Turkey and the Kurdish conflict – domestic agenda meets regional concerns

Though a possible peace deal with the PKK has a lot to offer to Turkey, the process is still susceptible to spoilers. Should the rumoured PKK ceasefire on 21st March hold, then spring may well be the beginning of a long anticipated peace in Turkey.

What the the principles of conflict transformation?

By Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp

Since September 2012, Turkish government officials and representatives of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have been negotiating the details of a peace plan which includes a cessation of armed hostilities, the relocation of PKK forces outside Turkish territories and an amnesty for Kurdish militants. The negotiations have thus far proved to be a bumpy ride for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and the PKK, hampered by assassinations and leaks. Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has taken a huge political risk by openly engaging with the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has remained in solitary confinement since his capture in 1999.

Erdogan wants to be elected as the next president of Turkey in 2014, and hopes to have the AKP-dominated parliament ratify a new constitution that will grant him sweeping executive powers to run the country with minimal checks. Faced with severe criticism from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), Erdogan reached out to PKK and Kurdish politicians. Kurdish politicians, on the other hand, hope to secure a new social contract with the Turkish government that will provide democratic rights and freedoms for the approximately 20 million Kurds in Turkey. Even in case of a settlement with the PKK, Erdogan’s chances of the presidency look bleak as he would need to suppress growing opposition within the AKP.

Changes in regional politics also play an important part in the timing of negotiations. As the Syrian civil war drags on, Kurdish groups like the PYD in Northern Syria began to enjoy considerable political autonomy similar to Iraqi Kurdistan. The Turkish government hopes to find a political solution to its Kurdish conflict to mitigate any future risk that would come from a new Kurdish political entity on its border.

Turkey’s experience with Iraqi Kurdistan has a lot to offer in this regard. After the weakening of the Saddam Regime in 1991, Baghdad lost its control over Northern Iraq, leading to the development of Iraqi Kurdistan. After ignoring the development of the Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq for more than a decade, the Turkish government decided to cooperate with the Kurdish regional government in Arbil. Turkey’s unconditional support to Sunni groups in Iraq strained its relations with Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, making the Iraqi Kurds Turkey’s most stable partner in the country. Turkish foreign policy officials are also aware of the fact that Kurdistan prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani,  holds sway over both the Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, PYD) in Syria and the PKK field headquarters in Northern Iraq.

Currently a large chunk of the foreign direct investment in Iraqi Kurdistan is from Turkish corporations in a variety of sectors, ranging from education to housing, from agribusiness to retail. The trade volume between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan passed $8b last year. Turkish entrepreneurs have been building high-tech hospitals that are capable of carrying out complex cardiovascular surgeries. Turkish energy companies, meanwhile, are involved in building a new pipeline that will bring oil from the region to European markets. If the Turkish government manages to secure a deal with the PKK and put an end to the violence, it would have a chance to leverage its soft power in Northern Syria through Iraqi Kurdistan.

Before the unrest in Syria, Turkish cities near the Syrian border like Gaziantep, Hatay and Kahramanmaras were already benefiting economically from cross-border trade with Syria. These cities currently host thousands of Syrian refugees, which have placed a great strain on their resources. A stable Northern Syria under the control of a moderate and relatively secular Kurdish leadership would be good news for Turkey. Even if the rest of Syria remains volatile, Turkey would experience calm and possibly economic stability on it Syrian border.

A possible peace deal with the PKK, therefore, has a lot to offer to Turkey. Unfortunately, however, the process is still susceptible to manipulation and spoilers. It is rumoured that the PKK will declare a ceasefire on 21st March; the day of Nowruz, the Zoroastrian new year. If the ceasefire holds as planned, then spring may well mark the beginning of a long anticipated peace in Turkey.

Dr. Ulas Doga Eralp teaches at the Peace and Social Justice Program at Georgetown University. Dr. Eralp is also a member of TransConflict’s Advisory Board.

Learn more about the principles of conflict transformation!



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  1. Pingback : Serb municipalities in Kosovo and Kurdish reform in Turkey | TransConflict

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