BACKGROUND: The Turkish Islamists look back at the era of the Ottoman Empire and see Turks and Kurds living together, untouched by ethnic nationalism, united in a common reverence for the Sultan and the Caliphate. This pristine condition was ended with the advent of the republican regime, with the abolition of the sultanate and of the Caliphate, which led to a surge of nationalism, and resulted in provoking the rebellion of the Kurds.
The Turkish Islamists generally have traditionally felt an affinity with the Kurds, identifying with their fate as the co-victims of a “common enemy.” As the Turkish Islamists perceive it, the republican regime – while oppressing the Kurdish people with its nationalist policies – in equal measure oppressed all the Muslims of Turkey with Jacobin secularist policies. Thus, they assume that enmity to the republic provides a uniting ground for Turkish and Kurdish Muslims. This assumption has been a loadstar for the policies of the government of Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Turkey’s ruling AKP has its roots in the movement of political Islam. In ideological terms, the party represents a synthesis of Islamism and of neo-liberalism. Its views on the Kurdish problem have been formed by the Islamist legacy. Typically, the AKP does not acknowledge the ethno-political nature of the Kurdish problem and the fact that the Kurdish demands are expressions of a collective identity that calls for recognition; instead, the party presupposes that the issue will be solved on the basis of an “Islamic brotherhood.” This is the assumption that lies behind the negotiations that the AKP has been conducting with the Kurdish political movement.
During the AKP’s twelve years in government, two negotiation processes have been launched. The first round of the negotiations came to be known as the “Oslo meetings” as they were conducted in the Norwegian capital between the representatives of the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MİT) and representatives of the PKK. The aim of the Turkish state is to secure the disarmament of the PKK, and to effectively neutralize the legal wing of the Kurdish political movement; this is important not least because with its secular nationalism the latter is an obstacle to the objective of assuring the preeminence of the Islamic identity in the Kurdish geography of Turkey.
The PKK, meanwhile, has engaged in the negotiations in order to ascertain to what extent the Turkish state is prepared to accommodate its demands. The Oslo meetings were kept secret from the public, and had to be terminated when their contents were leaked. The Oslo process was the casualty of the power struggle that was erupting between the two former partners of the Islamist power coalition, the AKP and the Fethullah Gülen fraternity, with the latter making use of the sensitive Kurdish issue to deal a blow to then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
When the negotiations resumed, the Turkish state was once again represented by MİT, but the interlocutor on the Kurdish side had changed: the PKK leaders who had been present in Oslo were now replaced with Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of PKK. The Turkish state had on other occasions held talks with Öcalan – who has been kept prisoner on the İmralı Island in the Sea of Marmara since 1999 – but this was the first time that he was accepted as a de facto official interlocutor.
IMPLICATIONS: What was it that had prompted a new round of negotiations, and why was it that Öcalan was made an interlocutor? This was probably due to two reasons. The first reason is that the PKK had decided to seek “control of territory” and declared a “people’s revolutionary war” before the second round of negotiations started. The PKK’s change of tactics meant that the previous “hit and run” tactics were abandoned, with the group seeking to entrench itself in territory that it took control over. The Kurdish militants also inflicted heavy casualties on the Turkish troops, and the funerals of fallen soldiers became a challenge to the claim of the government that stability ruled in the country. They effectively forced it to resume the negotiations and to cease fire.
The second reason was related to the developments in Syria, where the Kurdish forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) established the Kurdish autonomous region of Rojava (Western Kurdistan) in 2012. Ideologically and organizationally, the PYD recognizes the supremacy of Öcalan and the PKK, and its armed units are trained by the PKK. Faced with the fact that that a PKK-affiliated organization was in the process of establishing a state-like structure along its Syrian border, the AKP had further reason to feel compel to return to the negotiations. The aim was to contain the growing Kurdish threat, but also to turn the Syrian Kurds into allies of Turkey in its quest to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
For their part, Öcalan and the PKK saw that an historical opportunity was being offered; rather than fighting on two fronts, the Kurdish movement opted for a cease-fire within the borders of Turkey, devoting its military strength to the defense of Rojava. When the jihadi group calling itself the “Islamic State” (ISIS) launched an offensive against Kobane, one of the cantons of Rojava, the PKK was able to fend off the attack after a fight that exacted a heavy toll, in the process proving that its decision had been the right one. The AKP-ruled Turkey, meanwhile, expected Kobane to fall, and was indeed accused by the Kurds and others of supporting the jihadis. The fight over Kobane in the fall of 2014 had the appearances of a proxy war between PKK and Turkey. Nonetheless, both sides continue to have strategic and tactical stakes in the pursuit of the negotiation process.
For the AKP government, regional developments have not only underlined the necessity of pursuing the process; they have simultaneously comforted the AKP in its belief that the Kurdish problem stands to be solved within the context of an “Islamic fraternity.”
The unique contribution of the AKP to the traditional solution formula of Turkish Islamism has been to add an “imperial vision” to it. To the representatives of the AKP, the upheavals in the Middle East that were ignited by the “Arab Spring” appeared to have provided Turkey with an unprecedented opportunity to project power in the region, with the Kurdish card in particular having the potential of serving such Turkish “imperial” interests.
This provided a new imperative for making peace with the Kurds: in the most exalted versions of the AKP’s vision of a “new Turkey,” a Turkey that had concluded a peace accord with the Kurdish political movement would then be free to seek regional preeminence, and indeed even a global role. The expectation is that Turkey would be supported in this endeavor by the Kurdish federal region of Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish entity in Rojava.
Interestingly, this was a prospect that Öcalan appeared to have endorsed at the beginning of the negotiations with him. Öcalan was reported to have told visiting deputies representing the Kurdish movement in the Turkish parliament that the Kurdish problem cannot be solved as long as the present definition of citizenship in the Turkish constitution remains in place, and that the religiously based “millet” system of the Ottoman era should be emulated.
On his Newroz message on March 21, 2013, Öcalan said that Islam is what unifies the different ethnic groups in Turkey; indeed, he suggested that the prospective Turkish-Kurdish alliance was going to enable Turkey to grow in territory. However, Öcalan has not returned to this theme in subsequent statements.
CONCLUSIONS: As things stand today, it is difficult to claim that any concrete steps have been taken toward a solution of the Kurdish problem. Turkey has not taken any of the steps that the Kurdish side has been calling for, while the PKK – although adhering to the cease-fire – has not shown any signs of being prepared to pull out of Turkey or any less of surrendering its arms.
The priority for the AKP government in the run-up to the general election in June is to protect what has been achieved – a stop to the fighting – which is a goal that is also shared by the Kurdish movement. The cease-fire in Turkey means that the Kurds are free to concentrate their resources on upholding their gains in Rojava. Renewed fighting in Turkey would only risk jeopardizing those hard-won gains.
However, the absence of violence does not mean that Turkey is any nearer to reaching a solution to the Kurdish problem today than it was when the negotiations with the PKK started. The AKP is not going to abandon the hope that the Kurdish issue can be neutralized within the framework of the “Sunni Nation” that the party is constructing. But that would require that the Kurdish political movement volunteers to support the AKP in this endeavor.
Fatih Yaşlı, Ph.D., teaches at Abant İzzet Baysal University, Turkey. He is also a columnist of the Turkish daily Yurt. He has recently published AKP, Cemaat, Sünni-Ulus – Yeni Türkiye Üzerine Tezler (AKP, Cemaat, Sunni Nation – Theses on the New Turkey)