Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently re-intiated peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). Erdogan’s AKP, like Turgut Ozal’s Motherland Party, has sought to address Turkey’s Kurdish Issue – or the Kurds’ Turkey Problem – by focusing on the two groups’ shared muslim identity, rather than the previous policy of forced ethnic assimilation. Erdogan has previously engaged the PKK in peace talks, however, these efforts were unsuccessful. During the previous round of negotiations, Erdogan opted to hold the talks in secret, rather than subject himself to the inevitable backlash from Turkish nationalists (An important AKP voting bloc by the way).
The talks, despite having made some progress, broke down after President Abdullah Gul went public with the negotiations and the subsequent celebration at the Habur border gate in 2009 when Kurdish fighters returned from the PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkish territory. The AKP appeared to have been caught off guard and ill-prepared to deal with the imagery of thousands of Kurds welcoming home the PKK fighters as national heroes. The Turkish nationalist backlash, combined with the AKP’s political ambitions, led to the end of the talks and the re-militarization of the Kurdish issue.
This time around, Erdogan has opted to publicize the talks, which has, in my opinion, placed the responsibility for success squarely on the shoulders of Abdullah Ocalan. Erdogan’s public statements, as well as the policies that his party is now pursuing are politically dangerous, though the powerful Prime Minister has a number of reasons to solve the Kurdish issue. Most importantly, the AKP has shown an off and on commitment to ending the Turkish – Kurdish conflict, which has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives since the current conflict began in 1984. Moreover, Erdogan, who has made no secret of his desire to move to an executive Presidency, has an incentive to engage and secure the support of the Kurdish BDP for his proposed constitution. In addition, Erdogan’s 2009 – 2012 alliance with Turkey’s ultra-nationalist MHP has alienated Turkish liberals, which, despite being less religious than the AKP, are keen on implementing European Union reforms and deepening the country’s democratic system (Both AKP campaign themes).
Erdogan, I am assuming, is betting that if he solves the PKK problem, the majority of Turks, who continue to be wary of negotiating with what they consider to be a terrorist group akin to Al Qaeda, will eventually support his decision. This of course hinges on his kicking out the fighters from Turkish territory, so as to ensure a drop in violence, which would in turn give him the credibility to go before the wary Turkish electorate and claim that he has brought peace. This political path is fraught with potential pitfalls, as illustrated by the recent attack of BDP MPs in the nationalist strongholds of Sinop and Samsun (For an excellent overview of the recent attack, see this blog post by the excellent Frederike Geerdink).
The AKP, however, receives a tremendous amount of political support from nationalists. The AKP, which faces little resistance from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), is far more concerned about the potential for its base to splinter, which would in turn lead to it loosing some votes to the MHP, the BDP, and the Islamist Saadet Party. The AKP, therefore, is seeking to balance the current PKK negotiations with its need to continue to engage and appeal to Turkish nationalists. It is an incredibly difficult policy to pursue and is likely the reason why Erdogan’s messaging has vacillated wildly between themes like re-instituting the death penalty and the need to open chapters for Turkey’s stalled European Union bid.
However, because the AKP has shown an incredible ability to set Turkey’s political agenda – using coordinated leaks, trial balloons, and speeches, which are framed by overarching themes like justice and development (The translation of the AKP’s name) – I believe that the AKP is capable of keeping its coalition together and ending the conflict with the PKK. (The PKK also has a lot to with this, but that is the subject for another blog post.)
However, as I explain in my current piece on Foreign Policy, Ankara has opted to follow Washington’s example of using drones for counter-terrorism missions. Turkey, as I explain in the piece, has developed a surveillance drone and is seeking to use the current platform to develop an armed version. While Ankara has been characteristically opaque about the drones’ development, it does not take a genius to figure out that the Turkish military hopes to use armed drones to shorten to “kill-chain” for targeted strikes against PKK operatives. However, Turkey has not publicized who makes the decisions about when to use deadly force, nor has it publicly explained the legal rationale for using armed drones to assassinate Turkish citizens without due process. (As an EU candidate country, one would assume Turkey would try and figure this out).
Moreover, if the drone is used in the southeast to attack PKK militants, it is likely that some of those killed will be Turkish citizens. Given the trajectory of the cease fire talks, I see a disconnect between Erdogan’s intentions, the likely use of armed drones in the future, and the military establishment’s opaque drone policy. To be clear, I am not advocating that Ankara disarm or cease in its efforts to further develop its anti-terror capabilities. However, I do think it would be prudent for the Turkish government to publicize its drone policies, in order to build trust with the Kurdish minority. Moreover, Turkey should also seek to clarify the current legal structure that has been put in place for the killing of Turkish citizens. (If one does not exist, Ankara should start writing.) It would also be prudent for the Turkish government to explain whether or not it conducts signature strikes (I think it does, one need not look any further than the Uludere tragedy for confirmation).
If Ankara presses ahead with its armed drone program (and it will), the government should seek to be more forthcoming with information about the program’s goals and its intended use. Otherwise, it risks undermining trust with the Kurdish minority and, should the two sides agree to a cease fire, could risk re-igniting the conflict. Moreover, the program, which is still in the design phase, provides Ankara with a political opportunity. On the one hand, Erodgan can tout the program as a symbol of Turkey’s strength – which would win him support from the nationalists. However, he could pair the rhetoric with a clear articulation of Turkey’s drone policy, which should include a clear legal framework for the strikes, in order to assuage Turkish liberals and Turkey’s Kurds. This would allow for him to continue to balance the two sides’ political demands and, from the perspective of AKP political operatives, help them grow their voter base.