NİHAT ALİ ÖZCAN : Israel’s Gaza operation and the PKK problem


This is not a piece about the effects of Israel’s counter-insurgency experiences on Turkey’s strategies regarding the struggle against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Nevertheless, this is not to say that the Gaza operation does not come in handy for the Turkish government in its efforts to manage the PKK problem. – Last week, the PKK posed a significant challenge to the government with the hunger strikes and systematic protests. The government was not able to stop these protests. It also could not deal with the problem by making tactical concessions.

The PKK’s strategy was quite simple: Hunger strikes, street protests, armed attacks and political pressure came together to increase the tension. The creation of the typical “Arab street” of the Arab Spring in Turkey was a real possibility. This was enough to alarm the government. Its response was to urgently manage the problem — for now. Covert negotiations helped postpone the crisis.

The PKK succeeded in striking many birds with one stone. First of all, it demonstrated its disciplined and committed nature. Its method brought on board Kurds who were not direct supporters.

Secondly, the PKK tested and saw the usefulness of its intimidation and attrition strategy. We can expect that this strategy, which catches the spirit of the times, will be used more frequently. The PKK discovered the strong and weak points of the political system and learnt how to react to them.

Thirdly, Abdullah Öcalan the terrorist once again had the opportunity to show his power and importance. The government, on the other hand, had to be reconciled with the Öcalan reality, an issue in which making concessions is most difficult.

Fourthly, the PKK managed to force the government to make concessions on those issues that were listed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his speech at the party congress as a program for the next decade within the short span of two months. In the days ahead, the government may have to prepare a shorter-term and more costly list. Such a list may trump Erdoğan’s presidential aspirations.

On the whole, the PKK not only gained the right to negotiate, but also opened a breach in the political system, as well as one in the discourse of “Muslim brotherhood.”

However, with the conflict between Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurds introducing a new dimension to the political balance in the region, Erdoğan may gain the upper hand just when the PKK thinks it has a psychological advantage.

It is no surprise that Öcalan’s role was downplayed by the Turkish media, which is busying itself with a less risky subject: Israel’s Gaza operation. Although Erdoğan’s reaction to Israel is fuelled by his “ideology,” the Gaza operation has other important functions for such a pragmatic leader. After all, for the time being, discussing Gaza – rather than discussing our own problems – is less costly for everyone concerned.