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The Game Changer: Syria, Iran, and Kurdish Independence

Before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government was reelected in July 2007, Erdogan made a calculated decision to shift his foreign-policy focus away from his NATO allies in Europe, where Turkey’s European Union membership application had been long stalled. He cast his glance eastward, toward the Middle East, with the intention of establishing himself as the region’s preeminent leader and positioning Turkey as the indispensible link between west and east. In April of that  year, Erdogan visited Damascus, where he called upon Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. By all accounts, the two leaders became fast friends. A few months later, the two vacationed together in Bodrum, a beautiful vacation hot spot on Turkey’s Aegean Sea coast, where they were joined by their first ladies, Asma and Emine, who also appeared friendly.

Then came the Arab uprisings, which exposed, toppled, and humiliated dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in rapid succession. Soon after, as Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi was being hunted down and shot dead by a merry band of his fellow countrymen in the desert, the hot winds of the revolution were blowing in the direction of another heretofore invincible dictator—Assad himself. As these successive revolutions burned their way across North Africa, no doubt Erdogan saw a new order taking shape and calculated that his regional leadership aspirations obliged him to ride this wave of popular revolution and revolutionary change. After hedging initially, Erdogan began to distance himself from Assad, and in short order began to attack the Syrian strongman and call for his removal. The Erdogan-Assad honeymoon thus ended after it was consummated but before anything was born. Even Erdogan’s wife, Emine, lamented her old friend Asma’s shocking new ways. “She broke my heart,” said Turkey’s first lady. “I cannot believe how insensitive she’s become to her country.”

Erdogan’s decision to reject Assad, and his subsequent support of the Syrian rebels, have brought the two countries to the brink of armed conflict. Last summer, Syrian forces shot down a Turkish military jet. According to Syria, it was an accident. Fearing a spreading war, Turkey’s NATO allies apparently persuaded Ankara to refrain from a direct military response. A few months later, in October, Syrian forces fired a shell—accidentally, Syria claimed—that struck a Turkish border town. This time the Turks retaliated by firing artillery rounds into Syria for several days. The Turkish Parliament passed a resolution authorizing the government to send troops across the border if needed. Meanwhile, with tensions mounting and Erdogan appearing somewhat vulnerable to air attack, in order to reassure Erdogan of its support, NATO began deploying the Patriot missile air defense system in January, along with four hundred military personnel, inside Turkey along its Syrian border, presumably to deter future “accidents.” Or perhaps, as US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, to “deal with threats that come out of Syria.”

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The Rise and Decline of Erdogan’s Grand Vision

Prime Minister Erdogan’s aspirations to restore Turkey’s national glory and to unify the Islamic world have been unhinged by rebellion in Syria and the region’s ferocious rivalries and inflexible dogma.

While Turkey and Syria have managed to avoid direct armed conflict, the two sides are engaged in war by other means, the consequences of which will shape the region’s structure, borders, and balance of power for years to come. Erdogan has given safe harbor to refugees fleeing Syria, as well as the Free Syrian Army, now headquartered inside Turkey. As of late last year, over one hundred thousand refugees had taken shelter in a dozen or so camps scattered inside the Turkish border. The Turkish government has reportedly spent more than $300 million for the refugees’ housing, food, and medical aid. Some estimate that the number of refugees will reach four hundred thousand by summer.

The flood of refugees and the overcrowded conditions have presented domestic challenges for Erdogan as resentments have grown among Turks whose local services are being burdened by the onslaught of refugees. Some have complained that refugees are selling their government-provided blankets and heaters on the black market. In an effort to escape the overcrowded camps, some refugees have attempted to rent apartments in nearby towns, but local authorities have refused permission and forced them back to the camps. Turks also suspect, and it’s widely reported in local media, that large numbers of Syria’s refugees are not so much seeking shelter from war as they are using the conflict to enter Turkey in hopes of citizenship, employment, and ultimately access to Europe. It’s also been reported that, in protest of camp conditions, Turkish police officers have been abducted. Turkish authorities have maintained control until now, but they have relied on increasingly harsh measures to maintain order, and many fear that if relief doesn’t come soon more trouble looms in the hot months ahead.

 

Beyond the many challenges Erdogan’s anti-Assad policy has caused, however, the most significant impact is that it has breathed new life into the Turkish Kurds’ long struggle for independence.

When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, the Turkish Kurds made up some eighteen percent of the population, but the new republic did not recognize its approximately 1.8 million Kurds as a distinct minority with its own culture, language, and traditions. The Turkish government considered the Kurds to be “Mountain Turks.” In an effort to assimilate and perhaps control the Kurds, the Turkish government launched a series of repressive policies intended to diminish the Kurds’ identity by various means, including banning their language among them. The Kurds’ future, like the fate of other minority groups around the world, would come to be determined by their efforts to reclaim their ethnic identity through various demands—initially for minority recognition and rights, later for autonomous zones, and now for independence, something that seemed wholly implausible before the invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings.

Founded in 1978 by Abdullah Ocalan, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was the first to take up the Kurdish cause in Turkey. Waging its struggle through guerrilla warfare and terrorism, the group’s ideology embraced Marxist revolutionary socialism fused with Kurdish nationalism. After the PKK’s first armed attack, on a border town in Eruh, in Turkey’s southeast, in August 1984, many regarded the ragtag fighters as a small, disorganized terrorist group. Yet they waged a relentless armed struggle for another fifteen years, until Turkish intelligence operatives captured Ocalan in 1999. With the group’s charismatic leader out of the picture, Kurdish commentators in Europe managed to convince the movement’s leaders that their dependence on armed conflict and terrorism was working against their interest. In time, the PKK scaled back its emphasis on armed struggle and ended its attacks in Europe. The Kurds had established a political wing and entered Parliament as early as the 1990s, but the process was disrupted when the Constitutional Court ordered that the party be disbanded and its parliamentarians arrested. In 2008, Kurds formed the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which began to moderate the movement’s ideological profile and increase its civil engagement in Turkey and abroad. Party operatives opened active and visible bureaus in Brussels and Washington, and today Kurd leaders shuttle between world capitals routinely to meet with foreign officials to advance their agenda. Although the majority of Turkey’s citizens still see the Kurds as a terrorist group, over time the Kurds’ cause has been largely legitimized abroad, with many foreigners likening the BDP to the Kurdish Sinn Fein. While the PKK continues to be officially designated as a terrorist group by the US, Europe, and Turkey, the BDP won some thirty seats in Turkey’s 2011 election—a clear sign that the Kurds can conduct political as well as actual warfare.

When Erdogan’s AKP party took control in 2002, the PKK was a non-issue. Kurdish rebels had accepted a cease-fire. Their imprisoned founder and leader had been condemned to death (a sentence later commuted, under EU pressure and the need for reconciliation, to life in prison, where Ocalan has established a Mandela-like presence). For the first time, Turkey’s government began to grant greater rights to the Kurds. By 2009, this took the form of the “Kurdish Opening,” which proposed granting amnesty to PKK militants, broadcasting rights to private Kurdish television networks, and Kurdish-language classes in schools. The AKP government also initiated secret negotiations with senior PKK operatives in Oslo, probably between 2009 and 2010, that excluded Ocalan, who remained imprisoned. Erdogan tapped Turkey’s chief of intelligence, Hakan Fidan, to represent the government in these talks, but the negotiations halted when audio recordings of the secret meetings were leaked by an unknown source. Worried about jeopardizing the strong nationalist vote his party depends on, Erdogan quickly retreated and recommenced his anti-Kurdish rhetoric. Indeed, in the following months the government launched a crackdown on Kurd intellectuals, journalists, BDP members, mayors, and political activists, accusing them of being members of a terrorist organization. Between 2009 and 2011, 7,748 people were detained and 3,895 arrested. But the detention, trial, and political repression of these nonviolent Kurds backfired, stirring sympathy for the PKK at home and abroad.

After Erdogan abandoned Assad and began to support the rebellion against him, Assad gave him a taste of his own medicine, providing aid to the PKK fighters living along Syria’s border with Turkey. The government of Iran, Assad’s most important and reliable ally, wasted little time reversing its longstanding anti-Kurd policies to bolster Assad and increase pressure on Erdogan in Turkey. These shifting alliances have provided the Kurd fighters with a degree of logistical support, free passage, and refuge unimaginable only a short time ago, greatly reinvigorating the Kurds’ armed struggle against Turkey. Once thought to have been defeated, the Kurds’ military capacity is now stronger and more influential than ever. Thus tensions between Turkey and Syria (and Turkey and Iran) have made it possible for the PKK to reengage in armed struggle.

“The PKK has become an influential force in the Middle East,” explains Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the BDP. He refers to the fact that Assad, spurned by Erdogan, now supports the Kurds in Syria along with the PKK’s aim to form autonomous zones within Turkey. Although the PKK has not yet achieved any tangible success, its battle against the Turkish military for control of towns dominated by Kurdish citizens escalates daily. The death toll has spiked in recent years too, now resembling that of the 1990s, when the guerrilla campaign was at its peak. According to the International Crisis Group, the renewed fighting has claimed more than seven hundred lives in the last year and a half, from pitched battles between Turkish and PKK forces as well as “a wide-spread campaign of kidnapping, suicide bombings, and terrorist attacks” by Kurdish fighters.

Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network in Washington, tells me that “the war that many thought had taken a deep sleep is being awakened again and Turkey is going back to its past.” Unable to find a solution, past governments in Ankara sponsored anti-Kurd groups that murdered Kurdish businessmen who supported the PKK financially. In those days, Kurdish activists mysteriously disappeared, many abducted and arrested and routinely tortured in prison. The less fortunate of those turned up dead, their bodies randomly scattered.

 

In recent television appearances, Erdogan has declared that the “Oslo talks” with the Kurds could restart. At first, Erdogan stressed that the BDP would not be included because the government considered the party’s agenda and style too radical and confrontational toward its positions and policies. Erdogan preferred that the government negotiate directly with the imprisoned Ocalan, whom the government views as more moderate. The move was also widely interpreted as an effort to nudge the BDP leadership aside by establishing Ocalan as the Kurds’ authentic representative, much as South Africa’s government attempted to diminish the more radical African National Congress by deferring to Nelson Mandela during the reconciliation process between the whites and blacks there. Erdogan made it clear that he believed peace could be made in talks with Ocalan, because, as he put it, the PKK was “destroying everything [his] government has built for the Kurdish people.”

There are practical political incentives for Erdogan to appear firm in any negotiations with the Kurds, given that the vast majority of Turkey’s citizens consider the PKK and the BDP to be, simply stated, terrorists. In the view of most Turks, an Erdogan meeting with Ocalan would be comparable to President Obama sitting down to chat with Osama bin Laden in bin Laden’s better days. Yet Erdogan has opened the way for peace talks at a time when Ocalan has never been more credible or influential among the Kurds, not to mention some influential international constituencies. Indeed, a single utterance from Ocalan can alter the political agenda in Turkey.

For example, he recently ended the hunger strikes by imprisoned PKK members that began last September. The strikes had spread quickly and, according to some estimates, nearly a thousand people had joined the cause, including elected BDP parliamentarians, creating a tense political standoff in Turkey. The striking Kurds’ demands were straightforward: officially recognize the Kurdish language and allow it to be used in Turkish schools; permit defendants to use the testimony of other Kurds in court; and improve Ocalan’s prison conditions and lay out a plan for his eventual release. On the sixty-eighth day of the strikes, the government allowed Ocalan’s brother, Mehmet, to visit him in prison. At the visit’s end, Mehmet emerged with a message from his brother announcing to his PKK followers that their demands had been heard and that it was time to end the strikes. The strikes were soon ended and, during the same period, the governing AKP party proposed legislation in Parliament that would permit defendants (meaning Kurds) the right to use “another language” (meaning the Kurdish language) in a court of law. The resolution, which passed in the General Assembly, marked a milestone achievement for the Kurdish liberation movement.

Soon after Ocalan called off the hunger strikes, the Erdogan government announced its intention to restart formal negotiations with the Kurds and work directly with Ocalan as their representative. In January 2013, the talks reconvened. Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, attempted to begin these negotiations with Ocalan but without the BDP represented, as Erdogan wanted, but both the PKK and BDP resisted and demanded that the talks include party representatives. Erdogan ultimately capitulated, although he was able to strike a deal whereby the three members of the BDP negotiating team were vetted and approved by him, ensuring the more radical elements were kept out of the talks.

As of this writing, the negotiations continue with hints of progress, as well as political intrigue. Ocalan has written three letters—one to the PKK, one to the BDP, and one to the EU. Many speculate that the letters outline some sort of road map to reconciliation and an end to the armed resistance, but only a handful of people are aware of their actual contents. Notes of the negotiations, however, have not been kept quite so private. As happened during the earlier secret meetings in Oslo between the government and the Kurds, notes recorded during the new closed meetings were leaked to the media. It’s not yet known who leaked the notes, and why, but it is widely recognized that the primary effect has been to undermine Erdogan’s political standing. The documents portray Ocalan as a self-confident, stubborn, tough negotiator. This differs from accounts by the government, which wants to appear tough on the “terrorists” to appease Erdogan’s nationalist backers. “If I do not succeed,” Ocalan apparently said in the meeting, “then Turkey will have to suffer from a civil war.”

Neither the government nor the Kurds deny the accuracy of the leaked records. The government has said that those who leaked the papers are attempting to sabotage the peace process. But it seems at least equally likely that the leakers are engaged in an internal and increasingly tense power struggle inside Turkey, whose goal is to undermine Erdogan’s political standing.

The late Mehmet Ali Birand, a prominent Turkish journalist who followed the PKK closely for many years until his death in January, suggested late last year that a general amnesty is inevitable, which would lead to Ocalan’s freedom and the possibility that he would lead the PKK as a political party into Parliament. “If we want to overcome [the Kurdish-Turkish conflict], dispose of a bleeding wound, and prevent the country from disintegrating, we should prepare for these,” he wrote. In an e-mail to me, however, he added, “It’s not something that is going to happen overnight.”

Yet the government’s restarted negotiations with Ocalan are bearing fruit. Just before the Nevrouz holiday that marks the beginning of the Kurdish spring, the AKP government allowed another BDP delegation to meet with Ocalan—this time with a legitimate BDP leader included in talks. During the meeting, Ocalan gave the delegation a statement that was read to a crowd celebrating the Nevrouz holiday in the flag-draped Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. In it, Ocalan made a historic bid for a cease-fire between the PKK and the Turkish government, calling for a withdrawal of fighters from Turkey. Remarkably, the statement also rescinded the Kurds’ demand for a separate homeland. While some Kurds are dubious about what has been promised in return—and indeed the PKK leadership has hinted that an agreement will require a consensus among Kurds beyond a private deal between Ocalan and Erdogan—the international press is crediting Erdogan for an important achievement. And, by the stroke of his pen, Ocalan has profoundly changed the course of the long conflict and potentially ended a struggle that has raged for a generation.

“I think that in the short term Ocalan will be taken out of solitary confinement: he’ll either be held in house arrest or in exile,” Ahmet Tulgar, an independent journalist and a novelist who writes often about the Kurds, told me. “But Kurds won’t settle for this, they want his release. The Turkish state is aware that it has lost the battle with Kurds. And Kurds are also aware of this, that’s why they are constantly raising the bar with their demands.”

These scenarios were not even imaginable a generation or even five years ago. “The PKK is at its most powerful and fortunate stage in its entire history,” said Birand. “As long as the conflict goes on in the Middle East they will not give up the guns and will not reach a solution.”

If the Arab Spring was a stone dropped in the waters of Middle East politics, the waves it created, passing through Syria, now lap upon the shores of Turkey’s domestic politics, creating uncertainty even more than conflict. “What’s interesting is that Kurds know what they want, but nobody knows what the government will do,” says Tulgar. “Because the government itself doesn’t know it either. Even if they have an agenda, they are reluctant to share it with anyone else.”

Oray Egin is a Turkish journalist based in New York and Istanbul.

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