by AHMET UYSAL*
Turkey is one of the few democratic countries in the Middle East. With the advent of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, Turkey made major improvements on human rights and democratization.
Turks and Kurds in Turkey have benefited from the consolidation of democracy in the Middle East. The recent rise of terrorist attacks by the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on Turkish military and civilian targets carries major risks of destabilizing the region. There are several domestic, regional and international reasons for the recurrence and the timing of these events.
Who is the PKK and what does it demand? The PKK is an acronym for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Kurdish. It was founded by Ankara-trained Abdullah Öcalan in 1978 and began to use terrorist attacks in 1984 for the first time. It aspires to establish an independent Kurdish state based on communist ideology in the area comprising parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Financially it relies on illegal drug and human trafficking between Iran and Europe.
The early 1990s were the most troublesome period for PKK terrorism due to its internal struggles and instability in Turkey as well as the negative international situation. This was because the PKK movement found fertile ground in northern Iraq after the First Gulf War because Saddam Hussein’s forces were kept out of the north and the two other major Iraqi groups were fighting each other.
On the one hand, Hafez al-Assad’s Syria was supporting the PKK to pressure Turkey on border and water issues. It almost sparked a war between the two countries. However, subsequent events resulted in the capturing of PKK leader Öcalan by Turkey in 1999. It was a major blow to the PKK, which the US, the EU and Turkey consider a terrorist organization.
Unlike before, the AK Party improved Turkey’s human rights record and democratic standards. This also helped the Kurds with the opening of a Kurdish TV channel and Kurdish departments at universities. However, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s effort was hampered by Turkish and Kurdish nationalists both adopting a hard-line stance. The major nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), rejected any bargain or dialogue, fearing that these concessions might lead to the dismemberment of the country. Similarly, Kurdish activists rejected the improvement of ethnic rights without involving Öcalan.
As it often happens, radicals of any kind do not like a middle ground. The continuing terrorist attacks create an emotional environment which results in any democratic initiative being framed as leeway for terrorism. Despite the fact that the Constitution bans any ethnic-based or religious-based parties, the ethnic Kurds had space for themselves within the democratic discourse. However, the political wing, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), of the Kurdish movement did not distance itself from the PKK and terrorism. Therefore, the BDP accepted nothing less than the unimaginable release of PKK leader Öcalan.
BDP limiting itself
Not distancing themselves from violence also limits the BDP’s popularity even among Kurds as it won about 15 percent of the Kurdish vote since most Kurds still vote for the AK Party. In other words, the Kurdish region is the main battleground for the separatist PKK and the pro-integration AK Party. While the former wants a further division in the already divided Middle East, the latter seeks integration within the country and with its neighbors, including Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Iraq and its Kurdish region are considered for such regional integration. The separatist Kurds, not all of them of course, want to dismantle the current Turkish, Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi territories and establish a communist Kurdish state in their place.
The foundation of a Kurdish state is an impossible project, but it is sufficient to create problems in the region. Such a state has no chance of survival, as Kurdish leaders of northern Iraq (e.g., Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani) have realized, but they continue to play the PKK card for an increased role in Iraq. In recent months their relations with Turkey have improved significantly, but they have to put more pressure on the PKK that is stationed in northern Iraq. Frequent terrorist attacks help hard-liners and make a peaceful solution impossible in addition to poisoning relations with neighbors.
Because of the escalation of terrorism in Turkey, Erdoğan’s AK Party may lose its majority in the upcoming elections next year. The sole alternative would be a coalition between the conservative nationalist MHP and the secular nationalist CHP. Their nationalist policies may alienate the moderate Kurds and even escalate ethnic tension, spreading to Iraq and destabilizing the whole region. Because the PKK is positioned in the mountainous north, the rise of terrorist attacks can force Turkey to turn to Iraq.
The escalation of terrorism and ethnic conflict in Turkey would create a big mess in the conflict-torn Middle East. The West must put more pressure on radical Kurdish activists operating in European cities by cutting the financial and human support they provide to the PKK. Similarly, the US must put more pressure on Kurdish leaders Barzani and Talabani not to allow the PKK unhindered operation in northern Iraq.
Like the Egyptian president who convinced al-Assad not to host the PKK leader in 1999, Arab governments can help Turkey overcome this terrorism by standing by the people of Turkey. Otherwise, the peaceful and rational Turkish experience led by the AK Party in the region will leave the ground for a nationalist government that might destabilize Iraq and damage relations with Kurds, Arabs and the West. Conflicts all around the greater Middle East can hurt and damage even the most stable countries in the globalized world.
*Ahmet Uysal is an associate professor at Eskişehir Osmangazi University’s department of international relations.
02 July 2010, Friday