Christopher Lee

Erdogan & Kurds & Syria & Presidential Palaces – don’t add up


3rd September 2012

Ten Turkish security checkpoint troops were killed by Kurdish rebels (PKK) operating in the south eastern Sirnak province close to the Turkish-Syrian-Iraq border. Another soldier died Monday from his wounds.

The raid is another moment in the nearly 30 years feud between Turkey and PKK militants who demand their own homeland in this part of Turkey. No Turkish government has been able to resolve the confrontation which, if you accept what authorities are saying in the Turkish capital, is being encouraged by the Al Assads in neighboring Syria.

Turkey is against the Syrians in their civil war and so it’s in Syrian interests to exacerbate  the Kurdish-Turk violence.

There was a point when some pundits in the region thought the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was quietly successful in calming the whole Kurdish Question in his country, a question without too many answers that goes beyond the PKK demands for a homeland.

However, how to handle Kurdish demands (mostly at domestic level including education) is in Mr Erdogan’s schedule of political ambition.  That ambition is fast becoming less and less liberal and accommodating. The reason for this is his long term personal political hopes. He leads the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AK) that got into power in 2002.  AK won the election (and others since, including last year) because the electorate had had enough of the incompetence of the previous regimes.

Mr Erdogan has been reasonably successful in gently changing Turkey for the better.

He began by clipping the political wings of the military but by bringing them into confidence of future plans for the country.

He brought in social reforms – including a better deal for women in employment and for the stateless Kurdish population.  At the same time he got going a civil engineering program that would help generate the economy by building roads, public services including schools and hospitals.  Within three years of getting to power, Mr Erdogan’s reforms including cautious and limited Human Rights improvements were looking good enough for the European Union to open preliminary talks about EU membership.

When AK got in for a third time in the summer of 2011, Mr Erdogan was looking like a leader that could do business with Europe (although not over Cyprus) and be a power broker in Middle East politics.

But somewhere since that June 2011 night of promise, Mr Erdogan has stumbled. He has come face to face once again with Kurdish violent opposition. He has to handle his country’s position with what’s going on next door in Syria – who to support and why; hundreds of thousand of refugees; Gulf States demands for intervention.

Furthermore, he is losing his grip on the plan (his own) to introduce a new Turkish constitution – including a hot potato clause that Kurdish pupils and students should be taught in Kurdish.  

This massive change in the Turkish social and political rule book needs all-party support. Just when that’s needed, Mr Erdogan is on a collision course with the Muslim Gulenists (named after Gul, the president).  They for a start, are not going to let the Kurds get anything to improve their lot.  He has the parliamentary majority he needs, but Turkish politics are not simply a matter of numbers.  The political game in Ankara is called pragmatism. Majorities may bring about changes, but only pragmatism allows them to work

One result is Mr Erdogan’s change of tactics.  Instead of sanctioning secret talks with Kurdish leaders, he has started to turn the screw. That’s why he has sent in the army against the PKK rather than the political negotiators.  Thousands of Kurds – including nearly 3000 students – have been arrested and jailed.  Almost any journalist calling for social and educational improvements has been tried and jailed. With one eye on the possibility of yet another palace revolution, senior army officers – up to and including generals- have been arrested.  The army is nervous and lip-buttoning – for the moment. In short, Mr Erdogan’s sense of nationalism is far removed from his early ambition for a modern state.

This all comes when Mr Erdogan has to rethink his personal future.   He cannot continue as AK leader. Coincidentally to this, the present president, Abdullah Gul ends his term in 2014.  If Mr Erdogan is to continue in the power seat of Turkish politics he needs to get Abdullah Gul’s job.

So what we have is an increasingly hard-line prime minister, accusing Syria of inciting instability and internally, less able to treat with the political and religious opposing groups.  It is the ideal time for any militancy, especially the PKK, to cause further havoc. That’s exactly what is happening and will continue to happen.

It does not produce the ideal circumstances that supporting but often helpless allies – particularly the US and UK governments – need to leap aboard a close regional solution when the opportunity arises to the civil war in Syria

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