Kivanc Dundar in Istanbul -
Turkey's government is under mounting pressure from the country’s Kurds to help the Syrian Kurdish militia in its battle against Islamic State in the northern Syrian town of Kobani. But Ankara’s refusal to fight IS and its complicated policies toward its estimated 15mn Kurdish population are threatening the already fragile peace process with Turkey’s Kurdish militant organization, the PKK, and October’s violent clashes in the Kurdish south-east could be just a prelude to what will happen if peace talks with the PKK totally break down.
The Turkish government has now presented a draft roadmap for peace talks to end the conflict that has claimed more than 40,000 lives in three decades to Kurdish MPs, just days ahead of the October 15 deadline set by the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has warned that if there is no action from the government he will consider the peace process dead. The government could face a serious backlash from Kurds if the already fragile peace talks break down, worry observers.
Turkey’s Kurds are angry for what they see as the Turkish government’s calculated inaction over the IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL) threat against the Syrian border town of Kobani, where their kin live. IS attacked and besieged the town on September 16, forcing tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds to flee across the border to Turkey. Air strikes by the US-led coalition over the past two weeks have hit IS positions around Kobani, but so far to little effect.
Already frustrated by the slow and uncertain pace of peace talks between the government and the PKK, Turkey’s Kurds regard the IS attack on Kobani as a tipping point. With the town’s fate hangind in the balance, thousands of Turkish Kurds took to the streets in the south-eastern part of the country between October 6 and October 11 in solidarity with the people of Kobani and to protest against the Turkish government’s decision not to intervene.
These protests later spread to other major cities, including Istanbul, where there is a sizeable Kurdish population, the capital Ankara and Izmir as well. The situation later became more inflamed as Kurds clashed with Turkish nationalists, radical Islamists and the police. Nationalist groups attacked the offices of the main Kurdish party HDP in districts of Istanbul.
The government responded by imposing curfews for the first time in more than two decades in the six predominantly Kurdish cities, including Diyarbakir, the largest in the region. In five days, the death toll rose to at least 35, including two police officers.
Anger and frustration
Turkey’s Kurds are angry and frustrated for several reasons. They see a cynical political calculation by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that if Kobani falls to IS, Kurdish hopes for an autonomous enclave in Northern Syria will go up in smoke. Kurds believe Ankara is indirectly supporting IS militants to weaken and thus force the Syrian Kurdish militia, the YPG, to join other Syrian opposition groups, which would end dreams of an autonomous homeland like the one their brethren enjoy in Northern Iraq.
The PKK’s jailed leader Ocalan and senior PKK field commanders have warned that the fall of Kobani would mean the end of the peace process.
The YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) is the armed wing of the PKK’s sister organisation PYD (Democratic Union Party) in Syria. A victory by the YPG against IS militants – when other armed opposition groups in Syria are weak and in disarray – would be a moral victory for the PKK. This is not something Turkey’s Justice and Development Party-led (AKP) government – which still calls the PKK a “terrorist organisation” and a threat to Turkey’s national security – could stomach, as it prefers a weak PKK at the negotiating table. President Erdogan, who says openly the PKK is as dangerous as IS, argues that arms and supplies to be delivered to the YPG could end up in the hands of PKK militants. Through peace negotiations, Ankara hopes to disarm the PKK.
Erdogan also argues that airstrikes alone will not be enough to stop IS. Instead, he has proposed a buffer zone and a no-fly zone in Northern Syria. Ankara’s argument is that as long as Bashar al-Assad remains in power, bloodshed in Syria will continue and radical Islamists will grow stronger. But the Pentagon makes it clear that the main focus right now is to stop the advance of the IS and roll it back, but a buffer zone is not on the table as a military option.
Roadmap to peace or path to civil war?
Meanwhile, peace talks between the government and PKK are going nowhere, with critics saying there is neither any clear timetable nor well-defined objectives on the negotiating table.
PKK leader Ocalan called for a ceasefire in March 2013 that had been largely observed by the two sides until this week, when Turkish warplanes attacked PKK targets in southeast Turkey on October 13 – the first since the start of the peace process – following an attack by PKK militants on a military outpost. The PKK’s military wing claimed that the Turkish military violated the ceasefire, though it has not yet said whether or how it would respond.
After the violent street protests, the government on October 13 presented a draft roadmap for peace talks to Kurdish lawmakers from the HDP, just days ahead of the October 15 deadline set by Ocalan. The PKK leader said he would wait until October 15 for the government to act, otherwise he would consider the peace process dead.
The MPs have seen only a one-page draft of the government’s proposal, HDP Parliamentary Deputy Group Chair Idris Baluken was reported by Hurriyet Daily News saying on October 12, adding that the government is still yet to share its plans on democratisation and resolving the Kurdish issue through legislation.
While the government is extending an olive branch to Kurds with one hand, with the other it's threatening them with tough measures. “It is no longer possible for our police and soldiers to stop protesters with riot shields. Both the police and soldiers will do what is necessary,” Erdogan was quoted by Today’s Zaman as saying on October 10.
Echoing Erdogan’s remarks, PM Ahmet Davutoglu said, without elaborating, that the government would take tougher measures to avoid street violence and vandalism. However, he also reiterated the government’s commitment to the peace process.
But the HDP’s Baluken warned: “Tougher measures will only fuel tensions, and may even lead to chaos and civil war.”
Despite the slow progress and disappointments on the Kurdish side, the PKK’s Ocalan appeared eager to continue with the peace process. The HDP’s co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, read out a message on October 14 from Ocalan sent at the height of the protests. In his message, Ocalan called on the HDP to contact government officials to end the violence and street protests.
Yet the mood in Kurdish cities is rather different. “If Kobani falls, the peace process will be history. And if Kobani falls, the people will not listen to calls for calm, from whomever they come,” a local resident of Diyarbakir told Reuters on October 13.
Investors’ reaction to the protests has so far been limited. But the fallout from a possible breakdown of peace talks on Turkey’s economy could be mserious over the medium term. Turkey’s growth already slowed to 2.1% year on year in the second quarter from 4.7% in the first quarter. The government has cut its GDP growth forecast for 2014 to 3.3% from a previous 4% and the forecast for 2015 to 4% from a previous 5%. Investor sentiment looks set to worsen and consumer confidence will take a hit if the PKK decides pull out from peace talks.
Walking a tightrope
It is too early to say that Turkey is poised to go back to the bad old days, when almost on a daily basis newspapers would report clashes in the Kurdish provinces, scores of young soldiers were sent home in body bags, hundreds of young Kurds were killed in the mountains, nationalist sentiments were running high and a military solution was seen as the only answer to the country’s Kurdish problem.
Erdogan is now walking a very thin line as he tries to achieve different and difficult objectives at the same time: the ousting of Assad, while containing the PKK in Turkey and Kurdish dreams of an autonomous region in Syria. The breakdown of peace talks could be a casualty of the fall of Kobani.
One of Turkey’s prominent intellectuals, Murat Belge, who in the past has supported Erdogan for his Kurdish peace initiative, recently suggested in an interview with the Taraf newspaper that Erdogan would do anything to stay in power and his polarising policies could lead to civil war in Turkey.
Perhaps talk of a civil war is overblown, but given the recent deadly violence and Kurds’ distrust of Ankara, it is difficult to see how the government can regain the confidence of the Kurds if Erdogan maintains his tough stance. It is also likely that if violence escalates in Turkey and peace talks fail, Erdogan could become more authoritarian and a less tolerant country will emerge.
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