Originally commissioned August 2013
In 2009 The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s, government began to openly talk about working towards peace with the outlawed Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK). A cease fire and a peace process were announced on 21st March of this year, the day of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year.
The circumstances of the announcement were in themselves remarkable. The announcement was read in both Turkish and Kurdish, flags with traditional Kurdish colours were flown and pictures of the leader of the PKK could be seen, all on national television. This marked significant progress in a country where until 2002 speaking Kurdish in public buildings was illegal.
The peace process is now approaching a critical moment. The government has been accusing the PKK of not withdrawing their forces quickly enough, which was a requirement of the peace deal. The Kurdish side has been accusing the government of not making any concrete steps towards their side of the deal.
A true commitment to peace?
The government is preparing to introduce a “democratization package” by 1st September. It is yet unclear what this will contain and to what extent it will address the demands of Turkey’s Kurds. The government has been accused of not including the other side in the preparation of this package and critics of the government doubt whether it will appear at all. The PKK, for its part, recently underwent a leadership shuffle, interpreted by some as a signal to the Turkish government that it is still receptive to peace, although it has also been argued that the change is fairly cosmetic.
There is a parliamentary recess and local elections approaching over the next seven months; if changes are not implemented before the recess they may prove much harder to implement in the future. Some worry that the government is merely stalling and will never produce results. There have been accusations that the government has been using this calm to reinforce its police and army bases in the region, something which Ankara strongly refutes. In June a protest against the construction of a new gendarmerie (military police) outpost in the Kurdish region was fired on resulting in one death.
Another worry is that the peace process is a tactical ploy by the government to gain votes by being seen as a benevolent peace-bringer, or specifically to gain Kurdish votes, a ploy which it will abandon once it wins next year’s elections. Erdoğan may also be attempting to garner more support to fulfil his ambition of changing the country’s constitution to a presidential system with himself as the president.
If the Turkish government does not introduce this package by 1st September and further laws by the middle of October, it has been suggested that there may be a return to hostilities.
Erdoğan finds himself in a difficult position with respect to the peace process. Having built his reputation on his strong-man image and the use of nationalist and religious rhetoric, he has risked appearing weak by attempting to search for peace.
Turkey has been rocked these last months by the “Gezi Park” protests that were largely in protest at the Prime Minister’s increasingly authoritarian governing style. These were not directly linked to the Kurdish issue and included actors from many different parts of the political spectrum. They were a direct challenge to his authority, as such, he may now be less willing to appear to be making concessions on any front. In response to the protests the Prime Minister has held mass rallies where he denounced the protestors as terrorists. What is notable, however, is that at these rallies the Prime Minister refrained from blaming the PKK for the protests, despite having blamed everything from Israel to a mysterious “international interest lobby”. That said, this may also be a prime example of the “Sèvres Syndrome”, a tendency in Turkish politics to blame foreign powerful countries and interests for domestic problems, which dates back to the Treat of Sèvres when foreign Western powers did indeed carve up the territory. As well as there being a tendency to blame foreign powers, there is also a tendency for many within Turkey to believe these claims, as such, the PKK would not fit the profile of an instigator of these protests.
So at this crucial time in the peace process it is worth asking, after 30 years of war is there still appetite for violence, in the devastated Kurdish regions or in Turkey in general? The PKK has shown incredible resilience in the face of enormous casualties and there are suggestions its levels of recruitment are still high. Yet, Turkey today is achieving a higher level of wealth than it ever has before, something which its population may wish to enjoy in peace (although this may not be reaching those lower on the economic scale). Members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) (a pro-Kurdish) have suggested that a resumption of hostilities may not lead to the same brutal return to action after the collapse of the last peace process in 1993.
So, asides from not wanting to appear weak, what is it about the PKK’s demands that is problematic for Erdoğan? What is it about the demands that would make many Turkish voters favour potential war over their non-fulfilment?
One of the main demands is making public education available in Kurdish. There is a deep-grained antipathy to such a move. It is perceived by many as a direct challenge to the republican principles on which the modern Turkish state was founded. There is a deep-rooted nationalist streak in Turks of many political persuasions, for whom this would be intolerable.
Kurdish language rights have also long been associated with demands for autonomy, which is seen as potentially damaging to the structural integrity of the country. Many Turks see their country as being surrounded by enemies, something which is reinforced to a certain degree by the education system.
Another of the main demands is a general amnesty. After so many years of violence on both sides and so much state propaganda against Kurds, an amnesty would be hard to swallow for many who have followed the PKK’s violence and the state’s portrayal of the conflict for many years.
The rise of a Greater Kurdistan?
For years the Kurdish region of Syria fought against Assad’s regime, but now, since the start of the civil war in Syria, the region has effectively been enjoying autonomy. Northern Iraq’s highly autonomous Kurdish region, Syria’s Kurdish region and Turkey’s all border each other. , Among this trio, Turkey now appears to be the last domino to fall; Erdoğan may not wish to be seen by his electorate to be partly responsible for the rise of a Greater Kurdistan.
The Kurdish area of Syria has until recently stayed clear of the worst of the internal conflict. However, extremist elements with alleged Al-Qaeda links have now been massacring civilians in Kurdish enclaves near the Kurdish region. These extremist groups have met resistance from the PYK, which has strong links to the PKK.
Northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous government has suggested it could intervene militarily if the attacks continue. International Kurdish solidarity in the face of the massacres and fighting in Syria may serve to embolden all the Kurdish factions involved in their various struggles.
Ankara is faced with a dilemma. It has staked all its hopes on the Syria opposition defeating Assad by openly backing the opposition. However, continuing to support the opposition in the border region may be taken as a tacit attack on the Kurdish. Nonetheless, if the Kurdish regions manage to unite behind a common military goal, they could represent a stronger presence. This would give the Kurds in Turkey greater leverage in negotiations with the government.
Messy foreign policy
Moreover, with the recent kidnapping of two Turkish pilots in Lebanon, supposedly in retaliation for Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition, Turkey is finding itself being more and more drawn into a dangerous conflict. Last year’s shooting down of a Turkish fighter jet and cross-border shelling by the Syrian army heightened tensions. Turkey’s relationship with the Kurds was further complicated by suggestions that Assad’s regime was supporting the PKK in retaliation against Ankara’s support for the Syrian opposition.
To add to this, by coming out in strong support of Egypt’s Morsi as well as consistently criticizing the Israeli and Syrian governments, Erdoğan is positioning his country so that, on many issues, he cuts across regional power groupings (for example, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are anti-Morsi and anti-Assad). Erdoğan and his foreign minister Davutoğlu are seeking to present their foreign policy as one that maintains a moral authority. That foreign policy is now complicated to say the least. The Kurdish issue, once at the top of Ankara’s agenda, is now vying for attention from among various regional upheavals.
Path to peace?
The recent protests have been right to challenge and seek to change Turkey’s tradition of authoritarian ruling styles. Whilst the government’s response to the protests has been utterly reprehensible, it is sadly hardly surprising. What would be a surprising and incredible achievement, would be if the current peace process were to lead to peace. Turkey would do well to un-complicate its security concerns. That Erdoğan’s government is pursuing peace for political ends is a political reality and not a meaningful criticism. However, it remains to be seen whether the Turkish government will remain committed to peace once it wins (which at the moment it seems very likely it will) next year’s election.