Special Report | Turkey’s Kurdish question: an uncertain future

In the second part of his special report on Turkey's Kurdish dilemma, Franco Galdini provides an overview of possible future scenarios. Sooner or later, he argues, Turkey will have to confront the effects of the Arab Spring at home.

New in Ceasefire, Politics - Posted on Wednesday, February 8, 2012 12:00 - 0 Comments

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses AK Party deputies during a parliamentary meeting. (Photo: AP)

[Continued from Part one]

Paradoxically, the PKK seems to be following the same trajectory of the Turkish government, only from the opposite side of the fence. Whilst other non-state armed groups in the region have been obliged to position themselves in the wake of (and vis-à-vis) the Arab Spring, the PKK has had to spruce up old alliances in order to keep the money flowing at a time when its fundraising operations in Europe were being curtailed.

Practically, this has meant linking up with old patrons, namely Iran and Syria, whilst conveniently overlooking these regimes’ crackdowns on their own Kurdish populations. The double irony here, once again, lies in Turkey (at least in theory) supporting Kurds in countries whose governments are suppressing them – all with the tacit consent of the PKK.

However, whereas groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, both staunch supporters of the regime in Damascus, have joined mainstream politics and enjoy a vast electoral following, the PKK seems to be on the defensive on all fronts.[1] From this perspective, the recent spate of attacks can be interpreted as an attempt by the PKK to remain relevant in a dramatically changing political environment.

Domestically, the AKP has eaten up in little less than a decade approximately half of the potential support base of the organisation, whilst the Kurdish political agenda has gradually but radically shifted from outright independence for a not-so-well defined Kurdistan to an equally blurry and vague model of ‘democratic autonomy.’[2] Concomitantly, this has meant the gradual rejection of violence as a political tactic in the Kurdish mainstream, thus undermining the PKK’s raison d’être at a crucially fluid political juncture when political allegiances are being revisited and Kurdish concerns, though imperfectly, can be more openly voiced in the political arena.

Internationally, apart from the US’s, the PKK has been placed on the EU’s list of terrorist organisations since 2003, and its European fundraising operations have received severe blows in the past few years. Turkey, a NATO member, remains a key ally in Washington’s Middle East strategy and, despite recent strains in that relation due to the US rejection of a Turkish-Brazilian mediated settlement to the Iranian nuclear standoff, the US desperately need Turkey on board at a time when American troops have left Iraq.

More importantly, the Arab Spring has realigned Washington’s interests with Ankara’s, as the latter has moved away from the Syrian and Iranian regimes to at least implicitly support a Saudi-Qatari-Jordanian ‘Sunni’ axis, and – occasional bouts of diplomacy notwithstanding – providing a strong counterbalance to Iranian influence in the region. Turkey’s combination of a mildly Islamist government with strong market credentials has gained universal accolades as a welcome alternative to more radical forms of political Islam, and an example to emulate in the region after the revolutionary dust settles and tentative moves towards democracy are taken.

Likewise, the Kurdish population seems to be as divided within Turkey as it is between its neighbouring countries. Having won its third consecutive term in power, the AKP has continued the old practice of surreptitiously arming local pro-government militias in order to counterbalance the PKK’s military power. Locally, this could escalate into a low-level conflict between what may amount to armed gangs bent on gaining control of territory and resources. Like other guerrilla movements, the PKK has been collecting taxes from the local population, which it may risk losing, along with the ‘protection money’ that it receives from local drugs and arms kingpins.

In order to ensure Iranian funds and logistical support, the PKK appears to have withdrawn its Iranian sister organisation, the PJAK, from Iran. The same can be said for Syria, where the PKK indirectly supports the regime, whereas the Syrian Kurdish population has been part of the uprising from day one, in spite of its heavy Arab nationalist tinge and Kurdish suspicions vis-à-vis the Syrian National Council (SNC), the main umbrella organisation of the Syrian opposition.

Finally, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, tacitly agreed to a massive cross-border bombing campaign and search operation by the Turkish army and air force aimed at degrading PKK’s outposts and pursuing PKK fighters deep inside Northern Iraq. Although the populace there voices some romantic support for the cause of their “brothers and sisters” in Turkey, the KRG cannot afford to lose US support in its efforts to enforce a federal system in Iraq, from which it would greatly benefit. Likewise, Turkish backing would come in handy in the ongoing dispute between the KRG and Baghdad over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, where Turkey has thus far supported the Iraqi central government whilst citing the interests of the city’s Turkmen.

In recent years, trade between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan has boomed and, in 2010,  represented 70 percent of an estimated yearly total of 6.3 billion USD between the two countries. Unsurprisingly, Turkish companies represent half of all 1,760 foreign companies registered in Iraqi Kurdistan, winning bids for major infrastructural projects and featuring strongly in the region’s business fairs. Also, the KRG could supply most of the capacity of the Nabucco pipeline project, taking Middle Eastern natural gas to the European markets via Turkey. For this reason, businessmen and politicians alike are keen to stress that Turkey is Kurdistan’s bridge to Europe, whereas Kurdistan is in turn Turkey’s bridge to Iraq and the Gulf region.[3]

Undeniably, incidents such as the one in Uludere last December breathe much needed lifeblood into the PKK, by pandering to the radical argument that the Turkish government can be brought to negotiate only via the political use of violence. Further, whereas the organisation’s sway seems on the wane, such trend may be dramatically reversed if the government is perceived to fall prey to the military-security response without taking serious steps in finding a political solution to the Kurdish question. Even if most Kurds have renounced violence, the PKK can still muster enough support as the historic movement championing Kurdish rights. In other words, whereas many now disagree with its tactics, they do support its overall strategic goals, which coincide with those of the great majority of Kurds.

Conclusion

Although it is too early to write the PKK off, the organisation seems to be facing one of the greatest challenges in the more than three decades of its existence, threatening to put into question its relevance and thus its very survival. Though imperfect and incomplete, the relative opening of the last decade has allowed Turkey’s Kurdish population to voice their grievances at the political level, with the majority of Kurds gradually relinquishing violence as a tactic.

However, the current crackdown by the government – possibly emboldened by its third consecutive victory at the polls – combined with the PKK’s declining star hold the potential to re-plunge the country into a vicious cycle of violence, in which the PKK would effectively step up its violent attacks thus exacting yet more state violence. From the organisation’s perspective, such escalation would serve the double purpose of justifying its relevance in the eyes of the Kurdish population and their money’s worth in the eyes of Turkey’s regional foes, namely Syria and Iran. In this context, it remains anyone’s guess what PKK field chief Murat Karayılan’s statement that ‘2012 will be our year…a year of change of strategy’ effectively means, although it seems fair to say that a continuation of the current trend would spell disaster for the country.

As the ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy fast becomes untenable, it is an illusion to think that Turkey will be able to continue playing such a dominant role in the region without having to confront the effects of the Arab Spring at home. This may come in terms of old-friends-now-turned-foes funding a return to violence on Turkish soil, or in terms of loss of credibility and standing, if not of accusations of outright hypocrisy, when supporting calls for democracy in the region whilst repressing the Kurdish population at home. The government should carefully re-consider its aggressive approach towards the Kurdish question, as it could backfire by pushing large segments of the Kurdish mainstream it has worked so hard to win over back into the PKK’s fold, thus bolstering the very organisation it is fighting against.

Finally, as the revolutionary upheavals are set to continue well into 2012, the question of future alternatives emerging in the Kurdish mainstream, especially from the youth, becomes crucial. In other words, if both the traditional (armed) and new (political) axes of the struggle are increasingly perceived as either irrelevant or too weak, respectively, to enforce a change of policy by the Turkish state, the possibility of a Kurdish (youth-led) movement taking matters into their own hands on the recent example of several countries around the region becomes very real.

‘[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,’ as Turkish President Abdullah Gül so eloquently put it regarding the Syrian uprising. And if such movement were to transcend old Turkish-Kurdish divisions and unite the country’s youth – who represents more than half of its total population and is plagued by 21 percent unemployment, making one in three young Turks declare he has no trust in any institution[4] – this would represent an insurmountable challenge not only to the PKK, but also to the ruling AKP who would both appear as obsolete and out-of-touch with the new reality as the various Mubaraks, Gaddafis, Assads and Ben Alis.

It remains to be seen if, in the face of increasing restrictions, the Kurdish population of Turkey will choose a return to the old methods of guerrilla warfare embodied by the PKK or, in keeping with the spirit of the new revolutionary times, will choose the (mostly) non-violent path of massive mobilisation first paved by Tunisians and Egyptians and then followed by so many others around the region, and beyond.

Footnotes

[1] Over the past few weeks, it seems that Hamas has slowly been taking its distance from Damascus, where its political bureau is located, and the movement’s political leader Khaled Mashal is reportedly spending more time outside of Syria than in the country. Likewise, Hamas deposed PM Ismail Haniya avoided Damascus in his latest diplomatic tour, whilst visiting instead Ankara and meeting with Mr Erdoğan. See http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/03/world/middleeast/hamas-ismail-haniya-gaza-visits-turkey.html
[2] See the latest ICG report entitled Turkey: Ending the PKK insurgency, which eloquently calls it ‘the unbearable vagueness of ‘democratic autonomy.’’
[3] www.globalpolitician.com/27139-rukey-iraq-relations
[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/09/world/europe/09iht-M09-TURK-VOTE.html?pagewanted=all
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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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