Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1159, (1 - 7 August 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Erdogan and the Kurds

Prospects for a peaceful settlement of the Turkey-Kurdish issue, one of the core planks of the Erdogan government, appear to be evaporating fast, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ankara’s project to resolve the Kurdish question — otherwise known as the democratic liberalisation process — was inaugurated four years ago by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a major cornerstone of his government’s domestic policy. If it attains its objectives, this project will ensure that Erdogan’s name will be emblazoned in gold in the annals of Turkish prime ministers, for he will be the one who succeeded in bringing an end to this over three decade-long conflict and the material attrition and loss in life it has wrought. But in order to succeed where his predecessors have failed, Erdogan has had to fight a fierce battle — which is still ongoing — against his adversaries. His campaign has received the enthusiastic backing of the international community, and the US in particular, encouraging him to press forward towards reconciliation and offer concessions that, to Turkish ultranationalists, threaten to cross too many red lines.

This camp of Erdogan’s adversaries are particularly suspicious of the bill recently submitted to parliament, calling for the release of political and other prisoners on the grounds of ill health. Although the drafters of the bill denied that it had a political objective, it is unlikely to pass easily. Few in Turkey have the slightest doubt that the law is intended as a back door for the release of Abdallah Ocalan, the leader of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Ocalan has been serving out a life sentence since February 1999 at a high security prison on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara. Ocalan had been originally sentenced to death, but that sentence was commuted since Ankara had abolished capital punishment in 1984 in order to bring its penal code in line with European standards.

The abolition of the death sentence coincided with the outbreak of warfare between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish army, which primarily unfolded in southeastern Anatolia, in a predominantly Kurdish populated area near the Iraqi border. This was long before Syrian Kurdish groups entered the picture, at the instigation of Hafez Al-Assad, and then son Bashar, before the latter lost control over Kurdish areas in northern Syria.

 Fast forwarding to the present, Syria is mired in civil war. The Bashar Al-Assad regime is reeling, but stubbornly clinging to power. It may be nearing an end but, as the situation stands on the ground, not in the foreseeable future. That tenacity is infuriating Turkish leaders because of the toll the Syrian civil war is taking on southern Anatolia while Damascus reaps the benefits. Erdogan above all finds it hard to swallow that his Syrian adversary is still alive and breathing, let alone still president and an inextricable factor in the equations of any solution to the Kurdish question.

To further complicate matters for the powers-that-be in the heir to the Ottoman Empire, control over the border areas in northern Syria is too fluid, falling occasionally into the hands of jihadist extremists. For the Baathist regime in Damascus, this is a strategic advantage because it has augmented the wavering among Western powers over the extent of their support for the Syrian opposition, especially where the decision to supply it with “lethal weaponry” is concerned. This, in turn, contributes to prolonging the lifespan of the Baathist regime, which Ankara longs to see consigned to history’s dustbin.

But to the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) it is even worse when control over Syria’s northern areas falls into the hands of Syrian Kurds. JDP leader Erdogan fears that this could gravely jeopardise the project that forms a chief pillar upon which rests his and his party’s political future. In a statement released three weeks ago, the Turkish army confirmed that fighters from the Syrian Kurdish Party, who are connected with Kurdish rebels in Turkey, succeeded in seizing a Syrian border village after several days of brutal fighting against Islamist militiamen. The village of Ras Al-Ayn has fallen to the “terrorist, separatist” Democratic Federation Party, and there are reports that it intends to establish an autonomous administration, the army statement announced.

The news of the possible emergence of an autonomous Kurdish area adjacent to the Syrian border with Turkey has rekindled anxieties among broad sectors of Turkish public opinion after a short-lived period of cautious calm on that front. It is believed that such an entity will inspire Kurdish nationalist hopes to create a similar entity in Turkey that would eventually merge with its counterparts in Syria and Iraq to create a “Greater Kurdistan”. Not surprisingly, therefore, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed his government’s concern — albeit in diplomatic terms intended to mask any notion that Ankara is in a deep predicament — over the escalating violence along the southern borders of Turkey and called upon the UN Security Council to take a firm stance against it.

As these developments unfolded, another increasingly influential factor has come into play, namely Iran. Two weeks ago, the influence of this factor was reflected in an organisational reshuffling within the PKK leading to significant changes among the first and second tiers of its leadership, which is currently based in Iraq. Turkish opinion regards this as clear proof of an Iranian design to generate a hostile belt around Turkey and punish it for its foreign policies in the region.

Since Ocalan announced plans to reach a settlement in March, around a thousand new militants have joined PKK ranks and are being given combat training in camps located in the rugged Qandil Mountains around 50 kilometres south of the juncture between Iraq, Turkey and Iran. Turkish media sees this as a sign that the PKK has no real intention to lay down arms or to fully withdraw from Turkish territory in accordance with the roadmap that had been agreed with Ankara. As though to confirm this, the pro-Kurdish Taraf newspaper recently announced that Cemil Bayik, the newly appointed commander of the PKK’s armed wing, the People’s Defence Force, will soon declare a halt to negotiations with Turkey and an end to the peace process.

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