Monday, December 28, 2009

The ambush and killing of seven Turkish soldiers two weeks ago by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was a desperate act by an increasingly irrelevant organization marginalized by the Turkish government’s initiative to expand political and cultural rights of Kurds.

Sensational violence is a way for the PKK to prove it is still a player. As long as there is deadly conflict, the PKK can justify its existence. Conflict also sustains the PKK’s trafficking, extortion and racketeering that keeps it in business. Kurdish extremists are not the only ones, however, who benefit from a resurgent PKK. It is also fodder for hard-liners in Turkey, including elements of the military, who are seeking to discredit Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), undermine the AKP government, and restore the secularist order that they believe has been tarnished by the AKP’s Islamist tendencies.

Mr. Erdogan is at a fork in the road. He could succumb to demands from an outraged polity to focus on a security solution targeting the PKK. Or he could choose a more balanced approach emphasizing both security and further reforms to drain the swamp of support for the organization.

His deliberation was pre-empted by Turkey’s constitutional court that on Dec. 11 banned the Democratic Society Party (DTP) and its leaders for undermining national unity. The ruling was no surprise. The court is a staunch defender of the nationalist establishment. Moreover, the DTP invited opprobrium by acting as a stalking horse for the PKK. Instead of using its 21 seats in the national parliament and control of local governments to serve their Kurdish constituents, the DTP has been more concerned with serving the interests of Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader reviled by Turks.

Since the court’s decision, outraged Kurds in Turkey have taken their protests to the streets. The PKK never needed an excuse for sensational violence, but now it has one. Not only does the prospect of armed conflict loom large. Events could easily unravel cooperation between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government, which Turkish nationalists accuse of providing sanctuary to the PKK in the rugged Qandil Mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border.

Mr. Erdogan must show decisive leadership during this moment of crisis. He cannot roll back the Kurdish opening or progress with Iraqi Kurdistan. Nor can he stand still. Instead of reacting to events, his only course is to keep pushing for reforms and, in a major address to the Turkish nation, explain his plan for addressing the PKK problem once and for all.

In his address, Mr. Erdogan would announce intensified security measures to protect Turkey’s citizens. Protecting the polity is of first and foremost importance to any head of state.

At the same time, Mr. Erdogan should reaffirm the AKP’s commitment to a multifaceted approach that addresses the root causes of conflict through democracy and development. Turkey’s constitution, which was adopted after the military coup of 1980, needs to be overhauled. Its preamble equating “Turkishness” with citizenship is deeply offensive to minorities. The AKP should also repeal regressive legislation, such as the antiterror statute that has been used to limit freedom of expression and Article 301 of the Penal Code that makes it an offense to “denigrate Turkishness.”

Another part of the solution can be found by improving living conditions in the Southeast, where unemployment is 30 percent. Ravaged by decades of war, reconstruction requires greater investment in infrastructure, road and water works, as well as support for rural enterprises. Social development such as health care and education, particularly for girls, as well as programs to emancipate women from their traditional roles in Kurdish feudal society should also be emphasized.

Political reform and economic development may moderate Turkey’s Kurds. However, the PKK problem will not go away until its leaders make the strategic decision that they want and will pursue peace.

Some kind of amnesty arrangement will be required for this to occur. Mr. Erdogan should begin a public discussion about selective amnesty. To be sure, amnesty is a repugnant concept to many Turks whose emotions have been riled by media reports of grieving families clutching photographs and crying over the coffins of PKK victims. Though Turkey has a long history of amnesties, foregoing punitive justice will be a bitter pill for Turks to swallow.

Mr. Erdogan will have to summon both strength and statesmanship during this time of crisis. He should resist demands by his critics for a military solution that would polarize Turkish society, embolden the PKK, and galvanize the AKP’s domestic political opponents. A more multifaceted approach will garner support from a majority of Turks, including former supporters of the DTP, who are weary of conflict.

David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding at the American University in Washington.

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