Opinion: Turkey's Kurdish Clashes

It's a 30-year-old story between Iraq and Turkey: the snow melts, the Kurdish fighters of the PKK emerge from hibernation in Iraq's Kandil Mountains, and fighting starts in Turkey's southeast. This year the Turkish Army started early, pushing thousands of men across the border in the first significant ground incursion since America arrived in Iraq. The Turks apparently procured Washington's acquiescence, but Iraqi Kurds of all stripes, ranging from the central government to ordinary Kurdish citizens to dissident Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr, demand Iraqi sovereignty be defended.
That demand is addressed to Iraq's Kurdish leaders, Jalal Barzani and Mustafa Talabani. Their Peshmerga fighters, the most and perhaps only, effective part of the new Iraqi Army would do the defending. A Turkish-Peshmerga firefight would be disastrous, and Washington, if alert, will already have brokered a tacit understanding that the incursion will end before Barzani or Talabani feel they must act. The Turks by then will have destroyed supply dumps and inflicted casualties but not dealt the PKK a fatal blow, just like the previous 20-odd incursions.

This year, 2008, is different however. The PKK does face a serious threat, not from Turkey's soldiers but its politicians. In last summer's election, Turkey's governing AK Party displaced the PKK-associated DTP (think IRA and Sinn Fein) as the largest party in the predominantly Kurdish southeast. Nor is AK finished competing for Kurdish votes. Its leader, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan says he "wants" DTP stronghold Diyarbakir, Turkey's largest Kurdish city, in the 2009 local elections. If he gets it, and Erdogan tends to get what he wants, he will deal a death blow to the PKK's claim that only it represents the aspirations of Turkey's Kurds.

What are these aspirations though? Historically, the PKK fought for an independent Kurdistan, but since its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was captured in 1999, the group has focused on Kurdish rights. Turkey's secular establishment however, sees any move to legitimize Kurdish language and culture as dismembering the republic. They speak of "separatism," whereas Erdogan admits to a "Kurdish problem." My travels in Turkey's southeast suggest few Turkish Kurds want separation, but all yearn for cultural recognition. "We [Turks and Kurds] built this country together" one Kurdish politician told me "Turks have rights in Diyarbakir, and Kurds have rights in Istanbul."

The problem goes back to the republic's beginnings. "Happy is he who can say, 'I am a Turk'" proclaimed Turkey's founder, Kemal Ataturk. It's a slogan Turkey's Army has plastered across the southeast. Unfortunately, the word "Turk" means both citizen of the republic and ethnic Turk. Ataturk originally meant "citizen," but most Kurds today hear "ethnic Turk." They might say "I am a Turkish citizen" more or less happily, but being Kurds, they are damned if they will say they are Turks. A start has been made at multicultural reform, but much remains to be done. Erdogan's problem is that while his political ambitions in Diyarbakir require he attempt it, his base has insisted that he first remove the ban on women with headscarves attending university. For this, he needs the help of Turkey's nationalist MHP, which adamantly opposes multiculturalism. As do Turkey's generals, the longtime cheerleaders for today's incursion. In approving it finally, Erdogan probably calculates that he gets the generals off his back and maybe blunts the PKK summer offensive, so he can push ahead with political reform.

The PKK in fact faces a defining moment: absent terrorist violence, Erdogan will have the running room to enact reform, but he will gain politically if he seizes the opportunity. If the PKK truly cares about reform, it will accept its partial eclipse by AK as the necessary price. If the PKK, however, cares only to demonstrate its own importance, then it will struggle to overcome its losses during the incursion and visit violence upon Turkey's southeast this summer. No Turkish government will push reform while soldiers die in terror attacks. History suggests the PKK will opt for its own narrow interests, which may be why AK is gaining Kurdish support.

Meanwhile Barzani and Talabani hold a critical card. One axiom of counterinsurgency is that a guerrilla force with significant local support is undefeatable. Against Turks (or Americans), Iraqi Kurds will support the PKK. Only their own Peshmerga have greater claim on their loyalty. So only Barzani and Talabani can control the PKK, though they deny this capability because they have no wish to fight fellow Kurds. What do they want, though, that might alter their calculus? The short answer is independence, or as much devolution as they can negotiate with their fellow Iraqis. To secure their gains, however, they need a lifeline that does not come through southern Iraq. Something only Turkey can provide.

The deal is evident: Barzani and Talabani control the PKK, if Turkey acquiesces to whatever level of independence they can get. Turkey fears this quasi-Kurdistan would attract its own Kurds, but surely the PKK is the larger problem. Anyway, serious political reform should defang the threat. Northern Iraq may look peaceful and democratic to Westerners focused on the south, but Turkey's Kurds understand it is really two mutually antagonistic, quasi-feudal statelets named Barzanistan and Talabanistan.

The United States can and should broker this deal as the best way to avoid a border war between Iraq and Turkey. Superficially it foreshadows the effective breakup of Iraq. But who are we kidding? Barzani and Talabani are going to go for as much independence as they can get anyway, and with their powerful, American-armed Peshmerga, this will be a lot. They will likely be more cooperative if they think their gains are secured by Turkey's acquiescence. Meanwhile, helping the Turkish government draw the poison of the PKK will promote Turkey's development as a real, First World democracy. That's something as important to America's long-term interest as a unitary Iraq.

Grenville Byford researches and writes about Turkey and the Muslim world. He is a former affiliate of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and currently lives in Paris.

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