BACKGROUND: On September 25, 2011, six Turkish soldiers were killed in the southeastern province Siirt when their garrison was attacked by the militants of the PKK. Meanwhile, the crackdown of the Turkish police on the representatives of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) – which has been ongoing since April 2009 – continued with the arrests last week of the mayors of Şırnak, Silopi and İdil. Aysel Tuğluk, an independent Kurdish member of parliament and leading spokesperson of the Kurdish movement, remarked that the BDP is effectively being deprived the possibility of participating in the political life of the country. Indeed, it is widely assumed that the Turkish state is preparing to deal a crushing blow at the Kurdish movement; the Kurds suspect that their leading political representatives are about to be detained.
As the Turkish-Kurdish conflict escalates, the release on September 13 on the site of the Dicle News Agency (DIHA) and Firat News Agency of a 50-minute tape recording of a meeting between leading officials of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency and the PKK has supplied insights into the strategy of the Turkish government. The recording provides answers to the question whether or not the current escalation could have been avoided. (The Kurdish news agencies subsequently removed the recordings from their websites, disclaiming any responsibility for the publication, stating that the voice recording had been posted as a result of a virtual attack.)
The government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has until now denied that it has been involved in any direct talks with the PKK. Turkish commentators ventured the explanation that the source of the leak was possibly to be found within the MİT, and that the purpose was to sabotage the attempt of the government to explore a peaceful solution, and to undercut the position of the MİT undersecretary Hakan Fidan. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan expressed unequivocal support for the head of the MİT, stating that it was only natural that the intelligence services engage in such activities with the purpose of “tracking down criminals”. Even though it was obvious that the MİT officials had not met with the PKK representatives in order to hand them over to justice, the disclosure of the contents of the MİT-PKK talks nonetheless failed to provoke the public uproar that those behind the leak most certainly had expected. The reactions of the Turkish nationalist opposition parties were similarly muted.
The fact that the Turkish state has been involved in negotiations with the PKK and most crucially with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the organization, has been acknowledged since the summer of 2010. Erdoğan has however sought to distance himself from these contacts by maintaining that although the appropriate state agencies could if necessary conduct talks with Öcalan, the government itself would never become involved. The attempt to uphold a fictitious separation of the state (of which the AKP government is by now in full control) and the AKP government has finally fallen apart with the disclosure that Hakan Fidan, the current undersecretary of MİT (who in that capacity reports directly to the Prime Minister), was one of the participants in the meeting with the PKK representatives. At the occasion, Fidan, who was then a newcomer to the talks that had apparently been ongoing during five to six years under the auspices of an unidentified mediator, had been newly appointed deputy undersecretary of MİT; but he also takes care to introduce himself as the special envoy of Erdoğan. The meeting was probably held sometime between April 16, 2010 and May 23, 2010, a time during which the current head of the MİT held the position as deputy undersecretary.
IMPLICATIONS: Far from incriminating the AKP government, the contents of the MİT-PKK talks have in fact been used to exonerate the AKP in the Turkish public discourse, and notably to justify the ruling party’s recourse to hard-line policies. The dominant Turkish narrative postulates that the government had been engaged in a sincere search for a negotiated settlement with the PKK; pro-government pundits and commentators blame the Kurdish movement for the breakdown of the talks, accusing it of having betrayed the peaceful solution that they claim was within reach. According to this narrative – which glosses over the mass arrests of Kurdish politicians – the descent into violence was triggered solely by the intransigence of the Kurdish organization.
The Kurds are increasingly demonized in the Turkish discourse; Turkish democrats have lately become much less inclined to empathize with the Kurds. Indeed, the influential Turkish liberals have not only ceased to lend a sympathetic ear to the Kurdish movement, but have come to deploy a hostile rhetoric toward it. The result is that there is now a serious deficit of Turkish voices that are willing to promote the much needed understanding among the Turks for the aspirations of the Kurds; and if anything the MİT-PKK talks illustrate that peace will remain out of reach as long as an earnest Turkish-Kurdish dialogue is not engaged.
Hakan Fidan, the deputy undersecretary of the Turkish Intelligence, and Erdoğan’s envoy, repeatedly assures the PKK representatives that the Prime Minister is committed to taking “courageous steps”, even though there are dissensions within the government. “I really want to emphasize that Erdoğan is serious, and that we are not playing for time”, he insists. He praises Abdullah Öcalan, saying that “Mr. Öcalan’s views have matured considerably during the years of imprisonment”; indeed, the intelligence chief underlines that “Öcalan’s views are to 95 percent in accordance with Erdoğan’s views”. The Turkish intelligence officials relate how they have been in the business of delivering Öcalan’s written messages to the acting PKK leadership in Kandil, in northern Iraq. They volunteer to submit any new messages that their Kurdish interlocutors may want to have delivered to their leader, but complain that “you guys just don’t know how to write briefly”.
The meeting was held in the wake of the disastrous Habur incident which derailed the Kurdish opening of the AKP government; a group of PKK militants had been allowed to enter Turkey in October 2009, as the first step of a process that the government hoped was going to end with the disbanding of the PKK. However, when the militants made what looked like a defiant victory tour in the Kurdish southeast, a massive Turkish nationalist backlash ensued. The officials of the MİT relate how the government more or less panicked as opinion polls showed the AKP slipping dangerously, and observe that “the way the opposition handled itself certainly did not make things easier”. The envoy of the Prime Minister deplores that “the ground for the more courageous steps of the government”, which the disarmament of the PKK was supposed to have created, thus failed to materialize.
The officials of the MİT – who are doing most of the talking – acknowledge that the parameters of the solution encompass a very wide range of measures, “from the simplest things to changing the constitution to the release of Öcalan”. And they emphasize that “these are not things that are going to be accomplished in three months or in a year.” The representatives of the PKK meanwhile, plead that a solution not be postponed for six to seven years. One of them says “now, we need to get down to discussing the real issues”. However, that is not something for which the Turkish state is ready: the deputy undersecretary of the MİT clarifies that “the state is now assessing the demands, trying to decide for itself which of these that can be accepted and trying to determine what the time-table for an implementation is going to be”.
CONCLUSIONS: The talks that Turkish intelligence officials conducted with the PKK took place within a circumscribed framework; the core issues were apparently never addressed. The specter of ceding control – to Kurdish nationalists in the southeast, and to Turkish nationalist parties in the west – has continued to haunt the AKP. At one point in the MİT-PKK meeting, Erdoğan’s envoy laments that the PKK is taking advantage of the widened scope of freedom. Meanwhile, one PKK representative inquires how the state can expect them to do their part while it is rounding up Kurdish politicians.
The effort to explore a peaceful solution was doomed because, ultimately, the AKP has not disengaged from Turkish state tradition: Statism is only reconstructed, not abandoned. There is of course a crucial difference between the old Kemalist state and the AKP state: the latter is not averse to allowing expressions of ethnic pluralism. However, the state remains just as sacrosanct for the AKP, the notion of its supremacy unchallenged. The reconstructed Turkish state holds out a promise of generosity toward the citizens, but its embrace is nonetheless patronizing.
The AKP government’s Kurdish strategy has been defined, and ultimately stymied, by a combination of overconfidence and lack of confidence: On the one hand, the AKP presumed that it could avoid engaging with the Kurdish representatives in earnest negotiations, “deciding for itself” how a solution was going to look like. On the other hand, Erdoğan has not been disposed to engage in the albeit risky but indispensable conversation with the Turks about the measures that his envoy assured the representatives of the PKK that he was in the process of making up his mind about; instead, he chose to stoke militant Turkish nationalism. Erdoğan may have calculated that he would be able to secure the acquiescence of the Turks subsequent to the disbanding of the PKK. In any case, engaging secretly with the PKK – while publicly deploring that its leader was not hanged – is a tactic that has had its day.
Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow and Managing Editor of theTurkey Analyst at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. 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".