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Turkey plays a dangerous game with the Kurds

At home, Turks blame the government for apparently giving in too much to the Kurds

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

At home, many Turks blame the government for apparently giving in to the Kurds who are slowly carving out an independent state in the country’s southeast, long a battlefield between the Turkish army and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents. Abroad, the Turkish government is accused of suffocating Kurds in Turkey and letting them be massacred in Syria and Iraq. Who is telling the truth?

It does seem that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been the most pro-Kurdish authority Turkey has ever seen. Under his watch, the military-imposed curfew was lifted in southeastern Turkey and the Kurdish language can now be used in public with no problems. Also, some officials responsible for the killing of dissident Kurds in 1990s were brought to justice (although they were later released to battle Erdogan’s new enemy, the Gülen movement). Kurds today, rightfully, demand more of their rights such as education in their native language and local governance.

‘Good and bad Kurds’

For the AKP government, it seems there are “good Kurds” and “bad Kurds.” “Good” ones are made up of Iraqi Kurds and those who do not support the PKK. “Bad Kurds” constitute the rest. Ankara’s insistence on sending Iraqi Kurdish forces, or the Peshmerga, to the key besieged Syrian border town of Kobane could have largely to do with Erdogan’s apparent distaste for the PYD (Syria-based Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) and his apparent trust of the Iraqi Kurds. The PYD initially refused to allow Iraqi Peshmerga forces to join them in defending Kobane. The PYD knew that Erdogan was perhaps trying to infuse his own influence by allowing Peshmerga join the fight against ISIS militants. Eventually, the PYD was forced to agree to cooperate with Iraqi Kurdish forces after realizing that deploying the Peshmerga is key to winning Turkey’s support.

It has always been a typical reflex of the Turkish state to counter the PKK with the Iraqi Kurds. In the 1990s, Turkey backed Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s political forces to check the PKK. In 2012, when PYD-linked Kurdish militants advanced to control northern Syria, Turkey vowed not to allow a PYD-linked administrative presence in the area. Turkey’s animosity toward Syrian Kurds grew further as they implicitly aligned with the Syrian regime to maintain control over territories they already live in.

This started to change after PYD leader Salih Muslim traveled to Ankara and made sure that his group retracted support from the Syrian regime. In a similar development, jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, agreed to withdraw PKK militants from Turkey as part of peace talks to end the perennial conflict last year so that he could dispatch them to Syria. However, the peace talks stalled.

PKK’s two faces

Pro-government commentators have launched a campaign to blame the PKK leadership in Qandil for the latest chaos in southeastern Turkey and give more weight to Öcalan. The PKK’s jailed leader also may feel that the control of his organization is slipping out of his control. Despite week-long clashes in Turkey and unceasing attacks by the PKK on the Turkish military, Öcalan said a “new era” had begun on Oct. 15. He added that his hopes were boosted although the peace talks were on the brink of collapse.

Recent Kobane-inspired clashes in Turkey clearly showed how the country is vulnerable to events in Syria, even the nation’s indifference sparked nationwide violent protests. The recent tit-for-tat killing of PKK militants and soldiers, the announcement of an autonomous unit in the southeastern Kurdish district of Cizre, as well as daily attacks on the Turkish military show that the peace talks with Kurds in the current format are not sustainable.

Although the government does its best to maintain the relative peace ahead of next year’s elections, the PKK is pushing hard. Back-channel negotiations will largely determine the direction of the talks, it seems.

Bargaining for the basic rights of Kurds with the PKK may not be the smartest path to peace in Turkey and a political confrontation between the AKP and the PKK will see the country’s Kurds pay the price. It would significantly boost the hand of the government in talks if it grants fundamental rights and freedoms to Kurds, but it will weaken it politically, particularly when the ruling party is considering writing a new constitution to shift to the presidential system. Kurds’ support would be crucial in that case.

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Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.