters)
Kurdish PKK workers marching 370
(photo credit: Azad Lashkari /Reuters)
On May 8, fighters of the Kurdish PKK militia began to withdraw from their positions in Turkey, bound for their mountain strongholds in Kurdish-ruled northern Iraq. The decision by the PKK to withdraw is the result of orders issued by jailed movement leader Abdullah Ocalan.
This re-energizing of the Turkish-Kurdish “peace process” is one of the most important of the phenomena generated by the seismic shifts currently underway in the Middle East. But the foundations of this process are far more shaky than the guerrillas’ redeployment from Turkey would suggest.
The newly minted Turkish-Kurdish peace process resembles the veteran Israeli-Palestinian version in a number of ways. Perhaps most importantly, the process has been launched without any clear picture of how it is supposed to conclude. There is no evidence of any “historic compromise” between the sides on the core issues which caused the conflict in the first place.
For the Kurdish side, the struggle is no longer about separate statehood. Rather, their demands now center on the right to use Kurdish language in education, equal status of Kurds in the Turkish constitution, greater autonomy for local authorities in Kurdish majority areas, and the release of thousands of Kurdish political prisoners held in Turkish jails.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has committed himself on none of these issues. For him, the existence of the process appears more important than its result. Erdogan’s Kurdish gambit is intended to form part of his broader campaign to transform the Turkish polity.
Starting in September 2008, representatives of the Turkish state and of the PKK engaged in intermittent face-to-face talks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
From August 2009, the Turkish side were led by Hakan Fidan, a close associate of Erdogan who now heads the MIT, the Turkish National Intelligence Association. Parallel talks between MIT representatives and PKK leader Ocalan also took place at Imrali, the island jail where Ocalan has been incarcerated for the last 14 years.
From the outset, the Kurds suspected that the Turkish intention of the talks was to induce the PKK to end its insurgency – for the sake of the process, while offering no concrete path for solving the conflict. As a result, recent years have been marked by long ceasefires and periodic bursts of conflict, as the Kurds sought to remind the Turks that the quiet should not be taken for granted as long as the core issues remained unresolved.
So what was the breakthrough that has led to the current appearance of progress? From late 2012, the Turkish government began a new round of talks with Ocalan alone, on Imrali, denying the PKK the possibility of presenting a coherent stance as a movement.
This process has led to the orders by Ocalan for the withdrawal of PKK fighters and the appearance of progress. But what exactly the government has or has not proposed remains shrouded in mystery. Nothing in writing has emerged from the Imrali talks, on any of the core issues of the conflict.
While Ocalan retains an iconic status within the PKK and parts of the broader Kurdish world, it is not difficult to discern caution and some confusion among movement cadres regarding their leaders’ latest orders.
In an interview this week with renowned Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal, prominent PKK commander Bahoz Erdal stressed that the current PKK decision for a cease-fire does not imply surrender, nor remove the possibility of a return to armed action if the Kurdish issue remains unresolved. “They asked for a cease-fire – we declared. They asked for withdrawal, we are doing this now. If tomorrow they [say] that this is not enough, you should lay down your arms – they can’t force us to do this. This means surrender for us which we [the PKK] have never accepted, even in the most difficult times,” Erdal told Cemal.
The point, Erdal said, was not a cease-fire for its own sake, but to remove the reasons why Kurds took up the guerrilla struggle in the first place.
The veteran PKK fighter also noted that the Turkish army has begun to construct a new infrastructure along the border, intended to hinder the ability of Kurdish fighters to return to Turkey should the conflict continue.
This observation is part of a broader concern in the PKK that Erdogan’s intention may be to neutralize and distance the movement and render it irrelevant, rather than to reach a true rapprochement with it.
Erdal is a very prominent commander, well respected among the Kurds, and his statements will be carefully studied by all sides.
Murat Karayilan, the de facto leader of the PKK in Qandil, said that the withdrawal from Turkey would “stop immediately if there is any attack, operation or bombing of our guerrilla forces, and our forces will use their right to reciprocate.” Karayilan also made clear in a rare press conference at the end of April that PKK disarmament would take place only after the Turkish government carried out constitutional amendments in line with the movement’s demands relating to Kurdish rights.
Serious questions therefore remain as to whether the peace process will in the end bear fruit.
From Erdogan’s point of view, however, the move toward the Kurds makes obvious political sense. The Turkish prime minister’s current central goal is to ensure the passing of a constitution that would radically reshape the nature of the Turkish republic. Most importantly, the new constitution would replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential one.
This would then pave the way for Erdogan himself to stand in presidential elections in 2014, and rule with vastly increased executive powers.
Many in Turkey fear that at this point, Erdogan will complete the process of a Putin-style hollowing out of Turkish democracy which they discern is already under way – in the emasculation of the free media, the jailing of senior officers on trumped-up charges, and the incarceration and harassment of journalists.
To bring the constitution to a referendum, Erdogan needs a 330-seat majority in the 550-member parliament.
He currently controls 325 seats.
One of the ways in which Erdogan could ensure his majority would be by securing the support of the Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party). Many observers discern the central goal in Erdogan’s current peace process as being to secure BDP and Kurdish support for the new constitution.
This brings with it the possibility that once the new constitution is in place and Erdogan is securely ensconced as president, he could abandon the perhaps impossible task of reconciling Turkish and Kurdish desires, leaving a neutered PKK, and reverting to the previous policies of repression.
Should the peace process falter, however, Erdogan will need to take account of a strikingly improved Kurdish strategic position. Perhaps most importantly of all, a franchise of the PKK now controls northeast Syria. Kurdish fighters resisted a Turkish backed attempt by Syrian rebels to begin a reconquest of this area in January. There is also a flourishing de facto sovereign area in the Iraqi Kurdish region (which is not, of course, aligned with the PKK).
So Erdogan has launched an audacious gamble, initiated with the help of the ever-eager diplomats of Norway. PKK leader Ocalan, meanwhile, has reportedly said that if the process fails, 70,000 fighters await his orders. Whether Erdogan’s move will result in a lasting rapprochement between Turks and Kurds – or flounder into renewed conflict – remains very much to be seen.