Turkey: Solving the PKK Puzzle

As the Kurdish issue in Turkey continues to heat up, both politically and militarily, the question of how Ankara should deal with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) becomes one that's both more urgent yet also harder to answer.

In a new report released last week, the International Crisis Group steps into the breach, urging both the Turkish government and the PKK to step back from further confrontation and providing some very sensible suggestions that provide a way towards finding settling the long-standing Kurdish conflict in Turkey.

I recently sent Hugh Pope, ICG's Turkey analyst and the report's main author, a list of questions that follow up on some of the paper's observations and recommendations. Pope, a veteran Turkey observers who was previously the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in the country, was kind enough to provide some illuminating answers. Our exchange is below:

1. Many commentators are saying that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, is moving back to a harder, more nationalist stance on the Kurdish issue. Based on your research for your report, do you think this is a correct assessment?

Commentators and diplomats are united in believing that PM Erdogan is taking a harder, nationalist stance on the Kurdish issue, and it is apparent in all his public speeches. It is hard to reconcile this approach with the taboo-breaking efforts he made just three years ago to launch the Democratic Opening for the Kurds, in which he went further towards granting equal rights to Kurds than any previous Turkish politician. The change is partly linked it to PM Erdogan's building-up of a right-wing constituency ahead of the presidential elections, currently expected in 2014. But it is also partly because of his personal, emotional anger at the PKK's current offensive, his belief that it was the PKK sabotaged talks between 2005-2011, and his frustration that the legal Kurdish movement party BDP has remained both relatively popular in the Kurdish speaking community and closely aligned with moral support for the pre-eminent position of jailed PKK leader Ocalan.

2. One way or another, it's clear that the Kurdish issue has taken many steps backwards since the "Kurdish initiative" was announced in 2009. In the absence of a ceasefire with the PKK, do you believe the Turkish government is able or willing to return to making the kinds of reforms first promised by that initiative and which your report recommends it make?

Looking at the state of affairs today - rising violence, hardline statements from both sides, public tolerance (so far) of high casualties, the coming presidential election - it will take a major effort of will to return the Democratic Opening, or Kurdish initiative. Indeed, in the current circumstances, there are few signs that the government is currently willing to return to the strategy of reforms.

But objectively, there are many reasons that the government should prepare for and then make a major u-turn. It should start by separating the Kurdish problem from the PKK problem, doing reforms that are actually needed by the whole of Turkey and then, once having won the trust of Kurdish society, move onto the questions of disarmament and demobilization. The reasons to act now are:

- The regional unrest, and tense Turkish relations with Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus, means that, going forward, the PKK is likely to have more support from regional forces hostile to Ankara.
- The lesson of the Syrian crisis for Turkey is that neither Turkish soft power (friendship with Bashar al-Assad, their a major trading relationship) nor its hard power (support for Syrian insurgents operating across the border) have made any critical difference in Damascus. The only way Turkey can defend itself from the threat it feels from, say, the empowerment of Syrian Kurds, is to make sure that its own Kurds have no need or reason to support the PKK insurgents.
- AKP has a strong parliamentary majority and Erdogan has two years of untrammeled power before him in which he could implement a new policy.
- Three decades of fighting have shown there is no military solution, and retired generals say that the government's political purges of the army are responsible for a recent string of grave accidents and lower operational capacity

3. As your report makes clear, there is no single PKK right now, with the organization now comprised of several different factions that range from moderate to more militant. With that in mind, can the Turkish government actually negotiate with the PKK?

The Turkish government has long been in touch with the PKK in various ways, from commanders with walkie-talkies on the ground, to full blown talks in 2005-2011. Even today, contacts likely continue indirectly through Iraqi Kurdish leaders. Right now, Ankara should engage the Kurdish movement of which the PKK is a part, and allow jailed PKK leader Ocalan to see his lawyers, as is his right. But there is no need to negotiate any reform package with the PKK itself. This is a negotiation Turkey needs to have, above all, with itself, focused in the parliamentary commission for reforming the constitution, in dialogue between political parties, and in a smart use by the ruling party of judicial reform packages (to end, for instance, the jailing of non-violent political activists on terrorism charges).

4. What is the role of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in all of this? Do you believe that the party can act as an interlocutor that's free of PKK control?

Both the Kurdish movement, and the Turkish government, have to do more to build up the BDP as the interlocutor for the Kurdish movement with the government. The PKK will always be highly influential over the BDP, but good Turkish policies will bring the BDP towards the center. Since 2009, the BDP is in a poor position to ready itself for policy initiatives or compromise - it is in trauma after several thousand of its activists have been charged or jailed or held in pre-trial detention on terrorist charges, almost always without even being charged with any violent act. At the same time, we should remember that the BDP only wins one third to one half of Kurdish votes in Turkey. Kurdish-speaking representatives of all persuasions should be engaged in discussions on the details of the four main lines of reform - mother-language education, fairer election rules, decentralisation and an end to all discrimination in the laws and constitution.

5. You covered the Kurdish issue at its most violent during the 1990's. What would you say are the most significant differences between then and today?

The most significant differences I'd say are that:
- Many people in the policy-making and bureaucratic elites in Ankara "get" the Kurdish problem in Turkey, in a way that was absolutely absent in the 1990s. (The chief problem remains that politicians continue to use the PKK question as a petty, short-term political football).
- There is a new freedom to discuss Kurdishness and Kurdish grievances in the mainstream press, but would note that severe under-reporting of the security breakdown in the past several months is increasing collective ignorance of real events that could create real problems in the medium and long term
- Responsibility for the Kurdish problem and the fight against the PKK are now very much a civilian responsibility, whereas in the past the army was completely dominant
- There is now a Kurdish middle ground, a neutral area for ordinary Kurds to live their lives and do business, which is the result of the real leap forward in prosperity and infrastructure in the 2000s. In the past Kurds faced an impossibly hard choice: you had to be either with the PKK or the government, or leave the Kurdish-speaking regions.
- Today's fighting is quite limited to remote mountain areas along the Turkish-Iraqi border, whereas in the 1990s the PKK was able to stage large-scale actions in the major Kurdish-speaking towns.
- I believe that mainstream Turkish opinion is now far readier to accept the granting of rights and establishment of a more just system for Kurds (through mother-language reform, decentralisation, lowering the election threshold, and fixing the constitution) - as shown by public opinion's relatively easy acceptance of all-Kurdish TV, the revelation of the 2005-2011 government talks with the PKK, and optional Kurdish lessons in school.

The ICG's full report on the PKK and the Kurdish conflict can be found here.

Turkey: Solving the PKK Puzzle

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