Kurdish Question Dominates Turkish Politics

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 175

Kurdish unrest in Turkey.
Having received unequivocal backing from voters in the constitutional referendum, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has moved to address Turkey’s structural problems, most notably the Kurdish question, through a combination of domestic measures, as well as regional and international diplomacy.
The resolution of the Kurdish issue has been one of the main targets of the AKP government. The AKP first sought to address this issue through domestic political reforms in the early 2000’s, also benefiting from the relative calm prevailing in southeastern Anatolia, thanks to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) suspending its operations. However, granting greater cultural rights to the Kurds as part of Turkey’s EU accession process or devising socio-economic policies proved to be ineffective. The threat posed by the PKK’s separatist terrorism lingered, as the organization managed to maintain its manpower in safe havens in Northern Iraq.
The PKK’s resumption of its campaign of violence in the second half the decade caught Ankara by surprise, triggering a heated debate. Faced with the PKK’s deadly attacks against Turkish military outposts from its bases in Northern Iraq, the AKP bowed to pressure and considered seriously pursuing stronger military measures to tackle this problem. Coordinating its policies with the US and the Northern Iraqi Kurdish authorities, the Turkish army undertook incursions into Northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK militants in the winter of 2007-2008. Greater security cooperation and intelligence sharing between Turkey, the US and Iraq, or the enhanced military operations inside Turkey could put an end to the PKK’s terrorist attacks.
Meanwhile, the AKP government launched an ambitious “Kurdish opening” in 2009, yet failed to garner popular and political support for the measure. The government’s mishandling of the opening, coupled with the PKK’s and pro-Kurdish parties’ uncooperative attitude turned the entire Kurdish initiative into a near fiasco (Terrorism Monitor, February 19). The government could change the terms of the debate only through its smart moves to table the constitutional amendment package in the first part of 2010, arguing that the Kurdish issue could also be addressed as part of a broader “democratization agenda” (EDM, May 5).
PKK violence, however, continued throughout the spring and summer, which exposed the failure of the Turkish security apparatus in fighting against the PKK formations inside and outside Turkey (Terrorism Monitor, July 8). The escalation of the conflict could be avoided only through the PKK’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire prior to the referendum, which was partly facilitated by some civil society organizations. Following the referendum, the PKK sent signals that it would resume its campaign, unless Turkish security forces halted their operations by a self-declared deadline of September 20. A deadly mine explosion killing nine civilians on September 16 reignited the debate on terrorism (www.haber7.com, September 16). Though the PKK denied its involvement in the attack, it was a stark reminder that the PKK remained a potent force that could deal a serious blow to Turkey’s security. The PKK decided to extend the “non-action” period until this week as a goodwill gesture (Radikal, September 20).
Moreover, the success of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in boycotting the referendum in the Kurdish-speaking provinces reiterated once again that the ethnic Kurdish movement still enjoys substantial support in the region and continues to harbor ambitious demands for greater political rights. Indeed, the BDP representatives even went as far as demanding democratic autonomy (EDM, September 20).
Faced with this double-edged challenge, the AKP now seeks to address this issue through complex diplomatic traffic. There have been numerous visits undertaken by cabinet members and security bureaucrats. Turkish Interior Minister, Besir Atalay, was in Arbil over the weekend, where Kurdistan Regional Government sources expressed their support for Turkey’s fight against terrorism and the peaceful resolution to the problem (www.trt.net.tr, September 27). He is expected to soon meet his Syrian and Iraqi counterparts. The Head of the Turkish Intelligence Agency, Hakan Fidan, visited Washington last week, and might visit northern Iraq soon. On September 28, a US delegation led by Lloyd James Austin, commanding general of the American forces in Iraq, visited Turkey to discuss the joint efforts (Yeni Safak, September 29).
These contacts are undertaken within the framework of a joint “action plan” agreed in April to combat the PKK, as a result of the trilateral security mechanism between Turkey, the US and Iraq (IHA, April 11). Through closer cooperation with the US and the Iraqi Kurds, the action plan would have helped Turkey to take stronger military measures to eliminate the threat posed by the PKK, which to date has proved ineffective.
Although the recent initiatives also seek to address the security aspects of PKK terrorism, security cooperation through the trilateral mechanism might be secondary to the AKP government’s policy of exploring a non-military solution to the problem in a new political setting. The goal of the contacts is to somehow convince the PKK to extend its unilateral ceasefire, halt its operations inside Turkey, and turn its non-action into a permanent truce (Hurriyet Daily News, September 27). Once the guns fall silent, the government hopes to find a suitable environment within which it can address the Kurdish problem through domestic political reforms.
The crux of the issue is what will happen to the thousands of PKK militants. In this process, the PKK will possibly withdraw its forces from Turkey into Northern Iraq. In the most optimistic scenario, PKK militants might voluntarily turn themselves in and reintegrate themselves into civilian life, if the AKP’s democratic solution succeeds. Since this is highly unlikely, Turkey expects the Iraqi Kurds and the US to take steps towards the disarmament of these PKK militants and eventually end the PKK’s military presence.
However, given the uncertainty over the future of Iraq and the US military presence in the region, it might be unrealistic to expect either the US or the Iraqi Kurds to demilitarize the PKK. Turkey will still need to maintain its operational capability to carry out operations inside Iraq, as reflected by the government’s decision to table a motion for the extension of the Turkish army’s mandate to do so. It seems that there is no easy choice between the use of force and diplomacy.