Erdogan's Kurdish Dilemma

September 9, 2013 Topic: Politics Region: Turkey

Erdogan's Kurdish Dilemma

Relations between Turkey and the Kurds are approaching a defining moment—and the prime minister is weak.

Arab states are disintegrating, and their Kurds are emerging as one of the few winners in the Middle East’s turmoil. All this is increasing pressures on Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to somehow solve Turkey’s own massive Kurdish issue now or later face a seriously deteriorating internal problem. Indeed, unless Assad were to fall, finding a solution to Turkey’s Kurdish issue may be Erdogan’s only way of reversing his declining reputation before important nationwide elections next year particularly as the economy also declines. Conversely after almost a year of peace the possible return of PKK violence would be shattering for Turkey. But Erdogan’s Kurdish peace process seems to have lost steam, along with his diminishing hopes of becoming president with strong executive powers.

The changing regional Kurdish scene

The November Kurdish national conference, bringing together Kurds from Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran, reflects the changing fortunes of the Kurds. The conference will not lead to any pan-Kurdish unification: intra-Kurdish rivalries, personal conflicts and ideological differences still run deep and have delayed the meeting by two months. Nor will it pave the way for an independent Kurdistan, more a dream than a real possibility. But the conference, unthinkable until recently, shows the changing regional dynamics and the emergence of a new Kurdish reality in the Middle East.

In Syria Kurds have been the only beneficiaries from the unending civil war. Assad gave free rein to his Syrian Kurds, in part to complicate Ankara’s security problems. Despite recent tensions with Turkish-supported jihadist groups leading to Kurdish refugee flows to Iraq, The dominant PKK-linked Syrian Kurds carved out something of an autonomous zone in the North. Today, Turkey’s southern borders are mostly controlled by Kurds. How much of a threat this poses to Ankara’s handling of its Kurdish peace process is debatable. Surprisingly Ankara recently made the practical but unexpected decision to engage with the Syrian Kurdish leadership. But Kurdish self-rule in Syria emboldens the PKK and makes more complicated Turkey’s management of its own Kurdish problem. Indeed, Turkey’s support of anti-Kurdish jihadist forces in Syria is still a liability, distorting the anti-Assad cause, raising ire in Washington, and fostering instability on Turkey’s border.

Ankara’s only friends in the region are now the Iraqi Kurds. Iran’s fallout with Turkey over Syria and its hosting of a NATO missile-defense radar led apparently Tehran to cut a deal with the Iranian branch of the PKK and to turn something of a blind eye to its activities as long as they were not directed against Tehran. Relations with Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki are in tatters, ironically because of Turkey’s ties to Iraqi Kurds, but also because of its sectarian involvement in Iraq’s domestic politics and Maliki’s dictatorial tendencies and cozy relations with Tehran. While Ankara sees Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president Massoud Barzani as its man in Iraq, he is unlikely to take on his brethren despite his differences with the PKK and of his ambitions to become a pan-Kurdish leader.

Turkey’s vast trade and investment in Kurdish Iraq complicate its freedom of action in Baghdad and along its Iraq border. Over the last few years Ankara has become a major source of the KRG’s efforts to reduce its dependency on Baghdad, while Kurds have become not only a major trade partner but also important to Turkey’s plans of becoming a regional energy hub. Any resumption of war between Turkey and the PKK, which uses Northern Iraq as its base, could again become a great source of tension between Ankara and Erbil impairing hopes of deeper integration. More fundamentally Turkey’s needs peace with its own Kurds to help preserve good relations with the Iraqi Kurds.

Erdogan’s response

While regional developments are adding urgency to finding a political solution to his Kurdish issue, Erdogan’s peace process is on a knife’s-edge. Some six months ago, the PKK announced a ceasefire and started withdrawing its forces from Turkey as part of the negotiations between PKK leader Ocalan and Turkey’s intelligence chief. The process has moved slowly since then. The PKK, which has yet to complete its exit from Turkey, is increasingly suspicious of the government’s delay in announcing reforms, which it accuses of using the peace process to buy time ahead of the very important local elections next march and the presidential ones in June. It claims that it has kept its promises on withdrawal of forces and threatens to halt withdrawal, instigate massive social unrest and even restart war if Erdogan by mid-October doesn’t take the necessary steps to change the constitution and address their demands for reform.

So far Erdogan has not done much except to carry on talks with Ocalan and for the first time allow Kurdish leaders in Turkey to meet with him periodically. The government’s efforts to produce a new constitution, an essential part of the solution process, has stalled. Erdogan has recently made known that he has no plan to allow public education in Kurdish. Nor is he ready to discuss amnesty for PKK militants or lower the electoral threshold for parties to enter parliament. The controversial anti-terrorism law, which allows many Kurdish politicians, journalists and activists to be jailed on obscure terrorism charges, might be amended but whether changes will satisfy Kurds is questionable.

Erdogan recognizes that the current ceasefire is important for his political future but also that political difficulties of internal change on Kurdish matters can be great. He also does not trust the PKK, especially its military leadership in the Qandil Mountains, and fears that Kurds are using the peace process to consolidate their positions. He cites the slow rate of withdrawal and the increase in new recruitments to the PKK as reasons for not following through on the next steps of the peace process. Perhaps more importantly, he lost a source of motivation for pressing the peace process forward, as his hopes of becoming president with executive powers with the help of Kurdish legislators may have gone down the drain.

Erdogan needs to manage significant public distrust of the PKK. He also fears taking more politically difficult steps before the important local elections in March next year. Even though it is doubtful that PKK will restart violence any time soon, it is uncertain how long the peace process can be put on hold.

Turkey’s existential Kurdish issue

Turkey is the center of the regional Kurdish issue. What happens in Turkey will deeply affect the Kurds of other states. Erdogan has been an extraordinary transformer and politician, but his Middle East policy has failed to the tune of over half a million Syrian refugees, uncertain political help from a limited American attack on Syria and a possible severe fallout on Turkish security. He’s also contributed to Turkey’s presently declining economy. He’s not likely to be politically compensated for all this by simply making fervent appeals to his considerable base. More than any other Turkish leader, Erdogan has moved the Kurdish issue toward some sort of resolution. He is coming to a defining moment in an enormously complex, politically unhappy time. He has to decide whether he will try to be an even greater Turkish historical figure. That may or may not ensure him achieving his immediate political interests. Right now it is hard to be optimistic on the Kurdish peace process.

Morton Abramowitz, a former ambassador to Turkey, is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. Omer Zarpli is a research associate at the Century Foundation.