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.
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 19, 2012 § 4 Comments
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq, is in Turkey today and tomorrow where he is getting the royal treatment in meetings with Erdoğan, Davutoğlu, and Gül. Partly this is a dig at Nouri al-Maliki, since Barzani will take the opportunity while in Turkey to meet with renegade Iraqi VP Tariq al-Hashemi and decry the Maliki government’s treatment of Iraq’s Sunnis, a cause near and dear to Erdoğan’s heart. Turkey has been keeping a wary eye on the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, and Barzani’s visit is a chance to express some Sunni solidarity while also implicitly putting some more pressure on Iran.
The main theme of the visit though is Erdoğan’s attempt to continue marginalizing Turkey’s Kurds. From Erdoğan’s perspective, he is intent on driving a wedge between the KRG and Turkish Kurds for two reasons. First, he wants Barzani’s help fighting the PKK, and he believes that this will be easier to do if there is a sense of Iraqi Kurdish identity separate from Turkish Kurdish identity. Iraqi Kurdistan’s relationship with the PKK is not a good one, and Barzani has made improving relations with Turkey a top priority and has accordingly supported Ankara in its efforts to root out the PKK from the Iraq-Turkey border region. The more that Barzani and Iraqi Kurdistan view themselves as distinct from Diyarkabır, the more they will be willing to distance themselves from the PKK and to shut down PKK supply lines.
Second, Erdoğan wants to anoint Barzani as the global Kurdish spokesman in an effort to marginalize Turkey’s Kurds and take away their independent voice. By treating Barzani as an important visiting head of state, Turkey sends the message that Kurdistan already exists without Turkish Kurds, who then have no choice but to drop their dreams of separation or even autonomy and accept their status as Turks. Turning the Kurdish problem into a regional one rather than a national one holds advantages for Turkey because it increases the chances of Turkey’s Kurds being left out of any solution, and as Murat Yetkin points out in Hurriyet, the BDP has had more difficulty distancing itself from the PKK than the Iraqi Kurds have. Improving ties with the KRG and securing Barzani in his corner is a win-win for Erdoğan, which is why he is rolling out the red carpet over the next two days. By developing closer ties with Iraqi Kurdistan, Erdoğan is able to deny his own Kurds a possible influential champion and keep them right where he wants them.