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.