Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Future of the Southeast: Reason for Skepticism

In contrast to the hopeful vision presented yesterday, much has happened in the past three years to warrant a skeptical view toward Turkey's settling of its problems in the Kurdish southeast. There are two chief and interconnected reasons for this skepticism and they once again relate to poles in Turkish politics that have become more extreme in recent years.

The first reason (or pole) is the rising Turkish nationalism that has taken hold in recent years. With Euro-skepticism struggling to gain the upper hand, the Turkish state has become increasingly intransigent to calls for greater Kurdish autonomy and more cultural freedoms. Despite the EU's continued recommendations to grant greater cultural freedom to the Kurds and devolve power to the local level, recent actions by the Turkish state reflect a move in the opposite direction. Not only is the situation at a standstill, but it is getting worse.

The second reason (pole), which of course influences the first and vice versa, is the continued militarism of the PKK. Although largely divided on matters of tactics and its general strategy of pursuing greater Kurdish autonomy, a fact that Turkish policy makers and citizens largely fail to recognize, the PKK is a central force against a peaceable resolution of the conflict. A more militant faction, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, has carried out a series of very violent terrorist attacks on Turkish civilians and foreign tourists. However, the dominant position in the PKK is to restrict its attacks to the Turkish military. In the latter case, the method is still highly-confrontational and very brutal. Turkey has a conscripted army and fears of young Turkish conscripts being ambushed and savagely murdered by PKK members only heightens the wrath of the Turkish citizenry, reinforcing Turkish recalcitrance to come to a peace accord with the terrorist group. Further, the PKK has prevented more moderate voices from rising in Kurdish politics and its affiliation with DTP is akin to that between the IRA and Sin Feinn in Northern Ireland or ETA and Harri Batasuna in the Basque country. Most Kurds point to the ties between DTP and the PKK and affirm the former to be nothing but the political wing of the terrorist group that has murdered its sons and daughters. While the relationship is no doubt more complicated than this characterization paints it, it prevents the DTP from being a real agent of change. DTP deputies are often elected with the tacit support of the PKK and at the very least by a constituency still very much sympathetic to the fight the PKK is waging in the name of Kurdish freedom. As violence increases between the PKK and the military, so will the resentment of the Kurdish and Turkish populations.

When the PKK assumed a dominant position in Kurdish politics in the 1980s, it was the first time that a Kurdish revolutionary movement had attracted so broad a base of support, especially among the mostly uneducated Kurdish populace. Blending Marxist socialism with Kurdish nationalism, the movement was cohered by a powerful ideological amalgam that simultaneously spoke to Kurdish poverty and the yearning for greater freedom, the right to express an identity that is uniquely Kurdish. Despite its inhuman tactics, in particular the 1993 campaign that targeted Turkish teachers assigned to the southeast and Kurds selling Turkish-language newspapers and a campaign in 1987 in which it killed large numbers of Kurds who lived in villages that were suspected of being 'pro-Turkish,' Öcalan and the PKK remain the driving political force in Kurdish politics. Philip Robins lays out the principal reasons for how the PKK garnered so much support:
"the increasing growth of a self-conscious Kurdish nationalism inside Turkey; the material disdain for the southeast on the part of the Turkish state, which provided few resources for economic development or social services; structural economic factors, which have helped accelerate the sharply growing relative poverty in Turkey; and the coercive nature of the Turkish state, both in terms of forced assimilation to the values and ideology of Kemalism and in terms of the increasingly extensive activities of the security services. The very receptivity of Kurds in Turkey to the PKK is evidence of the conditions inside the country" (Robins, Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2003), 184).
Robin's latter observation still holds true, a vicious cycle between the actions of the Turkish state and the PKK that perpetuates itself today.

Much changed upon Öcalan's capture in 1999. In a highly-publicized trial, Öcalan confessed his violent past and pled guilty to the charges of the court. Although the verdict was virtually predetermined, Öcalan expressed his desire to see Kurds live within the boundary of a Kurdish state. Although the PKK had begun to change its position as early the 1990s as Turgut Özal began to make gestures toward the group that indicated a desire to come to sort of negotiated settlement, the 1999 trial was surprising for many observers in that Öcalan went so far as to speak of his hope that one day Kurds might live in harmony with the Turkish devlet, a move Stephen Kinzer describes as "truly astonishing, almost incomprehensible." The concept of devlet is ingrained in the Turkish national mentality as a force that coheres the Turkish nation, a meaning that Kinzer elucidates as connoting "something bigger than the judicial system, bigger than the Turkish government, bigger than the people. He was offering to collaborate with that incorporeal but holy entity that is at the center of Turkey's consciousness" (Kinzer, The Crescent and the Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2001), 127). Despite Öcalan's conviction and most Turks' opinion that the statement was insincere, the PKK announced a ceasefire in 2000. The reason for the ceasefire is not linked to Öcalan alone, but also found reason in hopes that Turkey's aspirations to join the European Union might bring about the greater freedom and autonomy for which the Kurdish yearn. However, the ceasefire broke down in 2003 and ended completely in 2004. With the resumption of hostilities, the PKK became ever more hated by most Turks and all of the Turks with whom I have brought up the subject mark continued hostilities as evidence of the lack of PKK sincerity to pursue any real solution.

The lack of promise for peaceful resolution leaves the future of the southeast very much uncertain and as AKP seems to be losing grip on its reform agenda, a solution is becoming less and less likely. Indeed, the AKP finds itself hard-pressed to take actions that can be portrayed as 'pro-Kurdish.' Kurds continue to be prosecuted under restrictive speech codes as torture and detention of suspected PKK-members is on the increase. Further, AKP is less likely to offer its support to local efforts that promote Kurdish culture or education. Although the EU still has a very important role to play in implementing law that legalizes rights for Kurds to hold cultural gatherings and conduct Kurdish language education, AKP support for such undertakings has been half-hearted. In particular, the AKP government acted very badly in its failure to prosecute persons responsible for a terrorist attack on a Kurdish bookseller in Şemdinli when it learned that they had connections to the TSK. In its response to riots that broke out in Diyarbakır following the funerals of four PKK fighters in March 2006, AKP also showed itself less amenable to building bridges. Following riots that resulted in the deaths of 13 people, AKP removed Diyarbakır mayor Osman Baydemir and made no effort to intervene in the massive waves of prosecutions and detentions that followed, including prosecutions of local DTP politicians. In June 2007, the party removed Diyarbakır's district mayor and council after attempting to offer multilingual government services.

Although AKP's support for Kurdish cultural rights seems to have waned, it is still quite keen to offer more social services and distribute monies to the southeast. As a result, a large number of DTP parliamentary candidates running as independents last summer lost votes to AKP, perhaps seen as promising, but only in the instance that this support is not threatened by an increase in violence that brings attention to AKP's unwillingness to grant cultural rights and support Kurdish overtures that might be regarded as separatist by nationalist forces. In this way, the AKP and those Kurds who are not comfortable relinquishing their cultural rights are very much in the midst of the two large polls—the PKK and ultra-nationalist elements of the Turkish state. The impact is that recent AKP actions very much put into doubt its ability to act as the mediator of any peaceful resolution between the state and Kurdish nationalists. Instead, AKP seems more likely to equate Kurdish cultural aspirations with separatism. Such a position feeds directly into the hands of the PKK and jeopardizes inroads the party has made with Kurdish voters who might well decide to remove its support of AKP if cultural restrictions continue. The latter is especially exacerbated by the increasing violence between the PKK and Turkish security forces, the ongoing closure case against DTP, and rising inflation that is very much blamed on AKP economic policy.

It seems that if any peaceful solution is to be reached, it must take into account the PKK. This position has been argued by Turkish Daily News columnist Yusuf Kanlı and is not uncommonly acknowledged. AKP passed a law in 2003 that granted a limited amnesty to PKK fighters, but it was extremely limited and in no way comprehensive enough to end in any sort of accord. Meanwhile, tensions continue to mount between Turkey and Northern Iraq, a Turkish military invasion of which seems increasingly likely.

Below is an interview with Kurdish intellectual Ümit Firat that appeared in Today's Zaman in October. It is well worth the read.
Kurdish intellectual Ümit Fırat believes Turkey should abandon its policy of rejecting the Iraqi Kurdish administration and start implementing immediate social and political reforms immediately instead of resorting to military options to end the terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“Turkey should abandon its policy of rejecting an entity that emerged under Iraqi law and its constitution and should instead recognize it under international legal instruments as generated through the internal developments of Iraq. It should view the northern Iraqi autonomous Kurdish administration as a friend. This is the way to end the current tension,” said Fırat, a writer for the Kurdish political magazine Serbestî, published in İstanbul in Turkish.

In addition to carrying the risks of confrontation with the United States and the peshmergas, a cross-border operation would increase tension and make the problem chronic, he said adding, “Northern Iraq needs peace, and a strong and stable northwestern border.”

On Sept. 29, 12 people -- seven of whom were village guards -- were massacred in the Beytüşşebap district of the southeastern province of Şırnak, and then on Oct. 21 at least 12 soldiers were killed in near the village of Dağlıca in Hakkari, stretching Turkey’s patience to its limit. Parliament passed a motion authorizing a cross-border operation into northern Iraq to hit the PKK bases there if diplomatic efforts fail. For Monday Talk, Ümit Fırat told us how the developments can be seen from the Kurds’ perspective.

What would happen if Turkey entered Iraq?

Turkey will have to deal with two actors if it enters Iraq: the autonomous Kurdish administration formed under the Iraqi constitution and the peshmerga units subordinate to this administration. The peshmergas are considered part of the Iraqi army; therefore conflict with them will automatically mean opening war with Iraq, and this inevitably carries with it the possibility of confrontation with the United States. This will all eventually lead to abandonment of Turkey’s six-decade-long international policy.

But isn’t the region home to the PKK?

The actual sphere of influence of the PKK is in Turkey, and if a solution were sought, measures should be implemented inside the country. Those who are settled on Kandil Mountain in northern Iraq got there through Turkey and return to the same territory. Turkey would not be able to resolve anything in Iraq through a military intervention.

The PKK would fulfill its goal of dragging Turkey into northern Iraq if Turkey launches a military operation. It will not be easy to present a cross-border operation as part of a comprehensive combat against terrorism. Above all, there is a general assumption that combat against terrorism is executed by special forces -- not by regular army units. Besides, for such an operation against terrorism [to be successful], the consent of the country where the operation will be carried out is required. Otherwise, Turkey will be considered an invader.

And even though the military and the government seek to present a cross-border operation as a matter of internal security, this action is declaration of war under international law. In that case, it will not be possible for you to call your opponent a terrorist organization as they become the other party of the war. In a possible conflict, international organizations will refer to the terrorist organization as warring party. In that case, calls for cease-fires and calls for implementation of the provisions of the Geneva Conventions might come into consideration.

Don’t you think that an army operation would have a role in preventing further PKK attacks?

The only benefit of the operation would be proof of military superiority -- which Turkey already has. Besides, it is obvious that no social problem can be resolved through military methods. Attempting to test whether this is the case once more would be too expensive and risky. I want to emphasize that a climate of killing and ending lives has emerged in the region, and attempts should be made to change that and ensure normalization.

Furthermore, a military incursion by Turkey into northern Iraq would possibly de-align the Kurds in the region from the PKK, whereas it would strengthen Barzani’s KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party]. Turkey should be determined to resolve the Kurdish question if it really seeks to eliminate the PKK terrorism. A Turkey committed to resolving the Kurdish question will have the chance to overcome the obstacles in time.

What was the difference between the Beytüşşebap and Dağlıca incidents?

There is no similarity between the two. In Beytüşşebap, the victims were working on the construction of a canal to transport water to their village. They were killed on their way home for iftar [fast-breaking meal during Ramadan]. I cannot help but remember a very similar massacre that was committed in Şırnak-Güçlükonak in 1996. In that massacre, 11 villagers, including some village guards, were forced to get off the minibus and were killed at the scene. The terrorists burned the bodies. Despite this, the identification cards were found in good condition. The authorities took journalists to the site, but they were not allowed to talk to the local people, who disagreed with the security forces on who had committed the murders. They thought that the massacre was committed by some state units.

Are you convinced that Beytüşşebap massacre was committed by some clandestine powers in the state?

We know through our experience that we have no reason to believe the official statements, considering past explanations that followed many similar incidents. It may come as no surprise to see the “good guys” who were behind the Semdinli incidents two months ago. Actually, the conclusion I want to draw here is not to single out who the perpetrators of the incident were -- that’s not something I can tackle at any rate. But why aren’t these events being illuminated through official investigations? Why are the people who question these events warned or threatened? Why does Turkey insist on this policy?

Who do you think are the “good guys”?

The powers organized by the “good guys” might include former PKK informants and village guards who became stronger and then turned into gangs that threatened society. It’s possible to get an idea about this through documents submitted to the courts and the memoirs and interviews with retired military men. In the current environment of violence and conflict, nobody would question why this country has one of the largest armies in the world. While some make calculations to increase the influence of the army in politics considering the consequences of the prevalent environment of violence, others seek an opportunity to establish absolute authority by the PKK in the region through the same environment. An organization whose purpose of existence is war and armed conflict may preserve its political survival through the existence of an environment compatible with its goal.

And what would you say about the Dağlıca incident?

The military unit attacked in Oremar [Dağlıca] was there for a military operation; the PKK militants, acting based on the intelligence on the presence of the military unit at the site, carried out the assault. The Turkish troops would have done the same if they had similar intelligence. That is, if there is a conflict, it is inevitable for one of the parties to suffer substantial losses. For instance, a few days before the Beytüşşebap incident, nine PKK militants were killed in a conflict. I want to emphasize again that a climate of killing rules, and moves are needed to change that.

What should be done?

The post-Saddam developments following the US occupation in 2003 seriously damaged the “stability” policies of Turkey to preserve the status quo in the region. The new situation in Iraq was perceived by the status quo actors of Turkey as a threat. These actors never accepted the new state of affairs. Turkey should abandon its policy of rejecting an entity that emerged under Iraqi law and its constitution and instead recognize it under international legal instruments as something generated through the internal developments of Iraq. It should view the northern Iraqi autonomous Kurdish administration as a friend. This is the way to end the current tension -- a friendly state would not support hostilities. Increasing the tension will not resolve the problem; quite the contrary, it will make it chronic. Effective measures should be taken immediately before further Beytüşşebap-like incidents are committed. Northern Iraq needs peace, and a strong and stable northwestern border.

But the discourse promoted by Barzani and Talabani does not imply peaceful actions from Turkey’s perspective.

In such delicate times, even ordinary actions may fall outside reason and rationale. Considering that the editor-in-chief of a major daily newspaper in Turkey provokes the nation to exhibit a strong reaction and that Barzani makes provocative statements, it’s only normal if the regular citizens of the country act in accordance with their basic instincts rather than reason. History tells us that such statements are of no use. These remarks and statements usually speak to the excessive sentiments of the masses, and they do not transform into permanent policy. Fortunately the initial outrage is gradually being replaced by reasonable action and words, anyway.

What would you say about the role of the DTP [Democratic Society Party] deputies on some vital issues, particularly on the release of the soldiers held captive by the PKK?

There is nothing they can do on their own initiative. If the PKK agrees to make a gesture by handing over the eight hostages to DTP deputies, at that time they may be involved in the process. It does not seem possible for them to assume a role at present to determine the PKK’s actions.

What would happen if the DTP deputies recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization?

Nothing. Let’s say they did. Would the PKK’s strength decrease? No, on the contrary DTP deputies’ power would decrease because these deputies were elected by those who have an affinity or allegiance with the PKK. The DTP deputies have to consider their demands and political views. The deputies have to be influential within the party in order for them to detach from the PKK. However, they are aware how they have been nominated. It now seems impossible that they will have a proper position to attract the moderates, particularly given the latest developments.

So you’re saying that the DTP deputies cannot have an independent sphere?

Following the 2004 election, Abdullah Öcalan [the imprisoned leader of the PKK] gave a start for the formation of a new party because he was threatened by the autonomous policies of DEHAP [the Democratic People’s Party] and gave orders for the establishment of the new party, naming it the DTP. I don’t think the DTP could be an address -- apart from the PKK -- in solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey. And I don’t think the Turkish government needs such an address to solve the Kurdish problem as long as it says this is a problem of Turkey.



Author and editorial board member for the Kurdish political magazine Serbestî, published in Turkish in İstanbul, he also writes for the Turkish dailies Zaman and Radikal as well as the Bianet Internet news site. Originally from Bingöl, he had a bookstore in Ankara between 1973 and 1979 until he was sent to jail for four years by the repressive regime of the Sept.12, 1982 military coup. An İstanbul resident since 1989, he has been active in the formation of many Kurdish initiatives, including the Helsinki Citizens Association and Kurdish Intellectuals Initiative, which organized a sizable conference that was allowed by Turkey to have “Kurdish” in its name for the first time -- “The Necessities of Recognizing the Kurdish Reality.” In the early ‘90s, he worked actively in Cem Boyner’s widely respected New Democracy Movement (YDH), which later became a political party. He was also active in 2004 promoting a signature campaign in Turkey for the text “What Do the Kurds Want in Turkey?” published by the International Herald Tribune, Le Monde and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspapers.
For a context as to DTP's closure, see the Turkish Daily News article breaking the news in November. AKP has so far maintained the position that the parliamentary immunity of DTP deputies should not be lifted.

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