There are indications that the appointment of the new Turkish prime minister, Binali Yildirim, will open a “new phase” in Ankara’s approach toward the “Kurdish issue.”
In this new phase, the government is said to solve the Kurdish issue without the cooperation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its “political arm,” the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which is represented in the Turkish parliament. This will reportedly mean using more force against militants, adopting a tougher approach toward the HDP, and more openness toward nonviolent Kurdish groups and civilians. But it is not clear at all how the government wants to carry out such a plan in the absence of credible alternatives on the Kurdish side to talk to.
An ethnic Kurdish parliamentarian, Orhan Miroglu, himself a member of Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), recently told a Turkish TV channel that in this “new era” there will be no talks whatsoever with the PKK or the HDP, unlike the last two years. The “dialogue will now be with all the layers of the people and the Kurdish population,” he said.
“It is not only PKK terror that we are fighting against,” Miroglu said. The PKK has become “an organization of the Iranians, of Syrians, Europeans, Americans, and of the Assad regime and [they plot to] dismember Turkey.”
Confidential talks between the Turkish government and PKK officials broke down last summer. Unconfirmed reports from the government side indicated that the Kurdish side was raising demands that included a separate region with a separate flag and security force that, in the Turkish view, came close to de facto independence. The collapse of talks ended a cease-fire agreement between the two parties and the PKK resumed its terror attacks, with the Turkish military and security forces fiercely hitting back.
Kurdish militants increased their bombings of public and civilian targets in urban centers. According to an International Crisis Group survey, 350 Turkish police and security forces and 250 civilians have been killed in hostilities related to Kurdish militantcy since July 2015. The HDP, though publicly expressing regret about “all kinds of violence,” has demonstrated a reluctance to clearly condemn terrorist attacks, maintaining its rhetoric that such attacks are a “reaction” to the “just and suppressed” demands of the Kurdish population.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself has been clear in his recent messages, stressing that there will be no more talks with those who still use weapons against civilians and Turkish military and security forces. The Turkish parliament has already approved depriving parliamentarians of their immunity if they are suspected of being involved in terrorism or other criminal offenses. There are reportedly dozens of deputies from all political parties with pending allegations against them who could now face criminal charges.
In Ankara’s Kurdish political circles, there is no doubt that this bill primarily targets members of the HDP’s parliamentary faction. That could seriously weaken parliament's third-biggest party or even cause its closure. Yes, it seems Ankara is formulating a “new policy” toward its armed conflict with the PKK. In the next few months, we may observe a further surge in the current armed campaign against the insurgents in order to “eliminate” a large portion of the militia organization.
The question that remains to be asked and which has found no clear answer yet is with whom the ruling AKP government would then negotiate, if not with the PKK or the HDP? It is expected that ethnic Kurdish members and officials inside the AKP, such as Miroglu, will increase their activities in an effort to gain more support for the government’s efforts. In fact, the HDP and AKP are the two main political forces in southeastern Anatolia, where large numbers of Turkey’s large Kurdish minority live. But they have always acted as “supra ethnic” and as rather national Turkish entities and not “ethnic members” of society.
The HDP and the PKK represent leftist and Kurdish nationalist thinking, while Kurdish members of AKP (or other national parties) do not limit themselves to only one issue. The PKK and its political arms (the HDP and previous parties that were disbanded) have survived 32 years of political struggle and an armed rebellion that has seen more than 35,000 people killed, around 350,000 citizens displaced, and which has caused large-scale destruction, as well as distrust and division in the population.
The PKK is labeled as a “terrorist” organization in Turkey as well as in the United States and by many nations in Europe. And, yes, it is a matter of principle not to talk to terrorists. It is comfortable and even right to say so, while taking revenge would find a lot of support in some segments of society. But the PKK and the HDP seem to be the only organizations currently speaking out about Kurdish ethnic interests in Turkey. And they have not disappeared after 32 years of often bloody confrontation.
Who is the Turkish government going to talk to if both the PKK and HDP fall out? This is an extremely difficult question to answer, especially now that calls for an independent Kurdish state are being heard more often and louder. Recently, Masud Barzani, head of the semi-independent Kurdish administration in northern Iraq, said that the “time is ripe” now for the world's 40 to 50 million Kurds, noting that the Kurds are basically divided among four countries (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran) and that "each part has its own situation and each should find a solution with its central government."
In Turkey, can a nonpartisan embracing of the Kurds in the southeastern regions of the country and further investments there to make people’s lives easier be enough to turn around the current state of de facto civil war?
Is the ethnic Kurdish basis of the AKP and other parties strong enough to rise to a majority voice in this community of 15 to 20 million people?
The AKP and other political parties do not seem to have any clear answer to these basic questions, which should justly be asked about any “new phase.” The “new phase” in tackling Turkey’s “Kurdish issue” seems to be a big gamble -- for all sides involved.