Is the Kurdish Peace Process Still a Priority for Turkey?

Publisher: Radikal (Turkey) – By Murat Yetkin

23.8.2013 – Turkey’s wanting a respected top official of a major international organization to pay the price for the country’s deepening Middle East morass only illustrates how disquieting Turkey’s Middle East policy has become. Wasn’t the secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation [OIC] Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu a top gun only yesterday?

We are blaming the top official of a huge organization with 57 member states for not implementing Turkish foreign policy, even though his real function is to convey the joint decisions of that body. Worse still, the OIC, of which Turkey is a member, has not even called for a meeting. Its current president is Egypt. It is possible to interpret this grave and harsh criticism of Ihsanoglu as a lapse of Turkey’s attention to the region’s political realities.

Only a couple of years ago, Turkey was justifiably boasting how it was talking to all official and non-official actors of the Middle East. Today we have no ambassadors in Egypt, Israel and Syria, the top three major countries of the region. Turkey, which until recently was involved in efforts to save hostages in different countries of the region, is now asking for Iran’s assistance to rescue the Turkish pilots kidnapped in Lebanon, and the help of the regime it is denouncing in Egypt to free the TRT correspondent detained in Cairo.

Egypt is replacing Syria in Ankara’s agenda as the top item, while we get the impression that the efforts to find a solution to the Kurdish issue are now on the back burner.

Let’s rewind back a bit to understand the situation better. Lots of water has passed under the bridge since President Abdullah Gul in 2009 declared, “The Kurdish issue is the number one issue of Turkey.” That is when the Turkish government initiated contacts with the illegal Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. That process quickly gained momentum way beyond the control of Turkey or anybody else.

In 2010 the agenda was laden with severing ties with Israel because of the Mavi Marmara flotilla tragedy and the Sept. 12, 2010 constitutional referendum occurring back home.For Turkey, the Arab Spring was not a turning point when it started in Tunisia  in 2010. It became one with the involvement of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Libya. Erdogan, who only 10 days [prior to the outbreak of the Tunisian revolution] had received a prize for human rights from the hands of Moammar al-Gadhafi, contributed to his downfall by supporting the NATO task force with Turkish air and naval assets.

Then came Egypt. Until that moment Turkey had been playing an important role supporting Egyptian efforts for Israel-Palestine negotiations. But when the Tahrir uprising — initially ignored by the Muslim Brotherhood — quickly developed, Ankara called on former President Hosni Mubarak to withdraw and supported the revolution. When Mohammed Morsi became the president as a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan saw it as new opportunity in the region.

At that time, Syria was mired in turmoil and the Brotherhood was the main body of the opposition. Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were close enough to call each other “brother.” We (Turkey) were having joint cabinet meetings with the Baath regime and opening [our shared] border. To be honest, Erdogan and Davutoglu tried hard with the US and EU to avoid turning Syria into another Libya. They were actually successful enough to regret it later on.

When Ankara could not persuade Damascus to tolerate the opposition, it started to ask the West to intervene in Syria. But the winds have changed direction. Russia, with its sole military base of the region in Syria, blocked the UN road, saying it had been fooled in Libya. In the meantime, the emergence of Jabhat al-Nusra from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood and its later alignment with al-Qaeda placed Ankara in a key position vis-à-vis the US and EU.

Ankara’s Middle East policy, which deemed connections with the Muslim Brotherhood an important instrument, received its worst blow from the coup in Egypt. For example, this event forced the indefinite postponement of Erdogan’s plan to visit Gaza through the Rafah crossing without going through Israel. On Aug. 19, there was a statement in the daily Hurriyet by Khaled Hodja, the spokesman in Turkey for the Syrian National Coalition, who said that the coup in Egypt strengthened Assad in Syria.In the meantime, there were important developments regarding the Kurdish issue. The Oslo process that had collapsed was reactivated in 2012 upon instructions from Erdogan with talks between Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The increasing power of Syrian Kurds in the civil war there, the PKK-affiliated PYD gradually taking control of Kurdish-populated settlements along the Turkish border and entering into clashes with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra for control of the rest of the region were also key developments.

Now, as Turkey heads toward three important elections in 2014 and 2015, the government is expected to contribute to the Kurdish solution and announce an expected “package of democratization.” As this package is delayed because of the parliamentary recess, the vacation mindset is fading away.

Ankara’s agenda appears to have been overtaken by Egypt, having pushed Syria to the background despite daily incidents. The question now is: Is Turkey’s top priority the Kurdish issue as President Gul said? Or is it Syria or Egypt? Or are we proceeding without deciding on a priority on the assumption that we are in control of the situation? Since we are all in the same boat, it is our right to know the answer.  Read more: