Understanding phases of Kurdish problem in Turkey

Understanding phases of Kurdish problem in Turkey

This year and the next few months are going to be critical regarding the future of Turkey’s critical Kurdish problem.

Both the government and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are heading toward a make-it or break-it stage after the two-year-old exhausting dialogue in between the two.

In the bigger picture, President Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu want to give an end to this chronic problem that has claimed some 40,000 lives since the PKK launched its armed campaign in 1984. It has also been draining the country’s resources. Finance Minister Mehmet Şimşek revealed during budget talks last month that the cost of the fight against the PKK was nearly 1 trillion Turkish Liras ($435 billion) for Turkey during that period.

And at a tactical level, the Erdoğan-Davutoğlu administration does not want Turkey to go to the parliamentary elections in June with the PKK’s de facto cease-fire broken. They cannot afford funerals of military and police officers during an election campaign where they aim for at least 50 percent to secure a constitutional change afterward. Knowing that, the PKK urges the government to have the legislative changes before the elections, with a threat to resume their armed campaign.

Saying that, for the first time the possibility of a political settlement for the Kurdish problem is so near in decades.

But what took the Turkish state so long to start talking about the Kurdish solution?

The answer is in the dynamics of power politics in this part of the world and the administrative traditions of the centuries-long Turkish state, whether it was sultanate or republic.

During an interview in the December 2014 issue of the Turkish history magazine “Atlas Tarih,” historian Reha Çamuroğlu, says the central authority always wanted to be sure about the destructive capacity of the rebels before taking any action; there was an economy to get mobilized to crush a rebellion, too.

In that perspective, we can talk about three phases of the Turkish state’s response to the Kurdish, or rather, the PKK problem.

1- Assessing the threat: This first period could be symbolized with the “A bunch of bandits” response of Turgut Özal, the prime minister of the time, when he heard about the PKK’s Eruh and Şemdinli raids in 1984; now acknowledged as the start of its armed campaign. It was right after the military coup and Ankara thought it might be one of those fringe groups.

2- Responding the threat: Following the first and perhaps the bloodiest up rise in 1992, the prime minister of the time, Tansu Çiller, gave strict orders in 1993 to the military and police to show those terrorists the might of the Turkish state’s forces. An ambitious campaign was carried out with an incredible loss of lives. That resulted in the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999 (with the help of the U.S. CIA) but that was not enough for solving the problem.

3- Encountering the threat: The turning point was a statement by General İlker Başbuğ, the Chief of Staff of (then Prime Minister) Tayyip Erdoğan who said in 2008 that it was impossible to overcome the problem by security means only. Establishing dialogue with the PKK was decided in the National Security Council (MGK) sessions and Turkey is in still that phase of trying to talk the problem out.

Following a failed attempt of dialogue through third parties (known as the Oslo Process) in 2009-2010, Erdoğan instructed the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan to establish direct contact with Öcalan at the İmralı island-prison, south of İstanbul.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is focused on the Kurdish problem, in the Turkish Parliament was also involved in the dialogue and has been playing a key role in between. But the deal has to be cut in Parliament.

It is not an easy task for the Davutoğlu government, as the country is heading for elections and the background might give an idea as to why the process should be handled with extreme care, in order not to break the vase once again.