Ossie Makepeace writes from Ankara: Ten Turkish security checkpoint troops have been killed by Kurdish rebels (PKK) operating in the south eastern Sirnak province close to the Turkish-Syrian-Iraq border. Another soldier died on Monday from his wounds.
The raid is yet another moment in the nearly 30 year 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 here in the Turkish press, is being encouraged by the Al Assads in neighbouring 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 resolving the Kurdish problem 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 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, all to do with the electorate having had enough of the incompetence of the previous regime.
Mr Erdogan has been reasonably successful in gently changing Turkey for the better. He began by clipping the political wings of the military, but also took them into his confidence regarding 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 set in motion a civil engineering programme that helped generate growth in the economy by building roads, public services including schools and hospitals. Within three years of getting 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 who could do business with Europe (although not over Cyprus) and be a power broker in Middle East politics. But somewhere since that June 2011, he has stumbled. He has come face to face once again with the violent Kurdish 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 thousands of refugees; Gulf States demands for intervention.
Furthermore, PM Erdogan is losing his grip on the plan (his own) to introduce a new Turkish constitution – including a hot potato, a 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 Gűlenists. 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 is 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 tighten the screws. That’s why he has sent in the army against the PKK rather than 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. 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 Gűl ends his term in 2014. If Mr Erdogan is to continue in the power seat of Turkish politics he needs to get Abdullah Gűl’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 militants, 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 too often helpless allies – particularly the US and UK governments – need to get a close regional solution when the opportunity arises to the civil war in Syria.