09.05.2013 Author: Stanislav Ivanov

Prospects for Resolving the Kurdish Problem in Turkey

243A number of external and internal factors have recently caused the Turkish authorities to soften their policies towards the Kurdish minority and try to solve the Kurdish problem through peaceful means. Ankara has long ignored Kurds’ demands for the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by Turks (cultural autonomy, the Kurdish language, their own media, participation in the country’s political and public life, etc.). The regions heavily populated by Kurds continue to be the most socio-economically backward, and acts of protest and attempts at resistance by Kurds are frequently suppressed harshly by the authorities. The leading Kurdish opposition group — the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) — has been listed as a terrorist organization, and its members led by Abdullah Öcalan have been imprisoned. Regular Turkish forces (aircraft, artillery and armored vehicles) have been used against PKK militants fighting a guerrilla war. Moreover, Ankara has not hesitated to use missiles, bombs and artillery against neighboring regions in Iraq where PKK supporters could be hiding.

Recent successes by Syrian and Iraqi Kurds fighting for their national rights and freedoms have, of course, had a significant impact on the Erdoğan government’s policy towards Turkish Kurds.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has had to free some Kurdish political prisoners and grant citizenship to several hundred thousand Syrian Kurds who previously did not have that right. In addition, because it lacks sufficient troops and security forces loyal to the regime, the government has decided to withdraw its military and police units from Kurdish regions, enabling them to form their own local government agencies and self-defense units.

Even more significant changes have taken place in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the Kurds did not just form a federation with extremely broad rights, they also took responsible positions in the central government in Baghdad (the country’s president is Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader; six federal ministers, including the Foreign Minister, are also Kurds, and there is a representative Kurdish faction in parliament). In addition, the Kurds are functioning as mediators in maintaining the fragile consensus between Shiite Arabs and Sunni Arabs, and they have essentially become guarantors of Iraq’s continued existence as a unified state.

Under the circumstances, the Turkish authorities have been increasingly forced to deal with Kurdish leaders in neighboring countries and face their own Kurds. The lengthy negotiations between Öcalan and representatives of the Erdoğan government resulted in an agreement for a peaceful resolution to Turkey’s Kurdish problem. During celebrations of the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz in Amed (Diyabakir) on March 21, 2013, Öcalan called upon the Kurdish, Turkish and other peoples of the Middle East to transition from an armed conflict to an era of democratic political struggle. At a press conference held on April 25 at a PKK base in the Qandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdistan Societies Association representative Murat Karayilan elaborated on Öcalan’s call and announced a historic decision by the leaders of the national liberation movement of Turkish Kurds.

He said the Kurds are willing to continue the ceasefire with the Turkish government and withdraw their military units from Turkey on the following terms:

– The Kurds would independently withdraw their armed units along routes they had used previously while observing military discipline and avoiding any clashes;

– The withdrawal will begin on May 8, will be carried out in small groups and will be completed in the shortest time possible;

– After the withdrawal, the PKK’s military units will be stationed in Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Kurdistan Societies Association is counting on the understanding and support of Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government;

– The Turkish security forces must be considerate of and serious about the withdrawal of the Kurdish guerrilla forces from Turkey; any provocation, military operation or attack on the Kurds could halt the peace process, and the guerrillas reserve the right to self-defense;

– It could be very useful to involve independent observers to monitor the withdrawal of Kurdish forces in order to prevent incidents and provocations.

The Kurdish leaders view the truce and subsequent withdrawal of their military units from Turkey as the first phase in a democratic solution to the Kurdish problem. In the second phase, they expect the following practical actions from the Turkish authorities:

– Democratization of Turkish politics and society that takes into account the interests and special features of the Kurds and other national minorities;

– The establishment of conditions conducive to developing a democratic civil society in the country;

– The elimination of all special security forces formed to fight the Kurds (village guards, special operations units, etc.);

– The adoption of a new democratic constitution that would recognize and legally protect the rights and freedoms of the Kurds and other peoples and faiths in Turkey.

— After the second phase is complete, the third and final phase can begin — a definitive normalization of relations. The Kurds expect that only then will they be able to achieve a social consensus, equality and freedom for all of the country’s citizens, and peace and harmony for the long term. The release of all political prisoners, including Öcalan, would be a natural step.

Kurdish leaders believe that a just and total solution to the Kurdish problem in Turkey could be another step towards normalizing the situation throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. It is becoming increasingly clear that the mono-national states created by imperialists and colonizers have outlived their usefulness, and the peoples separated by artificial borders and oppressed by dictatorial regimes do not want to continue living the way they have been, divided into titular, second-class nations and getting involved in “foreign” wars and armed conflicts.

It is difficult at present to tell how serious the intentions of those engaged in settling the Turkish-Kurdish conflict are and predict how successful they will be at implementing the phases and plans for resolving the Kurdish problem in Turkey peacefully.

On the one hand, there are active supporters for overcoming the years of strife and armed conflict both in Ankara and among the Kurdish leaders. Moreover, Erdoğan believes that normalizing relations with the Kurds will facilitate Turkey’s accession to the EU and make the idea of re-creating the Ottoman Empire in its former boundaries on a new, more modern basis more attractive. Turkey’s trade, economic, cultural and moderate Islamist expansion in the Balkans, in the Caucasus, in the countries of Central Asia and in the Middle East is already starting to bear fruit. The dynamically evolving relations between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan, which is becoming increasingly integrated into Turkey’s economy, may serve as an example of that. It is possible that after the civil war in Syria ends, the areas of Syria on the Turkish border that have a predominantly Kurdish population may boost ties and contacts with Turkish Kurds in the Turkish business community.

Meanwhile, there are still those in Turkey who favor continuing efforts to assimilate Turkey’s Kurds and resolve the Kurdish problem by force of arms. It was no coincidence that after the Kurds announced the ceasefire, Turkey’s armed forces executed a series of military operations in rural areas and shelled positions assumed to be held by Kurdish guerrillas.

The Kurds also have hawks — people who support continuing the fight against the Turkish government. The fact is that the PKK has not been a unified and cohesive organization for a long time. There are groups more radical both inside and outside the party that Öcalan and his supporters have no control over. Some of the Kurdish militants are influenced by emigrant centers in Europe, and some have ties with foreign intelligence services, drug traffickers and smugglers. The Turkish authorities are unlikely to succeed in closing the channels through which illegal weapons supplies, ammunition and drugs enter those regions overnight, even with the aid of loyal Kurdish leaders. Therefore, new armed provocations along the Turkish-Syrian and Turkish-Iraqi borders and attempts to thwart the incipient peace process between Ankara and the PKK must not be ruled out.

Still, I would like to hope that this time the Turkish-Kurdish peace process will be irreversible. The protracted bloody civil war in Syria has shown the entire world that it is in people’s best interest to solve all problems and disputes peacefully through negotiations. Violence only begets violence, and when foreign forces get involved in conflicts, things grow worse.

Stanislav Ivanov, Cand. Sc. (History), is an expert on the Middle East. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.