Turkey's Kurdish Strategy

9 MINS READSep 17, 2010 | 15:04 GMT
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Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is in talks with Kurdish militant group the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and its patron, Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government, to ensure that violence does not erupt after the scheduled Sept. 20 expiration of the PKK's unilaterally declared cease-fire. The AKP appears to be gaining ground on that front, as Iraqi Kurdish support for a recent Turkish referendum indicates. However, a Sept. 16 attack on a Turkish civilian minibus is a reminder of the spoiler potential attached to Turkey's Kurdish strategy.
The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group operating in Turkey, denied having any connection with a Sept. 16 explosion on a minibus near the city of Hakkari on Turkey's border with Iran and Iraq. The attack, which killed nine civilians, risks undermining a cease-fire unilaterally declared by the PKK that is set to expire Sept. 20. Already, a meeting between the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek has been called off due to the attack. Though the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faces a significant challenge in quelling Kurdish militancy in the lead-up to October 2011 elections, the government appears to be making some progress in sowing divisions between the Kurdish militant camp and its main external patron, Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) — a critical element to Ankara's broader Kurdish strategy. The perpetrator of the attack remains unclear. Bombings in Turkey are usually linked to the PKK, making the group the most obvious suspect, though the PKK typically focuses its attacks on military targets. This attack on mostly Kurdish civilians risks significant backlash for the group, but it could also be the work of a more radical Kurdish militant strand upset with the PKK's negotiations with the AKP. Less discussed but on many minds, including that of Kurdish political leader Selahattin Demirtas of the Kurdish Democratic Society Party, is the potential for "deep state" elements in the Turkish military to instigate such attacks in hopes of undermining AKP-PKK cease-fire talks as part of their tumultuous power struggle with Turkey's AKP-led religiously conservative faction.

Turkey's Kurdish Strategy at Home

The AKP on Sept. 12 secured a critical referendum vote that strongly asserted the party's clout while undermining that of the staunchly secularist military and judicial establishment. The AKP owes that victory in no small part to a sizable number of Kurdish voters in Turkey's southeast that defied calls by the PKK and the mainstream Kurdish political faction, the BDP, to boycott the vote. The Turkish military, now clearly on the defensive, can be expected to exploit acts (or at least suspected acts) of PKK terrorism to try to undermine the AKP's Kurdish policy, including the party's shaky cease-fire negotiations with the PKK. The AKP, however, is attempting to stay two steps ahead of its political rivals in dealing with the Kurdish issue. Turkey, a rising regional player, is keen to use the United States' withdrawal from Iraq as an opportunity to not only fill a power vacuum in Mesopotamia but also use Iraq as a launch pad to extend Turkish influence into the Persian Gulf. The first step of that strategy entails seeking some resolution to Turkey's daunting Kurdish problem. The AKP has taken steps at home to try to rally Turkey's Kurdish population by promoting a more pluralistic political system that asserts civilian authority over the military (this idea was ensconced in the recently approved constitutional amendments). Parallel to this strategy, the AKP, in coordination with Turkey's National Intelligence Organization, has quietly established direct communication with the PKK leadership in hopes of maintaining a cease-fire. Many Kurds in Turkey remain deeply distrustful of the AKP's intentions toward them but also see the party as a lesser rival than the military. The AKP has used this opening to try to come to an understanding with Kurdish politicians, civilians and militants in Turkey. However, the AKP also has to be careful not to alienate Turkish nationalist votes by appearing too accommodating to the Kurds, especially if attacks continue to take place. The complications involved in this delicate balancing act have caused the AKP to stumble early on in trying to pursue its Kurdish policy, but the stronger the party becomes at home, the more effort it will put into seeing this policy through.

Turkey's Kurdish Strategy Abroad

For the AKP to address its Kurdish problem at home, it must also deal across the border with Iraqi Kurdish political leaders. The PKK's survival in many ways depends on the group maintaining a sanctuary in the mountainous borderland between Iraq and Turkey, particularly the PKK hideout at Mount Qandil. The KRG's hospitality toward the PKK, however, may be waning. The KRG is in an unusual spot. On one hand, Iraq's Kurdish faction is confident it can play kingmaker in Iraq's arduous coalition-building process, since it has a sufficient number of votes to cap off any assortment of coalition partners to form a majority. On the other hand, the Iraqi Kurds know what trouble could lie ahead once the United States, the KRG's security guarantor, withdraws from Iraq and the Kurds are left to fend for themselves against their Sunni and Shiite Arab rivals in everything from oil production rights to defense integration. At the same time, the KRG will be facing an assertive Turkey with every intention of keeping any bids for Kurdish autonomy tightly contained. Sensing the KRG's vulnerabilities, Turkey has an opening to present itself as the KRG's new security guarantor. While seemingly ironic, this would not be the first time Iraq's Kurds have been drawn into alliances with their enemies. The region's jagged landscape provides the Kurds with mountainous refuge from a host of adversaries but also encourages deep-seated divisions within the Kurdish camp itself. For example, when current KRG President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were in a full-blown civil war in the 1990s, the PUK sought help from Iran, while Turkey and then-Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein lent the KDP a helping hand. For each of these larger powers, the primary interest lay in exploiting inter-Kurdish rivalries to compete against each other while keeping the Kurds sufficiently divided to dislodge the threat of an independent Kurdistan to their territorial integrity. With the PUK and KDP currently more united than ever, Turkey's AKP sees greater utility in incentivizing the KRG into cooperation, as opposed to dealing with its broader Kurdish problem with an iron fist. The AKP has done so by encouraging high levels of Turkish investment across Iraqi Kurdistan and by making clear to the KRG leadership that their economic security depends wholly on Turkey's good graces since Turkey is the KRG's main export route. In other words, Turkey can help KRG prosper, but the KRG will need to play by Turkey's rules in curbing talk of Kurdish independence and in clamping down on militancy across the border.

Making Headway?

The AKP's agenda for the KRG appears to be gaining traction, as evidenced most visibly by the KRG's recent praise for the AKP's referendum victory as a move toward democratic reform. In the lead-up to the referendum, Turkish officials made a point to hold high-level meetings with Barzani, Talabani and Kurdistan Islamic Union leader Salahadin Bahadin. STRATFOR sources have said Turkey prefers dealing with former KRG prime minister and KDP senior official Nechirvan Barzani, who prioritizes the KRG's economic sustainability and has shares in several large Turkish companies. Though KDP leader Massoud Barzani has been more nationalist in his views and has long had a tense relationship with the Turks, the AKP understands that he is also a key player to deal with in the Iraqi Kurdish political spectrum. Not only is Massoud Barzani in a more secure political position than Talabani in the KRG and can thus exert more influence in this issue, but Talabani is also considered too friendly toward Iran for the AKP's taste. The AKP also has a strong relationship with Bahadin, who benefits from staying outside the KDP-PUK rivalry and can thus negotiate more easily with the AKP. In these meetings, the AKP sought help from the KRG to use its influence over Kurdish political and militant factions in Turkey to participate in and support the referendum process. Though the BDP attempted to boycott the vote and is calling its boycott a success, about 35 percent of the population in Diyarbakir — Turkey's most Kurdish-populated province in the southeast — still came out to vote and most of them voted yes. According to STRATFOR sources in the region, the KRG also appears to have sent a strong signal to the PKK that the group's sanctuary in Mount Qandil can be threatened if the PKK does not cooperate with the cease-fire order. One Kurdish source in the area claims that KRG forces are blocking the paths leading to Qandil, though this information has not been fully verified. In return for the KRG exercising its leverage over Turkey's Kurdish factions, the AKP has promised greater investment in northern Iraq and a hold on military incursions into northern Iraq. The more the PKK feels hedged in, the more likely (the AKP hopes) the appeal of the militancy option will wane and the more pragmatic leaders in the group will be pressured into substantial negotiations with the Turkish government. The AKP appears to be making some headway in its Kurdish strategy, but STRATFOR remains cautious in this assessment. The KRG understands the utility of holding on to the PKK as its only real leverage against the Turks, and Kurds on both sides of the border will want to see more concrete concessions from the AKP on Kurdish rights in Turkey before they commit to any broader understanding. At the same time, negotiations between the AKP and these Kurdish factions can be expected to strain these groups greatly, producing splinter factions that can act to undermine any tacit agreements with the Turkish government. Finally, elements within Turkey's security apparatus that feel the secularists are facing an existential threat as the AKP consolidates power could find ways to exploit the PKK threat to undermine the government's Kurdish initiative. The AKP thus has a lot riding on the Sept. 20 expiration date of its cease-fire agreement with the PKK. While there is still much more to be done before the party can realistically attempt a more enduring understanding with Turkey's political and militant factions, the AKP has taken notable steps in establishing the right communication channels to pursue a more serious dialogue on the Kurdish issue.

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