ANALYSIS / Hugh Pope: Erdoğan should set eye-catching goals to solve Kurdish problem

7 October 2012  – Zaman – The Turkish government should not use the tactic of giving a little bit under pressure, but set out some eye-catching goals in regards to solving Turkey’s long-standing Kurdish problem, an analyst working on the issue has said.

“Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that they are going to fix the constitution; that’s good. But are you going to fix it to provide full equality to citizens? If yes, say that. Why don’t you say that there will be mother-tongue education in 10 years? Nobody knows how many people will want mother-tongue education. But let there be a full discussion about it,” said Hugh Pope, the Turkey/Cyprus project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), for Monday Talk.

“Plus, Erdoğan will not be in a better position in two years’ time; regional events are not going in favor of Turkey. The [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK violence is at its worst. It is not likely that it is going to end,” Pope also said, adding that although the outlawed PKK has been encouraged by the conflict in Syria and has increased its terrorist attacks, the Kurdish problem mainly stems from Turkey.

The ICG released a report in September titled “Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement,” recommending Erdoğan seize the opportunity to champion democratic reforms that would meet many of the demands voiced by most of Turkey’s Kurds and would not require negotiations with the PKK, which is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and the EU.

The report’s main recommendations to the Turkish government are that they work toward a cease-fire, urge insurgents to stop attacks, avoid large-scale military operations, including aerial bombings and stand up to pressure for ever stronger armed responses. The report asks the PKK to rein in factions that attack and kidnap civilians, plant bombs and trash property or throw Molotov cocktails in demonstrations and to pledge not to use a cease-fire to rearm, resupply or relocate.

Turkey has cemented ties, mainly through trade and investment, with the Kurdish leadership of Iraq’s semi-autonomous north, where the PKK has a military presence, but remains wary that the example of Kurdish self-rule in Iraq and deepening chaos in neighboring Syria could inflame its own Kurdish conflict.

Pope answers our questions on this issue and more.

The ICG report highlighted the fact that approximately 700 people had been killed in 14 months, the highest number of casualties in 13 years.

The whole issue has remained underreported by the mainstream press in Turkey. Most people don’t realize how many people are getting killed. Most people forget about this because there was peace for about five years following the capture of [PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan. And there was also the effect of the EU reforms. Plus prosperity grew in the Southeast, which was a real change from the 1990s. It almost felt like the situation was getting normalized. Still, despite the current upsurge, it is also important to remember the number of people dying is much less than in the early 1990s, probably about a quarter of the casualties then.

 What really has ruined the near normalization process? The impression of the Turkish public is that the PKK ruined it because the government was indirectly engaged with the PKK through the Oslo process. What is your evaluation of the situation?

Both sides are responsible. The PKK is directly responsible for the escalation of the violence, and it is important to show this to the Kurdish people. We did it in the report by listing the PKK’s suicide bombings, attacks on civilians and killing of women and children; these are terrorist acts. We can’t pretend like it is anything else. But why did the process break down?

First of all, with the beginning of the [Kurdistan Communities Union] KCK arrests in April 2009. I don’t think the [Justice and Development Party] AKP is responsible from the start of the arrests, but the AKP is responsible for leaving the laws on the books that allow them to continue. The mainstream public opinion has not understood the impact of the 7,000 arrests; it is absolutely catastrophic. It has increased the number of young people who volunteered to go up into the mountains. Then we had the “democratic opening” dynamic which started, in my mind, with the EU process. It became explicit in 2005 and continued probably until now. The prime minister’s personal interventions were important; he was gathering Kurdish artists and writers and showing respect for Kurdishness — half of the problem is equality and respect — and the prime minister played a big role in that.


But after the elections in 2011, Erdoğan’s rhetoric changed.

Yes, after the elections in 2011, his rhetoric completely changed and became nationalistic, stressing military solutions. We don’t know all the details about the talks with Öcalan and the PKK, but it does seem to me that the both sides were really sincere in 2009. The people who were negotiating believed that they would succeed. However, what the PKK was hoping to get was quite different from what Turkey could really deliver, and maybe Turkey was hoping for something that the PKK couldn’t deliver.

‘Both Kurdish movement and government reacted badly’

Could you be more specific?


To be more specific, what the PKK really wanted were things like that their fighters could become a local militia and that they would get Öcalan released from jail into a house arrest fairly quickly. They had quite ambitious hopes to that end. The Turkish side thought that they were going to be able to bring the PKK members down from the mountains without doing the politically difficult Kurdish reforms. There was a bit of a wishful thinking on both sides, and the contradictions exploded into the open at Habur in 2009. [There was jubilation in predominantly Kurdish areas in October 2009 when a group of people affiliated with the PKK surrendered at the Habur border gate as part of the government’s strategy to bring PKK members down from the mountains.]

Neither side was prepared for what was going to happen; they forgot that those people were living with war for 30 years and with denial and oppression for even longer than that. And for the first time, they were seeing an actual, physical manifestation that this was all going to end — very emotional. The Kurdish movement on one side and the government on the other side; both reacted very badly. The Kurdish movement made it into a victory celebration and the Turkish side, instead of seeing it as an outburst of joy — because the Kurdish movement portrayed it as a victory — they saw it as a threat and reacted very defensively, condemned it and talked about being betrayed. Ankara should have been more empathetic and understood what was going to happen if they brought people back. But unfortunately, some people who were working on the issue saw it just within a box and forgot that there are tens of thousands of people directly affected by war. Every extended family in the Southeast has a member either in jail or killed or wounded.

A lot of Turkish security analysts believe the Oslo process was ended by the PKK, mainly because of the alleged support that the PKK has started to receive from Syria, Iran and the Baghdad government. What is your take on that?


That’s putting the cart before the horse, or the symptom in front of the cause. The core of the Kurdish problem is in Turkey. People have grievances in Turkey, they’ve been unjustly treated. The main problem is the Kurdish problem in Turkey, not just the PKK attacks. To blame Syria, Iran and Iraq for what’s going on is wrong. However, it’s clear that the PKK is really encouraged by what’s happening in Syria. Nevertheless, the Kurdish area is a very small and marginal part of Syria, and Turkey should not be frightened. The real problem is that Turkey allowed the [Free Syrian Army] FSA soldiers to freely operate across the border with Syria. Is Syria not going to take some sort of revenge for that? Let’s remember why Syria supported the PKK in the first place in 1984: Because Turkey decided on its own to cut the major water routes over Syria without discussing it with Syria. Turkey has a tendency to view events as a plot, a conspiracy against “Turkey the victim,” but usually there is more to the story. There is also talk about American and European support for the PKK. What support for the PKK? The Americans are giving unparalleled, unprecedented access to intelligence information to the Turkish Armed Forces [TSK]; the Europeans are arresting people, freezing PKK assets in France, Germany and Britain. All across Europe, the states are on Turkey’s side as long as Turkey fights according to established international laws.

‘Erdoğan should set out eye-catching goals’

Do you think Öcalan is still considered by PKK members as their leader?

He cannot impose something on the PKK the way he used to, but if there is a settlement out there, there needs to be an interlocutor that needs to pull together the very many different Kurdish factions — the PKK in the mountains, the PKK in diaspora, the PKK in cities, etc. — there are all those people who need a focal point. In that sense, Öcalan might be able to be the person who can deliver a united Kurdish response. Most of the PKK leadership agrees that Öcalan should at least be engaged.

In the report you stress the lack of a conflict resolution strategy in Turkey in regards to solving the Kurdish problem. Would you elaborate on this idea, also considering the fact that a booklet distributed last Sunday at the AK Party congress mentioned some reforms regarding the Kurdish issue?

I’d really urge him [Erdoğan] and his advisors not to use the tactic of giving in a little bit under pressure, but to set out some eye-catching goals. The prime minister said that they are going to fix the constitution; that’s good. But are you going to fix it to provide full equality to citizens? If yes, say that. Why don’t you say that there will be mother-tongue education in 10 years? Nobody knows how many people will want that when it actually happens. But let there be a full discussion about it. The prime minister also needs to be careful with the language he uses. For example, he says that there is “a terrorist region” when he talks about the area where the PKK operates in. But how would you feel if you were a Kurd living in the area? The word “terrorist” has been used arbitrarily; there are a lot of people behind bars for being “terrorists” without being even charged for any act of violence, and their trials have not even started. One of the things in a conflict resolution strategy is not doing things for daily political advantage. Erdoğan does not need that; he has uncontested control of this country. Of course, he wants to be president, but this is two years away. Plus, Erdoğan will not be in a better position in two years’ time; regional events are not going in favor of Turkey. The PKK violence is at its worst. It is not likely that it is going to end. The armed forces seem to reflect a systemic problem. If there is anybody in the AKP who thinks a Sri Lankan solution is possible, this is madness, especially with this Middle Eastern hinterland behind Turkey.

‘PKK has no right to impose views on some Kurds’

Does the government have to negotiate with the PKK once they have a strategy?

I don’t think so. By all means, you can have contact with them, explain what you’re doing, but you don’t need to negotiate Kurdish rights with the PKK. Once you establish an atmosphere of trust with the whole population, you can discuss demobilization and disarmament with the PKK. You need to pass serious laws to implement reforms. After several months, Turkey would be in a much stronger position. If the PKK is sincere in pushing for Kurdish rights, then there should be a constituency of the PKK discussing how they will come back home.

In Turkey, there are people who believe that the PKK does not fight for the Kurdish people’s rights anymore but is taking advantage of the situation in Syria to carve out a Kurdish territory.

The PKK has a sister organization which is quite powerful in Syria, and the Syrian story is not over yet. But it is not clear what they want and can achieve there. Meanwhile, most Kurds in Turkey do not want a separate state. And many provinces are pro-AKP. The Kurdish movement only gets the votes in half of the mainly Kurdish provinces. The PKK has no right to impose its views on half of the Kurdish population in Turkey.

Do you think the PKK will be isolated in time?

The PKK hopes that there will be time to make a peace settlement and make the trip home. There are so many people in the PKK who want that. In 2009, they were very disappointed that they did not get that. Erdoğan feels betrayed by the PKK, but the PKK also feels betrayed by Erdoğan.

There are sometimes reports in the Turkish press that the PKK uses mostly children under 18 years old in its fight. Have you found evidence of that while compiling losses of both sides?

Information about the PKK losses is freely available on the PKK website; they give out the date of birth. They mostly seem to be born in the ’80s. The striking thing about the statistics is how much the news has been suppressed in the Turkish media. I found one day when eight PKK people were killed and out of the 11 newspapers I bought, only six of them even reported it, sometimes just in one line. On Sept. 2, when 10 soldiers were killed, three of the main pro-government newspapers had tiny news items on their pages. This is just a short-term strategy: buying time. People who read the newspapers are getting the wrong idea. If you are not reporting troubles, how can you convince people that Turkey needs a strategy to resolve this conflict? This will only delay solving the problem. The current policy is not sustainable. It is good that the prime minister suggested some reforms, but they need more, and maybe they are building towards that strategy. There is no need to hesitate or worry about political opposition from the mainstream in Turkey. When you look at such reforms such as the TRT-6 [the Kurdish channel on state TV], optional Kurdish lessons, the Kurdish institute, etc., very few people in Turkey objected to it.

‘Turkey will not get support if acts unilaterally regarding Syria’

The Turkish military has fired into Syria for at least four days in a row in retaliation for mortar shells that landed in Turkish territory. How worrisome is the development?

The shelling across the Syrian border is very worrying, but it’s important to present it in its proper context. These were a few shells that were fired during battles on the Syrian side of the border. Turkey replied very vigorously. Syria has now tried to make amends, and Russia has underlined that it takes this seriously. Both sides have stated that they do not wish this conflict to escalate. Ankara should draw a line with this incident and perhaps give some reassurances that it too is not going to add fuel to the flames of what seems sure to be a long, unpleasant civil conflict. Above all, Ankara should keep the Turkish population informed about the reality of the situation. The whole lesson of Syria is that no one country can act alone, there is no military solution to the situation that can be imposed unilaterally from outside. Certainly, Turkey will not get support for trying to do it alone, and any unilateral action that requires occupying areas of northern Syria is very unlikely to work in anything but the very short term.

Is it possible that Turkey is likely to face hostilities in the Shiite axis?

It is true that there are some who are presenting Turkey as a “Sunni” power, in a way that contradicts almost all of the Turkish foreign policy since the fall of the Ottoman Empire. This tendency is more noticeable in Sunni Arab media than in Turkish media, which is obviously an attempt to intimidate those who see themselves as Shiite. Turkey should make sure it manages this perception better. It’s true that the AKP leadership sometimes seems to leave the impression that it too has a sectarian preference, but this is not consistent. Turkey should go back to the excellent neutral stance symbolized by Erdoğan’s visit to Iraq, when he visited Shiite shrines and leaders.

‘Turkey needs to normalize with Cyprus’

You have been working on the Cyprus dispute for some time. Now that Turkey has become quite disenchanted with its EU adventure, is there still hope for normalization?

Turkey has been neglecting its EU story because it’s been feeling rejected by European leaders — quite understandable. The time has come to reassess. There are three areas around Turkey: the Middle East — it’s a disaster and no longer a land of opportunity. The Russian area is OK, but they are not really friendly, are they? There are relations between the US and Turkey, but it is not people to people; it is not something that Turkey as a whole can embrace. What about the EU? It’s Turkey’s biggest relationship. For instance, when you look at the airline connections between Turkey and Europe, it’s a wide, dense, much used web. Ankara is behaving like it does not matter at all. The positive agenda is very nice; [EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan] Füle has done a great job to keep the flame alive. The time has come for Turkey to rethink the value which it attaches to the relationship. Some kind of normalization with the Republic of Cyprus [the Greek Cypriot government is not recognized by Turkey] will be good for Turkey and relieve many tensions. Why not start preparing the ground for a more confederal settlement in Cyprus? In order to have better relations with the EU, normalizing with Cyprus would greatly help. Turkey has to motivate itself in that regard.

Hugh Pope

Based in İstanbul, he is the Turkey/Cyprus project director of the International Crisis Group (ICG), conducting research and writing policy-focused reports on Turkish policy, Turkey’s immediate region and the factors that mitigate or increase the risk of armed conflict. His areas of expertise include Turkish domestic politics, economics, Islam in Turkey, the situation of the Kurds, Turkey’s membership negotiations with the EU, Turkey and the Middle East, the Cyprus dispute and the Turkic world. He worked at The Wall Street Journal (1997-2005) as Turkey and Middle East correspondent. Previously, he worked at The Independent (1990-1997) as the Turkey and Central Asia correspondent, at Reuters (1984-1989) as the Iran and Middle East correspondent and at United Press International (1982-1984) as the Syria and Lebanon correspondent. He has a BA in Oriental studies (Persian with Arabic) from Oxford University (1982). His books include “Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East” (Thomas Dunne/St Martins Press, March 2010), “Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World” (an Economist “Book of the Year” in 2005), and “Turkey Unveiled: a History of Modern Turkey” (a New York Times “notable book” in 1999).