Last Saturday was another “historic” day in Diyarbakir, the de-facto capital for Turkey's Kurds. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani and Kurdish musician Şivan Perwer, who fled Turkey because of state repression, addressed the crowd in an attempt to revive Turkey's stalled negotiation process with the Kurds.
Erdoğan used the term “Kurdistan” for the first time and stated, “We will witness a new Turkey in which those in the mountains will come down and the prisons will be empty.” Is this “historic” day yet another of Erdoğan's grandiose projects? What does last Saturday tell us about the current puzzling state of Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy?
Let's be crystal clear. Erdoğan visited Diyarbakır and invited two important Kurdish figures for important symbolic and political reasons that reveal the strategic links between Turkey's negotiation process and regional and energy politics. Erdoğan's Diyarbakır visit can be interpreted as a confidence-building measure designed to overcome the obstacles that stalled the peace process.
It is obvious that the negotiating parties still cannot trust each other despite months of negotiations, particularly because the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has not fulfilled its promises and implemented concrete action. The "yes, but not enough" democratization package failed to abolish the ban on Kurdish-language education in public schools and overlooked the devolution of power to local institutions, which were two of the most important Kurdish demands.
Since then, especially due to the state repression occurring after the Gezi Park protests, many Kurds lost faith in Erdoğan, arguing that his democratization packages aimed at securing him extra time and were in fact a ploy ahead of the 2014 elections. There are many reasons why the AKP cannot deliver a satisfactory democratization package, and Erdoğan's Diyarbakır visit is important because it illustrates these failures.
Erdoğan is reaching out to Kurdish people directly, bypassing the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which reluctantly welcomed him to Diyarbakır. Although Erdoğan was well-received by the people, progress in the negotiation process will very much depend on the inclusion of the BDP and the release of imprisoned members of the Kurdistan Communities' Union (KCK). Erdoğan implied that the prisons will be emptied, but this is particularly problematic, as it implies political influence has been exerted on the part of the judiciary. The Kurds are cautious because Erdoğan wants to negotiate from a position of power and thereby exclude some key political actors.
Erdoğan's historic Diyarbakır visit also reveals Turkey's geopolitical calculations, including a potential third-party role for Barzani. The Turkey-KRG partnership is based on energy politics, as Turkey is encouraging Turkish companies to invest in the region (Turkey refrains from making official state partnerships, given its already bad relations with the Nouri al-Maliki government in Iraq). Genel Energy, an Anglo-Turkish oil company, had already started to export crude oil from Iraqi Kurdistan in January 2013, and with the recent pipeline agreements, Turkey has to maintain security and order in southeastern Turkey, which means it also has to resolve the Kurdish question and improve its relations with Iraq's Maliki government. The KRG-Turkey energy deal is particularly important to Turkey, whose energy needs are likely to double in the near future, and the KRG offers comparatively cheap oil and gas.
This is where Turkey's interests clash with those of Iran and Russia, since, if the pipeline and energy framework work effectively, Turkey is less likely to depend on those countries, meaning that the regional power balance might shift. It is also no secret that Kurdistan, in particular the KRG, has become another area of competition for Turkey and Iran, which is likely to become a game changer in Middle East politics. Resolving the Kurdish question peacefully will remove a strategic vulnerability and decrease Turkey's energy dependency on Russia and Iran. The puzzle is now whether Maliki will respond positively to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's visit and become a party to the energy deal between Turkey and the KRG. This might be more elusive than Turkey expects.
Turkey's miscalculated and overconfident policies caused yet another dilemma for Turkish decision-makers when the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) emerged as a key political player in Rojava, controlling the northern Syrian territories independently of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Although Barzani and Erdoğan are reluctant to accept the PYD's achievements in Syria, and accuse it of collaborating with embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the PYD has already built independent structures of governance in Rojava.
Despite international pressure, Syrian Kurds' desire for independence or a semi-autonomous region is clear, and regardless of the length of the Syrian civil war, the PYD is highly likely to emerge triumphant. If history is any guide, the KRG example in Iraq shows that the rebel structures established during the civil conflict with Saddam Hussein were a precursor to statehood for Iraqi Kurds. Despite the regional strains, opportunities such as Assad's decision to pull his forces out of Rojava and the concerns of neighboring countries, including Iraq, about radical groups the PYD is fighting, might enable the Kurds to advance their statehood bid and further develop their structures of government. Indeed, Turkey's hostile position towards the PYD and its decision to construct a border wall in the Nusaybin district of Mardin province, separating the Kurds of Turkey and Syria, might be costly in the long run, both in domestic politics and foreign policy.
This is where Barzani might play a third-party role of mediation between Kurds and the AKP.
News leaks reveal that the PKK's imprisoned leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the BDP want a third party to guide the negotiation process and force the AKP to take concrete political steps before Turkey enters the election season. Despite the Kurds' demand for Spanish or British mediation, the AKP is more content with Barzani's mediation, which complicates the negotiation process. Intra-Kurd rivalry might seem more beneficial to Turkey now, but its sustainability remains unknown, and ordinary Kurds are smart enough to notice how the game is being played. If the BDP and particularly Öcalan do not accept Barzani's mediation at this stage, what will the AKP government do? Will the government find itself another mediator, or blame the Kurds for the failure?
Erdoğan's Diyarbakır visit might build confidence between the AKP and its interlocutors if its spoken policies translate into concrete action. But a major question remains: Can the Turkish government successfully manage the emerging conflict within the AKP, revive its foreign policy and negotiate a new relationship with political actors who severely criticize the government for its repressive and illiberal measures? Can the AKP remain the single ruling party?
This article was first published on Today’s Zaman on 18 November 2013.