Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Challenge Ahead for Turks and Kurds: to Form a New National Partnership

Published in Articles

by Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 6, no. 6 of the Turkey Analyst)

Abdullah Öcalan’s call for an end to the Kurdish insurgency testifies that the era when violence defined the relations between the Turkish state and the Kurds is coming to a close. Yet what must now ensue will be no less challenging. An enduring peace requires that Turks and Kurds, as citizens on equal footing, negotiate a societal compact. But Turkish nationalism may not be easily tamed, while the question is if Kurdish nationalism can ultimately be contained within an “Ottoman” framework.


BACKGROUND:  On March 21, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Abdullah Öcalan made the much awaited statement calling for an end of the armed struggle that his organization has been waging against the Turkish state since 1984. The war between the PKK and the Turkish state has cost more than forty thousand lives, most of them Kurdish militants, and has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their villages and towns in the war zone in southeastern Turkey. Öcalan’s written remarks were read out, in Kurdish and Turkish, by two parliamentarians from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) at a mass rally in the city of Diyarbakır at which several hundreds of thousand Kurds had gathered. Öcalan declared that the armed struggle was over, saying that “Let the guns fall silent and let ideas speak.” As expected, he stated that the militants of the PKK should retreat from Turkey.

Öcalan’s historic call for an end to the insurgency came after months of negotiations between him and representatives of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) at his prison island of İmralı in the Sea of Marmara. Murat Karayılan, the acting military leader of the PKK, followed suit, announcing that Öcalan’s orders were going to be implemented.  However, speaking to the Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal a few days later, Karayılan stressed that many midlevel commanders have reservations about abiding to Öcalan’s call for an end to the insurrection. Karayılan stated what was absent from Öcalan’s message, that the Turkish government must see to it that parliament enacts constitutional changes, ensuring that the Kurdish identity is recognized and that Kurdish becomes a medium of education. The other main demand of the Kurdish movement is devolution, that state power is decentralized to local administrations, which in practice amounts to a demand for local autonomy.

The major question after Öcalan’s call for an end to the Kurdish insurgency is whether or not the Turkish government is ready to take the steps that the Kurdish side is expecting. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pledged that the retreating PKK militants will be allowed safe passage, with the Turkish military abstaining from attacking them, something that happened the last time the PKK declared a cease-fire more than a decade ago. However, the Turkish state will have to do much more than standing back as the Kurdish militants retreat; it needs to take bold steps that ensure that those militants are in fact able to return to their country and take part in the political, democratic struggle that Öcalan has stated will replace the armed struggle for Kurdish rights.

IMPLICATIONS: Just as important as the call for an end to the Kurdish insurgency is the fact that Öcalan made clear that he no longer envisions Kurdish separation from Turkey; on the contrary, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish insurgency made a powerful call for national unity. Abdullah Öcalan referred to the common, historic endeavors of Turks and Kurds: “Turks and Kurds fell side by side as martyrs in Gallipoli (1915), fought together in the War of Independence (1919-1923), and they launched the National Assembly (1920) together.” Öcalan notably emphasized the importance of Islam, referring to what he describes as a thousand year long Turkish-Kurdish unity under “the banner of Islam”. Öcalan evoked an Ottoman legacy that contrasts sharply with republican era:  “The Turkish people that today think of the whole of Anatolia as Turkey should remember that their common existence with the Kurds during a thousand years under the banner of Islam was founded on a jurisprudence of brotherhood and solidarity. In this jurisprudence of brotherhood there is no room for conquest, denial, forced assimilation and destruction.”

As he evoked the Ottoman legacy, Abdullah Öcalan also looked beyond the borders of Turkey, suggesting that Turks and Kurds, the “two fundamental strategic elements of the Middle East” have a regional mission to accomplish: “I call upon the Kurds, Turkomans, Assyrians and Arabs who have been separated in violation of the National Pact and condemned to endure severe problems and fighting in Syria and the Arab Republic of Iraq to discuss and become conscious of their problems and to strengthen their resolve.” This is a remarkable statement insofar as it suggests that Öcalan envisions a Turkish-Kurdish imperial partnership, and the possible territorial enlargement of Turkey. The “National Pact” which Öcalan says was violated when Syria and Iraq were carved out of the Ottoman Empire, was voted by the Ottoman parliament in a secret session in January 1920, delineating the borders of Turkey, albeit very imprecisely; it was Mustafa Kemal who subsequently filled in the blanks of the “pact”, making clear that it was to incorporate all areas inhabited by what he at the time (1920) described as the “two founding elements of Turkey”, Turks and Kurds. The future president of Turkey thus laid claim to northern Syria, including Aleppo, as well as to Mosul and Kirkuk in northern Iraq, but ultimately had to give up these ambitions as Turkey could not challenge Great Britain.

The fact that Öcalan explicitly refers to the “National Pact” cannot be dismissed as the expression of mere eccentricity; in fact, it is a vision that fits into the regional, neo-Ottoman aspirations of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), as Turkey, in the words of foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu aspires to be “the master of the Middle East”, even though that does not imply any changes of borders. Yet Öcalan’s allusion to Turks and Kurds as partners in shaping their region is not far-fetched, considering the fact that Turkey has already assumed the role as the protecting power of the self-governing Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

There is no doubt that it was the effects of the Syrian civil war that compelled the Turkish government to restart the peace talks with Öcalan last October; until then, Öcalan had been kept in isolation for a year, and Erdoğan had said that he would have rather seen him hanged. The specter of Kurdish autonomy in a Syria that is falling apart, and the fact that the Syrian regime and its main backer Iran stood to exploit the Kurdish problem as a way of countering Turkey’s support for the Sunni rebels in Syria made it imperative for Erdoğan to act quickly to defuse the threat posed by the PKK. Murat Karayılan, the acting military leader of the PKK, claims that the organization, aided by the regional context, was about to launch it most ambitious military campaign so far during 2013, and that Turkey reversed its policies upon the realization that it could expect an escalation of the war as a result of external and internal conditions.

Conversely, there is a Turkish expectation that the country will be in a position to wield more power in its neighborhood once it has solved the Kurdish problem. Cevat Öneş, a former deputy undersecretary of the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) may have given voice to the expectations of the Turkish state elite when he recently predicted that “Turkey’s settlement of the Kurdish problem can bring about changes of the borders and of the map in the region.”

The “Ottoman perspective” that Abdullah Öcalan offered as a framework for settling the Kurdish issue suggests that the talks between him and Hakan Fidan, the undersecretary of MIT, has resulted in a convergence of visions; Turkey’s ruling Islamic conservatives and the Kurdish nationalist rebel leader seem to have discovered a common ground, the Ottoman legacy – Islam and ethnic pluralism. However, it seems unlikely that Erdoğan would agree to grant the Kurds local autonomy, given that the prime minister is on the contrary bent on assembling ever more power.

But if an agreement is framed in “Ottoman” terms that evoke the exercise of “imperial” power, Erdoğan might possibly be less disinclined to offer such a concession; if the Ottoman vision of Erdoğan and now of Öcalan is realized, with Turkish suzerainty over the Kurds in northern Iraq and Syria eventually established, local autonomy for the Kurds in southeastern Turkey would fit into a larger picture and not signal any dilution of Turkey’s power.  

CONCLUSIONS: Abdullah Öcalan’s statement – and the understanding with the Turkish state that sustains it – testifies that the era when violence defined the relations between the Turkish state and the Kurds is coming to a close. The Turkish state has abandoned the attempt to assimilate the Kurds, and the Kurdish militants are now reciprocating, declaring that they are ready to lay down their arms.

Yet what must now ensue will be no less challenging, perhaps even more so; if the peace process yields the results that are anticipated, the Turkish state will no longer have to fight an insurgency. Indeed, in a sense, the state will cease to be the decisive actor. An enduring peace requires the birth of a society; Turks and Kurds, as citizens on equal footing, will need to negotiate a societal compact that defines the identity of the new Turkey. And notwithstanding the neo-Ottomanism promoted by Erdoğan and Öcalan, the Turkish historical experience offers very little guidance for the future. Turks and Kurds lived side by side, not together, as Etyen Mahçupyan, a leading liberal intellectual, points out, and they have since become more, not less, estranged from each other.

That is especially true regarding the Turks; the Turkish attitudes to the Kurds have hardened significantly. According to a recent survey, 52 percent of the Turks don’t want Kurds as neighbors; 35 percent want to live together with the Kurds, which in fact represents an increase, but 45 percent call for “harsh measures” to deal with the Kurds. Yet the question is not only if Turkish nationalism can be tamed, but also whether Kurdish nationalism can ultimately be contained within an “Ottoman” framework.

Halil M. Karaveli is Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, and Editor of the Turkey Analyst.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".


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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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