Davutoğlu’s hard choice on the Kurdish problem

Davutoğlu’s hard choice on the Kurdish problem

With Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants having launched new attacks on June 25 on the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane by the Turkish border, killing dozens after being pushed back by Kurdish forces in January, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is heading to a crossroads on what to do about the country’s Kurdish problem.

Perhaps it is not obvious when seen from outside of Turkey, but the ongoing fight between Kurdish forces and ISIL in Syria and Iraq and the ongoing contacts to form a coalition government after the June 7 election are actually closely related to each other.

Ankara was furious yesterday upon speculations by Kurdish groups that ISIL militants hitting Kobane twice with suicide bombers had entered from Turkish territory. Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş and Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tanju Bilgiç denied that categorically in separate statements, denouncing the speculations as manipulations to discredit Turkey. Referring to local authorities, the semi-official Anadolu Agency reported that the militants were actually coming from the neighboring Syrian town of Cerablus, which is under ISIL control.

The Turkish government is under pressure from its partners in the Western alliance of NATO to take a more active role in the fight against ISIL and other jihadist groups, in addition to its cooperation against foreign terrorist fighters. To take a more active role, like taking part in air strikes or opening up its main operating base in İncirlik for coalition flights, President Tayyip Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu have been asking the U.S.-led coalition and NATO to take an active part in toppling Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, whom they see as the source of the civil war.

Recently, Western security officials who talk to Turkish counterparts observed the government has added the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its sister organization, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and Iraq, as a condition on top of al-Assad. On the other hand, it was none other than Erdoğan who initiated talks with the PKK in 2012 through the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) in pursuit of a political solution to the country’s chronic Kurdish problem. Thanks to that process there has been no major bloodshed since, but the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government had suspended the talks when the election campaign began.

Both Davutoğlu and Erdoğan have been very careful to not say whether the Kurdish peace process will continue in remarks since the election, in which the AK Parti lost its majority and the capability to form a single-party government. 

The main reason for that is the possibility of a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), because MHP head Devlet Bahçeli had stated clearly that their precondition for taking part in a coalition would be an end to the dialogue with the PKK.

Having already ruled out a coalition with the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has been mediating between the government and the PKK, Davutoğlu has another option. That option is to form a “Grand Coalition” with the social democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP is open to Kurdish peace talks, provided they are transparent to parliament and a solution could be found within a more democratic new constitution.

Here is Davutoğlu’s hard choice. He can opt to stop the talks with the PKK and form a coalition with the MHP, facing the consequence of escalating polarization in the country and more involvement in the Syrian civil war by giving priority to the fight against the PKK. Or he can carry on with the process, which can soothe domestic tension and give more weight to the fight against ISIL, through a coalition with the CHP.

Davutoğlu has to make that choice pretty soon, since he will be running against time as soon as he receives the mandate from Erdoğan to form a government next week.