Turkey needs a wiser approach to the PKK problem

Turkey needs a wiser approach to the PKK problem

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is determined to maintain a tough militaristic line against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). He says the fight will go on until this group is destroyed. 

He clearly has to appear tough against terrorism. Any leader would have to do the same. But whether he is correct in his uncompromising position is another question, especially when it is clear that Turkey’s “PKK problem” is intertwined with domestic politics and international issues.

In other words, this is not a simple “PKK problem” anymore. If it was, he would not be trying to throw elected pro-Kurdish deputies out of parliament. Neither would he be hounding academics who signed a peace petition calling for the operations in the Turkey’s southeast to stop. 

If it was a simple issue which could be solved by military means, it would also not play a negative role in Turkey’s ties with key allies, starting with its “strategic partner” the U.S., with which it is at loggerheads over the question of Syrian Kurds.

Erdoğan may not want to see it that way, and the public may have been agitated sufficiently by PKK attacks and the killing of Turkish security personnel into looking at any contact with the PKK as an act of treachery, but the simple fact is that this is as much a political problem as it is a security one.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu clearly considers it to be so as well, because he left the door open during a visit to the southeastern province of Diyarbakır over the weekend to discussions with the PKK, provided it gave up its arms. He was instantly undermined by Erdoğan, though, who said there is nothing to talk about with the PKK, which he suggested faced only one option, namely annihilation.

The fact that Davutoğlu quickly back peddled on his Diyarbakır remarks after Erdoğan’s outburst also reveals what part of the problem is. Put briefly, it is Erdoğan who calls the shots when such crucial issues are at stake in Turkey, and not the prime minister, who is the constitutional head of the executive. 

There are, however, very few examples in the world, if any, where similar problems have been resolved in the manner that Erdoğan wants. Turkey clearly needs to walk the path of wisdom rather than of vengeance here and recognize the domestic as well as international factors that are involved.

Chucking elected Kurdish politicians out of parliament to have them tried and imprisoned on terrorism charges will not help the situation. Turkey has been down that path and it resulted in nothing but trouble.

The government will have to return to the peace process - or settlement process, call it what you will – eventually if this problem is to have a lasting solution which brings social peace and ethnic amity. 

It is much better for the government to be the “initiator” here, rather than being forced by circumstance into a position where it has to sit at the table because it has no options left. The choice here for the state is between ending up in a weaker positon or a stronger one.

Ankara also needs to have a better understanding of how things are developing in northern Syria, where the Kurds are clearly advancing with U.S., not to mention Russian, support. Insisting to no avail that Washington declare Kurdish forces terrorist groups, as Ankara does, is a non-starter. 

These groups are allied with the U.S. against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Washington is clearly not prepared to give up on the advantage it has secured in its relations with them simply to please Ankara.

Turkey maintained a similarly negative line towards the Iraqi Kurds for years and look where its mutually beneficial ties with them are today. 

Winston Churchill is reputed to have said of the Americans that “they always get it right, but only after having tried every other option.” The hope is that this will not be the case with Turkey. The problem is that Erdoğan’s approach does not inspire much confidence in this regard.