Turkey’s high risk, high return move on the Kurdish problem

Turkey’s high risk, high return move on the Kurdish problem

The Turkish government appointed trustees to 28 municipalities on Sept. 11, replacing their elected mayors. The move was made by a decree law in the framework of the state of emergency declared in the wake of the bloody coup attempt of July 15.

Four of the mayors were taken from their offices by Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu because of their suspected links to Fethullah Gülen, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher who is accused by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government of masterminding the coup attempt. Three of those mayors were elected in 2014 from the AK Parti list (one being from President Tayyip Erdoğan’s Black Sea hometown of Rize) and one from the opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

A total of 24 of them were removed because of their suspected links with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging an armed campaign against Turkey since 1984 during which time more than 40,000 people have been killed. Most of those mayors were elected in the 2014 local elections from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is the third biggest party in the Turkish parliament, holding 59 of 550 seats.

The HDP strongly condemned the decision, denouncing it as “another coup attempt,” this time by the government, and challenged the government to call for elections in those municipalities. Acknowledging that the Turkish authorities were investigating the “allegations that some local officials have participated or provided material support to terrorist groups,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara “hoped” that “local citizens will soon be permitted to choose new local officials.”

What is happening in Turkey’s southeastern municipalities is of concern to the U.S. not only because of the rights and freedoms dimension of it. The region borders Iran, Iraq and Syria, where the PKK is active and U.S. forces in Syria are in cooperation with the Syrian branch of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), without acknowledging the link in between, against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The Turkish military has been in a massive domestic military campaign against the PKK since its return to arms in mid-2015 and also its positions in Iraq and Syria. So any fluctuation in the situation regarding the PKK in Turkey might affect the situation in Syria and Iraq. 

Moreover, the Turkish move came the day after the U.S. and Russia agreed on a two-day cease-fire for the city of Aleppo (excluding al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra, and ISIL) for the first two days (Sept. 12-13) of the Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday. Turkey welcomed the agreement, which it contributed to via telephone diplomacy between Erdoğan and his American and Russian counterparts, Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, respectively. Yet there are ongoing talks between the three regarding the Turkish operation to support the Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels against ISIL inside Syria. Erdoğan made it clear that if the YPG militia appeared in the way of Turkish forces (as they destroyed a tank and killed three soldiers) they would be hit, regardless of being collaborators with the U.S. 

There are other seemingly contradicting developments regarding the trustee move. For example, on the same day that trustees were appointed, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdağ allowed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan’s brother Mehmet Öcalan to visit him (because of the coming Eid holiday) at İmralı Island Prison, where he has been held since 1999. This was the first visit permitted in a long time. A group of HDP members of parliament have been on a symbolic hunger strike for some time in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır over allowing a visit to Öcalan; the last time they saw him was April 5, 2015, before the June 2015 elections. The government permitted the visit but not the HDP. It may be worth noting that the 2012 dialogue process, which resulted in a three-year silencing of guns, had started with prison visits by Abdullah Öcalan’s brother.
Another seemingly contradicting development was Yıldırım’s announcement of new investment incentives for the southeast to upgrade infrastructure and produce jobs.

But when you consider the developments from a different perspective, they fit in the same picture that shows little possibility for the AK Parti to go to elections in those municipalities very soon.

The developments and the move fit in the picture of pouring budget money into upgrading the infrastructure of cities (the government accuses the HDP mayors of spending public funds for PKK-linked purposes instead of public services) and bringing industrial and agricultural investments to the region while keeping up with military operations to crush the PKK’s armed force.

The aim is to win the hearts and minds of the predominantly Kurdish-origin population in the region. Actually, the AK Parti is the second party in the region, with not a huge gap in between.

Conducting an operation with military, political and economic dimensions, taking the opportunity of the legal facilities brought by the state of emergency in the wake of the failed coup attempt and while the entire region is in a turmoil with the PKK (and its Syria, Iran and Iraq extensions) being one of the local actors, is a high risk, high return plan for the AK Parti.

It seems the government will continue further in that direction to win the game.

A happy Eid to all believers.