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The motivations behind Turkey's 'Kurdish Initiative', CU Issue 43, August 17, 2009

August 15th marked the 25th anniversary of the beginning of armed struggle against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (the PKK). The Kurdish nationalist insurgency has cost 40,000 lives – so far. But there are signs that the conflict might be drawing to a close.

The leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, was at the time of writing preparing to release a ‘road map to peace’. Few details about the plan by Mr Ocalan, who is currently serving life imprisonment on an island in the Sea of Marmara, have been released. However, it is widely reported that the plan will contain ten ‘fundamentals’ (Sabah, July 24). As well as demands for cultural expression in Kurdish, the fundamentals involve an unconditional amnesty and the continuation of the PKK’s present, unilateral, ceasefire; the empowerment of local authorities, as provided in the constitution; and the establishment of a Truth Commission to investigate the conduct of the conflict.

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has meanwhile been preparing its own ‘Kurdish initiative’ to tackle the issue of the Kurds. So far, the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has kept its cards close to its chest with regard to details of the plan, although analysts expect it to focus on cultural issues (Eurasianet, August 3). Mr Ocalan’s roadmap was announced first, in early July, raising speculation that the government has been forced into rushing through its own initiative to trump the PKK’s plan. However, it has been clear for some time that the AKP has been edging towards a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish conflict: President Abdullah Gul declared in May that Ankara had a ‘historic opportunity’ to settle the matter.

The move towards peace by the government is driven by five factors, although it should be noted that the PKK’s ceasefire, and Mr Ocalan’s roadmap, are signs that many moderate Kurds have also realised that a peaceful resolution is necessary.

Firstly, there is Ankara’s never-ending struggle towards modernisation and European Union membership. Although – like Turkey and the US – the EU has designated the PKK as a terrorist group, nonetheless insists that a peaceful, democratic solution to the Kurdish question is essential for membership. The AKP government, committed to the accession process, is not deaf to these demands.

The AKP’s modernisation drive hints at a second reason. The peace process with the Kurds is one of the clearest signs yet that the Turkish military, traditionally one of the most nationalist, anti-Kurdish pillars of Ataturk’s republic, has been firmly put in its place by the AKP. A number of high-profile struggles between the country’s elected government and the General Staff – which sees itself as the guardian of secularism, and fears the AKP’s Islamist heritage – have resulted in repeated victories by the ruling party. Although a resumption of legal and political conflict is certainly possible, for now the military appears to be accepting its subordination to the civil authorities. This has removed a major obstacle towards negotiating a settlement of the Kurdish issue.

Thirdly is the matter of Iraq. Relations between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government have warmed up in recent months: Iraqi Kurdistan appears to be genuinely clamping down on PKK bases on Iraqi soil, from which the insurgents launch regular raids into Turkish territory (Reuters, March 25). But Iraq remains in flux. The drawdown of US forces and the ongoing insurgency have raised serious questions about Kurdistan’s future within Iraq. If it moves towards greater autonomy or even secession, it will inevitably fuel separatism in Turkey’s Kurdish regions. Therefore, Ankara is attempting to settle the Kurdish question sooner, rather than later.

Fourthly is Prime Minister Erdogan’s wider policy of ensuring regional stability, which was launched into action after the war between Russia and Georgia last August and which led directly to the (now-stalled) rapprochement with Armenia. The Kurdish initiative should be seen as part of that same policy, as a means to stabilise the wider Caspian region. Better relations with Iran and Syria, both with restive Kurdish populations of their own, has also enabled a more coordinated approach to the insurgency.

The Kurdish initiative may also be driven by energy. The day before the war between Russia and Georgia, the Turkish section of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline from Azerbaijan was blown up by the PKK. It is clear that Ankara is very concerned that its image as a vital energy hub could be shattered by repeated pipeline attacks. This is especially true in light of recent agreements to host both the Europe-backed Nabucco pipeline and Russia’s Blue Stream Two project. Minimising the risk of PKK sabotage is critical.

The question for now is whether the Turkish government has the political will for peace with the PKK, and how many of Mr Ocalan’s ‘fundamentals’ it is prepared to accept (a general amnesty is, apparently, not likely to happen). The thaw with Armenia has already cost AKP some political capital, and pushing too hard on a settlement with the Kurds may be a step too far for nationalist parties and the military. Serious ceasefire violations by the PKK – the group killed one Turkish soldier on August 7 (Washington Post, August 7) - would almost certainly derail efforts at reconciliation. So would any inflammatory moves by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Social Party (DTP). This seems remote, for the time being: Interior Minister Besir Atalay met with the party’s leader on August 13, where he was apparently reassured that the DTP would assist the government’s efforts (Todays Zaman, August 15). However, splits between moderates and hardliners – in the DTP, the PKK, and the nationalist opposition – are likely, and will create further conflict and political deadlock.

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