Patrick Seale
Dar Al-Hayat (Opinion)
November 28, 2009 - 1:00am

In launching his ‘Democratic Opening’ towards Turkey’s 15 million Kurds earlier this month, Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan has embarked on possibly the most perilous phase of his political career.

His Kurdish initiative could lose him precious votes at the next election. If it misfires, it could even bring an end to the AKP’s domination of the Turkish political landscape, which began with its first electoral victory in 2002. The initiative has already aroused the fierce hostility of diehard Turkish nationalists, who condemn it as a treasonous plot to dismember the country.

This is a charge which carries a big punch since the territorial integrity of Turkey is something of a national obsession.

Erdogan knows, however, that reconciliation with the Kurds is a must, which cannot be avoided however difficult it may be. It is an essential element of the ambitious diplomatic campaign -- spearheaded by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu – to make Turkey a key player in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus, by mediating conflicts, promoting economic and trading ties with neighbours such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, and generally spreading peace and stability across the region.

Atatürk’s slogan of ‘peace at home, and peace abroad’ has been adopted by the AKP as its own. Without peace at home, there can be no long-term peace abroad. Having recently made dramatic progress abroad, the Erdogan government is now determined to address the first part of the equation, even if it means a potentially bruising battle with its domestic critics.

Erdogan’s long and emotional speech in parliament on 13 November, in which he launched his Kurdish reform programme, was hailed by his supporters as an historic event. Many Kurds welcomed the new conciliatory approach, but the more militant among them felt that the concessions being made to them were still too timid. This is Erdogan’s dilemma: his opening to the Kurds risks antagonising many voters, but he may not have gone far enough to persuade the fighters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to lay down their arms and end a conflict which has caused some 40,000 deaths over the past quarter of a century.

Last month, a group of PKK members gave themselves up and were allowed to return home from the mountains of northern Iraq. But the riotous celebrations in the south-east which greeted their return aroused widespread protests across the country. The main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) declared that negotiations with the PKK were illegal and that the return of the fighters was a ‘final insult.’ A full amnesty for Kurdish militants is clearly still a long way off.

The reform measures announced by the Erdogan government are cultural rather than political. They include allowing Kurdish language programmes on radio and television; allowing political parties, such as the Kurdish DTP, to campaign in their own language; allowing original Kurdish place-names to be reinstated in certain municipalities, instead of the Turkish ones which had displaced them; reducing the harsh sentences passed on youthful Kurdish stone-throwers rounded up during demonstrations; allowing Kurdish prisoners to communicate with visitors in their native tongue, and creating an independent committee to investigate allegations of torture. Taken together, they represent a revolutionary change in approach to Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority.

The approach has been made possible because it fits in with Turkey’s reshaping of its international image, and with its new dynamic foreign policy – and is, in fact, essential for the success of both. But it has also been possible because the PKK is no longer the threatening force it used to be. It has been weakened and isolated by Turkey’s new security cooperation with Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran, and more particularly by Ankara’s new ties with the Kurdish Regional Government in northern Iraq. Turkish trade with the KRG is booming. From $5bn in 2008, it is expected to soar to an extraordinary $20bn in 2010.

There remains the vexed question of the fate of the PKK leader Abdallah ?calan, who has languished in his island prison, more or less in solitary, for the past decade. For many Kurds, he is their ‘Ataturk’, the father of their nation. They would like him set free to play a political role. But for the overwhelming majority of Turks, he is a murderous terrorist, whose release would be unthinkable.

Turkey’s burgeoning economic, political and strategic ties with Syria, Iraq and Iran, and the parallel cooling of its relations with Israel – largely because of Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza last December-January -- have aroused a storm of protest among Israel’s supporters in the United States and elsewhere. They are angry that Erdogan himself has used terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘genocide’ to describe Israel’s cruel treatment of the Palestinians.

Last Monday, 23 November, the Washington Post denounced Turkey’s ‘shrill denunciations of Israel ... accompanied by [its] increasing coziness with the criminal rulers of Iran, Syria and Sudan.’ This sort of language is itself an indication of Israel’s unease at the prospect of losing a major regional ally. The Washington Institute – part of Israel’s lobby in the U.S. – has even called for Turkey to be expelled from NATO, for daring to exclude Israel from Turkey’s annual air force exercise.

Under the heading ‘Is Turkey Leaving the West?’, Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish programme at the Washington Institute, wrote this month that the AKP’s ‘Islamist worldview’ would make it ‘more and more impossible for Turkey to support Western foreign policy.’ This view is profoundly mistaken. On the contrary, in seeking peace and reconciliation in the troubled Middle East, Turkey is at present far closer to President Barack Obama’s vision than is the aggressive and expansionist posture of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s far- right Prime Minister.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman last week ruled out any further Turkish mediation between Israel and Syria because of what he termed ‘Turkey’s insults and tongue-lashing against Israel.’ This, too, is a mistake. Israel needs Turkey if it is ever to escape from its regional isolation.

Benjamin Ben Eliezer, Israel’s Minister of Industry, Trade and Labour, appears to have understood this. He travelled to Turkey at the weekend in an attempt to patch up the severely strained relations.

The inescapable conclusion of these developments is that Turkey is thinking creatively and actively about how to resolve its internal problems and improve its external relations, while Israel seems stuck in a sterile and outdated mindset.


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