Protests in Turkey must not overshadow progress with Kurd militants
Just when Turkey should receive accolades for a peace agreement with separatist Kurd militants, the government has become the target of a public backlash for its heavy-handed response to protesters. The peace deal is good for Turkey, and gives it leverage with Iran, Syria, and Iraq.
Just when Turkey should be receiving accolades for its recent peace agreement with separatist militants, that progress is being overshadowed by the government's heavy-handed response to protesters.Skip to next paragraph
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The protests began peacefully in Istanbul over plans to turn a park into a shopping center. When police moved last week to violently quash the demonstrations, that sparked nationwide unrest over the government’s democratic backsliding and fears of creeping Islamization by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Muslim party. Though Turkey is a mostly Muslim country, it has a secular government.
Indeed, the government shows a disturbing autocratic streak. It needs to reassure the public with more democratic progress, not water cannons and tear gas. At the same time, Mr. Erdogan has made significant progress in a problem that has long bedeviled Turkey – Kurdish separatists – and that progress is good for Turkey and the region.
No matter the country, it’s always a significant step forward when a government can negotiate peace with a separatist movement after decades of violent clashes. It becomes all the more important when that country is Turkey – a prosperous democracy that shares a border with three deeply troubled countries: Syria, Iran, and Iraq.
After nearly 30 years of conflict between Turkish forces and militants in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Erdogan has negotiated a peace plan with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. The peace process will benefit Turkey not only in relations with its own Kurdish minority, but also with Kurds living in Syria, Iran, and Iraq. The backing of the region’s Kurdish population provides Ankara with a certain degree of political leverage in those countries, which has the potential to restore Turkey to a position of regional prominence.
To be sure, Turkey’s democratic backsliding could spell trouble for its future, but given the relative political and economic stability it enjoys, Turkish regional influence offers the best hope for an area of the world in chaos.
Starting with a ceasefire in March and the initial withdrawal of PKK troops from Turkish soil in May, the peace process should ultimately lead to greater freedom and rights for the Kurdish minority that makes up 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Not only will it improve Turkish democracy and security, it will also allow Ankara to reassert itself in the broader Middle East.
More than 350,000 Syrian refugees now live in Turkey as a result of Syria’s civil war. The refugee influx, along with a May 11 bombing allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian regime in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, have convinced Erdogan that a more active Turkish response to the conflict next door in Syria is necessary.
Rather than intervene militarily, however, Ankara is using the ongoing peace process with its own Kurdish population to influence the Syrian Kurds to support the Syrian opposition more actively. So far, Syria’s Kurds have been solely concerned with their own well-being – retaliating against any attack that has targeted them, whether from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad or opposition forces.