MESOP BOOK RECOMMENDATION : PKK & TURKEY – Book & Panel Discussion with Denise Natali, Ömer Taspinar, Kemal Kirisci (TUSIAD)

Gonul Tol co-wrote & published a new paper for the Brookings Institute, titled “Turkey and the Kurds: From Predicament to Opportunity.”  She and co-author Ömer Taspınar presented the paper at Brookings in a panel discussion on Jan. 22. –  “Turkey and the Kurds: From Predicament to Opportunity” – The Brookings Institute. POMED – Project on Middle East Democracy.

The Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings held a panel on January 22 to discuss a new paper titled, “Turkey and the Kurds: From Predicament to Opportunity.” The discussion centered on “Turkey’s revised approach to finding a solution to its Kurdish question through political cooptation rather than military confrontation.” The authors of the paper, Ömer Taşpınar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute and Gönül Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute sat on the panel with Denise Natali, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University. TUSIAD Senior Fellow, Kemal Kirişci, moderated the discussion.

Ömer Taşpınar opened the discussion with a brief presentation of the paper. He began by outlining the shift in Turkish policy toward the Kurds from an assimilation method, like the French model, to an acceptance of a more multicultural identity, largely due to the failure of the military during the Kurdish insurgency. Taşpınar mentioned that the shift in strategy from a military solution to a political one also stemmed from new relations with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Northern Iraq and the Arab Spring. Referencing recent energy deals, Taşpınar claimed that Turkey exerts soft power with the KRG at the expense of relations with Baghdad and the fight for self-determination in the region has left a “sense that history is on the side of the Kurds”. Taşpınar cites these as evidence for Turkey’s “strategic decision” to coopt the Kurdish issue and play “big brother” to the Kurds and show them that the “Arabs are not [their] friends”. Taşpınar also discussed Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s focus on Islamic unity rather than Turkish nationalism and his “high risk, high reward” strategy of negotiating with the PKK.

Gönül Tol focused on the transnational implications of the paradigm shift in the Turkish approach to the Kurds. She mentioned that the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa had heightened Kurdish ambitions for autonomy and made peaceful solutions more difficult. Tol discussed the Turkish relationship with the KRG, shifting in 2008 when Obama promoted closer ties between the two and as the energy deals became very important for both. She said that from the KRG perspective, it was also a good deal to get closer to Turkey as the United States was leaving. Tol also claimed a peace agreement would help Turkish foreign policy because they would no longer rely on “enemy of my enemy is my friend” strategies like supporting jihadist groups against the PKK affiliate in Syria.

Denise Natali stressed that although a change from military solution to political cooptation was important, it does not mean that there was a paradigm shift. She does not believe a real paradigm shift occurred because there was no constitutional change and the economic and security deals are more about political leverage. She also mentioned that it is unclear if these strategies would persist post-Erdogan or if there would be a retreat. Natali also pointed out that it cannot be a clear paradigm shift until these changes are implemented post-election and not just promised during the campaign. She also did not discount the possibility of violence erupting in the future, because Kurdish expectations are so high.

Gönül Tol responded to Natali’s comments by reasserting her view that there was a true paradigm shift. She claimed that a paradigm shift includes a change in perception and structure, which have both occurred in Turkey. She said that there has been a shift in public perception because people are now discussing autonomy talks and supporting the Kurdish opening while ten years ago they were arrested for listening to Kurdish music. Tol said that the structural change was evident because elected officials are creating the policy instead of the military. She also added that there are problems in the process because there have been concessions from the PKK but the government has not carried out reforms.