Today Prime Minister Erdogan has stated that talks with the PKK, or “Kurdish militants,” are possible. “Regarding Imrali” the island where PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan is being held “there could be more talks,” Erdogan said in a televised interview. While careful to point out that military and security operations will continue, Erdogan has hinted at the possibility of talks around the “diplomatic, socio-economic and psychological dimension[s]” of the Kurdish Question.
Upon taking power in 2002, Erdogan and the AKP took a refreshingly original stance towards Turkey’s Kurdish population. They began a Kurdish Initiative which promised to move Turkey’s Kurdish policy away from military solutions and towards some inclusion for the Kurds within the Turkish state. The AKP highlighted their religious credentials, hoping to gain the support of the southeastern Kurdish population, which has a much more religious population than the average Anatolian community. The AKP also advocated increased developmental funds and infrastructure projects in the long neglected southeastern region. Unfortunately these campaign promises remained just that and military-oriented solutions continued to dominate the policy response.
The failure of such a single-track solution to an amazingly complex and multi-faceted problem has been graphically shown this summer. There has been a wave of terrorist attacks on Turkish military personnel, as well as bombings and bomb scares throughout Turkey. Turkey’s response was to launch massive military operations near the city of Hakkari and violate Iraqi airspace repeatedly to attack Kurdish targets. The Kurdish political party BDP has done its best to make itself unpopular and Erdogan has called for the revocation of its member’s parliamentary immunity.
Much of the violence is blamed on foreign actors. The Turkish government blames Syria and Iran for funding the PKK in retaliation for Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition. To a great extent this is true. The breakdown in Syrian central government authority has given the PKK operating room in northern Syria. Turkish support for the Syrian rebels has, at the least, caused Syria and Iran to ease suppression of the PKK and PKK affiliates. 100,000 Syrian refugees and massive border destabilization has certainly not helped either.
Despite the fact that talks and negotiations are probably the only long-term solution to the Kurdish Question, I find it hard to believe that this latest feeler will amount to much of anything. For one thing Erdogan’s offer is far from explicit. While still retaining high levels of public approval, Erdogan has also taken political hits over the increase in violence and seeming to cave to PKK pressure is not the way to gain it back. The purging of the military, with over 300 past and present military officers convicted of attempting to overthrow the government, has been blamed for “allowing” the PKK to regain traction and, despite being a foolish argument regardless of what you think of the case itself, also hurts the AKP’s image.
The PKK is also unlikely to pursue talks at this point. If the PKK see the offer as indicating governmental weakness they may double down on violence, seeking to maximize potential gains. A strong government, on the other hand, is unlikely to offer any substantial compromises during talks. Continued military efforts in the southeast will cause even more clashes and will only serve to reinforce these trends. To give one glimmer of hope, the PKK might accept talks in conjunction with some form of ceasefire, if only because winter will soon end the fighting season anyway.