In YaleGlobal, Mohammed Ayoob writes that the new deal for peace between Turkey’s government and PKK rebels to end more than thirty years of hostilities also has implications for the wider region, especially Iraq, Syria, and Iran. If Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can convince the various political factions in Turkey to go along with the plan, Ayoob argues, Syria’s threat to harbor the PKK would be neutralized and a successful social and political integration of Turkey’s Kurdish population would provide a model for Kurds in Syria and Iran as well. An end to discrimination against Kurds would strengthen democracy in Turkey.
As I discussed in recent posts (here and here), the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) is the major partner at the moment with Erdoğan’s AKP in writing a new constitution, a process that has been fraught with arguments and delays as the various parties disagree over wording and, in particular, over Erdoğan’s desired restructuring of Turkey’s political system to one in which the president has more power than at apresent. This is a position Erdoğan would like to occupy. The other two major parties in Parliament — Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Action Party (MHP) oppose a presidential system, but do not have enough votes to block BDP and AKP from passing a draft. When put to a referendum, a draft constitution would most likely pass, given the AKP’s popularity and assured Kurdish support. The new constitution also potentially would guarantee minority rights and individual rights (there is some disagreement about the merits of group rights versus individual rights) and redefine Turkish national identity. It is likely that BDP support for the presidential system in the Constitution is in some way linked to AKP’s support for a peace mission in which BDP has been a major player.
Ayoob discusses in some detail the political situation of Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Iran and argues that Erdoğan’s peace deal with the PKK, “if implemented honestly and successfully, is likely to turn Syrian Kurdistan into a friendly entity much like Iraqi Kurdistan.” Iran had long supported the PKK against Turkey until rapprochement with Ankara after AKP’s election in 2002 when Turkey also forged closer ties with Iran’s ally, Syria. However, after Turkey’s split with Syria in 2011 and after Turkey allowed NATO to position an anti-missile defense system in the southeast positioned, despite Turkish denials, to intercept Iranian missiles aimed at the West, Iran reportedly revived its support for the PKK. A Turkish-PKK peace deal would remove these weapons from the hands of other regimes and strengthen Turkey’s hand against Iran and Syria. This would have repercussions in Iraq as well, Ayoob points out, where Iran supports Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government, and Turkey supports Sunni Arab opponents of the Maliki government.
In other words, if successfully implemented, the Ocalan-AKP peace process, would bring a blessed end to hostilities that have killed over 30,000 people, would revitalize Turkey’s democratic process, bring into play a vibrant Kurdish population that had been economically and culturally sidelined for decades, but also, as Ayoob points out, would have much larger repercussions regionally.
There is a great deal of hope in Turkey that this time the peace will hold, but also many obstacles in the way of crafting an enduring peace. Some of those obstacles are in populations on both sides weaned on nationalist and militarist ideologies that will likely resist accommodation with what many see as “the enemy”, but much also lies in the manner in which the process is implemented. As Ayoob put it, “One hopes that the Turkish government acts with sagacity, indeed with magnanimity.” A punitive approach or a half-hearted one will likely end up like previous attempts where some small spark, something as trivial as too much Kurdish celebration as a busload of PKK fighters were repatriated into Turkey across the Iraqi border, relit the nationalist fire and restarted the war.
It is possible that a successful peace is now possible in part because of the particular conjuncture of a weakened nationalist military and a strong autocratic leader. But power and will alone won’t make this happen. Given decades of deep and well-placed mistrust and fear, the hands guiding the peace process must remain steady and sensitive to humanitarian concerns and people’s rights. These are not sensibilities generally associated with Turkey’s strong-man prime minister. On the other hand, the stars seem aligned in unique ways that, if interpreted correctly, light the way to a solution.