Turkey Renews Efforts to Seek Peace with the Kurds

Stephen DeAngelis

August 10, 2009

Turkey occupies a unique position between Europe and the Middle East. For decades, its leaders were biased towards Europe and they worked hard to join the European Union only to have their overtures rebuked. As a result, Turkey has been rethinking its foreign policy [“Turkey’s Turn From the West,” by Soner Cagaptay, Washington Post, 2 February 2009].

“Turkey is a special Muslim country. Of the more than 50 majority-Muslim nations, it is the only one that is a NATO ally, is in accession talks with the European Union, is a liberal democracy and has normal relations with Israel. Under its current government by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, Turkey is losing these special qualities. Liberal political trends are disappearing, E.U. accession talks have stalled, ties with anti-Western states such as Iran are improving and relations with Israel are deteriorating.”

Like any jilted suitor, Turkey can only take rejection so long before it starts looking elsewhere for opportunities. Cagaptay claims that the European Union had good reasons for remaining standoffish.

“After six years of AKP rule, the people of Turkey are less free and less equal, as various news and other reports on media freedom and gender equality show. In April 2007, for instance, the AKP passed an Internet law that has led to a ban on YouTube, making Turkey the only European country to shut down access to the popular site. On the U.N. Development Program’s gender-empowerment index, Turkey has slipped to 90th from 63rd in 2002, the year the AKP came to power, putting it behind even Saudi Arabia. It is difficult to take seriously the AKP’s claim to be a liberal party when Saudi women are considered more politically, economically and socially empowered than Turkish women.”

Whether one wants to blame Europe or Turkey for cooling the decades-long relationship, it doesn’t really matter. The fact is that Turkey has begun looking elsewhere to create a brighter future for itself.

“Ankara’s rapprochement with Tehran has gone so far since 2002 that it is doubtful whether Turkey would side with the United States in dealing with the issue of a nuclear Iran. In December, Erdogan told a Washington crowd that ‘countries that oppose Iran’s nuclear weapons should themselves not have nuclear weapons.’ “The AKP’s commitment to U.S. positions is even weaker on other issues, including Hamas. During the recent Israeli operations in Gaza, Erdogan questioned the validity of Israel’s U.N. seat while saying that he wants to represent Hamas on international platforms. Three days before moderate Arab allies of Washington, including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, gathered on Jan. 19 in Kuwait to discuss an end to the Gaza conflict, Erdogan’s officials met with Iran, Syria and Sudan in Qatar, effectively upstaging the moderates. Amazingly, Turkey is now taking a harder line on the Arab-Israeli conflict than even Saudi Arabia.”

If Turkey is really trying to seek its fortunes by turning eastward, one should not be surprised that it is taking positions closer to those of Iran and Syria — two of its neighboring countries. The move also mirrors the more Islamic perspective of the AKP. Cagaptay, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, laments the fact that Turkey’s eastward leanings may lose the country its “special” status in the world. It also may set up a confrontation between Turkey’s powerful military, which wants the country to remain secular. If one looks at the economics of the situation, Turkey stands to gain the most by positioning itself as an honest broker between east and west. In my post entitled Pipelines, Oil, and Iraq’s Future, I included a couple of maps that showed some existing and proposed gas and oil pipelines that cross through Turkey. Most of that gas and oil comes from Muslim countries and is destined for European countries. Alienating either east or west could pose serious risks to Turkey’s near-term economic future. One of the proposed gas lines, the Nabucco pipeline, is supposed to begin in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. One potential threat to that pipeline, as well as the oil pipeline that transports oil from Iraq to Ceyhan, Turkey, is the continuing conflict between Turkey and separatist Kurdish rebels (who fight under the banner of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK).

With ties between Iraq (including the Kurdistan region of Iraq) growing stronger, Turkey’s leaders recognize that settling the conflict with the PKK is in Turkey’s best interests. It would also make the governments of Iraq, Iran, and Syria happy since their countries are also home to sizeable minorities of ethnic Kurds. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently met with the leader of the country’s main Kurdish party, Ahmet Turk, to discuss ending the conflict [“Turkey Seeks End to Kurdish Conflict,” by Nicholas Birch, Wall Street Journal, 6 August 2009].

“‘Our people want unity… and an end to blood and killing,’ said Mr. Erdogan, describing the hourlong meeting with Democratic Society Party head Ahmet Turk as ‘very, very important.’ More than 40,000 people, mostly Kurds, have died since the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The war has cost the country an estimated $300 billion and fueled opponents within the EU to Turkey’s membership bid.”

One doesn’t have to be an economics professor to understand that $300 billion represents an enormous loss development opportunities. The fighting has also generated widespread hatred and mistrust between Turks and Kurds. Until this recent meeting, Mr. Erdogan had repeatedly refused to meet with the leader of the Kurdish party because he wouldn’t declare the PKK a terrorist organization. Such a declaration would have been political suicide since every Kurdish family in Turkey has lost relatives in the fighting and PKK fighters are generally considered Kurdish heroes. As I’ve noted in other posts addressing the situation between Turkey and the PKK, ending the conflict won’t be easy (past posts include Despite Advances, Kurdistan Sits in Shaky Neighborhood, The Kurdish Situation Intensifies, Internecine Challenges in Kurdistan, Turkish Raids on PKK should Come as No Surprise, New Violence between the Turkey and the PKK, National Integration and Minority Rights, The Latest on Turkish-Kurd Relations, and Update on the Middle East’s Kurdish Region). As those posts detail, the Kurds see a history of persecution and broken promises whereas the Turks see a quarter century of terrorist activity. Many of the PKK fighters know no other life and convincing them to give up arms with no immediate prospect of employment will be difficult. Birch continues:

“Mr. Erdogan in 2005 broke with Turkey’s traditional policy of seeing the Kurdish issue as a simple matter of fighting terrorism when he promised ‘more democracy’ for Turkey’s Kurds. Like Turkish leaders before him, however, he didn’t follow up words with policies. Mr. Erdogan’s Kurdish initiative faces opposition and long odds. The leader of a Turkish nationalist party, Turkey’s third largest, accused the government Saturday of ‘surrendering to terrorists’ bent on dividing the country.”

Some analysts believe, however, that this effort at peace is different than those that came before.

“‘For the first time ever, Turkish state institutions are working in synch to solve the problem,’ said Henri Barkey, a Turkish expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think tank. The main catalyst for Turkey’s new sense of urgency is Washington’s announcement that it plans to pull its soldiers out of Iraq, Turkey’s southern neighbor, by 2011. The planned withdrawal has speeded up a rapprochement between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds, whose relations have been blighted for years by the PKK’s use of Iraqi Kurdish mountains for its military bases. … Today, Iraqi Kurds increasingly see Ankara as an alternative to Washington in its struggle to maintain autonomy from an increasingly powerful Baghdad. Both sides agree the PKK’s presence in Iraq is an obstacle to closer relations.”

Birch goes on to explain economical side of the situation that I detailed above.

“‘Turkey wants to use northern Iraqi gas for Nabucco,’ says Bayram Bozyel, a Turkish Kurdish politician, referring to a pipeline project that the U.S. and EU hope will help break a Russian stranglehold on European natural-gas supplies. ‘And the [Iraqi] Kurds want to pump gas north.’ That would be risky in the midst of a guerrilla war. The PKK claimed responsibility last year for a bomb attack on a major oil pipeline that passes through the same region.”

Birch notes that few “details of the government’s Kurdish initiative” have been put forth. But he does provide examples of recent policies aimed at soothing Kurd animosity.

“In mid-July, Mr. Erdogan’s chief political adviser proposed opening Kurdish language departments in universities, giving Kurdish names back to villages, and setting up a parliamentary commission to investigate the unsolved murders of Kurdish civilians at the height of the PKK war.”

The long pole in the tent, Birch observes, is what to do about PKK fighters.

“Turkey continues to rule out the possibility of a general amnesty for the estimated 4,000 PKK members holed up in Iraq and southeastern Turkey. But many analysts believe a preliminary package could be designed to enable the PKK to put down arms without losing face. Said Mr. Bozyel, the Kurdish politician, said: There are huge hopes this time. If they are disappointed, God only knows what could happen.'”

As a businessman who has interests in Iraq, I would certainly welcome a peaceful settlement of Turkey’s conflict with the PKK. At the very least, a peaceful settlement could dramatically increase the flow of traffic between Turkey and Iraq and establish a more robust regional economy. That would be good for everyone involved.