May 14, 2013 | Foreign Policy

Erdogan’s Great Gamble

Something quite extraordinary — perhaps even historic — is afoot in Turkey. The country's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is engaged in a colossal roll of the political dice, an act of statesmanship, ambition, and hubris largely without parallel on the current world stage. At one and the same time, Erdogan appears set on a course that could result not only in redefining the very nature of the modern Turkish nation-state, but in a radical revision of the Turkish Republic's core national security tenets as well. How the gambit plays out could have momentous implications for the future of Turkey, for sure, but also for the broader Middle East region and even the United States.

At the center of Erdogan's play is an effort to resolve Turkey's “Kurdish problem” — the chronic, often bloody conflict that has torn at the fabric of the Turkish state since its founding 90 years ago. On one side: the highly exclusive Kemalist conception of Turkish citizenship that all but denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity (no Kurds here, only “mountain Turks”) and effectively banned Kurdish language, history, and culture from the nation's public life. On the other: a fiercely proud and distinct people, the Kurds, whose decades-long struggle for recognition and self-determination has — not surprisingly — regularly found expression in demands for independent nationhood, an ever-present separatist dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey's territorial integrity and unity. Since 1984, this clash of competing nationalisms has manifested itself most virulently in the brutal war waged against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a Leninist organization that both the United States and the European Union have officially designated as a terrorist group.

Now, in a bold and risky effort to cut through this Gordian knot, Erdogan has launched a new peace process in which his main partner is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the infamous PKK leader who has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. Revered by many (though by no means all) Kurds, Ocalan is reviled by the majority of ethnic Turks, condemned as a murderous enemy of the republic, a master terrorist whose hands are covered in the blood of innocents.

After months of secret negotiations with Erdogan's intelligence chief, Ocalan issued a dramatic cease-fire declaration from his jail cell on March 21, the Kurdish new year. The statement was presented publicly in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey, where it was read out by Kurdish parliamentarians to a massive crowd waving Kurdish flags and portraits of the PKK leader. According to Ocalan, “A new era is beginning; arms are silencing; politics are gaining momentum. It is time for our [PKK] armed entities to withdraw [from Turkey].” Ocalan condemned as “an inhuman invention” past efforts to form states “on a single ethnicity and nation.” Today, he stated, “everybody is responsible for the creation of a free, democratic, and egalitarian country that suits well with the history of Kurdistan and Anatolia.”

Addressing the people of Turkey directly, Ocalan claimed that “their coexistence with Kurdish people dates back to a historical agreement of fraternity and solidarity under the flag of Islam…. This spirit of solidarity does not and must not contain conquest, denial, forced assimilation, and annihilation.” Instead, Ocalan invited Turks and Kurds “to build the democratic modernity together, as two prominent strategic powers in the Middle East … to emancipate ourselves from the vicious cycle of cruelty which [contradicts] our history and fraternity agreement. It is time not for opposition, conflict, or contempt towards each other; it is time for cooperation, unity, embracing, and mutual blessing.”

PKK fighters quickly fell into line with Ocalan's command. The cease-fire took effect. And on May 8, several thousand PKK forces inside Turkey announced that they had officially commenced their withdrawal to mountain bases across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan — a slow retreat by foot that they suggested would be completed by the fall.

Beyond the cease-fire and withdrawal, however, details of the Erdogan-Ocalan peace process remain shrouded in mystery. At some point, of course, the PKK will also need to disarm and disband its fighting units. But in exchange for what exactly? That's the big question. What has Erdogan promised? How far is he prepared to go in his search for a settlement? At this point, no one outside Erdogan and his inner circle really seems to know.

What we do have some idea about are long-standing Kurdish demands. The release of thousands imprisoned for links to the PKK. Amnesty for PKK fighters and their reintegration into Turkish society. And almost certainly, the release from prison of Ocalan himself and, most probably, an eventual place for him in Turkish political life.

But it doesn't stop there. Not by a long shot. More fundamentally, the Kurds are seeking a radical and formal upgrade to their status in the Turkish body politic. They want a new constitution that recognizes the Kurdish people, alongside Turks, as an equal and essential component of the republic. They want the right to fully express their culture, including the right to educate their children in the Kurdish language. And, at a minimum, they want to see Turkish politics decentralized in a way that will allow Kurdish communities to exercise an unspecified degree of control over their local affairs.

It would be a gross understatement to say that this package, or even some subset of it, represents a very tall order. Indeed, most experts on Turkey whom I've canvassed tell me that it's damn close to impossible — well beyond what the traffic of Turkish politics can bear. They note that over the past 25 years there have been more than a half dozen such efforts, all of which have crashed and burned. Some see Erdogan as badly overreaching, far too cocky in his ability to manipulate Turkey's political system and buy off Kurdish demands without making major concessions.

Many others see much greater cynicism at work. They don't believe Erdogan is seriously engaged in a peace process at all. One minority view suggests that his central motivation is simply to create the appearance of calm in order to convince the International Olympic Committee to award the 2020 games to Istanbul — a decision due this September that, once made, will quickly be followed by Erdogan's scuttling of the peace process. A more prevalent take is that Erdogan is not out to solve the Kurdish problem per se, but only the PKK problem by doing just enough to fracture and fatally weaken the group, a divide-and-conquer strategy that will leave it isolated and maximally vulnerable to military defeat — and Erdogan with maximum public support.

Perhaps. Yet I wonder. The fact is that Erdogan may have a very deep personal stake in currying Kurdish favor at this time. Because he is term-limited as prime minister, it is widely known that Erdogan wants to be elected president of Turkey in 2014 — but only after securing a new constitution that would grant the presidency dramatic new powers, transforming it from today's largely ceremonial post into the preeminent authority in the Turkish political system. If not the new sultan, Erdogan certainly fancies himself at least the Turkish de Gaulle, the founder of what would effectively be the Second Turkish Republic — a perch from which he could serve two five-year terms as head of state, triumphantly preside over Turkey's centennial celebrations in 2023, and write the final chapter of a remarkable political career whose legacy by the end of his two-decade tenure at the top of Turkish politics in 2024 could very well read: the most influential and transformative Turkish leader since Ataturk, if not ever, as well as one of the most significant world figures of the 21st century.

But Erdogan's ambitions face substantial resistance within Turkey — including, perhaps, within his own party — from quarters who are extremely wary about putting even greater power into the hands of a man whose authoritarian reflex and Islamist agenda have been well documented over the past decade. Kurdish support (solid statistics are hard to come by, but Kurds probably represent at least 20 percent of Turkey's population), both within parliament and, if necessary, in a popular referendum for a new constitution, could be essential if Erdogan's broader visions of grandeur are to be realized. In that context, going above and beyond to meet Kurdish requirements, including via the constitution, could be essential for Erdogan's own future.

Experts have certainly underestimated Erdogan before. Few would have predicted that in the space of only a few years he would have so thoroughly browbeaten the Turkish military into submission and all but neutered its once-commanding role as the ultimate arbiter of the country's political course. Indeed, with hundreds of the country's most senior military officers behind bars for alleged plots against the state, it's now fairly easy to imagine the trump card that Erdogan might play to grease the skids for the reintegration of PKK fighters, and even Ocalan himself, back into Turkish political life: amnesty and pardons for all, both the military and the PKK, in the name of a historic national reconciliation.

It's also worth noting that when it comes to defying the experts, Erdogan has already proved his mettle on the Kurdish issue, specifically. As recently as a few years ago, almost no one could have believed that Turkey would go from being the most ardent opponent of autonomy for Iraq's Kurds to its most staunch defender. Yet that is more or less the situation that we find today. Erdogan has turned the traditional Turkish paradigm toward Iraqi Kurdistan on its head. Once deemed a potential casus belli because of the separatist threat it might trigger in Turkey's own Kurdish population, a stable, oil-rich, and autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan is now perceived by Erdogan as an important ally, a vital trading partner and energy source, a crucial buffer zone against Iranian ambitions and the turmoil raging in the rest of the Middle East, and a major contributor to both Turkey's economic prosperity and national security.

Indeed, it's almost certainly the case that the success Erdogan has enjoyed in transforming Turkey's relations with Iraq's Kurds has greatly influenced his thinking with respect to what may be possible with Turkey's own Kurds. For sure, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), along with other KRG officials, has played a key behind-the-scenes role counseling Erdogan, encouraging and facilitating his outreach to the PKK as well as Turkey's Kurds more generally. If acknowledgement and recognition of Kurdish identity in Iraq are proving such a boon to Turkish strategic interests, is it really that far-fetched to think that Erdogan may increasingly believe that an equally bold shift in approach toward his own Kurdish population could pay similar, if not even greater dividends?

The profound implications extend not only to Turkey domestically, but to Ankara's policies in the broader region as well. The dramatic change in relations with Iraqi Kurdistan is obviously Exhibit A. But the Kurdish areas of Syria could be next. As the uprising against Bashar al-Assad's regime intensified last year, Turkish officials reacted harshly as forces from the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK's Syrian affiliate, took control of hundreds of villages near Syria's borders with Turkey and Iraq. Both Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, reflexively threatened military action and suggested that any effort to establish a Kurdish autonomous zone in Syria, especially under de facto PKK control, constituted a red line that would not be tolerated. And though direct intervention by Ankara never materialized, Turkey almost certainly backed Sunni opposition forces, including jihadi elements, that clashed with PYD forces this year.

But with the dramatic onset of Turkey's peace process with the PKK, Ankara's policies toward Syrian Kurdistan appear to be rapidly evolving as well. The PYD leader, Salih Muslim, expressed strong support for Ocalan's negotiations with Erdogan and claimed that the process has already triggered an easing of Turkey's policy toward Syria's Kurds, including a more conciliatory attitude on Kurdish issues from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Coalition. The PYD also underscored its own eagerness to enter unconditional talks with Turkey to improve relations.

In short, Turkish opposition to Kurdish aspirations in Syria may fast be going the way of its onetime opposition to Kurdish aspirations in Iraq. Erdogan may again be coming to the conclusion that Turkish interests are far better served by seeking to co-opt and harness the Kurdish movement to Turkey's advantage, rather than fighting it. As in Iraq, Kurdish areas in Syria contain important energy resources that Turkey's fast-growing, energy-starved economy is eager to gain access to. As in Iraq, Turkish companies would be well positioned to become the major beneficiaries of reconstruction efforts in Syrian Kurdistan. And as in Iraq, a stable autonomous Kurdish region in Syria under Turkish patronage could play an important buffer role as the rest of Syria implodes in a fury of sectarian violence and extremism.

Taken as a whole, it seems entirely possible that Erdogan is engaged in an enterprise whose implications could be quite far-reaching, even revolutionary, a near 180-degree reversal from the central strategic imperative that has animated Turkish policy both at home and abroad for nearly a century. Rather than seeking to lay waste to the Kurdish national movement as a mortal threat to the Turkish state, Erdogan seems increasingly of a mind to embrace it in the belief that it can be tamed for the purpose of bolstering Turkish prosperity and security. Within Turkey, that could mean nothing less than the formal abandonment of Kemalism's insistence on a unitary “Turkish” identity and recognition of the country's essentially binational character, comprising both Turks and Kurds. Beyond Turkey's borders, it suggests something like a Turkish Co-Prosperity Sphere in which Ankara shifts from being the main antagonist of the Middle East's Kurds to their primary benefactor and protector.

Were such an effort to succeed, the payoffs for Erdogan and Turkey could be substantial, of course. Personally for Erdogan, it could be his ticket to the empowered presidency he longs for. It's certainly the stuff of which Nobel Peace Prizes are made. Nationally, it would heal a wound in Turkish life whose cost in blood and treasure has been exceedingly high, and fully unshackle the country to reach new heights of economic power and international influence.

But the risks are great, too. With expectations raised so high, a breakdown in the Kurdish peace process now could result in greatly intensified violence and bloodletting, leaving Turkey increasingly vulnerable to the type of ethnic and sectarian conflict raging on its borders, especially in Syria. The gamble that the genie of Kurdish nationalism, once released — not just in Iraq, but in Turkey and Syria as well — can be successfully contained under the umbrella of Ankara's political and economic patronage could prove badly mistaken. Erdogan could end up riding a tiger that in the end will consume both him and Turkey. That danger seems especially high having crowned Ocalan as the Kurdish kingmaker. Is a dyed-in-the-wool terrorist and revolutionary, with a dictator's bent for ruthlessness and power, really the man you want to be relying on to help ensure the security and well-being of your country? Is Ocalan really prepared to have his historic ambitions whittled back for all time to being the mayor of Diyarbakir? The parallels are not exact, but Israel's decision to allow an unreconstructed Yasir Arafat — Nobel Peace Prize in tow, of course — to enter the Palestinian territories and establish his revisionist tyranny within striking distance of Jerusalem certainly comes to mind.

However it plays out, one thing seem certain: Erdogan's gambit to address the Kurdish issue — both at home and abroad — is likely to have a profound impact both on the future of Turkey as well as on the geopolitics, and maybe even the geography, of the Middle East. The fate of nations critically important to U.S. foreign policy and national security might literally hang in the balance, including Erdogan's own. All good reasons, then, for President Barack Obama to take some time this Thursday when Erdogan visits the White House to try to divine exactly where the Turkish leader is headed and how America's long-term interests might be affected.

John Hannah is a contributor to Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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