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Turkey’s Kurdish Problem Likely to Worsen After ISIS Gains in Iraq

Kurds in Diyarbakir: a generation lost in conflict. Credit: Brian Dell/Wikipedia

ANKARA, Jun 16 2014 (IPS) - Eighteen months after a ceasefire between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkey’s security forces took effect, clouds of trouble are gathering in the country’s south-east.

In early June, a series of violent events in the area that surrounds the key Kurdish city of Diyarbarkir gave a wake-up call to a nation, which for a year and a half was being reluctantly persuaded that its 30-year-long inter-ethnic conflict was on its way to a durable settlement.

After two weeks of unrest in regional towns, initiated by PKK supporters, the death on June 7 of a demonstrator has revived resentment towards the state.

This is an unwelcome development for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which has been trying to convince the large Kurdish minority of the country that its ethnic identity will be officially recognised, and to which, consistent with international conventions and European Union (EU) law, human rights will be conferred.

The Kurdish problem has been, and still is, the main concern of Turkish citizens, who are weary of the protracted conflict but are also resistant to independence, or even autonomy, of the ethnic Kurds.

The recent deployment of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to the zone that extends from eastern Syria to north-western Iraq now provides a clear warning that the status of the Kurds in Turkey needs urgent and consistent attention by Ankara.

On January 3, 2013, the Turkish government began a series of indirect contacts with PKK’s founder Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life imprisonment sentence for subversive activities that have so far cost the life of 40,000 Kurdish fighters, security forces and civilians.

Although behind bars in solitary confinement on an island off the coast of Istanbul since 1999, Ocalan has remained the de facto leader of PKK, an organisation that has been listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

In 2006, Ocalan entered into discrete talks with the Turkish authorities, promoting dialogue rather than violence from both sides. He also advocated an autonomous status for the Kurdish-majority populated region of Turkey’s south-east, instead of the creation of an independent state, which had been the aspiration of his movement since 1978.

But these talks went nowhere and in 2010 the dialogue stopped. PKK leaders in exile on the mounts that separate Turkey from northern Iraq resumed armed assaults against state security units. They demonstrated on a number of occasions that they had improved their warfare capabilities on a larger scale than in past operations.

The initiative in January 2013 to find a negotiated, rather than military, solution to the conflict therefore met the interests of the government and of the political branch of PKK. For the first time, ethnic Kurds who are elected members of the Turkish parliament were allowed to visit Ocalan and carry his views and recommendations back to Ankara.

The shuttling between Ankara and the island of Imrali, where Ocalan is guarded by more than 1,000 counter-terrorism troops, has resulted so far in 18 such exchanges. on April 25, 2013, the military arm of the PKK agreed to suspend harassment of the Turkish security forces and launched the withdrawal of armed PKK fighters from Turkish territory to the neighbouring Qandil mountains, which fall within the jurisdiction of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), an autonomous province of Iraq.

Prime Minister Erdogan seized the political opportunity to label the unofficial talks between the parties a ‘Peace Process’. The Kurdish problem has been, and still is, the main concern of Turkish citizens, who are weary of the protracted conflict but are also resistant to independence, or even autonomy, of the ethnic Kurds.

Similarly, the more nationalistic amongst the Kurds are suspicious of the government’s intentions, which they associate with mere quest for short-term political gain by the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party ahead of the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections, in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Although the ‘Peace Process’ has generated strong activity, through round table discussions, consultative committees, and the involvement of civil society and the media in public debate, there has been no substantive progress in addressing the true issues that are core to the Kurdish grievances.

But, since August last year, the PKK commanders in exile seem to have changed their stance. Disillusioned with the lack of tangible developments, they have resumed recruiting young Kurds who may constitute an enlarged fighting force if the vision of autonomy does not take flesh.

The events since the beginning of June are deemed to be part of the manifestation of this attitude.

Observers in the past two weeks have also begun questioning the actual status of the process, and the true motives of the parties.

It is obvious that the prospect of a peaceful solution of the Kurdish problem provides a strong card to a government before impending elections, in respect to both ethnic Kurds and Turks.

The concessions to be made and rights to be granted to the Kurdish community are, on the other hand, a double-edged sword. Opinion polls have in recent months shown that the opposed parties are rather firm in their positions. Changing the status of the Kurds by decree is unlikely to be acceptable to the majority of the Turks.

The resolution of the Kurdish problem can, therefore, only take root in a new Constitution, which should address the sensitive issues of minorities, equal citizenship and human rights.

To date, timid attempts to revise the 1980 Constitution, written under the auspices of military coup, have brought no fruits, mainly because they have approached the issue as a tinkering rather than as overhauling exercise.

A fundamentally new Charter, inspired by modern constitutional concepts, is unlikely to be attempted before the 2015 parliamentary elections. This time gap may have serious implications for the disposition and goodwill of ethnic Kurdish public opinion.

The increasingly assertive stance of KRG with respect to Baghdad’s authority, manifested a fortnight ago through oil exports via Turkey unauthorised by Iraq’s central government, and the occupation on June 12 by KRG soldiers of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, nominally within Baghdad’s jurisdiction but over which Iraq Kurds have territorial claims, may be flares fired across the bow of the Iraqi ship that mark the intention of KRG’s leadership to proceed with full independence in a not so distant future.

Signalling of such intention is likely to provide ammunition to the separatists in the neighbouring countries: Syria, Iran and Turkey, whose ethnically Kurdish inhabitants form a society of 30 to 35 million people. Turkish ethnic Kurds represent approximately one-third of this group.

KRG’s ambitions are currently enhanced by the occupation on June 10 of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, by ISIS, a Sunni jihadist organisation affiliated until recently with Al Qaeda.

KRG has used ISIS’s aggression as a justification to annex Kirkuk, in order to spare it from jihadist rule. As the central Iraqi government is weak and its army in decomposition, it is unlikely that KRG will ever return Kirkuk to its former status.

According to experts in the fossil energy industry, the combined revenues from its own and Kirkuk’s oil production would endow KRG with enough financial resources to survive as an independent state. Political analysts in the region already speculate that in such a scenario, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel may eventually support the creation of a stand-alone Kurdistan, granting it legitimacy and status.

An outcome of this kind bears high probability that Turkish, Iranian and Syrian ethnic Kurds will be tempted to join their cousins of northern Iraq and get a taste of the prosperity that comes with petro-dollars, although KRG leaders will most likely temporarily dissuade such a rush to transnational independence movements in their region.

KRG needs Turkey at present, and may need Syria in the future, for its oil exports and economic viability.

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