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Will embracing the Kurds make Turkey’s prime minister the country’s most influential figure since Ataturk?


Something quite extraordinary — perhaps even historic — is afoot in Turkey. The country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is engaged in a colossal roll of the political dice, an act of statesmanship, ambition, and hubris largely without parallel on the current world stage. At one and the same time, Erdogan appears set on a course that could result not only in redefining the very nature of the modern Turkish nation-state, but in a radical revision of the Turkish Republic’s core national security tenets as well. How the gambit plays out could have momentous implications for the future of Turkey, for sure, but also for the broader Middle East region and even the United States.

 At the center of Erdogan’s play is an effort to resolve Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” — the chronic, often bloody conflict that has torn at the fabric of the Turkish state since its founding 90 years ago. On one side: the highly exclusive Kemalist conception of Turkish citizenship that all but denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity (no Kurds here, only “mountain Turks”) and effectively banned Kurdish language, history, and culture from the nation’s public life. On the other: a fiercely proud and distinct people, the Kurds, whose decades-long struggle for recognition and self-determination has — not surprisingly — regularly found expression in demands for independent nationhood, an ever-present separatist dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey’s territorial integrity and unity. Since 1984, this clash of competing nationalisms has manifested itself most virulently in the brutal war waged against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Leninist organization that both the United States and the European Union have officially designated as a terrorist group.

Now, in a bold and risky effort to cut through this Gordian knot, Erdogan has launched a new peace process in which his main partner is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the infamous PKK leader who has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. Revered by many (though by no means all) Kurds, Ocalan is reviled by the majority of ethnic Turks, condemned as a murderous enemy of the republic, a master terrorist whose hands are covered in the blood of innocents.

After months of secret negotiations with Erdogan’s intelligence chief, Ocalan issued a dramatic cease-fire declaration from his jail cell on March 21, the Kurdish new year. The statement was presented publicly in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey, where it was read out by Kurdish parliamentarians to a massive crowd waving Kurdish flags and portraits of the PKK leader. According to Ocalan, “A new era is beginning; arms are silencing; politics are gaining momentum. It is time for our [PKK] armed entities to withdraw [from Turkey].” Ocalan condemned as “an inhuman invention” past efforts to form states “on a single ethnicity and nation.” Today, he stated, “everybody is responsible for the creation of a free, democratic, and egalitarian country that suits well with the history of Kurdistan and Anatolia.”

Addressing the people of Turkey directly, Ocalan claimed that “their coexistence with Kurdish people dates back to a historical agreement of fraternity and solidarity under the flag of Islam…. This spirit of solidarity does not and must not contain conquest, denial, forced assimilation, and annihilation.” Instead, Ocalan invited Turks and Kurds “to build the democratic modernity together, as two prominent strategic powers in the Middle East … to emancipate ourselves from the vicious cycle of cruelty which [contradicts] our history and fraternity agreement. It is time not for opposition, conflict, or contempt towards each other; it is time for cooperation, unity, embracing, and mutual blessing.”

PKK fighters quickly fell into line with Ocalan’s command. The cease-fire took effect. And on May 8, several thousand PKK forces inside Turkey announced that they had officially commenced their withdrawal to mountain bases across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan — a slow retreat by foot that they suggested would be completed by the fall.

Beyond the cease-fire and withdrawal, however, details of the Erdogan-Ocalan peace process remain shrouded in mystery. At some point, of course, the PKK will also need to disarm and disband its fighting units. But in exchange for what exactly? That’s the big question. What has Erdogan promised? How far is he prepared to go in his search for a settlement? At this point, no one outside Erdogan and his inner circle really seems to know.

What we do have some idea about are long-standing Kurdish demands. The release of thousands imprisoned for links to the PKK. Amnesty for PKK fighters and their reintegration into Turkish society. And almost certainly, the release from prison of Ocalan himself and, most probably, an eventual place for him in Turkish political life.

But it doesn’t stop there. Not by a long shot. More fundamentally, the Kurds are seeking a radical and formal upgrade to their status in the Turkish body politic. They want a new constitution that recognizes the Kurdish people, alongside Turks, as an equal and essential component of the republic. They want the right to fully express their culture, including the right to educate their children in the Kurdish language. And, at a minimum, they want to see Turkish politics decentralized in a way that will allow Kurdish communities to exercise an unspecified degree of control over their local affairs.

It would be a gross understatement to say that this package, or even some subset of it, represents a very tall order. Indeed, most experts on Turkey whom I’ve canvassed tell me that it’s damn close to impossible — well beyond what the traffic of Turkish politics can bear. They note that over the past 25 years there have been more than a half dozen such efforts, all of which have crashed and burned. Some see Erdogan as badly overreaching, far too cocky in his ability to manipulate Turkey’s political system and buy off Kurdish demands without making major concessions.


By John Hannah

Source: Foreign Policy

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