BACKGROUND: One important motive for the government’s Kurdish opening, later redubbed the democratic opening, is the influence wielded by MPs of Kurdish origin in circles close to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as well as the fact that these deputies were uncomfortable with the AKP’s earlier stance in the Kurdish issue. It is widely discussed in political circles in Ankara that some senior Kurdish AKP figures, led by the party’s former deputy chairman, Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, were on the verge of resignation from the party before the launch of the Kurdish opening. The AKP’s significant losses in the Kurdish Southeast in the local elections of March 2009 further served to drive home the need for the party to appeal to the Kurdish electorate.
The parliamentary debate in early November that was entirely devoted to the Kurdish question was a landmark event. Although Prime Minister Erdoğan did not go into the particulars of the “opening” – which he took the opportunity to re-baptize “an opening for national unity and fraternity”, his statements have already succeeded in palpably changing the atmosphere in the Southeast. A new optimism about the prospects of peace is gaining ground among a Kurdish population that has been hard hit by twenty-five years of violence between the PKK and the Turkish state.
Meanwhile, the nationalist opposition parties – the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) remain vehemently opposed to the opening, which they interpret as an attempt to deconstruct the nation. Onur Öymen, the deputy chairman of the CHP, may indeed have uttered the statement that will be the most remembered by posterity of this debate, when he recalled how the rebellion in Dersim in 1937 – when tens of thousands of Alevi Kurds were massacred by government troops – had been dealt with. Öymen suggested that the search for peace should not lead the state to make concessions to rebels today any more than what it had encouraged the state to do back in the 1930s, when Atatürk had ordered Dersim to be bombed.
Prime Minister Erdoğan , in a reference to the counter-insurgency tactics employed by the Turkish army during the 1990s, retorted by asking Öymen “has your village ever been burned down, has you ever lost a child?” While Erdoğan thus displayed a remarkable empathy with the Kurdish citizens, Öymen was appealing to the militant Turkish nationalism that is gaining ground in the western part of the country, in the process alienating also the Alevi community.
The optimism in the Southeast has no equivalent in the west of Turkey, where the mood on the contrary is somber and the anger at what is perceived as the “sell-out” to Kurdish nationalism is dangerously on the rise. When Ahmet Türk, the leader of the Kurdish DTP, arrived in Izmir – a city that takes pride in its history of cosmopolitanism, but which has recently come to be more marked by a nationalist-secularist siege mentality – his convoy was attacked by a Turkish nationalist mob. The Kurdish opening – or the way it is (or is not) being managed – appears to be widening, not narrowing, the ethnic fault line. Although the signs are that it is succeeding in winning the hearts of the Kurds, holding out the promise of securing their loyalty to the republic, it clearly runs the risk of alienating many Turks.
Indeed, the prime minister is encountering unvoiced opposition from a significant number of MPs of his own party that are from a Turkish nationalist background. Opinion polls show the AKP dipping since the opening was launched, with the CHP and MHP on the rise. Coming elections, no doubt, put pressure on the government, which can be expected to move cautiously with the next steps of the opening.
IMPLICATIONS: The Kurdish opening has important foreign policy ramifications as well. With U.S. troops scheduled to complete their withdrawal from Iraq by the summer of 2010, Turkey is set to indirectly fill the power vacuum in northern Iraq. The rapprochement between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurds is already on evident display. The developments in Kurdish-governed northern Iraq offer Turkey an opportunity to neutralize the threat posed by the PKK. In fact the national security evaluations of the Turkish General Staff and of the National Intelligence Unit (MIT) have contributed to determining the policies of the government. Indeed, the Kurdish opening enjoys the explicit endorsement of the General Staff, and should be understood as being jointly managed by the institutions of the state, the government and the national security apparatus.
The Kurds of northern Iraq are concerned about becoming the targets of Arab anger against them in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal and are thus in search for a new protector. The Iraqi Kurds are obviously aware that if the PKK presence in Northern Iraq continues, relations will Turkey will remain troubled. Therefore, they appear intent to remove the PKK from their territory. The recent visits of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and of foreign trade minister Zafer Çağlayan’s to Iraqi Kurdistan need to be assessed in this context.
Turkey’s rapprochement policy with Syria and Iran, which is causing some alarm in the West, also needs to be appreciated against the backdrop of the Kurdish, or more precisely the PKK issue. Turkey is above all seeking to secure its neighbors’ acquiescence in the liquidation of the PKK. The past Syrian and Iranian support for the Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey is no secret. Ankara thus tries to intensify its relations with these two countries, despite anger and criticism coming from the West as well as fears that the axis of Turkish foreign policy may be shifting. Considering the recently signed agreements with Syria, the security and PKK dimension of the agreement that also envisioned the reciprocal abolition of visas, should be duly noted.
Some 1,500 of the PKK’s militants are Syrian nationals. Turkey needs Syria’s support for their disarmament. The announcement by Syrian president Bashir al-Assad that the PKK militants who are ready to surrender their guns are welcome to return to Syria was welcomed by the Turkish officials, including the chief of the General Staff. Turkey attempts to hinder the PKK from securing a safe haven in Syria or in Iran, subsequent to its expected expulsion from Iraq. Although Turkey has succeeded in reaching an agreement with Syria, the prospects so far of a similar understanding being reached with Iran remain uncertain.
The trickiest part of the Kurdish equation is the position of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK. Öcalan still controls the PKK, and he will obviously never acquiesce to its total liquidation. His own fate and future can be expected to loom large among Öcalan’s priorities, and he may even nurture the vain hope of ultimately being released and of being able to participate in politics. From the vantage point of the Turkish state, Öcalan is a problem as well as a potential asset – in certain circumstances. Although the state cannot acknowledge Öcalan as an interlocutor, it nevertheless depends on his ability to control the PKK. Öcalan proved his usefulness as he played his part in the opening, ordering the return of a group of PKK militants to Turkey. Yet, Öcalan’s continued hold over the Kurdish movement is also a problem, as his militant Kurdish nationalism easily plays into the hands of the militant Turkish nationalists.
CONCLUSIONS: One of the unintended consequences of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was that the PKK received a new lease on life. Today, with the U.S. in the process of withdrawal from Iraq, Turkey is offered the possibility of reversing history, of neutralizing a PKK that will be denied a safe haven in northern Iraq, as the Iraqi Kurds look to Turkey for protection in the absence of the Americans. Turkey has reoriented its foreign policy toward Syria and Iran not least in order to secure their acquiescence to the liquidation of the PKK.
On the internal front, the governing AKP enjoys the advantage of being – at least compared to the nationalist parties – uninhibited by old, Kemalist notions about the nation-state that for nine decades have informed the policies of the republic toward the ethnic and cultural “others”. The AKP is succeeding in reaching out to the Kurds. However, the AKP will have to tread carefully, as Turkish nationalism is a strong force within the party as well as among its electoral base.
As Erdoğan has underlined, the overriding objective of the Kurdish opening is to stop the bloodshed, to secure the dismantling of the PKK. The period between 1999 and 2003 showed that societal wounds begin to heal once the guns are silent. The AKP appears to calculate that it will regain the support that it has so far lost as result of the opening, when the PKK has started to disintegrate and the public realizes that war is over. This is not an unrealistic calculation, but it will nevertheless depend on the actions of actors and on developments that escape the control of the governing party. Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the AKP is to convince the opponents of the opening that it does not threaten Turkey’s unity. That in turn is well understood by the representatives of the party, as they have considerably adjusted their rhetoric since the opening was launched.
If the AKP succeeds in reinventing Turkey, and thus in securing the integrity of the state, it will have realized the goal of the founder of the republic. That would be an ironic twist for a party that is the inheritor of a political tradition that has been in opposition to the original republican project.
M.K. Kaya is a contributing editor to the Turkey Analyst.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".