Peace Deal for Turkey
A call for peace announced by the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan on March 21 reverberated throughout the Middle East. The promised rapprochement between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish government may have set into motion what could be a game-changer in the Middle East. Syria, Iraq and Iran have significant Kurdish minorities concentrated in regions contiguous to one another. The nations have been targets of Kurdish irredentism and, at times, used the Kurdish card to Turkey’s detriment when mutual relations, as is the case today with Syria and Iran, have been tense.
An accord with the leading rebel group Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, when combined with Ankara’s cozy relationship with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq will provide Ankara greater leverage with its neighbors to the south and east as well as remove a major blot on Turkey’s democratic record.
PKK supreme leader Ocalan’s statement on the Kurdish New Year, calling for an immediate end to PKK hostilities against the Turkish state and withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey to the Kandil Mountains by August was the result of painstaking negotiation underway at least since October.
By and large the Kurdish population has welcomed Ocalan’s announcement of a ceasefire, visible in the celebratory atmosphere in Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital of Turkey, on New Year’s.
Ocalan’s statement appealed to several camps in Turkey: By explicitly abandoning the idea of a separate Kurdish state, Ocalan sought to set at rest the misgivings of Turkey’s ultranationalist and Kemalist segments. By harking back to the ideal of Turkish-Kurdish unity during their “1000-year-long coexistence in Anatolia under the flag of Islam based on brotherhood and solidarity,” Ocalan appealed to the Ottomanist sentiments of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) observant Muslim base.
The ball is now in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s court. Erdogan is arguably the most popular leader in Turkey since the legendary Ataturk. If any Turkish leader can sell a deal, which realistically must be based on a quasi-federal structure of the Turkish state while delinking Turkish identity from its current narrow ethnic definition, he can do it. Ending the Kurdish insurgency and putting an end to terrorism, would assure Erdogan’s place as a great statesman in Turkish history.
By committing himself to implementing the deal with Ocalan, he will ensure support of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP, for a new constitution that would guarantee minority rights and redefine Turkish national identity, but at the same time establish a presidential style of government that he favors. AKP and BDP together have enough votes to pass a draft, even if the other two major parties in Parliament –Republican People’s Party, CHP, and Nationalist Action Party, MHP – oppose it. Such a draft when put to vote in a referendum will almost certainly pass, given the popular base of AKP in the country and the support of Turkey’s Kurds who form about one-fifth of the population.
More is at stake for Turkey on successful implementation of this agreement than a prime minister’s reputation. First, by incorporating the Kurdish minority into the body polity, Turkey would end discriminatory treatment of the Kurds by denial of their ethnic distinctiveness – all the more essential when Turkey is undergoing democratic consolidation.
Second, Turkey has faced increasing tensions with neighbors to the east and south – Syria, Iraq and Iran – especially since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in early 2011.
While the Kurds in Syria and Iran continue to be restive and chafe under oppressive control of authoritarian governments, those in Iraq have carved out an autonomous region for themselves in the Kurdish north, thanks to the US 2003 invasion. Even so relations between Erbil, capital of the autonomous region, and Baghdad remain tense because of the acrimony over disputed regions, especially oil-rich Kirkuk, and distribution of oil income.
Turkey has acted not only as economic lifeline of the landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region, but also as its primary political supporter in disputes with the Shia-dominated government of Baghdad. Statistically, Turkey has become Iraq’s largest trading partner for the simple reason that 90 percent of northern Iraq’s trade is conducted with Turkey. Turkish companies in construction and other sectors have become ubiquitous in Iraqi Kurdistan. The close relationship between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government has helped immensely in convincing both Ankara and the Kurdish leadership in Turkey that beneficial relations between the two are not only possible but imperative.
Syria’s relations with Turkey deteriorated dramatically in the summer of 2011 when Ankara decided to throw its support behind the anti-Assad opposition and became principal base for the armed opposition as well as the chief conduit for the supply of weapons to insurgents within Syria. With the Syrian regime’s control shrinking, Damascus decided to pull its forces out of parts of northern Syria contiguous to Turkey populated by Kurds, in part to teach Turkey a lesson: The vacuum was largely filled by the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK considered hostile to Turkey.
From Ankara’s perspective, a deal with the Turkish PKK was essential to neutralize the threat of Syrian Kurdistan becoming a haven for PKK fighters similar to the Kandil Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan. With KRG pressing PKK to give up its fight, it would have been convenient for the PKK fighters to move to PYD-controlled safe havens in Syria to continue attacks on Turkish targets.
Erdogan’s deal with Ocalan, if implemented honestly and successfully, is likely to turn Syrian Kurdistan into a friendly entity much like Iraqi Kurdistan.
Tehran, though plagued by Kurdish separatism, has extended assistance and refuge to PKK fighters when its relations with Turkey have been tense. This was the case from 1979 to 2002, when the AKP came to power in Ankara and began improving relations with Iran for both economic and strategic reasons.
Turkey’s good relations with Iran were aided by the improvement in Ankara’s relations with Damascus, Iran’s principal Arab ally, during the past few years thanks to Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” However, in 2011, Iran and Turkey split over Syria: Turkey supported the opposition to the Assad regime while Iran continued to be the regime’s principal supporter.
The Turkish decision to allow NATO to position an anti-missile defense system in southeastern Turkey aimed, despite Turkish denials, at Iranian missiles bound for Israel and other western targets, also hurt Iranian-Turkish relations. Consequently, it was reported that Iran was once again reviving support for PKK. A deal with Ocalan therefore indirectly strengthens Turkey’s hands against Iran as well as Syria – all the more essential as tensions between Iran and Turkey have increased in recent months over competing aims in Iraq. Iran supports Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, and Turkey supports Sunni Arab opponents of the Maliki government as well as acting as the patron-saint of the KRG in Erbil.
The Ocalan-Erdogan deal, therefore, brings advantages to Turkey that go well beyond its borders. The devil is, of course, in the details about which not much is known so far. One hopes that the Turkish government acts with sagacity, indeed with magnanimity, when implementing the agreement even if some parts may not be palatable to ultranationalist hardliners. Acting otherwise will be shortsighted for nothing less than Turkey’s strategic future rides on successful implementation of this agreement.
Mohammed Ayoob is a distinguished professor of International Relations at Michigan State University and adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published by YaleGlobal Online on March 25, 2013. Read it here.