In contrast to its normal routine, in which the Turkish General Staff briefs cabinet members at the National Security Council (MGK) meetings, Turkish Chief of General Staff General Ilker Basbug and his commanders attended a cabinet meeting for the first time ever on October 27 and briefed cabinet members on the military’s continuing fight against terrorism. After the meeting, cabinet spokesman Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek told the media that “It was a realistic, fruitful, and honest meeting to review the counterterrorism measures that have been implemented so far and, if needed, to take new measures” (Anadolu Ajansi, October 27).
Responses to the briefing have been interesting. One retired general said that the briefing was intended to create awareness among the ministers of the military’s perspective on the PKK:
“I would liken this to Turkish Armed Force’s (TSK) move of briefing Cabinet members [about] the Feb. 28 process even though the briefing had a different topic. Top commanders, seriously annoyed with the latest criticism leveled against the TSK over its alleged negligence in the fight against the PKK, will attempt to create awareness among the ministers of military measures against this terrorist organization. TSK, through the briefing, aimed at inviting Cabinet members to concentrate on the reality of those measures” (Today’s Zaman, October 28).
Perhaps misperceptions were created about the meeting by comparing it to the February 28, 1997, process, during which the TSK commanders launched a public campaign through briefings to the media, judges, and NGOs, to inform the public about the imminent threat of an Islamist government.
Information leaked to the pro-Justice and Development Party (AKP) media following the cabinet meeting indicated that the Turkish Chief of General Staff had agreed on a government initiative to meet with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. The pro-AKP daily Zaman agreed with Basbug that “to stop the bloodshed it is even understandable to meet with Mesut Barzani” (Zaman, October 30). The headlines of another pro-AKP daily, Yeni Safak, was a statement taken out of the briefing: “The best terrorist is not the dead terrorist but the terrorist who gave up” (Yeni Safak, October 30). Yeni Safak highlighted this point, perhaps in order to prepare the public for a possible amnesty law in coming months to encourage PKK members to renounce terrorism. The daily Sabah, which is considered a mainstream newspaper, despite the fact that its CEO is a relative of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stressed another statement from the briefing: “New Imams should be appointed in the southeast to the mosques that have no Imams” (Sabah, October 29).
What is interesting about the news reports on Basbug’s briefing to the cabinet is that beyond reporting on Cicek’s official statement, the mainstream media, including the mass-circulation Hurriyet, Milliyet, Aksam, and Vatan, did not even mention what had been discussed in the briefing.
It appears that the AKP government is in a dilemma, caught between its constituencies and the military elites about how to control terrorism. On the one hand, its supporters, at least in the Kurdish region, want the AKP to establish better relations with the Iraqi Kurdish groups, find a way to convince PKK members to give up, and create hope for a solution. Erdogan’s recent statements supporting Basbug, however, disappointed AKP supporters in the Kurdish region (see EDM, October 28). On the one hand, in order to balance his position in the eyes of the AKP supporters, Erdogan and the party sent messages to assure them that the government was convincing military commanders to implement its policies on the Kurdish question. A day after the historic cabinet meeting, in fact, President Gul revealed that he was going to visit Iraq either in December or in January 2009 (Anadolu Ajansi, October 29). On the other hand, the AKP wants to satisfy the secular state elites that the AKP will not take any step on the Kurdish question without first consulting with the military. The AKP’s pronouncements are taken by secularist circles to suggest that the government and the military are in agreement about how to handle the issue (Radikal, October 29).
Despite the fact that the government has taken its steps very carefully and has tried to find common ground for the solution, it is too early to know whether the approach will produce any positive results. One of the reasons for caution is the fact that the AKP wants to solve the PKK question through Barzani’s involvement. In light of the fierce competition between Barzani and Abdullah Ocalan over the leadership of the Kurds, the AKP’s attempt to establish better relations with Iraqi Kurds could even exacerbate the PKK problem, since the PKK leaders simply do not want Barzani to be involved in their problem. What they want is for the AKP government to negotiate with the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and/or Abdullah Ocalan. Ahmet Turk, the head of the DTP, stated, in fact, that “the solution is not in the hands of either America or Barzani. The source of the problem is in Turkey and it can only be solved within Turkey” (Cihan News Agency, October 26). Ocalan also stresses that a solution must be found through him or the DTP.
“If a state official visits me to discuss the issue, no one loses anything. I am not pursuing personal ambitions. To me the most important thing is to find an honorable and democratic solution. To find such a solution the government could even talk to Barzani and Talabani as well. But what must be considered is that the Kurdish people have made their choice. They say I am the honor of the Kurdish people and [the government] should not forget this” (Friat News Agency, October 17):
All in all, Ocalan is still a player in the Kurdish problem, and it seems that the AKP’s carefully measured plan to establish better relations with the Iraqi Kurds fails to take the Ocalan factor into consideration. It could be a major problem for the AKP if it fails to solve this problem, in which case the AKP could lose not only its constituencies in both Kurdish and Turkish regions but also its newly established, good relations with the military.