What will it take for Erdogan to accept Kurdish reality?
With Turkey’s policy in Syria and Iraq facing increasing pushback for its anti-Kurdish stance, Kurds in both countries have noted rapid advances in securing regional influence and moving towards the goal of officially recognised self-rule.
This promises further complications for key players in the Syrian conflict and the battle against jihadists. It also raises the stakes for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has entered the most intense phase of his campaign to gain legitimacy for the single-ruler format of government he has for so long been seeking.
Whether Erdogan fully realises how his position on the Kurds will affect the future of Iraq and Syria and whether he understands the need to revise Turkey’s self-destructive Kurdish policy at home and across the country’s southern border are unclear.
Recent developments seem to have left Ankara behind. Turkish military forces have been blocked near the strategically important northern Syrian town of Manbij and the US-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up mainly of Kurds, have advanced towards Raqqa, already taking the Tabqa airstrip from the Islamic State (ISIS).
Saleh Muslim, the co-chairman of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic party (PYD), told Reuters that once “freed”, Raqqa would join the system of self-rule, a decentralised system of government established by the Syrian Kurdish units. “We expect (this) because our project is for all Syria… and Raqqa can be part of it,” he said.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, a new development has caused deep concern in Ankara. Following statements on self-rule by Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Kurdish was added as an official language in the region and the Kurdish flag was raised alongside the Iraqi flag in all official buildings in the politically disputed city of Kirkuk. Arab and Turkmen groups protested the decision and Turkey quickly expressed grave concern.
While Kurds in Iraq and Syria are emboldened by Russian and US support, which they have described as a historic step towards autonomy, recent developments in Turkey point the other way. As Turkey continues to clamp down on elected Kurdish politicians, a court in Diyarbakır ordered lengthy prison sentences for nearly 100 Kurdish politicians being tried on terrorism charges in a case that dates to 2010.
The Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) is seen as the backbone of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey. The verdicts, which were handed down against leading KCK figures such as Ahmet Turk, Firat Anli, Hatip Dicle and Kamuran Yuksek, sentenced the accused to a combined 1,100 years in prison. With 13 MPs sentenced to prison, Turkey has effectively paralysed the Kurdish political sphere.
Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, who is known for his staunch loyalty to Erdogan, repeatedly promised that the “fight against divisionist terror will go on until the very end”.
Meanwhile, military and security operations in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish provinces continue with high intensity. One crucial question is whether the region’s ballot boxes are secure.
With the situation’s growing complexity two years after the Kurdish peace process ended, will Erdogan finally feel the need to revise his policy? This is the most serious question facing Turkey, which is obviously swimming alone against the regional stream.
Until the Turkish referendum takes place April 16th, everything is on hold. The Americans are only engaged in alleviating Turkey’s tensions about the Kurdish surge. US President Donald Trump has suggested he will wait to see the results of the referendum. Russian President Vladimir Putin is determined to make Turkey’s role in Syria obsolete.
Kurdish politicians in Turkey do not blink about their “no” votes in the referendum and remain calm as the clampdown intensifies. There are no signs of the ruling Justice and Development Party (PKK) asking for a return to the peace talks. Pro- Erdogan media figures in Turkey have spelled out that such talks are out of the question at least until the end of 2017.
Still, much of what happens will depend on whether Erdogan’s proposal gets a “yes” or a “no” in the referendum. If the presidential system is rejected by the voters, Erdogan will not only be weakened domestically but his ability to negotiate peace will suffer. After all, over the past two years, Erdogan’s hard-line policies have mobilised anti- Kurdish old warriors at all levels of the Turkish establishment and he will see no way forward but on the path of denial and oppression.
If Erdogan gets the vote of approval, however, he may feel emboldened to steer his Kurdish policy towards a recognition of the Kurdish role in Syria and Iraq. Because the traditional divide-and-rule policy of Turkey vis-à-vis the Kurds no longer seems applicable, Erdogan may be forced to accept seats for the Syrian Kurds at the Geneva peace talks. If this happens after the referendum, it will signal yet another sharp shift in Turkish policy. We’ll have to wait and see.