Erdogan's Kurdish Issues

Peace with the PKK rebels could cement Erdogan's legacy; blowback from Syria could ruin it. 

Turkey’s political discussion changes quickly. Yesterday it was mostly Syria. Today it is making peace with Kurds. That has been a boon to prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s political standing—at least for the moment.

2012 marked the AKP’s ten-year anniversary as the ruling party, a rare feat in Turkish politics. The party has been one of the few constants in a new, more vital Turkey. But it was a difficult year for Erdogan because of Syria’s unending civil war. After a year of intense criticism over his handling of Syria, including from members of his own party, Erdogan’s political fortunes seemed to be suffering.

For the first time, the prime minister was losing public support, and his effort to constitutionally change Turkey’s political system to a powerful presidential one was running into trouble. More specifically, Erdogan had little to show for his efforts to bring down Assad: more than 150,000 Syrian refugees in camps, another 80,000 in Turkish towns and cities, an ever-rising budgetary bill and no sign that his former friend Bashar al-Assad would go. Even worse, the removal of Assad’s forces from Kurdish-inhabited areas allowed the PKK’s Syrian offshoot to gain dominance and perhaps the ability to create another Kurdish autonomous zone in a new Syria.

None of this has changed—if anything Syria is worse—but the mood in Turkey has changed. Erdogan’s political standing received a major bump when he announced that the government had resumed discussions with the PKK’s only leader ever, Abdullah Ocalan. More impressive, he allowed Kurdish parliamentarians to meet with Ocalan for the first time after 14 years of solitary imprisonment. His effort won endorsement across the political spectrum (except for the nationalists) and served to deflect criticism over the continuing Syrian disaster. Turkey has turned hopeful that, however great the uncertainties, talks with Ocalan can morph into a sustained negotiation to end the fighting and address the demands of Turkey’s large Kurdish population. The AKP’s approval rate remains over 50 percent.

The peace process is inherently difficult. The bona fides of both sides remain to be proven, emotions are deep, and the cohesion of the PKK is uncertain. But regional events can sharply intrude on that process and on Erdogan’s efforts to change the political system: the crisis in Syria could worsen even if Assad goes, with greater sectarian bloodletting; there is the prospect of more refugees, and an uncertain future for the Kurds in a destroyed Syria; and perhaps more immediately, the deepening crisis over Iraq’s unity and the future of its quasi-independent Kurdish area.

Syrian Meltdown

Syria’s descent into civil war has been enormously costly for Turkey and for Erdogan. Syria marked the end of Turkey’s “zero problems” policy, but more than that revealed the limits of Erdogan’s influence in the Middle East. This contrasted badly with the image of respected deal-maker that Erdogan tried to cultivate.

Erdogan was forced to abandon his early briskness toward Turkey’s traditional security alliance and instead hoped to persuade Obama to get rid of Assad. Help didn’t come and he felt somewhat abandoned, leaving Turkey to deal with Syria on its own.

But he came to see the need to draw closer to NATO and asked for and received Patriot missiles with little domestic protest. Once skeptical of NATO missions and his Western bona fides questioned abroad, Erdogan’s marked change confirmed the value he came to place on the U.S. connection despite our inaction on Syria.

His public plea for more assistance opened a new line of criticism, this time from his brethren in the Islamist media who questioned how Erdogan could be both a partner in NATO intervention in Syria and the voice of Arab democrats. Many also questioned the wisdom of putting all eggs in the Assad-must-go basket, while the political opposition hammered Erdogan for failing to keep Turkey out of the Syrian crossfire, stop the refugee exodus and show some progress.

Post-Assad Problems

Erdogan will initially benefit politically from Assad’s departure no matter how it happens.

He will likely bill himself as a successful democratizer who also acted as a good Muslim sheltering Syrian refugees (something he has indeed done well). But there is also the possibility of greater sectarian violence in a post-Assad Syria, a tenuous Syrian government, a deepening humanitarian crisis with more refugees—this time mostly non-Sunni—and few of the present refugees returning.

In a post-Assad Syria, Erdogan will probably put his weight behind the Sunnis, who his religious base also supports. Turkey could find itself in the uncomfortable position of backing a Muslim Brotherhood government influenced by Saudi or Qatari money and more radical than it would like. This would put it at odds with the U.S. vision of a moderate, inclusive government in which the Kurds havea bigger say.

The Regional Kurdish Issue

The fate of the Syrian Kurds will directly impact on Erdogan’s own handling and control of his domestic Kurdish peace process. The PKK, with a safe haven across Turkey’s border, could be a direct security threat to Turkey and one Erdogan wants to avoid. He boldly put down a red line that Turkey would not accept any autonomous Kurdish area in Syria—but whether he can prevent one is uncertain. An unruly battle between Kurds and Assad’s successors over a second autonomous Kurdish region on Turkey’s border could be politically corrosive for Erdogan and Turkey, particularly if it comes in the middle of Turkey’s own Kurdish peace efforts.

A more immediate pressing regional concern for Turkey is the steady political disintegration of Iraq and the possible emergence of an independent Kurdish state. Iraq is increasingly divided on sectarian lines. Turkey’s relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) have grown close and Ankara is supporting the Kurds in their deepening disputes with Baghdad over the direct export of oil and Kurdish claims to the Kirkuk region.

Turkey has become bitterly opposed to Prime Minister Malaki and fearful of Iranian domination of Iraq. The Turkish government has made it clear that the Iraqi political problem is Malaki’s dictatorial approach; he must be removed if Iraq is to remain united. This has put Turkey at odds with the United States, which believes that Malaki is central to preserving a united Iraq. Thus, Turkey has an anomaly: it wants to keep Iraq united for fear of the impact of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey’s own Kurds, but is at the same time contributing to Iraq’s dissolution. It also has to be concerned that Arab Iraq would fight to prevent the Kurdish region from exiting Iraq.

Erdogan in 2013

Erdogan’s political future has a lot riding on events in Syria and Iraq. His Syrian policy continues to cost him politically. His vast improvement of relations with the KRG has become popular and very profitable for Turkey, which has been crucial in helping transform the Kurdish region. But the possibility of a breakthrough on the century-old Kurdish question, however difficult, has made those issues increasingly important. Negotiations with Ocalan and the Kurds will be long and the prospects for success remain dubious, but as long as progress seems to be made through the first half of this year, Erdogan may be able to get his constitutional changes with help from Kurdish parliamentarians—instead of, as he originally planned, from his now antagonistic nationalists.

Yet regional changes can occur quickly. The political consequences for Erdogan of a more violent and unstable Syria have not gone away. Nor have the growing dangers of political disintegration in Iraq. As he heads into a second year of negotiations over a new constitution, developments in Iraq and Syria could directly impact his Kurdish negotiations as well as his prestige, political capital and freedom to maneuver. Erdogan has been an excellent high-wire player and he will have to be an even more impressive improviser this year.

2013 stands to be crucial for Erdogan and for Turkey. Momentous decisions must be made with events hardly under his control. The futures of Turkey’s and all the region’s Kurds are now in active play. So is Erdogan’s future.

The Kurdish issue in Turkey has now become an American problem as well. The United States has stayed always away from the issue, except to give considerable support to Turkey’s efforts to destroy the PKK in northern Iraq. But what the United States does on Syria and Iraq may now directly affect Turkey’s internal situation. Today, Washington is not on the same page with Turkey over Iraq and quite possibly also over Syria—if and when Assad goes. For the first time, the United States will need a region-wide Kurdish policy. U.S.-Turkey relations might become a little tense.

Mort Abramowitz, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is a former ambassador to Turkey. Jessica Sims is a research associate at The Century Foundation.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Randam. CC BY-SA 3.0.