Troubles in Turkey’s Backyard

Forget Gaza or Iran, Prime Minister Erdogan needs to focus on the reignited war with Kurdish separatists -- before a full-fledged war breaks out in Turkey's restive southeast.


Turkey’s rugged Kurdish region in the country’s southeast has exploded in violence once again, posing a new challenge for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More than 80 soldiers have been killed this year in attacks orchestrated by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group, already exceeding the total for all of 2009. Turkey responded last week by bombing PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.

This renewal of violence should serve as a reminder to Erdogan that peace begins at home — not in Gaza or Iran. The prime minister won regional prestige for undercutting U.S. diplomacy by striking a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran in May and for lambasting Israel in June over its botched raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla, which resulted in the deaths of nine Turks. Translating this newly aggressive foreign policy into domestic support, however, has proved trickier.

Although lashing out at Israel won him accolades from Islamist and Turkish nationalist voters, it did not help his deteriorating relations with Turkey’s ethnic Kurds, who make up nearly 20 percent of the country’s population. For them, the real issue is how long it will take Erdogan to make good on his promise of reforms to end their status as second-class citizens. So far, he has disappointed.

Erdogan only has himself to blame. He raised expectations last year by announcing a "Democratic Initiative," meant to turn Turkey into a true Western democracy and end the country’s stubborn Kurdish insurgency. But political missteps have complicated the process. Erdogan granted an unofficial amnesty last year to 34 PKK members and supporters in Iraq, allowing them to return to Turkey. His bid at rapprochement backfired, however, when the returnees were greeted as heroes by thousands of jubilant Kurds, many chanting pro-PKK slogans, waiting on the Turkish side of the border. It was an unwanted reminder to Erdogan, and Turks in general, that the PKK is a popular force to be reckoned with.

Since then, Erdogan has hesitated to move ahead with his stated plan to reform his country’s relationship with its Kurdish minority. Draft legislation submitted by his party in March to revise Turkey’s Constitution, which aims to curtail the military’s significant political influence, did not include any changes to the articles limiting Kurdish freedoms and identity. The Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, the primary legal Kurdish party that holds 20 seats in parliament, boycotted the vote, sparking accusations from Turkish nationalists that Kurds were trying to torpedo the democratic process.

The political and military situation has only deteriorated since. On June 22, Kurdish rebels took their fight to western Turkey, detonating a roadside bomb alongside a military bus in Istanbul. Four soldiers and a teenage girl were killed. Erdogan’s rhetoric in response to the renewed violence has been forceful: He insisted that he will not be deterred from pursuing his peace agenda even as he promised that the rebels will "drown in their own blood." But he also seems to think he can make peace on his own, without talking to the Kurds.

But solving Turkey’s persistent Kurdish problem will take more than simply opening a 24-hour Kurdish language station — Erdogan’s one concrete achievement to date. To encourage Ankara to negotiate, the PKK announced a cease-fire on April 13, 2009. Erdogan did not respond — but the security forces did. A day after the PKK’s announcement, police rounded up 53 executives and members of the legal pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party on suspicion of aiding the rebel group. To Kurds, the timing looked suspicious. The PKK had said it wanted to give Kurds and Turks a chance to solve the conflict peacefully, but in response the state arrested leading Kurdish politicians. Kurds also assumed the arrests were the prime minister’s way of getting back at the Kurdish party, which had thoroughly trounced Erdogan’s Islamist-oriented AKP in March 29 local elections.

Legal assaults against Kurds’ elected representatives only continued. In December 2009, the party was shut down by the Constitutional Court for its alleged links to the PKK. It reopened under a new name, but 37 senior officials were barred from politics for five years, including two parliamentarians, who also lost their seats. Last month, on June 18, prosecutors in the city of Diyarbakir charged 151 Kurdish politicians and activists — including 8 elected mayors (most of whom are in jail pending trial) from the southeast — with aiding the PKK. Given the growing tensions, it should have come as no surprise that on June 1, the PKK ended its one-sided ceasefire, sparking the current outbreak of violence.

In the Kurdish region, the narrowing of the democratic field has revitalized support for the guerrilla war. The few Kurdish voices calling for the PKK to disarm are now marginal. Unsurprisingly, the PKK has no shortage of new recruits.

"I am afraid my son will join the PKK because he sees what is happening to me, and says that there’s no point trying to do anything through legal channels," Abdullah Demirbas, the Kurdish mayor of the Sur district of Diyarbakir, told me in June 2009. Demirbas had been suspended from his post in June 2007 by the Interior Ministry for printing informational pamphlets in Kurdish. In the March 2009 local elections, he regained his seat. But his reelection was not enough to prevent fears from becoming reality: A few weeks after Demirbas and I met, his 17-year-old son did join the rebels. The elder Demirbas was arrested at the end of 2009 in a security service roundup of Kurdish politicians.

If You Want Peace, Prepare for War

While Erdogan spent the past year talking about his plan for reform, the PKK prepared for the "what if" scenario: What if Erdogan did not stick to his promise of democratic reforms? What if the military, under attack by the judiciary for alleged coup plots against the government, actually retaliated with a coup? Turkey’s military simply ignored the cease-fire, insisting the "terrorists" needed to disarm unconditionally and trust in the justice of the state. It was little surprise that intermittent clashes continued. Now, with the formal end of the cease-fire, the position of both sides appears to have hardened: The military has stepped up its cross-border bombing raids while Erdogan continues to avoid pushing for political changes to better integrate the Kurds. The PKK has made clear it plans to ratchet up its political and military assaults.

Senior PKK leadership in the Kandil mountains — a harsh stretch of terrain close to the triangle where the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey meet — are threatening to declare autonomy in the southeast. They have also resumed urban attacks, allying with the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a proxy force, to bomb the military bus in Istanbul. TAK was ordered shut down by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan four years ago — in part, due to concerns that its tactics hurt attempts to build support  among Turkish liberals and could precipitate mob violence against Kurdish civilians in western cities. But hardliners inside the PKK, mainly younger militants with no memory of anything but the insurgency, have been pushing to take the fight out of the Kurdish region and hit western Turkey. The bombing in Istanbul shows that they have won the argument.

Erdogan, increasingly embattled at home and abroad, likely does not have the political capital to push forward with negotiations with the PKK or even with legally elected Kurdish politicians. He is already fighting off accusations by political opponents and secular Kemalists who distrust the prime minister’s Islamist credentials that the detention of senior military officers for allegedly plotting a coup is a crude attempt to destroy the political power of the Turkish Armed Forces, a secular institution. He faces accusations from Washington — sparked by his incendiary comments following the Israeli attack on the Gaza-bound flotilla and his warming relations with Syria, Iran, and Hamas — that he is an unreliable and irrational ally. At the same time, he is already starting to plan for the 2011 national elections. Sitting down with the PKK, especially after the recent spate of attacks, will not play well with his conservative Islamist base or with the nationalist Turks he is trying to woo.

Erdogan could still surprise, however — and so could the Kurds. Although Kurdish activists publicly insist that the state must negotiate directly with Ocalan and be ready to free him as part of a settlement, they are more accommodating in private. Ocalan himself has said that Turkey does not have to talk directly to him, but can instead negotiate through the elected Kurdish representatives. Still, making peace will require both sides to adopt some useful fictions. The legal Kurdish party may not be part of the PKK, but it is under the rebel group’s sway. For talks to get off the ground, Turkish officials will have pretend they are not talking to the PKK, and the PKK will have to act as if it is not involved in negotiations.

No one should doubt that the PKK is a military organization with scant regard for democratic principles. The group does not tolerate dissent — neither among its militants, who can be killed for stepping out of line, nor within Kurdish society, where people critical of the organization are isolated and threatened. But it is also a pragmatic organization which, in many ways, is as sensitive to the demands of its supporters as Erdogan is to his voting base. If Erdogan truly wants a partner for peace, he is likely to find one in the PKK. But if he wants to first destroy the PKK, as his public comments indicate, and then look for Kurds with whom to negotiate, peace will elude him.

Erdogan’s goal should be to transform the PKK through negotiations — giving PKK rebels a reason and the political space (including amnesty and a lifting of restrictions on pro-Kurdish political activity)to put down their weapons and join the democratic process. Ending the PKK’s war requires recognizing that the organization, despite its brutality and anti-democratic methods, has won legitimacy among Kurds by dint of refusal to give up fighting for their rights, whatever the means. The prime minister needs to accept this.

Back in the 1990s, it seemed Kurds might be satisfied if they simply received equal rights to education in their own language and other cultural freedoms. No longer is this the case. Their vision is now one of autonomy, if not a federal structure similar to what Iraqi Kurds enjoy across the border, coupled with full amnesty for PKK rebels. Kurds will have to compromise: Ocalan is unlikely to ever leave prison, senior PKK commanders may be barred from returning to Turkey, and the contours of autonomy will have to be jointly decided. But since 1999, when a legal Kurdish party first stood in local elections and won dozens of municipalities, Kurds have developed a taste for governing themselves and are unlikely to back down.

Turkey must accept that the Kurdish problem is not primarily the result of inadequate economic development, or meddlesome foreign powers using the Kurds to weaken Turkey, as is often claimed in Ankara. Erdogan, so pleased with the foreign accolades he has received for standing up for the Palestinians in Gaza, would do well to show the same courage when it comes to Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

Aliza Marcus is the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.