After clashes between the PKK and Turkish security forces left at least 13 dead, and amid growing concerns over the role of the Kurdish militants in Syria, the Turkish government’s new strategy towards the Kurds has been leaked to newspapers - but it is already coming under fire for being vague and uninspired.
The renewed fighting in Şırnak and Siirt comes on the heels of Nowruz celebrations which were marred by clashes between Kurds and police in towns across the south-east. Police also found a number of explosive caches across the country in PKK-targeted operations. It seems that the winter lull in fighting is over.
The Kurds are also emerging (or rather, re-emerging) as a crucible of tension between Ankara and Damascus. As Turkey has grown increasingly hostile to the Assad regime, there has been speculation that Damascus will rebuild its relationship with PKK cadres in Syria as a proxy against Turkey. This is despite high-level warnings from Turkey.
A Turkish intelligence report has said that Syria is now supporting the PKK in retaliation for Turkish support for the Syrian opposition. In exchange for supporting Assad, PKK forces in northeastern Turkey are allowed to move and rearm freely. This echoes an earlier statement by the head of the PKK’s political branch in Syria.
The PKK has also threatened to turn the region’s Kurdish areas into a “war zone” if Turkey stages a limited military intervention in Syria, as has been suggested. The announcement came from the PKK field commander Murat Karayilan so it seems like a genuine if ambitious threat.
It is in this environment that the new strategy has been leaked. The main point is that negotiations are over. The delicate talks between Turkish intelligence (MIT) and the PKK which took place in Norway over the past couple of years will not be resumed. There are two reasons for this: firstly, the AKP has concluded, probably rightly, that the PKK does not want to negotiate.
Secondly, the negotiations are politically costly: the previous round opened a Pandora’s box of conspiracies and crises within Turkish politics, as the police, the intelligence services, the government, the judiciary and the Gülen movement began attacking each other. The embarrassing exposure of these talks has allowed hawks in the AKP to sideline pro-negotiation groups within the MIT and elsewhere.
The new strategy is based on continuing to increase the military pressure on the PKK whilst expanding cultural rights and opening negotiations with new partners – specifically the pro-Kurdish BDP party and Massoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In other words, dialogue will take place but only within a parliamentary framework, itself embedded within the broader current of political reform and democratisation. This includes the new constitution due to be adopted by the end of the year, and which is expected to include greater cultural autonomy for the Kurds. Negotiations will be taken out of the hands of the security establishment (including MIT) and given to the civilian government.
Barzani, presumably in exchange for continued Turkish political support (both within the KRG and vis-à-vis Baghdad), will put pressure on the PKK’s Iraq-based leadership to lay down their arms. Sources say that Barzani is expected to use June’s Kurdish National Conference to support the Turkish government’s cultural outreach to the Kurds and call on the PKK to disarm.
On a tactical level the new strategy is not without its virtues. In particular, enlisting Barzani represents an awareness of Turkey’s leverage in Kurdish Iraq. Without occupying northern Iraq, tackling the PKK will require a comprehensive political strategy to deny them their safe havens, and Barzani is essential to that. But Barzani is not all-powerful, and pitting him against the PKK (in Turkey as well as Syria) may bring only limited results.
Engaging the BDP is an attempt to outflank the PKK and delegitimise them as the main representatives of the Kurdish community, but this raises problems. Prime Minister Erdoğan has repeatedly blasted the BDP as the PKK’s stooges in Parliament, and the BDP has hit back in kind. There is a serious lack of trust, and it isn’t clear that this mutual hostility can be set aside.
Erdoğan has not got things off to a good start – on 22 March he called on Kurds to stop supporting the BDP and switch to the AKP instead. Deputy PM Bülent Arınç followed by suggesting that Kurds should support the insignificant Rights and Liberties Party instead. This looks patronising, and undemocratic.
How can the government engage with the BDP as the representatives of the Kurdish community if it simultaneously seeks to marginalise them? The BDP is equally intransigent: co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş has already said that no solution can be reached without the release of PKK chief Abdullah Öcalan.
Despite the new strategy’s supposed integration of the four strands of the government’s approach to the Kurdish issue – security operations, regional diplomacy, greater democracy, and cultural autonomy –it is hard to see any real changes.
Sidelining the PKK and using other actors to mediate is an admission that the negotiations with the militants have failed, or that it is politically inexpedient to continue them: but without dialogue, as any student of insurgency knows, there can be no settlement of the conflict, only its management.
In this regard Ihsan Dağı raises a neglected point – that the AKP “can live without finding a solution to the Kurdish question” and indeed can prosper. At each election the AKP’s majority has grown, even in Kurdish areas. Why risk political capital with bold steps? Far better to try easier alternatives – even if they do not produce a result.
The fact that the AKP has prevaricated over the policy’s release suggests a lack of confidence in it, or an unwillingness to use the democratic channels which are the cornerstone of the strategy. Unless the AKP sets it out clearly, in Parliament, cynicism will only grow.