Michael Weiss

Pasha Erdogan

Kurdish activists tear up a picture of Turkish PM Recep Erdogan.

Recent disclosures that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) is discussing a disarmament deal with imprisoned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Öcalan has been met with a healthy degree of skepticism by Turkey experts who’ve seen this movie many times before and are all too familiar with the machinations of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now is not the time, they argue, to speculate as to how the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) might improve its Kurd policy, but rather to lament how unsuccessful its actual policy has been. Erdogan, as they see him, is the hybrid of an Ottoman pasha and Vladimir Putin, here acting as a who-asked-you tribune for today’s pan-Islamic and pan-Arab interests, there sending anti-AKP journalists to prison based on paranoid conspiracies with names that sound uncannily like Robert Ludlum novels (“Operation Sledgehammer,” “Ergenekon”).


The top item on Erdogan’s agenda is altering the Turkish constitution to reflect the end of the reign of the Kemalist “deep state” and to get himself elected president in 2014. The idea that he’d look to meaningfully barter with the man he views as Turkey’s own Osama bin Laden is, according to this analysis, fanciful.


There’s ample cause for skepticism. The New Year in 2012 began with the scandal of the Uludere/Roboski bombing, which left 34 civilian Kurdish smugglers dead after they were misidentified as PKK militants crossing into Turkey from Iraq. Since then, as the International Crisis Group has found, violence between Turkey and the PKK has increased to levels not seen since the black years of the 1990s, when Öcalan was a happy resident of Damascus. Indeed, this re-escalation owes to the knock-on effects of the ongoing Syria crisis and Ankara’s enthusiastic role as host, overseer and weapons distributor to the Syrian opposition, and the PKK’s ambiguous role as an Assad regime proxy, however self-interested. Moreover, Erdogan has continued to bully and imprison Kurdish parliamentarians deemed little more than PKK surrogates, and recently he called for stripping parliamentary immunity from 10 deputies from the PKK-aligned Peace and Democracy Party (BDP).


In a country recently judged the worst global jailer of journalists, there are currently about 100 Kurdish practitioners of the trade sitting in prisons on various terrorism-related charges. Add to this the 8,000 more Kurdish activists, lawyers and academics whom Erdogan has had locked up for terrorism. And although the initial outreach to Öcalan months ago was to put an end to a 68-day hunger strike by some Kurdish prisoners, the terms of these latest discussions seem predictably weighted toward the nation, not the separatists. Yalçın Akdoğan, a key Erdogan advisor, told the newspaper Taraf Sunday that Ankara’s condition is total disarmament, not even the perennial “no-action” ceasefire that marks PKK activity at start of winter. The latter, as Akdoğan said, “would mean little more than a tactical strategy. It can only mean something if they are going to lay down their weapons.” (AKP would never apply such stringent requirements on its own terrorist client, Hamas).


On December 27, the Turkish Armed Forces bombed PKK targets in northern Iraq and waged ground operations along the border between Bingöl and Diyarbakır. Another problem is that Öcalan, who has been incarcerated on the island of İmralı for over a decade, is not practically in command of all military units of the Kurdistan Communities’ Union (KCK). This network comprises forces in southeastern Turkey, the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq and the increasingly powerful Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PYD) in Aleppo and Hasakah provinces in Syria. Öcalan himself has asked for the opening of a communications channel between himself and the PKK ultraists in the Qandil. To better facilitate that, of course, he wants a commutation of his life sentence in prison to that of house arrest. The chances of this happening are slim to none, which is why Akdoğan responded to press interest in the talks by warning against “rambling expectations” in a live interview with NTV yesterday.


And yet, despite these inauspicious circumstances, there is a tiny sliver of optimism about the MİT-Öcalan discussions based on the dramatically altered geopolitical context in which they’re taking place. For one thing, Ankara’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) now enjoys a commercial and diplomatic warmth unimaginable ten years ago; for another, MİT views northern Syria as an active launch-pad for PYD/PKK terrorist operations against Turkey (where even a latent or potential launch-pad would be worrying enough) and so it needs all the Kurdish interlocutors it can get.


So while Erdogan sounds as pathological in describing the PKK and its fellow travelers, he’s kittenish about the KRG. He recently said that part of the reason that Turkey abstained from the 2003 Iraq War was out of consideration for “our brothers” in northern Iraq who didn’t want a Turkish presence. Allowing for revisionist excuse-making, no Turkish official would have ever had such a fraternal way of describing the clans of Massoud Barzani or Jalal Talabani in 2003 or even a few years ago. But that was before Erbil became a petrol-floated boomtown reliant on Turkish investment.


Ankara and the KRG are in the final stages of developing a major gas and oil pipeline that would bypass the main Iraqi energy corridor. If concluded, the KRG-Turkish corridor “could send Turkey as much as 3m barrels a day of oil,” as the Financial Times reported two weeks ago. Turkish state-owned oil and gas companies are said to be creating a separate entity to manage the rights to five exploration blocks in Kurdistan, some of which were acquired last year by ExxonMobil. There are about 45 billion barrels of oil lying in this terrain. Reserves have already earned the KRG $10 billion in revenue, and because the fields are so expansive and untapped, even small-time speculators have reason to feel like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.


Some blood has already been spilled in other areas of the fraught KRG-Baghdad relationship. Peshmerga and Iraqi Army soldiers have sporadically clashed, mostly recently near Tikrit, and though “tensions” are swiftly downplayed, there is ample cause to suspect they will flare up again at any moment. The KRG has had numerous scuffles with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who questions the constitutionality of direct Kurdish deals with energy companies. The Kurds, meanwhile, see Maliki as “Saddam Lite” and bridle at how his government is unilaterally awarding its own contracts to oil fields in Kirkuk, which Kurds were expelled from during Saddam’s Arabization program in the 1980s yet which they consider their Jerusalem.


So who better to ride to the rescue of Kurdish autonomy than the most notorious modern opponent of it? Ankara’s had its own hiccups with Baghdad, such as Erdogan’s also hosting of Tariq al-Hashemi, the former vice president of Iraq and outspoken Maliki rival, who was sentenced to death in absentia in September on the specious grounds that he ran death squads. Maliki has retaliated against Erdogan by booting out the Turkish Petroleum Corporation from southern Iraq and even denying Turkey’s energy minister permission to travel to Erbil for a conference. The Obama administration is once again to be credited with making strange bedfellows in the Middle East as Washington’s backing of Maliki on Kurdish energy deals has further strengthened the KRG’s ties to Turkey.


Kurdish activist Fazel Hawrawy, who has written critically of Erdogan and his policies and recently toured the KRG, told me: “[W]hat I have seen here in Kurdistan in terms of oil companies (belonging to the Kurdish officials and their extended families) whose existence depends on Turkey entirely, I can only expect that the KRG gets closer and closer to Turkey.” Hawrawy also believes that Barzani is likely prevailing upon the PKK to forsake armed resistance for joining the political process in Turkey.


However, there’s no guarantee that Barzani can actually deliver. When he tried to unite the PYD and his preferred moderates in the Kurdish National Council (KNC), the PYD simply agreed in principle, then staged a power seizure of all Kurdish areas in Aleppo and Hasakah from which the Assad regime had withdrawn. Attempts to unite a politically heterogeneous Kurdish military gendarmerie to patrol these areas have also amounted to nothing. Researcher Omar Hossino just got back from a brief tour of Azaz, where he met with Bewar Mustafa, the head of the Salah al-Din Brigades of the Free Syrian Army, a Kurdish liwa that includes thousands of fighters. “We sat in Azaz and looked at Afrin right behind us,” Hossino told me. “The Salah al-Din fighters said, ‘We can’t go there because the PYD runs it and is making electricity more expensive than it was under Assad.’ The PYD are also jailing and killing Kurds who disagree with them.” As for the KNC, Hossino said they don’t factor on the ground in Syria at all—they’re more a foreign presence. Here the trilateral relationship between and amongst Ankara, Qandil and Erbil is seen a major stumbling block to the Syrian revolution.

The KNC and PYD are still at loggerheads. Days before Christmas, PYD leader Salih Muslim met with Maliki in Baghdad as a member of the National Coordination Committee (NCC), the regime-friendly “opposition” group inside Syria. The KNC was neither invited nor consulted beforehand. And because it had previously boycotted a similar meeting with the Turkish Foreign Ministry on the grounds that the PYD hadn’t been included, this further deterioration in Kurdish unity was met with mutual recriminations between Muslim and KNC head Faisal Yousif. It also underscores how dismissive Muslim is of Barzani and how consequently threatening he’s becoming to Turkey.


One plausible explanation for the timing of the MİT-Öcalan confab is to gauge the PKK founder’s real influence over his upstart Syrian lieutenant, the better to determine Erdogan’s influence in a post-Assad Syria. For this and other reasons, some specialists are keeping their pessimism slightly in check. Vatan Washington correspondent Ilhan Tanir, with whom I traveled to Syria last August, thinks that the talks are “serious” and that Erdogan’s domestic calculations are inextricably tied to his wider Mideast ambitions: “In brief, there are two ways ahead of Turkey,” Tanir wrote me. “One is to swallow big, bitter pills and find an acceptable solution to its Kurdish issue for both parties and write a civilian, liberal constitution. With that, Ankara would have more credibility in dealing with the Kurds at a regional level; it could make the KRG its best friend, use that leverage in Syria, and become an even more influential actor for Syria’s future. Or the second path is to continue fighting with the PKK, likely fail at the constitution project, keep appearing as another hypocritical actor by supporting the rights of Arabs (mostly Sunnis) but denying them for Kurds, and thus have smaller influence in the region.”


One needn’t buy an overly generous interpretation of Erdogan’s intentions to see how the first path could eventually come to pass. The Sovietologist Isaac Deutscher—himself a complicated student of how aged and brittle policies very quickly crumble—phrased it well: “Plus c'est la même chose, plus ça change.”

Kurdish activists tear up a picture of Turkish PM Recep Erdogan. (AFP photo)

Erdogan is a hybrid of an Ottoman pasha and Vladimir Putin.

  • AngryAnt

    Turkey's tragedy is unfolding- in spite of the avowed adoration of Ataturk (statues in every town of any size) they vote for the pasha; obviously the bulk of those voters being the uneducated masses in rural and eastern Turkey. EU membership? A ludicrous suggestion!

    January 7, 2013