January 21, 2013 § 3 Comments
The always excellent Dov Friedman needs no further introduction at this point to O&Z readers (his previous guest posts are here, here, and here), and he weighs in again today to look at the foreign policy angle to the talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and to point out that we have seen a similar dynamic before under the AKP.
On Wednesday, Michael discussed the underlying political reasons for Prime Minister Erdoğan’s sudden about-face on the Kurdish Issue. In short, Erdoğan can count votes. Both the nationalist MHP and some members of Erdoğan’s own AK Party oppose his desired expansion of presidential power in a new constitution. A settlement of the Kurdish Issue that rewrites the constitution’s definition of citizenship and codifies primary language education rights would likely draw support from the heavily Kurdish BDP. The same revised constitution could also include provisions for a stronger presidency—or such is the Prime Minister’s hope. It may be a long shot, but it may also be Erdoğan’s only shot.
Though domestic politics may have spurred Erdoğan to act, we should not overlook the foreign policy impetus for a new Kurdish Opening. It will affect Turkey’s relationship with both the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq and Maliki’s Baghdad regime. It may also have deep implications for Turkey’s regional stature.
After years of hostility between Turkey and the KRG, Turkey wisely corrected course and fostered closer relations with the self-governing enclave. Meanwhile, Maliki’s government and the KRG have become increasingly oppositional, with the rich oil deposits in the disputed Mosul and Kirkuk regions a key point of contention. Despite stipulations that oil revenues are a national issue under Baghdad’s purview, Turkey has facilitated the KRG’s nascent efforts to open an independent revenue stream from fossil fuels. Naturally, Baghdad is livid, and tensions between Turkey and Maliki’s government have understandably risen. The Ankara-Baghdad divergence on the Syrian conflict certainly has not helped matters.
Turkey assists the KRG because it stands to gain tremendously from the development of Kurdish Iraq into an energy power. The KRG is landlocked; Turkey presents its most natural geostrategic outlet to world markets. The infrastructure already exists in the form of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. In 2012, the KRG inched toward energy—and some would argue political—independence by signing independent exploration contracts with some of the world’s largest oil companies. By transporting KRG oil and gas from its port in Ceyhan, Turkey would transform itself into a major energy hub—with huge economic ramifications for Turkey’s underdeveloped southeast and political implications for the country as a whole.
That the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline is a tremendous political asset doubles as the reason it has become a particularly appealing target for Turkey’s militant Kurdish insurgency, the PKK. In 2010, despite relative calm, PKK operatives bombed the pipeline. The same thing happened in July of last year. In October 2012, rebels bombed a pipeline bringing natural gas from Iran. In absence of a government initiative to solve the Kurdish Issue, these periodic attacks would likely persist. Turkey knows—as does anyone engaged in commerce—that volatility and uncertainty are bad for business.
In light of the dual domestic and foreign policy ramifications, Erdoğan’s abrupt shift toward finding a solution to the Kurdish Issue makes sense. The question becomes: will Erdoğan strike a deal with the Kurdish opposition?
Remarkably, the opening of EU accession talks in AK Party’s early years bears similarities to the present Kurdish Opening. After AK Party took power in 2002, it still faced a secular establishment suspicious of its intentions and a military that had unseated the previous Islamist government in 1997 and banned it from politics. AK Party made opening EU accession talks its first major policy initiative, and Turkey earned a December 2004 date to formally commence the process. At the time, the foreign policy ramifications were massive. Turkey had kept one foot in Europe for decades without being permitted all the way in. This was Turkey’s opportunity to permanently reinforce its unique geopolitical identity.
However, benefits to foreign policy were not Turkey’s only—or even primary—concern. First, the AK Party’s EU stance was a political winner. Kemalists, Kurds, and liberals all supported the process, each for different reasons. Second, in order to open accession talks, the EU required Turkey to implement political reforms that weakened the military’s role in politics. The National Security Council transitioned from foreign policy arbiter into an advisory role.
In 2002, Erdoğan pursued a foreign policy of EU accession that doubled as stealth domestic policy. AK Party shored up its liberal credentials while the military zealously agreed to its own subtly diminished power.
Perhaps 2013’s Kurdish Opening is the mirror image. Undoubtedly, Erdoğan wants to be president with vastly increased power. That is the obvious way to read his sudden shift on the Kurdish Issue. Focusing merely on the constitutional implications yields pessimism—who can trust progress hinging on Erdoğan’s cynical calculus about how to retain power.
That is why ignoring the potential foreign policy benefits of the Kurdish Opening would be a major mistake. In 2002, Erdoğan demonstrated that policies with tangible potential gains in both the foreign and domestic spheres intrigued him and garnered his strong support. It is far too soon to predict whether the Kurdish Issue will be solved; however, early AK Party history may provide reason for a small measure of hope.
January 16, 2013 § 8 Comments
The worst kept secret in all of Turkish politics is that Prime Minister Erdoğan wants to revamp Turkey’s political system in order to create a strong presidency and make himself the first newly empowered president. Turkey’s constitutional commission had been meeting for the greater part of 2012, and it was expected to recommend that Turkey adopt a presidential system. The idea was for all four of the parties in the Grand National Assembly – AKP, CHP, MHP, and BDP – to come to a consensus, but because this was always going to be extremely unlikely, Erdoğan had plotted out an alternate path toward achieving his goal. He repeatedly warned that if there was no unanimous agreement on what the next constitution should look like, he would drop the consensus requirement and simply advance a draft constitution written by the AKP. In order to do this though, he was going to have to band together with another party, as the AKP is three seats short of the number it needs to have an automatic referendum on the constitution. The assumption that many people – myself very much included – made was that Erdoğan had cut a deal with the nationalist MHP, in which it would provide the votes to give Erdoğan his presidential system and in return Erdoğan would sell out the Kurds and not make any real moves toward recognizing Kurdish rights or Kurdish identity.
For awhile, this appeared to be exactly what was transpiring. Arrests of lawyers, journalists, and politicians sympathetic to the Kurdish cause were up, the government was not making any moves to revive its Kurdish Opening of a few years ago, and the AKP in collaboration with the MHP was refusing to even hold a parliamentary debate on the military operation against the PKK in the southeast of the country. All signs pointed to a new constitution rammed through with MHP votes that would maintain the fiction of one overarching Turkish identity as a reward to the MHP for supporting Erdoğan’s invigorated presidency.
Yet, the constitutional commission’s December 31 deadline came and went, and there has been no move on Erdoğan’s part to follow through on his public threats of abandoning the process and imposing his own vision of what the new constitution should look like. Instead, there has been little talk of what comes next, and haggling over the AKP’s proposed presidential system is delaying agreement on other proposed constitutional articles. More interestingly, the government has begun negotiating with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, which has infuriated the MHP to no end. This is not quite a renewed Kurdish Opening, but in some ways it is even more surprising and remarkable given the view of many Turks that Ocalan is an unrepentant terrorist who should not be lent any credibility through negotiations with the government.
Reading between the lines of all this, it is fairly obvious that Erdoğan’s plan to remake Turkey’s political system and give himself more power in the process has so far failed. I speculated in September that Erdoğan was facing some internal AKP discontent for the first time in his decade as PM, and my strong hunch now is that he does not have the support within his own party that he needs in order to create a strong presidency and force out Abdullah Gül so that he can take over the position. He also clearly does not have the MHP on board, since if he did he would never risk alienating them in the way that he has through the Ocalan negotiations. His dream of creating an imperial presidency is on the ropes, and it might even be entirely gone for good at this point. The only chance he has of rescuing it is trading MHP support for BDP support, and hence the out of the blue approach to Ocalan and the PKK. The AKP has always attempted to compete for Kurdish votes, and in this way it has a more natural partner in the BDP than the MHP since its approach to Kurdish issues is not the hardline one expressed by Turkish nationalists. Faced with the defeat of his ultimate political ambition, Erdoğan has done a complete 180 turnaround and decided that the road to a new Turkish constitution and presidential system is one that embraces Kurdish rights and identity rather than one that flouts them.
This is a good outcome for two reasons. First, any productive move on resolving Kurdish rights and recognizing Kurdish identity is one in which everyone wins and Turkey becomes internally stronger and more cohesive, rather than less so. The Kurdish issue has been dragging Turkey down for decades, and Turkish Kurds have a fundamental right to be able to speak their language and promote their rich cultural heritage free of restriction and discrimination. Second, it shows that Erdoğan is not quite as powerful as we though, which is a victory for Turkish democracy. As his prime ministry has progressed, Erdoğan has demonstrated an increasingly authoritarian side and has not been faced with any real challenges to his power. That he cannot just ram through a new presidential system at will is hopefully a harbinger of things to come and a sign of some greater checks on his power, and this too will ultimately make for a stronger, more prosperous, and more successful Turkey.
September 20, 2012 § 3 Comments
Spend five minutes listening to Turkish politicians or reading their speeches and you immediately get a sense of how high Turkey’s ambitions are. The best recent example of this is a speech Ahmet Davutoğlu made in April in which he declared, “A new Middle East is about to be born. We will be the owner, pioneer and the servant of this new Middle East,” adding that “even your dreams can’t and won’t reach the place where our power has come to.” Hugh Eakin captures this notion of immense Turkish ambition in a piece that uses Prime Minister Erdoğan’s plans to build an enormous new mosque overlooking the Bosphorus as a metaphor for Turkey’s grand strategic plans. As Eakin notes, Turkey under the AKP wants to lead the Sunni Muslim world and take charge of the Middle East while building up Istanbul in a style reminiscent of development in Gulf states.
I think that some of what Eakin writes is either wrong or goes too far; for instance, he implies that Turkey is turning away from the West which is neither true nor even possible given Turkey’s presence in NATO and the fact that over 60% of its trade is with the EU. The thrust of Eakin’s piece is that the AKP is moving Turkey in a more religious direction, but the talk of increased religion misses the point in two ways though; first, Turkey is and always has been a traditional/conservative/religious society once you move away from Istanbul, Izmir, and other large cities, so I don’t think it is the government that is driving a religious revival, but rather a religious revival that is emboldening the government. Second, what should be the greater concern is not the move toward more overt acceptance of religion but the move toward more overt authoritarianism, which has absolutely nothing to do with religion and everything to do with the AKP transforming into a typical Turkish proto-authoritarian party. The focus on Islam is misplaced here, in my view, and risks overlooking the greater danger that is brewing. In any event, Eakin is making a larger point about Turkish ambitions, and it is certainly an accurate one.
Walter Russell Mead also wrote about Turkey earlier this week, but his argument was that Turkish ambitions are about to be dashed. In a typical Mead-ian historical flourish, he compares Erdoğan to Woodrow Wilson:
Everywhere he went in the Middle East, crowds hailed him. Like Wilson, he brought a political movement out of the wilderness into power at home. Like Wilson, for his followers he embodied a mix of conservative religious and progressive social ideas. Like Wilson, events propelled him to a position of huge international prominence when he appeared to have the power and the ideas that could reshape world politics in the places he cared most about. (And like Wilson, he ruthlessly suppressed dissent in the press, sending opponents and critics to jail.)
Today, Erdogan still looks a bit like Woodrow Wilson, but it is the sharply diminished, post-Versailles Wilson he most resembles. His magic moment has passed; the world did not transform. The voice of God that sounded so clearly now seems to have faded, become indistinct. His dream of leading the march of Islamist democracy through the Middle East looks tattered and worn. Libya, Syria, Egypt: none of them look like successes for Turkish diplomacy or leadership, and Syria is a fully fledged disaster that threatens instability inside Turkey itself.
August 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
As events blow up around – and within – its borders, Turkey has had a difficult time calibrating its next moves and figuring out what it wants to do. Say what you will about the simplistic naivete inherent in Ahmet Davutoğlu’s zero problem with neighbors, but at least it provided Turkey with a baseline direction for its foreign policy. At the moment, it seems like Turkey is moving from crisis to crisis on a completely ad hoc basis, and while Ankara may be doing a decent job of short term management, it is creating a host of potential big problems for itself down the road.
Exhibit A is Syria. Turkey famously dragged its heels at the outset, insisting that Assad was a reformer at heart and convinced that Erdoğan could use his relationship with Assad to coax him into easing up and beginning the process of transitioning to multiparty elections. Once Erdoğan realized that this was a pipe dream, he turned on Assad completely, and to Turkey’s great credit it has not wavered in its insistence that Assad must go. To Turkey’s even greater credit, it is expending significant resources to provide for Syrian refugees, and the government should be commended for taking on a thankless humanitarian task in such a thorough manner. Where Ankara seems to be thinking in a less than rigorous manner though is what comes after Assad. Turkey is working with Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support the Free Syrian Army, and that in itself should raise some red flags immediately. While the government touts itself as a democracy that supports democratic movements, and President Gül even pushed the idea of Turkey as a “virtuous power” in April, Saudi Arabia and Qatar care not a lick about establishing democracy in Turkey. For them, the great opportunity presented by the civil war in Syria is the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni government next door to Iraq, and Turkey appears to be operating according to the same calculus. Thus it is not necessarily democracy that Turkey is looking to see flower in Syria, but simply another Sunni state, since a democratic Syria is assuredly not something that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are terribly interested in midwifing. It is also the case that there are legitimate worries over Sunni extremists with al-Qaida links being involved with the FSA, and yet Turkey appears to be moving ahead full bore. If Turkey were thinking more strategically and in the long term, it would not only be concerned about these elements within the FSA but would also think about how its rhetoric on democracy in the Middle East can be squared with supporting any Sunni movement that emerges, no matter how undemocratic or unsavory. Is becoming a cheerleader and patron of any Sunni group in a bid to be seen as the regional Sunni leader really a smarter longterm plan than being the promoter of democracy in the region? I don’t think that it is, particularly given the better street cred on the issue that Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, but this seems to be a policy born out of a desperate moment rather than a well thought out plan.
Exhibit B is what’s going on right now in Şemdinli, where the Turkish army is pounding the PKK while taking casualties of its own. Turkey rightly has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to PKK terrorism – although I would be curious to see Ankara’s reaction if the IDF blocked off part of the West Bank to journalists and all non-residents, refused to let anyone in or out, destroyed stores of food and medicine, and amid reports of hundreds of people being killed asked everyone to just trust that it was killing terrorists solely and leaving civilians alone – but killing PKK terrorists is not in itself a lasting solution to the Kurdish issue. I have written about this at length on numerous occasions so I don’t need to do so again and sound like a broken record, but the bottom line is that a political, rather than military, solution is needed, and Ankara appears to be farther away than ever from coming up with one. It does not have a longterm vision, and is just lurching from military operation to military operation, going after the PKK strongholds and warning the PYD about what will happen should it provide safe havens to the PKK in Syria. This simply is not a winning strategy for putting the Kurdish/PKK issue to bed once and all, and is instead just a series of temporary “solutions” that will exacerbate things over the years to come. I don’t mean to suggest that Turkey should not be working to eradicate the PKK, but it only makes sense to try doing so in concert with a political solution, since otherwise the government and military are playing whack-a-mole every spring and summer.
In short, Turkey needs to figure out what it wants to do over the next decade rather than coming up with things on the fly. Does it want to be at the vanguard of democratic movements in the Middle East? Does it want to project virtuous power? Does it want to try and return to a zero problems with neighbors stance? Does it want to be seen as the leader of the Sunni states? Is preventing Kurdish autonomy in Syria and in its own southeast a concern that overrides every other policy goal? Some of these things overlap and others are mutually exclusive, but they cannot all exist in concert. Turkey needs to pick a direction and figure out how best to implement its aims, rather than rushing into things head on before thinking through the consequences.
July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment
Turkey is suddenly gearing up to face what might be the biggest foreign policy challenge the AKP has faced in its decade in government, which is the emergence of an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As Assad’s forces pull back and retrench, they have left the Kurdish areas of northern Syria in the hands of the PYD, which is the Syrian counterpart to the PKK, and all of a sudden Turkey is facing the prospect of a Syrian Kurdish state right on its border. This has caused enormous angst in Ankara, with the prime minister threatening to invade Syria in order to prevent the PYD from controlling its own swath of territory. In addition, it seems as if the time and effort spent courting Massoud Barzani has backfired, as he was responsible for getting the PYD to join the Kurdish National Council and present a unified Kurdish front and has subsequently allowed the PYD to train in Iraqi Kurdistan. All of this, of course, terrifies Ankara since it raises the specter of a mass movement on the part of Turkish Kurds to have their own autonomous region as well once they see independent Kurdish governments in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Consequently, Ahmet Davutoğlu is slated to visit Erbil next week to express his displeasure with Barzani and make Turkey’s concerns clear.
All of this comes at the worst possible time given the way in which Erdoğan has been dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish situation. Turkish Kurds are restive following the cessation of the AKP’s Kurdish opening, and as Aliza Marcus pointed out last week, Erdoğan has directed his energy at denying the existence of Kurdish nationalism and ignoring Kurdish concerns. Rumors have the AKP making common cause with the nationalist MHP in order to sidestep the Kurdish issue in the new constitution, and the government has continued arresting and trying people for alleged links to the PKK, including 46 lawyers earlier this month. In short, despite the obvious benefits that would have come with a gentler touch, the very recent strategy has been all sticks and no carrots when it comes to dealing with the Kurdish population, so the developments in Syria are even more worrisome for the government than they otherwise would be.
It must also be noted that Erdoğan and Davutoğlu had no inkling that this was coming and appear to have no good strategy to deal with it. The assumption appeared to be that because the Syrian National Council is led by a Syrian Kurd, that would be good enough and the PYD would not seek to carve out its own autonomous sphere, which was naive at best. The two seem to have trusted that their zero problems with neighbors strategy with Barzani would hold, but much as this outdated policy imploded with regard to Assad, Barzani seems to be resistant to Ankara’s charms as well. So Turkey is left with a situation where it is madly rushing tanks and missile batteries to the border and threatening to invade and even to create a buffer zone, but we have seen this play before and it turned out to be all bark and no bite. While the PKK issue inserts a new variable into the equation, the fact remains that the PYD has joined hands with Barzani and the Kurds of northern Iraq, which makes military action against them far more risky than it previously was. Turkey has been reluctant to send its forces into Syria alone and has avoided doing so at all costs (including after its plane was shot down) up until this point, and nothing has altered that equation. There also still doesn’t appear to be a huge appetite among the Turkish public for an invasion of Syria and all that it will entail, and while the MHP might be chomping at the bit to take it to the Kurds once and for all, that isn’t enough to make armed conflict a foregone conclusion. The greater likelihood is that this is one big show designed to appeal to popular nationalist impulses and that the tough talk is being driven by domestic politics. The problem with making a lot of noise about the PYD is that Turkey risks being the boy who cried wolf if it blusters without doing anything yet again, which can have real world consequences. Threats are only effective if they are considered to be credible, and talking tough without actually taking action risks emboldening the PYD and the PKK and destroying any deterrence that Turkey has established. By taking such a hard rhetorical line, Turkey is risking its long term foreign policy and security goals unless it is prepared to follow through, and the evidence suggests that it is not ready to do so.
In short, Turkey is in a no-win situation after being completely blindsided, and it can only hope that moving troops and tanks to the border in a show of force will be threatening enough to keep things quiet and that the PYD will keep its focus on getting rid of Assad rather than stirring up trouble for Turkey and openly aligning with the PKK. In any event, going after the PYD would not solve much of anything anyway, since that is simply fighting the side effects rather than the disease. If Turkey wants to keep its Kurdish population happy and part of Turkey, Erdoğan is going to have to change his tune very quickly and come to the realization that eliminating the PKK, PYD, and all other Kurdish terrorist groups is not going to address the real issue of Kurdish disenchantment within his own borders. A military solution might be attractive, but political problems require political solutions.
April 11, 2012 § 3 Comments
Turkey’s heralded “Kurdish Opening” in 2009, in which the Erdoğan government took concrete steps to better integrate Turkey’s Kurds into political and civic life by relaxing restrictions on Kurdish language and culture and even offering an amnesty to PKK members, ended badly. PKK members returning to Turkey openly exhorted Kurds to fight against the government, Kurdish politicians began calling for Kurdish autonomy, and the AKP quickly backed away from its less restrictive policies. I have pointed out before – particularly during last month’s Nevruz unrest – how crucial it is that Turkey resolve its Kurdish issue, since if it does not it will continue to create a drag on Turkey’s political development and embroil the army in a constant low grade war against PKK separatists. As big of a headache that Syria is now causing for Turkey, there exists an opportunity to use the conflict in Syria as a spur to reinvigorate the Kurdish opening and drive a wedge between Turkey’s Kurdish population and the PKK.
As Gonul Tol notes in Foreign Policy, the idea of a Syria-PKK alliance keeps Turkish leaders up at night, and separatist radicalization among Syrian Kurds will spill over into Turkey’s Kurds as well. In addition, the growing refugee crisis and mass migration into Turkey is bound to contain PKK members no matter how hard Turkey tries to keep them out, and the PKK has demonstrated its capacity to rile up Kurds in Diyarkabır province and other areas of southeastern Turkey. Tol’s takeaway from this is that Turkey needs to work especially hard to bring an end to the fighting in Syria, but any regular readers of this blog (to the extent that there are any) know that I don’t think Turkey will ever go so far as to send in its own military, and it has a very limited capacity to force an international response. I think that given the dangerous implications for Turkey with regard to its Kurdish population the longer that Syria’s descent into chaos continues, Turkey needs to be proactive and immediately take concrete steps to mollify the concerns of its Kurds. The only way to blunt the influence of the PKK is to make it clear that Turkey’s Kurds have plenty to gain through the political process and that violent separatists do the Kurdish population no favors.
There are some easy concrete steps that Ankara can take immediately. First, rather than continue to stonewall the parliamentary investigation into the Uludere airstrike that killed 35 civilians in December, the Justice Ministry should cooperate quickly and comprehensively to demonstrate that the government’s fight against the PKK will not adversely affect the Kurdish population in general.
Second, the constant demonization and harassment of the BDP and Kurdish journalists should end and Erdoğan must make clear that the BDP is a legitimate political party like every other party with seats in the parliament. Whether the BDP is the equivalent of Sinn Fein or legitimately a separate entity from the PKK, the bottom line is that the only way to isolate PKK terrorists is to prioritize a political, rather than a military, solution. Erdoğan last week declared that he would be willing to talk with Kurdish politicians who “can stand on their own feet,” but he needs to go further. Once the AKP normalizes its relationship with the BDP, the tensions between the BDP and PKK will quickly come to the surface in a public way, and which way the BDP turns will give the government a good indication of whether or not there is a serious actor willing to go the political route when speaking on behalf of Turkey’s Kurds. Relatedly, imprisoning scores of journalists for “advocating” on behalf of Kurdish autonomy is entirely self-defeating. It turns legitimate activity into criminal activity, and it sullies Turkey’s international reputation while radicalizing Kurdish civilians. Ending what is a poorly considered policy will go a long way toward building good will.
Third, Erdoğan must make sure that the new constitution gives Turkish Kurds full freedom to speak their language, celebrate their culture, and be secure in their Kurdish identity while remaining full Turkish citizens. A sense of comfort and stability in Turkey will stand in stark contrast to what is taking place right across the border in Syria, and the process of writing a new Turkish constitution is a golden opportunity to drive this point home. If Turkey’s Kurds feel that decades of official discrimination are coming to an end, they will be far less likely to sympathize with a violent separatist movement that feeds on Kurdish resentment.
Turkey is gearing up for its fighting season against the PKK, and it should pursue the PKK with all military means at its disposal. If Ankara wants to avoid a larger problem and contain Syrian blowback among its civilian Kurds, however, it needs to pair the military offensive with a goodwill offensive. This is both the ideal time to do so and an absolutely necessary time to do so with Syria quickly exploding. Bringing back and further extending the short-lived Kurdish opening of 2009 is the only way to deal with the problem at its root, and doing so will stabilize Turkish society and begin to roll back support for the PKK by presenting a real alternative to Kurdish separatism.