Preparing for Peace in Turkey
Preparing for Peace in Turkey
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 4 minutes

Preparing for Peace in Turkey

Turkey's activism throughout the Arab Spring and its showy challenges to Israel have gotten Ankara plenty of international attention in the last several months. But closer to home, a disturbing trend is emerging. Since June, at least 150 people have been killed and hundreds injured in an escalation of the Kurdistan Workers' Party's (PKK) long-running insurgency.

It's nothing like the worst days of the conflict in the 1990s—not yet, at least. But the downward spiral already includes familiar kidnappings, tit-for-tat clashes between the PKK and Turkish forces, terrorist bombings, Turkish attacks on PKK bases across the Iraqi border, mass detentions of Turkish Kurds and flashes of ethnic strife between Turkish and Kurdish civilians in major cities.

The escalation is even more significant given that Turks and Kurds have come closer than ever to peace over the past two years. But Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been reluctant to spend enough of his enormous domestic political capital to tackle some of the underlying problems of his 15% Kurdish community. He has allowed a hardening of Turkish anti-terror laws, which have put 3,000 Kurd activists behind bars—not for any violent acts, but because they happen to share the nationalist goals of the PKK. He has not relaxed the ban on Kurds learning their mother tongue at primary and secondary school. Just as importantly, Mr. Erdogan has only briefly attempted to reeducate the Turkish-majority public, whose views have been distorted by a near-century of nationalist education and, in the past, anti-Kurd propaganda.

Mr. Erdogan has taken a more nationalist line since campaigning for the June elections, but he needs to find a way back to the pragmatic negotiating position he adopted after his Justice and Development Party (AKP) took power in 2001. In 2005-09, he developed a strategy that became known as the Democratic Opening. This ended torture in jails, gradually liberalized Kurdish-language broadcasting and higher education, and spread a new sense of normalcy and development to the impoverished, refugee-flooded cities in Turkey's Kurdish-majority southeast.

Not surprisingly, the whole country has benefited. Although these reforms were only steps on the road to fully recognizing Kurds' civil rights, Mr. Erdogan and the AKP have arguably done more for Turkey's Kurds than any previous government. Thanks to this, AKP consistently wins half of ethnic Kurds'votes.

In parallel, Mr. Erdogan allowed state representatives to negotiate secretly with the PKK. Meeting in Turkey, Europe and northern Iraq, they appeared to have reached agreement on essential parts of an eventual peace deal—including an end to the fighting, a gradual amnesty for insurgents, and perhaps better conditions for jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. A major step occurred in October 2009, when the government allowed eight PKK fighters and 26 PKK sympathizers, who had been living in a refugee camp in Iraq, back into Turkey.

But sadly, Mr. Erdogan and the AKP did not ready the Turkish public for the gesture. Instead of the quiet rapprochement the government had envisioned, tens of thousands of Turkish Kurds poured down to the Iraqi border two years ago, overjoyed at the prospect of an end to the conflict that had blighted their lives for generations. Turkish Kurd politicians overplayed their hand, feting the returning insurgents, who were wearing their distinctive guerrilla outfits. The scenes were broadcast nationwide and outraged an unprepared western Turkish opinion, which did not see Kurdish joy at the possibility of peace, but instead saw only celebrations at their own expense. Mr. Erdogan, meanwhile, saw his polls slipping among Turks and instead of standing fast and seizing control of the story, he dropped the initiative.

Tensions again shot up this year after June's national elections, when one of the 36 parliamentary deputies from Turkey's main legal Kurdish nationalist party (Peace and Democracy, or BDP) was stripped of his seat for a last-minute conviction under Turkey's catch-all antiterror laws. Five other newly elected BDP deputies, detained on similar charges, have been kept in jail since June. Amid Kurds' protests, BDP deputies boycotted parliamentary sessions over the summer and only returned to chambers this week. Less visibly, the secretive peace negotiations between the Turkish authorities and the PKK have broken down.

The PKK has clearly been the prime mover in the recently escalating violence, perhaps seeking to impress the Turkish authorities with its disruptive abilities and probably also trying to polarize sentiment to win back influence over Turkish Kurds. But the bloodshed is not helping. New pleas for an end to the fighting from Turkish Kurd civil society show that the vast majority of Kurds do not want to split off from Turkey but want to continue to live and prosper there. And the toll of 79 dead Turkish security forces since June underlines that any government attempt at a military solution will be costly and likely as fruitless as that of the 1990s.

BDP's decision to return to parliament is thus a critical opportunity for the AKP government and Turkish Kurds to find new ways to end the chronic conflict. It goes without saying that the PKK, the armed and dominant wing of the Turkish Kurd nationalist movement, must end its latest wave of terror attacks and commit to legal means of pursuing full rights for Turkish Kurds. Prime Minister Erdogan and the AKP will also have to consider why their recent attempts failed to lessen the mistrust between Turks and Turkish Kurds.

The Turkish authorities must not fall into the PKK's trap and let the ongoing fighting distract them from pursuing a new constitution, legal system and education curriculum cleansed of ethnic discrimination. They should also change laws that have detained thousands of Turkish Kurds for what they think and not what they do, and engage the BDP far more.

To make this all work, Mr. Erdogan will have to use his domestic support to both convince Turkish Kurds of his sincerity and to persuade Turks that equal rights for all ethnicities will strengthen Turkey, not destroy it. Such an effort will take time and consistency, and may prove initially expensive in the polls. But there could be no bigger achievement than ending a conflict that has killed 30,000 people and, by Mr. Erdogan's own estimate, cost $300 billion since 1984. Forging a lasting peace with Kurds would truly yield a "Turkish model" of democracy worth emulating elsewhere in the region.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.