Guest Post: Turkish Kurds and Presidential Politics

July 1, 2014 § 4 Comments

Guest poster extraordinaire Dov Friedman, who is spending the summer doing research in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, weighs in today on why the Turkish government’s resumption of the peace process with the PKK is motivated by factors other than improving relations with the KRG in Iraq.

Late last week, the Turkish government submitted a bill to the Grand National Assembly advancing the stalled-but-ongoing process toward resolution of the country’s longstanding Kurdish Issue. The bill arrived after a long period of dormancy in the process. Since the negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan began, Prime Minister Erdoğan has faced mass social protests, corruption allegations, and contentious local elections.

The government recommences the process at a time when Iraq is melting down and the Turkey-KRG relationship looks stronger—and more elemental—than ever. This fact has not escaped commentators on the bill. The Wall Street Journal reported on the new bill and implicitly connected it to Turkey’s relationship with increasingly important relationship with the Iraqi Kurds.

That explanation is a bit too neat, and elides some of the complexities—both in the bill and in the Turkey-KRG relationship.

Hurriyet Daily News published a nice summary of the bill’s contents. The bill is mostly procedural. It sets out government control of the process and its reporting mechanisms. Only two articles appear ripe for analysis.

First, the bill explicitly grants targeted legal immunity to any government appointees tasked with negotiations on behalf of the Turkish state. If Erdoğan’s purges in the judiciary and police force were not enough, this article represents another swipe at the Gülen Movement—which has generally opposed negotiations with PKK insurgents as part of a solution to the Kurdish Issue.

In 2012, Gülenist prosecutors sought to bring criminal charges against intelligence chief and top Erdoğan adviser Hakan Fidan. Erdoğan countered by ramming through immunity from prosecution for Fidan. The immunity article formally extends protection to anyone involved in the negotiations, and is nothing more than a preemptive step to discourage Gülenist machinations.

Second, the government—in a very preliminary fashion—has launched the process of bringing PKK fighters down from the mountain and reintegrating them into society. This is a commendable—if long-overdue—step from Erdoğan, and any optimism about the process is pinned to this article. Some analysts may see this genuine step forward as motivated by the crumbling of Iraq.

We should avoid the temptation to connect this step to the ongoing Iraq crisis. As a factual matter, the AKP government advances this bill at the same time as its relationship with the KRG evolves precipitously. But the two are not necessarily related. Turgut Özal famously viewed relations with the KRG as a powerful antidote to Turkey’s Kurdish Issue. In response to Kurds in Turkey clamoring for a state, Özal believed Turkey could strengthen its position if it could point to a self-governing Kurdish region in Iraq. Relations with the KRG would not facilitate a solution, they would obviate the need for one.

Moreover, the KRG’s relationship with the PKK—as with so many intra-Kurdish group relations—is complex. The KRG has not worked especially hard to oust PKK fighters from the Qandil mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the same time, Barzani cultivated the Turkish relationship well before the Kurdish Issue solution process began. Since the Syrian civil war loosed the Syrian Kurds from centralized control, Barzani has worked to expand KDP influence—opening low-intensity conflict with Salih Muslim, leader of the PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish PYD.

Finally, in a mildly surprising departure from the AKP’s usual lockstep messaging, debate has burbled up from the circle around the Prime Minister. Hüseyin Çelik, former Education Minister and Erdoğan’s close ally, said recently that if the crisis in Iraq leads to the state’s failure, the Kurds have a right to self-determination. Days later, Ibrahim Kalın—adviser to Erdoğan and frequent designee to explain government positions in English—wrote an impassioned defense of a unified Iraq. It would be strange if the government initiated domestic legislative action in response to the Iraq crisis without first sorting out what exactly its unified position on the crisis was.

More likely, the bill on the Kurdish Issue solution is tied directly to the worst-kept secret in Turkey: Erdoğan’s upcoming presidential bid. During his tenure, Erdoğan has often made small but flashy gestures toward solving the Kurdish Issue during election season. The Prime Minister still commands a tricky coalition of forces. It includes urban Kurds, who want to see progress on a solution, and religious nationalists, who will bristle at concessions too swift or numerous.

Erdoğan plainly wants to win the presidency on a single ballot, and he needs both of these voter groups in support to do so. Hence, this bill. It signals to Kurdish supporters that he is serious, if deliberate, in his efforts to solve the long-running conflict. To conservative nationalists, it indicates that the Prime Minister will make no immediate sweeping changes and will pair attention to security with any conflict de-escalation.

As much as Erdoğan benefits from cracking down on free media, weakening Turkey’s institutions, and concentrating power in his person, bills like this one are the primary reason Erdoğan continues to rule Turkey. No other Turkish politician has deciphered how to command such an effective—and impressively stable—coalition. The joint opposition’s management of Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu’s presidential campaign inspires precisely zero confidence that it is any closer than it has been over the last decade to offering a viable political alternative. Thus, we can expect more artful baby steps toward a solution to the Kurdish Issue in the coming years under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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Turkey’s “Democratization” Package

October 10, 2013 § 3 Comments

Ten days ago, Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP released the details of their long-promised and long-awaited democratization package, which had been hyped for months as a major initiative aimed at correcting imbalances righting wrongs in the Turkish political system. Since I am late to the game here, I am not going to do a deep dive into everything it entails – a summary can be found here – but most commentary, as typified by this column by Amanda Paul, has focused on the fact that the new proposals are good in some ways and fall short in others. In other words, a decent start but not far enough.

This is definitely one way to view the package. Another way is to think about it through the prism of how the AKP views democracy. In June 2012, Steven Cook and I wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs in which we contended that the AKP was expanding Turkish democracy when you look at measures of participation – meaning the extent to which citizens are able to participate in democracy – but limiting Turkish democracy when you look at measures of contestation – meaning the ability to contest the government’s power. The democratization package appears to break down along this dichotomy, which is unsurprising. Much of the package makes life a little easier for Kurds by allowing Kurdish-language education in public schools; allowing the use of the letters q, w, and x, which are found in Kurdish but not in Turkish; allowing Kurdish and other languages to be used in election campaigns; restoring former Kurdish names of majority-Kurdish villages in southeastern Turkey. These measures allow Kurds to participate in Turkey’s political and civic life to a larger extent. Other measures that affect the general population do the same, such as allowing government employees to wear headscarves ( which is unabashedly a good thing, no matter how many scary columns you read about the “Islamization of Turkey”).

When it comes to contestation though, there is nothing to cheer about. The proposal to lower Turkey’s electoral threshold to enter the Grand National Assembly from 10% to 5% is not actually being proposed as a law, but is being proposed simply as a topic for debate. Furthermore, the proposal to create single-member districts (rather than keep a system of proportional representation) or to keep a system of partial representation and create districts of 5 or so members would almost certainly benefit the AKP and maintain or increase its percentage of parliamentary seats. In addition, hoped-for proposals on reforming the anti-terror law – which is increasingly used as a cudgel against journalists and government critics – were absent. If it wasn’t clear to everyone that the AKP cannot stand to be challenged in any way even after this summer’s events, it should certainly be clear now. When this government talks about expanding democracy, it only means it in a very narrow sense (and even then, it apparently doesn’t mean it if you happen to be Alevi rather than Sunni).

There is still another way to view this democratization package, which is that it actually intends to do the precise opposite of what it claims. There is a proposal to establish a hate crimes law that would impose three year prison sentences on anyone who commits a crime based on someone’s or some group’s language, ethnicity, nationality, skin color, gender, disability condition, political views, philosophical beliefs, religion, or sect. In theory this sounds like an effort to protect minorities, but given the Turkish government’s track record of prosecuting students who protest against Erdoğan or pianists who insult Islam, I would bet nearly anything that the hate crimes law will be used to go after AKP opponents and critics. Nearly any speech can be criminalized and punished at the government’s behest under this legislation, and Erdoğan has unfortunately demonstrated that he has no qualms about cracking down on things he simply doesn’t like or finds offensive. There is a good chance that the most far-reaching and significant part of this “democratization” package will be an element that does not enhance Turkish democracy but instead greatly weakens it. So yes, there are ways in which the government’s efforts to improve Turkish democracy may be a good start, but there are also ways in which “this doesn’t go far enough” is not quite the criticism that should be leveled. It’s not the absence of certain elements in this proposal that worries me so much as the inclusion of others.

Guest Post: Does Erdoğan Need To Shift Course?

July 2, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dov Friedman – who is depriving the world of his prodigious knowledge by not starting his own regular blog –  is resuming his spot today as O&Z guest poster par excellence to write about whether or not the Gezi protests necessitate a political shift from Prime Minister Erdoğan. In particular, Dov thinks that Erdoğan is not thinking strategically when it comes to the Kurdish peace process, which is in many ways the most important issue facing Turkey in both the short and long term.

We’re one month past the outbreak of spontaneous protests connected to the redevelopment of Gezi Park, and by now, the events have been analyzed pretty robustly.  There are essentially two narratives—one forwarded by protesters, their supporters, and most journalists, and another advanced by the government and its supporters.  Respectively excellent examples of those narratives may be found here and here.

But as the protests have subsided, observers are beginning to ask what comes next.  Their answers can vary considerably based on their own political preferences.  However, what happens next still depends overwhelmingly on the actions of Prime Minister Erdoğan.

Which leads me to make two different, seemingly oppositional claims.  First, that politically speaking, Erdoğan need not diverge from the playbook he was following before the Taksim protests.  Second, that based on some very early indicators, Erdoğan himself seems to believe otherwise.  Allow me to explain.

It may be hard to remember now, but even before Gezi, the prospects for a new constitution establishing a strong presidential system were diminished.  Erdoğan had already begun to intimate this publicly, deploying the soft sell and professing satisfaction with whatever the outcome might be.  Not two weeks before Gezi Park became international news, Erdoğan deputized Sabah—a newspaper with close ties to the government—to explain how AK Party would proceed if a strong presidential system were rejected.

These subtle moves stemmed less from magnanimity toward the opposition than from Erdoğan’s finely calibrated response to shifting political dynamics. The Kurdish gambit—which Erdoğan hoped would alter the Grand National Assembly’s legislative math in favor of constitutional overhaul—only partially delivered.  The BDP—which gives political voice to Turkey’s ethnic Kurds—stated its desire to work toward a new constitution, but declined to support a presidency with increased authority.  Despite an obvious setback to Erdoğan’s expressed preferences, it seemed the Prime Minister might content himself with being the figure to transform Turkey’s Kurdish Issue while enabling the ancillary benefits to accrue to AK Party.

Erdoğan still had options, which Sabah did an excellent job of laying out.  He could rewrite party rules to allow him another term as prime minister.  He could accept a simple constitutional change allowing the president to sit as the head of a political party as well.  In Erdoğan’s best-case scenario, the president could assume executive control, appointing both the prime minister and the cabinet members as well.

The Taksim protests mostly enlivened an essential conversation about authoritarianism in Turkey; however, they also gave rise to the false narrative that now the prime minister’s plans were really dead.  Perhaps Erdoğan bought into the coverage.  As the AK Party has unveiled its post-Gezi political strategy, the early indicators dishearten.  In a speech addressing the Wise Persons commission on June 27th, Erdoğan said that AK Party had plans neither to support a lowering of the election threshold nor to prepare for native language education.  Perhaps thinking he had not done enough to upset Kurds, Erdoğan also opined that only 15 percent of the PKK fighters in Turkey had crossed the border with Iraq—subtly suggesting that the government need not take any action at present to advance the precarious opening.

These distressing moves typify a party seeking to burnish its nationalist credentials more than advance a tenuous peace process.  Is that Erdoğan’s intent and goal?  There is no definitive answer.  What we do know is that the Prime Minister has embarked on a monumental speaking tour to galvanize the base.  He has used divisive language—even by his estimable standards—and deployed increasingly religiously tinged talking points.  We know that to an unprecedented degree, AK Party scrutinizes poll numbers.  We also know that before Erdoğan was the overnight champion of a historic deal with Turkey’s Kurds, he had been just as vociferous in his nationalist message and tone.  Is AK Party’s analytics team gleaning information about skepticism to the Kurdish opening within the party faithful?  Is this merely Erdoğan’s shopworn political crisis management strategy of hunkering down, playing to the base, and using divisive issues to divert attention?  Again, we do not know.  But we should never forget that Erdoğan’s political juggling puts Franklin Roosevelt to shame.

Erdoğan’s crisis management skills are proven, but it’s not clear to me why he has signified another directional shift.  The nationalist strategy is inherently a defensive one.  It appeals to the most conservative, reactionary elements in Turkish society. In response to protests centered on Erdoğan’s—and the AK Party’s—high-handed politics, how is retrograde divisiveness the smartest play?  The point becomes all the more salient when we consider nationalist party MHP chairman Devlet Bahçeli’s pointed critique of the Prime Minister post-Gezi:

“He rebuked the teachers. He scolded the students. He tried to become a Twitter police. This is the final stage of hubris. It’s been revealed that our country being an example is a lie. The party that does not accept democracy has nothing more to offer.”

Does that sound like someone who sees profit in joining forces politically?  For Erdoğan, the nationalist strategy is regressive.  For Bahçeli, partnership with Erdoğan—at least for the foreseeable future—is politically toxic.  At the risk of repetitiveness, what led Erdoğan to believe this was his dominant strategy?

What made the Kurdish opening so surprising was its daring—it sought to rejigger Turkey politics in search of a new, more robust coalition and vision.  Post-Gezi, Erdoğan could have modeled consistency by expressing acceptance of modest tweaks to the political system and continuing his full-throated advocacy for a Kurdish peace.  This would not have satisfied the protestors—I leave discussions about the wisdom of Erdoğan’s response to that conflict aside—but at least it would have revealed a gritty, principled leader maintaining his vision in a political storm.

Instead, in addition to the ongoing low intensity conflict with the protest movement and the fragile economy, Erdoğan adds tension with political forces representing Kurdish interests.  The fissures have already begun to show: the BDP has organized rallies in the southeast to pressure the government to take the next step in the peace process, and Party Chairman Selahattin Demirtaş is agitating for the government to take action in response to soldiers killing one protestor, and injuring 10, who demonstrated against the rebuilding of a gendarmerie facility.

It is too early to say the peace process is broken.  But anyone who tells you everyone has come too far should be met with skepticism.  Erdoğan has borne intense criticism for his handling of the Taksim protests.  His political signaling in the protests’ aftermath is more dangerous still.

A Turkish Course Correction

January 28, 2013 § Leave a comment

There were a couple of extremely consequential stories out of Turkey toward the end of last week that I didn’t get a chance to write about with the Israeli elections going on, but I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity now to highlight them and comment. First was the Turkish cabinet shuffle, with the big move being the replacement of Interior Minister Idris Şahin with Muammer Güler. Şahin is about as hardline on the Kurdish issue as any Turkish government official – he referred in May to the civilians killed in December 2011’s Uludere air strike as “PKK extras” – and his sacking is important for two reasons. First, it signals that the Ocalan talks and Imralı process might actually be a real reorientation of the government’s policy and not just a ploy at running out of the clock or buying more time. Getting rid of the minister overseeing the terrorism fight who was absolutely despised by Kurdish politicians and ordinary Turkish Kurds and replacing him with someone who is likely to be a little more open to Kurdish sensitivities is an important step, and while there are concerns about Güler given his actions while governor of Istanbul, literally anyone will be an improvement over Şahin.

Furthermore, replacing Şahin with a new face in the Interior Ministry is important inasmuch as it signals a tacit admission on the government’s part that its strategy of pounding the PKK without making a real effort on the political front has been a mistake. The Imralı process also fits into this idea as well, and a new interior minister communicates a fresh start and that the old approach was not working. Prime Minister Erdoğan rarely if ever publicly admits that he was wrong, but this is as close to a public admission as you’ll see. The optics of this are important by themselves divorced from what ever actual policy emerges. By the same token, putting Ömer Çelik in the cabinet as Culture and Tourism Minister is important too as he is one of Erdoğan’s two or three closest advisers and has advocated a much more conciliatory approach than the government has adopted in the past. I expect him to be influential in the new Kurdish policy as well despite his portfolio, and his elevation to a cabinet position now is also a signal that the government has erred and that it needs to find a different formula if it wants to be successful.

The other noteworthy development last week was Erdoğan’s full about-face on the government’s assault on the military as embodied by the Ergenekon and Balyoz (Sledgehammer) prosecutions and widespread imprisonment of officers. After crowing for years about the defanging of the armed forces and how Turkey is now coup-proof, Erdoğan acknowledged over the weekend that things have gotten out of hand and said that the detention of generals is negatively impacting the fight against terrorism. As an example of just how dire the situation is, the Turkish navy now has no full admirals left after the resignation of Admiral Nusret Güner in protest over the fact that the officers under his command have mostly been arrested. There is literally nobody to fill the positions of Navy chief and fleet commander, since all that remain are vice-admirals, and there is never any way of knowing when those officers will be arrested either. While the situation is the worst in the navy, the other services are not in great shape either and have been decimated by arrests. Erdoğan now seems to realize just how out of control things have gotten, but the damage has already been done and there is no quick fix for the low army morale or the military’s readiness level. Like with the Kurdish issue, however, this is a very public admission that policy needs to change, and like the moves on the Kurdish front, this should be applauded.

While both of these developments were undoubtedly positive ones, there is some political maneuvering involved as well.  As I wrote last week, the backtrack on the Kurdish policy has to be seen in context of Erdoğan’s desire to get his new constitution through the Grand National Assembly, and it seems even more clear now that he is going to turn to the BDP for support. The cabinet shuffle is all part of this longer view, and so the nakedly political angle to all of this should not be ignored. On the military issue, it’s difficult for me not to view it partially as a broadside against the Gülenists, who have lately turned on Erdoğan and the AKP. The military prosecutions have been driven by Gülenist prosecutors and judges, and when Erdoğan calls on the courts to either hand down verdicts or release the imprisoned officers, and even casts doubts on whether the accused were ever part of a conspiracy at all, you have to consider why he has suddenly decided that the Ergenekon and Balyoz investigations are a net negative rather than a net positive. There is little doubt in my mind that Erdoğan’s new position is the correct one as a matter of policy, since the government cannot be in the business of holding people on trumped up charges indefinitely – not to mention the side effect of making it far more difficult for the Turkish military to operate – but there is also an element of score settling here, with Erdoğan laying the groundwork for a possible public push against the Gülenists and the cemaat down the road. Whatever the case, it looks like from a policy perspective, 2013 is going to look a lot different than 2012 did in Turkey.

Guest Post: The Foreign Policy Implications Of The Ocalan Talks

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.

Perhaps Erdoğan Is Not As All-Powerful As We Thought

January 16, 2013 § 9 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.

Random Thoughts, Gaza Edition

November 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have a bunch of interconnected things to say about Gaza and Operation Pillar of Cloud, so here we go.

First, on Monday I wrote that I thought Israel was likely to go into Gaza eventually with ground forces, and three days later I see no reason to alter that prediction. Taking out Ahmed al-Jabari was guaranteed to elicit a response from Hamas, and now that three Israeli civilians were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi, the IDF is going  to ramp up military operations even further. Over 200 rockets were fired out of Gaza yesterday, and the Israeli cabinet has authorized the army to call up any reserve units that it needs, on top of the earlier authorization to call up reservists serving in the Home Front Command, so I am relatively confident that it is only a matter of time before ground forces are ordered into Gaza.

Second, nobody should be shedding any tears for al-Jabari, and I do not begrudge for a second Israel’s right to kill terrorist leaders who target civilians. That said, the Hamas problem is not going to be solved militarily. Cast Lead was not able to do away with Hamas, and Pillar of Cloud is likely to meet the same fate of quieting things down in the immediate aftermath but not solving the overarching problem of Hamas controlling Gaza and still not being willing to negotiate a permanent end to its war with Israel. As Jeffrey Goldberg and Brent Sasley have both pointed out, this type of operation is all about short term tactics in an attempt to ignore a long term strategic conundrum, and until Israel figures out a way to address this, the next Cast Lead or Pillar of Cloud is only four or five years away. Already there have been Palestinian civilian casualties, and much like Israel faced the Goldstone Report and a renewed BDS push following its last incursion into Gaza, no doubt it is going to deal with a fresh round of condemnations and pressures when this is over. As much as Israel can hit Hamas where it hurts, this is no successful way to operate.

Third, Pillar of Cloud makes the Foreign Ministry’s threats earlier this week to collapse the Palestinian Authority over its UN bid an even stranger move than it already was. The fact that Israel is now engaged in its second major military operation against Hamas in four years while collaborating with the PA security forces in the West Bank over the same time period demonstrates the absurdity of Avigdor Lieberman’s position that the PA is just as bad, or even worse, for Israeli interests than Hamas. If the PA collapses in the West Bank, it is a near guarantee that Hamas takes over, and then Israel’s security situation is vastly worse. Pillar of Cloud is going to damage Hamas militarily but may very well strengthen it politically, and so in tandem with a strategy of weakening the PA, it means that a Hamas-controlled West Bank is ever more likely. Lieberman obviously knew Pillar of Cloud was coming and just didn’t care, and it is also evident that Bibi Netanyahu either has limited control over what Lieberman is doing at the Foreign Ministry or doesn’t see it as a problem. The operations in Gaza make reneging on the UN bid impossible for Mahmoud Abbas, since he cannot back down in the face of Israel pressure while Palestinians are being killed in Gaza and retain any shred of credibility. What this all means is that Israel’s right hand and left hand are essentially working at cross purposes, trying to forestall a UN bid while also making it more likely, and trying to eliminate Hamas while giving it the West Bank on a silver platter. Someone in the upper echelons of Israel’s decision making hierarchy needs to take a step back and look at the big picture here.

Finally, Turkey’s response to all of this has been interesting. It was well behind Egypt and the Arab League in condemning Israel yesterday, waiting hours to say anything and then issuing a Foreign Ministry statement close to midnight (and one that has still not been posted on the ministry’s English language website). Ahmet Davutoğlu had some harsh words for Israel when talking to reporters but the overall Turkish response was not as fast and furious as one might have expected. Egypt, in contrast, was way out in front and has been keeping up the pressure rhetorically while recalling its ambassador back to Cairo. I have some thoughts at the Atlantic on why this might be and what we can expect from Turkey and Egypt going forward, and here is a teaser:

Since Israel’s last major foray into Gaza with Operation Cast Lead in 2008, no country has been more vocal about the plight of the Palestinians than Turkey. Prime Minister Erdoğan has made it a priority to keep the world’s attention on Gaza and has repeatedly called out Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians while attempting to bolster Hamas. The Palestinian issue has been so important to the Turkish government that it has made ending the Gaza blockade one of its three conditions, along with an apology and compensation, for restoring full ties with Israel following the deaths of nine Turkish citizens aboard the Mavi Marmara. Erdoğan recently announced plans to visit Gaza, which would undoubtedly go a long way in the campaign to legitimize Hamas.

Becoming the champion of the Palestinian cause is one of the primary reasons that Erdoğan has had such high approval ratings in the Arab world. It has not only made Erdoğan personally popular but also enhanced Turkey’s international stature, contributing to Turkey’s efforts to be seen not only as a regional leader but as a leader of the wider Sunni world as well. In essence, the resulting deterioration in relations with Israel has in some sense been well worth the cost as Turkey’s reputation and soft power has been enhanced. In light of all this, the expectation following Israel’s new military operations in Gaza today is that Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are going to be leading the charge to condemn Israeli military actions, which would be consistent with Turkey’s position over the past few years.

But Turkey’s situation has changed in a very important way since Cast Lead. In 2008 and in the aftermath of the flotilla in 2010 Turkey was dealing with a quieter Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish separatist group. Today, that is no longer the case. Since this summer, Ankara has been waging a full-blown war with the Kurdish terrorist group, inflicting hundreds of casualties and suffering many of its own.

For the rest, please click over to the original at the Atlantic’s website.


Turkey’s Dysfunctional Politics

August 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

If someone told you that there was a country whose government sealed off a district and cut off all information to the outside world and its own citizens for weeks in order to fight violent separatists, where a member of parliament was kidnapped by a terrorist group, where there are thousands of refugees streaming across the border, where the army is engaged in a virtual war inside its own borders but the parties in parliament cannot agree to even meet to discuss the best course of action, you would be justified in thinking that the country being described is well on its way to being a failed state. I am of course listing events that have taken place over the past month in Turkey, which is certainly nowhere close to being a failed state, but I do so to illustrate just how quickly Turkey’s fortunes are slipping. By any measure, Turkey has had an incredible run over the last half decade as its economy has boomed and its global clout has increased, but as Turkey deals with chaos next door in Syria and chaos at home with the PKK, it appears that darker days lie ahead.

To a large extent, all of this is out of Turkey’s control. Irrespective of how shoddily the government has dealt with the Kurdish issue, the PKK is a terrorist group that cannot be allowed to run free in pockets of southeastern Turkey. Similarly, there is nothing Turkey could have done to prevent the Syrian civil war (even if it is not handling the situation so well now). The problem is that Turkey’s politics is increasingly looking broken, and a dysfunctional political system exacerbates all of the dilemmas that Turkey currently faces.

On the Kurds and the PKK, the dysfunction starts at the top. Erdoğan has moved from the standard nationalist/Kemalist policy he inherited to the short-lived Kurdish Opening to a more limited recognition of Kurdish identity that does not go nearly far enough in solving the problem. All signs point to the AKP and the MHP banding together to ensure that Kurdish identity and Kurdish rights are buried in the new Turkish constitution, and Erdoğan believes that eradicating the PKK will solve all problems. This is not a policy as much as it is wishful thinking, and the reluctance to sit down and figure out the hard but necessary steps to be taken is not an indication of a strict zero tolerance policy on terrorism but an indication of political amateurishness. It is incredible – and I mean this in the literal sense of stretching the bounds of credulity rather than in any positive sense – that the AKP and CHP cannot agree to both attend a special session of parliament to talk about PKK attacks in the aftermath of Hüseyin Aygün’s kidnapping and whatever is going on in Şemdinli. Imagine if Nancy Pelosi called for a special House session following al-Qaida attacks in New Mexico that were met with an overwhelming but secret military response, and John Boehner and the GOP simply refused to attend so as not to legitimate al-Qaida. It demonstrates the astonishing arrogance of the AKP and the feckless impotence of the CHP, and neither of these things make for a functioning and efficient political system.

A similar dynamic is at work when it comes to Syria. Nobody is going to look at the Turkish government’s Syria policy and describe it as successful. Erdoğan clung to Assad for too long, and then cut him loose with assorted threats on which Turkey has not and cannot make good. The endless whispers of buffer zones and calls for international intervention are entirely hollow since they have zero chance of happening, and because Turkey is hamstrung, it could not even mount an effective response to shots across the border or the downing of the Turkish jet (and as Claire Berlinski has extensively pointed out, we still don’t know the full story of what happened). The CHP has been hammering away at the AKP’s ineffectiveness on Syria, and yet it’s ever so brilliant plan is an international conference. Have you ever heard of a more uninspired, platitudinous, hopelessly naive solution than the following one expressed by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu? “After expressing their views on the issue at the opening of the conference, the Syrian administration and opposition should negotiate under the supervision of the secretary-general of the UN. In the final portion of the conference, a document of agreement prepared by the secretary-general of the UN, reflecting an agreement between the Syrian opposition and administration could be submitted to the UN Security Council.” This is the best that Turkey’s main opposition party can come up with?

A dysfunctional political system with parties that cannot agree to even talk to each other without a bevy of flying insults and outrageous accusations is not a hallmark of a rising power. It is the mark of a state bound to crash against its own limits. An important component of Turkey’s foreign policy is crumbling as its relations with Syria and Iran deteriorate to open hostility, but Ankara should be paying more attention to its own domestic political problems, because Turkey’s external strength is supported first and foremost by its internal political foundation, which is dangerously teetering.

A Bad Sign For What Kurds Can Expect In The New Turkish Constitution

August 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

It is no secret that the Kurdish question is one of the thorniest issues to be dealt with in the new Turkish constitution. Unfortunately, the recent PKK attacks and the Turkish assault on the terrorist group are making dealing with Kurdish identity and Kurdish rights even more difficult than it would otherwise be. I have been harping for awhile now on the importance of finding a political solution in order to fully integrate Turkey’s Kurds into the Turkish polity, but since abandoning his short-lived Kurdish opening, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seemed bent on little more than trying to eradicate the PKK militarily. This policy has been distilled to its very essence with the ongoing army operation in Şemdinli, in which the military has closed the district off entirely and is closing parts of the Şemdinli, Çukurca, Hakkari, and Yüksekova districts until October 6, all the while deploying tanks and jets against the PKK fighters holed up there. Erdoğan has displayed a zero tolerance policy toward the PKK, and relations have soured with Massoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq over Barzani’s support for PKK-linked groups such as the PYD; indeed, fighting the PKK is not only looking like the sole facet of Erdoğan’s Kurdish policy, but is rapidly taking over any other foreign policy priority that Turkey has voiced over the past decade.

Erdoğan is certainly justified in adopting a zero tolerance policy when it comes to the PKK, but the underlying question that needs to be asked is how the narrow focus on the PKK is going to affect the larger Kurdish problem, and particularly how it will color Erdoğan and the AKP’s view of Kurdish rights under the new constitution. While there have been reports that the AKP is going to actually propose recognition of a separate Kurdish identity, rumors have also persisted that the AKP is making a back room deal with the nationalist MHP to circumvent the need for consensus on the constitution, and any deal with the MHP is going to keep Kurdish rights and identity suppressed. While this has all been conjecture up until this point, Tuesday revealed a preview of what might be coming down the road in the guise of a dispute over whether to convene a special parliamentary session dealing with the PKK and Şemdinli. The opposition CHP has complained about a delegation of its deputies being barred from visiting villages that have been cordoned off and of a general lack of transparency from the government about what is going on, and are now bringing things to a head by calling for an extraordinary parliamentary session to discuss what the government is up to and what its longterm plan might be. Erdoğan blew off the CHP request, but also brought up the MHP unprompted and predicted that the MHP deputies would not cooperate with the CHP on this issue either.

That the MHP would not want to spend any time debating a response other than a military one to the PKK is not at all surprising, but the explicit linking of the AKP and MHP together in the manner that Erdoğan did it is revealing. The CHP and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have been more vocal lately in stridently challenging Erdoğan over a host of issues from military operations against the PKK to the government’s Syria policy, and Erdoğan has been characteristically bombastic in his responses. The increased tension between the AKP and what appears to be a newly emboldened CHP is not going to make a collaborative constitutional process particularly easy, and it’s not surprising that Erdoğan would look to the MHP to give him cover to do what he really wants to do, which is turn Turkey into a strong presidential system. In return, Erdoğan is going to continue taking the fight to the PKK, but it also means acceding to MHP demands not to recognize any type of Kurdish rights in the new constitution. The spat over whether or not to call a special session of parliament is not in itself a big deal, but Erdoğan’s invoking of the MHP and his increasing nationalistic approach to dealing with the PKK, the PYD, and even Barzani seem to foreshadow what is going to transpire once the constitutional process moves out into the open. A closer relationship with Devlet Bahçeli and the MHP means consigning Turkey’s Kurds to remain a permanent non-recognized underclass, and this is exactly what appears to be happening.

Turkey Should Revisit Its Kurdish Opening

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.

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