Friday, December 17, 2010
One could only have imagined that a representative from Turkey could share a podium with a representative from the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, a couple of years ago – but such a meeting was conducted by the Middle East Institute, or MEI, in Washington just two weeks ago under very ordinary circumstances.
Can Oğuz, a counselor who worked Turkey’s consulate in the KRG in recent years, now at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, represented the Turkish side at the panel, and elaborated on the Turkish engagement in especially Northern Iraq, and accentuated how Iraq’s stability, as a balancing actor in region, is important for the whole region’s stability.
“Iraq-Turkey High Level Strategic Cooperation Council,” which was created between Turkey and Iraq a couple of years ago aims to “reconstruct Iraqi society” and “create stability and security in the region" along with other goals, Oğuz said.
Now, thanks to fast increasing trade between the borders, northern Iraq has by itself, become the 10th largest trading partner of Turkey, Oğuz said.
Qubad Talabani, KRG’s U.S. representative, at the same panel, was equally optimistic about the better partnership prospects between the regional administration and Turkey, and said Turkey, Iraq and the United States had a lot of overlapping objectives when looking toward Iraq’s future.
Not simply Turkey’s engagement with the KRG, but also the Turkish government’s Kurdish opening was debated in Washington last week at another platform.
At the Brookings Institution, Gönül Tol, Turkey projects director at the MEI, who also took the initiative to put together above Turkey-northern Iraq discussion at the MEI a week earlier, charged that Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s much discussed Kurdish opening, in essence, was a “preemptive attempt” to respond to Abdullah Öcalan’s roadmap for the Kurdish question. Tol argued that the economic interdependence between Turkey and the KRG had eased tensions and fear among both the military establishment and the governing party and was working to diminish Kurdish separatism calls within Turkey.
Hanri Barkey, a Turkey expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made a presentation at the same panel that was loaded with some sharp warnings. Barkey, who visits the region often, said the AKP’s Kurdish initiative had opened “Pandora’s box,” and concluded his remarks by saying that he expected the process that the initiative had started was going to be messy, but that the clock was not likely to be rewound.
Barkey said Turkey’s stability might have a bleak future, if the Kurdish question is not addressed “in one way or other.” Not many expect the AKP to take any bold steps before the June 2011 general elections. However, experts predict that once the election is over, the government, likely to be another AKP administration, will have to move quickly to deal with the Kurdish issue.
The idea of secession or armed struggle is being abandoned, said Barkey, but new political structures like the Kurdish Communities Union, or KCK, appear to offer a very different challenge to the Turkish state because the latter is not a territorially bound attempt. (A trial against the KCK is continuing against over 1,500 people, including 12 mayors and other politicians.)
The court indictment against the KCK, according to Barkey, charges the KCK with attempting to “create a parallel institution to the Turkish state for the Kurds,” in which the Kurds, regardless of a country, will find “an alternative political identity where one can also have citizenship.”
The AKP, to its credit, took a great risk in 2009 to move on the Kurdish question, but then failed to address it adequately. It is obvious that Ankara, which advocates proactive policies in the region and wants to use its democratic facet as leverage, has to deal comprehensively with the decades-old Kurdish question if it claims to have any pretensions regional power status.
From the talks in Washington in the last two weeks, it appeared that the Turkish government had made enormous progress to acknowledge the KRG and has used its ties with it in a mutually beneficial manner so that both peoples can thrive.
From the talks in Washington, the same Turkish government also appeared quite authoritarian – as it did in the 1990s – and confused in light of the new challenges like the KCK case.
Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the largest Turkish Muslim movement, sharply rebuked this week any rapprochement toward the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, or its imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan.
When talking to active members of the movement this week, it was obvious that they too are bothered by the alleged “olive branch” between the two. The movement is not only annoyed because it is Öcalan or it is related to the Kurdish question, but historically the movement kept its distance from any kind of violence from the beginning, and they believe the image of close relations with Öcalan runs contrary to what they have done and believed.
Gülen’s view of authority, whether it is the 1980 military establishment or Israeli commandos in the eastern Mediterranean, has always displayed a pattern of obedience, not rebellion. And that is why, in recent times, allegations about the ammunition found in the movements’ houses sounded flat wrong from the get-go. The movement has many aspects to be criticized, but ought not to be accused as supporting violence.
It is well known to everyone that the Gülen movement is a strong contender against the PKK in Turkey’s Southeast region which vies for the Kurdish youth by investing heavily in terms of schools or “light houses,” in which the movement gives religious education and its narrative to the youth.
However, the movement, even though it sees it as vital to have a stake in the Kurdish question, has always stayed away from Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, much like it stays away from Turkey’s other opposition parties, Republican People’s Party, or CHP, and Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP.
In this context, a solid rebuke on Gülen’s part against any kind rapprochement with Öcalan is understandable, though still falls short when it is not completed by reaching out to “other” Kurdish elements. Instead, the movement appears to be working to create its own “mild,” if not “fully Islamized” Kurdish interlocutors for the future.
Not surprisingly, Ahmet Türk and Selahattin Demirtaş, the former and current leaders of the BDP, also took issue with the rapprochement news last week, charging the movement with seeding factions among Kurdish people.
The Gülen movement is a very significant power in Turkey for its monumental presence and its potential role to check Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, especially following the June 2011 general election.
It is true that traditional checks of Turkey on Erdoğan government, especially if it were to fetch another victory in June, are quite weak. On the other hand, Gülen is still remembered for his public reprimand of Erdoğan during the flotilla incident last summer, a stance that did not go unnoticed by the Western media and gained him quite a few supporters in Washington, especially Jewish-American circles who have interests in Turkish matters. It was also noted that Erdoğan, who is well known for his wrath when confronted publicly, whether by a secular or Islamic actor, has chosen to stay quiet on the public rebuke, much to the surprise of many observers who are unaware of Gülen’s unique influence in Turkey.
The Gülen movement, following decades in the making, still wants to prove its inclusive approach and tolerance in Turkey and abroad, and it seems that the Kurdish question, which has been discussed in Washington in recent weeks, could be a good platform for them to show some of that color.