Will PKK Ceasefire Change Turkey’s Regional Role?
The March 21 ceasefire in the battle between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Turkish state offers Turkey not only the hope of peace after decades of bloodshed, but poses profound implications for the region at large.
“If this [peace] process is successful, Turkey will be in a position to overcome its most strategic vulnerability” - its roughly 30-year-long fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) over greater rights for Turkey’s Kurdish minority, - claimed Sinan Ulgen, head of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam.
Under the proposal, announced by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, the group would pull thousands of its fighters out of Turkey and start disarmament.
Ending the conflict with the PKK, which has cost tens of thousands of lives, “would put Turkey strategically on a very different level and would imply that Turkey is becoming a more assertive, influential and confident player regionally,” Ulgen said.
Any such newfound confidence could help temper not only Turkey’s suspicions of its ethnic minorities, but of its neighbors as well.
Ultimately, the diplomatic peace dividend could extend from Cyprus to the disputed territory of Nagorno Karabakh in Azerbaijan, pointed out Attila Yesilada, a political analyst at Global Source Partners, an Istanbul-based research firm.
“If we solve our Kurdish problem, it will serve as a role model,” predicted Yesilada. “If we finally deliver in deeds rather than words.”
Ankara’s European and American allies have often touted Turkey as a model of democratic and economic success for conflict-strewn countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
But the consequences of a more assertive Turkey no longer at war with itself may not only be benign, analysts caution. If Kurdish nationalism is no longer seen as a threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity, it also opens the door to a reconfiguration of its stance toward the large Kurdish populations in neighboring Iran, Iraq and Syria.
“Ankara would naturally be more disposed to establishing alliances with Kurds in the region, be it in Iraq or Syria,” predicted analyst Ulgen. “In a way, there will be implications for the region, especially if we take into consideration the future of nation states like Iraq and Syria, which is very much uncertain.”
With Ankara’s backing, Turkish companies have been signing direct energy deals with Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government and circumventing Baghdad. For months, a massive energy deal involving the construction of gas and oil pipelines has been in the offing between the Turkish government and the Iraqi Kurds.
Washington fears such deals fuel Iraqi Kurdish aspirations for independence, but the Turkish government has rejected these misgivings.
The pipeline agreement is expected to be ratified shortly.
The energy deal not only offers potentially billions of dollars in transit fees to Turkey, along with the prospect of discounted energy prices, but also could solve one of its most pressing economic and diplomatic headaches – more secure energy supplies.
“Currently, we are almost completely reliant on Russia and Iran, which are, to say the least, volatile neighbors, if not hostile,” elaborated expert Yesilada. “And both are bound to use gas delivery as a negotiation [tool] in diplomacy.”
But the success of the deal with the Iraqi Kurds is dependent on peace with the PKK, he cautioned. “Unless the current ‘peace process’ reaches fruition, such pipelines would be lame ducks” for PKK attacks, Yesilada said.
In a televised March 27 interview, Turkish Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin said the PKK is expected to leave Turkey “before the end of summer,” Hürriyet Daily News reported. The PKK, though, has asked for legal guarantees for its fighters’ safe passage into northern Iraq and for the Turkish parliament’s inclusion in the peace process – proposals so far rejected by Ankara.
But if the ceasefire holds, and ends Turkey’s “paranoia” about the Kurds and tensions over their relationship to the Turkish state, “it will help the resolution of other remaining age-old problems,” predicted Cengiz Aktar, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahçeşehir University.
One of the beneficiaries could be neighboring Armenia, Aktar argues. Diplomatic relations between the two countries broke off in 1993 amidst the war between Turkish ally Azerbaijan and Armenia over the breakaway territory of Nagorno Karabakh. A recent attempt at reconciliation between Ankara and Yerevan has stalled, with both sides blaming the other.
Nonetheless, even with the centenary of Ottoman Turkey’s 1915 massacre of ethnic Armenians approaching, “a Turkey at peace with itself . . . might be tempted to go ahead with Armenia,” Aktar reasoned. As yet, Yerevan has not commented on the PKK ceasefire.
And while the potential fruits of peace with the PKK are undoubtedly considerable for Ankara, neighboring rivals may interpret them differently, warns analyst Ulgen.
“If Turkey becomes a stronger and assertive player in the region, it will be a serious disadvantage for the countries that are at odds with Turkey in terms of regional objectives,” he said. “That can be Syria, that can be Iraq, that can be Iran. [T]hese countries might want to prevent this rapprochement from happening.”
Whether that prediction will prove to be the case remains to be seen in the months to come.
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.
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