US holds back ‘key arms from Turkey, presses for solution’

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet – 18.2.2013 – The United States avoids selling military equipment that could give a deadly blow to the PKK, according to Nihat Ali Özcan, a prominent expert on terrorism. This is because US wants to push Turkey toward negotiation to solve the problem, he says adding Turkey has a five pillar strategy for negotiations.

While the United States recognizes the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization, for the last two decades it has been avoiding selling the kind of military equipment that could give a deadly blow to the PKK, according to a prominent expert on terrorism.

Washington believes that the PKK problem can only be solved through negotiations and it therefore seeks to encourage Turkey toward a negotiated solution, Nihat Ali Özcan told the Hürriyet Daily News in a recent interview.

Do you think fact that the Feb. 1 U.S. embassy bombing was conducted by the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) is a result of a proxy war between Turkey and Syria?

It is not surprising to see that the al-Assad regime is on the same line with the DHKP/C. It is no secret that during the Cold War, Syria hosted Marxist-Leninist movements. When Turkey changed its stance against Iran and Syria, everybody started to look at the old files to see “what kind of networks we had.”

The recent incidents have revived Turkey’s complaints that Europe is not cooperating enough in the fight against terrorism. What is the problem there?

Terror groups have different political aims and every country reads it differently. But there is also a problem of the quality of the legal system. The documents and proofs you provide for what you call a terrorist need to be acceptable by the other side’s legal system. You can’t prove a person is a terrorist with a newspaper article.

There is the same complaint about the United States concerning the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The United States recognizes the PKK as a terrorist organization. When it invaded Iraq, the U.S. did not do anything about the PKK, choosing to live with it side by side. But if it [had wanted] to give assistance that would have struck a deadly blow against the PKK, it could have sold helicopters, because if you want to deal a deadly blow, helicopters are very important. But Washington is not selling them, citing many different reasons.

Why is that?

It sees the process as an uprising. In such a process, the military might have an effect on the organization, but at the end of the day, you can only solve it through negotiations. [The U.S. believes] Turkey should end this through negotiations. It will never say so, but it is trying to push Turkey in that direction. In fact, the political authorities in Turkey believe in negotiations. It has a five-pillar strategy: a security dimension, disarmament and reintegration, reforming the security apparatus – like the army and intelligence – an economic dimension and a legal dimension, which will include a general amnesty.

So you think an amnesty is inevitable?

It is the sine quo non if you embark on such an endeavor. You have to have constitutional reform. Another dimension is to manage public opinion and, finally, the international dimension.

So do you think Turkey is on the right track?

It depends on the implementation and on unpredictable developments. The Arab Spring and its effect on Syria has become the biggest risk factor. [Another factor] is how you are going to synchronize it with the upcoming domestic issues like constitutional changes, general elections and the like.

In what sense has the Syrian crisis jeopardized the government’s strategy?

The PKK gained political legitimacy as it controls nearly 3 million people in Syria. Just as the issue of disarmament is emerging in Turkey, there is now emerging a reason for the PKK not to disarm. Even if it leaves Turkey, the PKK will be unwilling to disarm in order to maintain its strength in Syria, Iraq and Iran. In Syria, it has formed an armed structure and a political entity. We don’t know when al-Assad will leave and what kind of structure will come instead, and we don’t know what will be its position in the new structure; that will be largely determined by the political structure formed there by the PKK.

The second problem is the legal dimension, the constitutional issue. I do not believe the PKK can be convinced if a Kurdish concept is not mentioned in the Constitution. Yet there are risks for the [Turkish] majority to say “yes” to a Constitution which includes a Kurdish definition.

There is also talk about an agreement for a presidential system in exchange for a solution that will satisfy the Kurds. The prime minister is hoping to establish a mechanism that can handle the Kurds when they are recognized as a separate political entity. Even if Kurds are given autonomy, the only thing that can keep this autonomy under control is a president that has the necessary powers. He believes that he can only manage the process if there is a president powerful enough to control and maintain the Kurds in the system even when autonomy is granted to them.

But a Constitution with only the consent of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) could pose serious threats to Turkey’s unity. When you grant Kurds a political structure, if you cannot manage this well, this can lead to ethnic conflict and division.

Are you talking about Turks feeling alienated?

Not just Turks. There are three separate Kurdish issues within Turkey: Kurds that are integrated into the system, Islamist Kurds and the PKK/BDP, which represents the Kurdish nationalist movement. The politics that you will come up to satisfy the PKK will at some point push Islamist Kurds and Kurds integrated into the system into a different frame of mind.

So we might end up in a more complicated situation while trying to solve the problem.

The third problem is that I don’t know to what degree two dominant leaders like [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan and Öcalan can pursue a negotiation that requires democratic tolerance. In addition, Öcalan’s nationalist-ethnic perspective does not overlap with Erdoğan’s perspective that what unites society is religion, that is, Islam.

When you take out the Kurds and differentiate them, what remains are not Muslims. Those remaining will identify themselves with another ethnic identity, as Turks. That will lead to a very dramatic situation. In other words, Islam is the common umbrella of Turks, according to Erdoğan. The problem is ethnic for Öcalan. When you recognize an ethnic identity as a separate entity, whoever remains in the system will not see themselves as Muslims but will identify themselves vis-à-vis the Kurds and thus as Turks. Therefore, there will be an ethnic framework, and Erdoğan’s ideological outlook does not correspond to that framework.

So what are your projections as far as terrorism is concerned?

There are developments in Turkey and the region that will bring terrorism to the agenda.

States are losing their authority. Arms are being transferred into the hands of civilians and terror organizations. There is a widespread conviction that using violence is a shortcut for solutions. When there is economic, social and political turmoil in a region, it is natural that it becomes a center of attraction for radical groups. Therefore, it would not be a surprise Turkey encounters more turbulence caused by terrorism.

Who is Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan ?

Dr. Nihat Ali Özcan is a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey (TEPAV) and a lecturer at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara. He is a retired major from the Turkish Armed Forces, and received his Bachelors degree from the Military Academy/Ankara. After graduating from the Army Transportation School, he served in a number of different units of the Land Forces between 1979 and 1998. He also graduated from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law.

Dr. Özcan’s Master’s degree and PhD were completed at 9 Eylül University in Izmir.He was an Academic Visitor at the CWW program of Oxford University’s History Faculty from October 2010 to May 2011. He has extensive publications on Turkish military, terrorism and counterinsurgency issues.