ISTANBUL - Across Turkey, the Kurds’ traditional celebration of Newroz has sparked unrest and a police crackdown. It also has forced Ankara to show its hand on its Kurdish policy that is undergoing major changes.
The Turkish government has decided to halt talks with the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a move that would elevate the civilian Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to the position of sole negotiator for the Kurds. This new approach also has the effect of giving Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani new prominence in the push to find a resolution.
In the run-up to Newroz, Turkish intelligence sources indicated that the PKK was planning to use the New Year’s festivities to provoke violent unrest across the country. According to these sources, BDP demonstrations were set to be followed by “freedom marches” that would converge on city centers.
Meanwhile, the PKK had ordered armed attacks on police personnel across the region, with elite forces identified as priority targets. Based on this information, the government decided to ban the BDP from holding early Newroz celebrations on March 18.
Northern Ireland, Basque country models
Since elections last June, the government has increasingly viewed the Kurdish problem as a national security issue to be confronted with military means. However, until recently, the authorities also agreed on the importance of a political initiative to end the conflict.
These efforts were termed the "Kurdish opening" and were coordinated by Vice Prime Minister Be?ir Atalay. The new strategy would combine both political and military dimensions drawn from the experiences of conflicts in other countries. Ankara looked to British policy in Northern Ireland and Spain’s approach in the Basque country as examples for delivering political rights to the Kurds. It also took the conflict in Sri Lanka as a model for forcibly subduing the PKK militants.
The result was a policy that answered Kurdish demands for “basic rights and freedoms” while simultaneously redoubling efforts to defeat the PKK militants. This strategy made it clear that expanding Kurdish rights was not a concession to the PKK, but rather a principled policy based on universal values.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan described this approach as “fighting terror while welcoming negotiation.” In this strategy, the primary emphasis was placed on emboldening the BDP as an independent actor and establishing them - as well as other unarmed Kurdish political groups - as legitimate members in parliament. The fight against the PKK was to continue, but only at an intensity that would not harm progress on the political front.
However, this approach unraveled in the face of a series of setbacks. First, a group of BDP members were arrested prior to the June election, undermining the confidence that had grown between the government and the BDP. Shortly after, politically compromising audio recordings of meetings between the PKK and Turkish intelligence were leaked.
Meanwhile, a criminal investigation into the KCK – the political wing of the PKK - led to arrests of BDP leaders, journalists, and academics. Another serious setback occurred in July when the PKK launched a devastating attack on Turkish soldiers in Silvan, turning public opinion against any further negotiation with the PKK.
Iraqi, Syrian angles
Reacting to these setbacks, the government decided to abandon its ‘democratic opening’ in favor of a new approach with the single aim of fighting the PKK to the bitter end.
The greatest unknown surrounding the new strategy centers on whether the BDP constitutes an viable negotiating partner. The security bureaucracy is well aware that part of the BDP constituency falls under PKK influence. But the authorities also know that the BDP is the only political party that commands wide support among the Kurdish population.
Northern Iraq is another potential path for negotiation with the Kurdish leadership. Ankara is eager to step up cooperation with Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Regional Government based in Erbil, Iraq. Barzani is committed to working toward PKK disarmament, and has called for a conference of Kurdish leaders that will aim to pressure the PKK for peace. “If the PKK refuses these calls for peace, it will be ostracized and unable to sustain itself in the region,” he said.
The United States backs this initiative and Barzani’s call for a conference in Ankara in July. Yet as Barzani builds ties with Turkey, the PKK is shifting its center of gravity away from Northern Iraq and moving toward Syria. Intelligence reports indicate that this process is already underway, with PKK forces looking to capitalize on the vacuum in Syria to make up for the losses they have sustained in Iran and Iraq.
Read the original article in Turkish
Photo - wgauthier