Special Report | Turkey: The return of the PKK?

In the first instalment of an exclusive two-part special report, Franco Galdini explores the recent escalation of violence in Turkey's south-eastern region between government forces and those of the PKK, including its internal, regional and international dimensions.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Tuesday, February 7, 2012 12:00 - 0 Comments

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Civilians killed in an airstrike near Şırnak province were buried in an Ortasu village cemetery on Dec. 30, 2011. (Photo: Today’s Zaman)

“[W]hen the barrier of fear collapsed and the masses began to take to the streets and make their legitimate demands yet you begin by repressing demands by tanks and heavy weapons, the reaction to this will also be strong”.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül speaking on the situation in Syria in an interview to Ash-sharq al-Awsat newspaper, 16.01.2012

The killing of 34 Kurdish civilians last December in an airstrike in Uludere, on the Turkish-Iraqi border, can be as good a starting point as any in trying to fathom the dynamics at work in the latest round of confrontations between the Turkish state and the PKK.[1] The official version of events is that the victims were mistaken for PKK fighters smuggling weapons into Turkey from Iraq, whereas they later turned out to be civilians smuggling cigarettes and diesel.

In the last few months, the situation has been heating up in the south-eastern part of Turkey. After the June 2011 general elections, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym PKK (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan), ended its unilaterally declared ceasefire as the government of Prime Minister Erdoğan was allegedly failing to comply with its electoral promises vis-à-vis Turkey’s Kurdish population.

In fact, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development) party had embarked on a series of arrests of Kurdish journalists, activists, students and even elected parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy) opposition party. At the time of writing, six elected Kurdish members of parliament are still languishing in prison.

Although it is too early to predict what trajectory this escalation may take, it certainly bodes ill for the future of the AKP Kurdish Initiative, which was heralded amid much fanfare in 2009 as the fast track forward to a solution of Turkey’s ‘Kurdish question.’ In fact, the latter seems to have come back to haunt the Turkish leadership with a vengeance after a decade of relative calm and steadily rising living standards under the AKP’s stewardship.

Apart from the obvious watershed of general elections in June last year, other factors may help to explain the fast-rising tension in the Turkish south-east at this specific time. Such factors are inherently informed by the internal workings of the Turkish Republic and its changing political environment, whilst simultaneously being influenced by the dramatic shifts taking place in Turkey’s neighbourhood, in a constant dialectical feedback between the national and regional/international spheres.

The AKP’s perspective

Going back to the Uludere incident, the most militant narrative on the streets of eastern Turkey points to a long-standing deliberate policy by the state to annihilate the Kurdish population. Considering the Kurds make up approximately 20 percent of Turkey’s 74 million population – and although clearly influenced by anger at the killings – that is obviously a gross exaggeration. This is especially true since the ruling AKP party has made significant political inroads in the area. A look at election results in the Van region, for instance, is revealing: in most villages the vote is split a neat 50-50 between the ruling AKP and the pro-Kurdish BDP, and that is apparently representative for results throughout the country’s east.

This is nothing short of remarkable. If the period of prosperity and social peace ushered in with the election of the AKP in the early 2000s accounts for such a major political shift in such a short time, the Islamist credentials of the ruling party have doubtlessly edged a significant part of the more conservative and religious-oriented electorate into its fold. Thus, voters have gradually abandoned ‘old’ community dividing lines, notably Turkish-Kurdish, to embrace the AKP’s Islamist mantle.

Instead, the most intriguing version of the story points towards the historic role of the army in Turkish politics and its suspicion vis-à-vis the AKP’s Islamist leanings. In other words, such a strike may have been an attempt by the kemalist/nationalist faction within the army to undermine the AKP’s efforts to gain the trust of the Kurdish population of Turkey and, eventually, come to a negotiated settlement of the Kurdish issue.[2]

To support this view, observers stress how, since taking power, Mr Erdoğan’s government and the army have been constantly facing off against each other in a slow but steady push by the former to insulate the political arena from the interference of the latter, as had so often happened in the 1980s and 1990s. This confrontation has reached its climax with the Ergenekon case and the charging of several high-ranking officials in the armed forces with conspiracy against the government with the intention of overthrowing it.[3]

From this perspective, whereas the strike and ensuing killing of 34 civilians may be an attempt to undermine the government’s credibility and standing amongst Turkey’s Kurdish population, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s increasingly militant speech concerning the Kurdish question may be a direct response to the Kemalist faction within the army in order to stress his government (and party)’s nationalist credentials. This newly-found belligerence is meant to both assuage pro-government sections within the army and maintain the allegiance of the Turkish electorate in the centre. Such strong rhetoric has been coupled with mass arrests and harassment against Kurdish civil society and, more importantly, large scale military action, including in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, as the military option has repeatedly failed in the past to find a durable solution to Turkey’s Kurdish question, it is highly unlikely that enacting the same script will radically change the play’s end. That is, unless the Turkish government has a Sri Lankan option in mind and is ready to go all the way to eradicate the PKK, which seems tantamount to political suicide for the AKP as it would likely signify the end of Turkey’s EU membership aspirations.

Instead, Mr Erdoğan is treading a fine line between keeping the political centre in line, including pro-government sections of the army, without alienating the big part of the Kurdish population that voted for his party, whilst simultaneously isolating the PKK. This is where talk of foreign conspiracy comes in handy. The Prime Minister was fast to condemn ‘foreign powers’ meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs by supporting the PKK, whom he called a ‘subcontractor’ of such powers.[5]

The background to such statements can be found in the current wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Since it came to power in 2002, the AKP foreign policy has championed a zero-problem approach to Turkey’s neighbours, as expounded by former academic now turned Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Davutoğlu. This stance, which combined close military-economic cooperation with Israel with friendly ties with countries such as Syria and Iran, started cracking at the seams during Israel’s Gaza war in 2008-9, only to come undone with the Arab Spring of revolutionary upheaval.

Thus, warm relations with the Syrian regime fast turned frosty when, after intense shuttle diplomacy that led nowhere, President Abdullah Gül stated that Turkey had ‘lost confidence’ in Assad on 28 August 2011. Please notice that such overt support for the Arab street in 2011, though praiseworthy, rings hollow if compared to the Turkish government’s silence during the violent repression of Iran’s ‘green revolution’ in 2009. However, it seems now obvious that Turkey’s friendship with the Iranian and Syrian regimes has become politically untenable.

As recently as last year, Ankara and Tehran had seemed to slowly come to a collaborative agreement, including intelligence sharing, regarding the PKK, especially after the latter’s sister organisation PJAK (or Party of Free Life of Kurdistan) had conducted an operation against Iranian elite forces in the country’s north-west.[5] However, there are increasing signs now that Iran and the PKK may be eyeing new avenues of cooperation against Turkey as a form of retaliation for the latter’s support of the Syrian opposition against President Assad, a key ally of Iran.[6]

Likewise, whereas Syria was expecting – along with Lebanon and Jordan – to join a free-trade area with Turkey as early as January 2011, that idea is all but abandoned now and the regime of Bashar al-Assad may be considering a revamping of his late father’s traditional support for the PKK as a tool to apply pressure on Turkey, which has become a safe haven for Syrian oppositionists of all stripes. Hence the talk of foreign elements and conspiracy on both sides of the border. Of course, one should not miss the irony of Turkey stepping up the crackdown on its own Kurdish population, whilst protecting and at least indirectly supporting Syria’s Kurds against the al-Assad regime.

Finally, the AKP’s apparent change of heart in dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish question ominously echoes former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s quip that Israel should ‘pursue the peace process as if there is no terrorism, and fight terrorism as if there is no peace process.’ Considering the current situation in the Territories, this could well be a recipe for disaster.

[Click here for Part Two of this report.]

Footnotes

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16352388.
[2] Turkey and the Kurds. Death upon death / The Economist 07.01.12.
[3] One of the most highly mediatic cases in the Ergenekon saga involves the former head of the armed forces, retired General Ilker Basbug. The trial of the thousands of people arrested is expected to last for years.
[4] http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidestory/2011/10/2011102272338493300.html
[5] http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-turkey
[6] ‘Iran is [also] said to be retaliating against Turkey’s decisions to host the radar component of the NATO anti-missile shield.’ See Oxford Analitica – Kurdish stalemate exposes Turkey to foreign pressures, Monday, October 24 2011.
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Franco Galdini

Franco Galdini is a freelance analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He lived for 10 years in the Middle East and North Africa, where he worked in various capacities with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

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