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.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks to the media in Istanbul June 3, dismissing street protests as organized by extremists. Op-ed contributors Alexander J. Brock and Alexandra A. Kerr say that '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.'

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.

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.

In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – a PKK-affiliate established by Mr. Ocalan – has stepped in to fill a power vacuum in the Kurdish-inhabited North and Northeast of Syria. Even before the peace plan in Turkey was finalized, PYD leader Salih Muslim had said that progress on the Kurdish issue in Turkey would gain the support of Syria’s Kurds and that they would also seek closer relations with Ankara.

Having the support of the PYD in a post-Assad government (which the main opposition group has promised will be inclusive) would afford Turkey an additional arm of influence in Syria’s future. Should bilateral relations between Syria and Turkey remain tense, the geographic position of Syria’s Kurdish population would act as a buffer between the two countries.

Turkey’s Kurdish peace can also be expected to give Ankara an advantage in the ongoing competition with Iran for regional influence.

Tehran’s opposition to the peace process between Turkey’s ruling party and PKK leadership has been no secret. In late April, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps reportedly offered logistical and military assistance to the PKK in exchange for its continued presence in Turkey. But the PKK rebuffed the offer, confirming Iran’s fears of losing leverage within its rival’s borders.

Likewise, Iran is concerned that displaced PKK militants, who are well trained, may take up arms in the north of Syria against Mr. Assad, whom the Islamic Republic has steadfastly stood behind throughout its civil war. A defeated Assad would further isolate and weaken Iran.

As for Iraq, Turkey’s new engagement with its Kurds should yield enormous economic gains with the Kurdistan Regional Government in the oil-blessed north of the country. Ankara is actively courting the government there to deepen ties and secure a mutually beneficial oil deal.

Even before the peace process began, Turkey started to negotiate the deal with the Kurdish government in Iraq to create a direct pipeline to export oil to Turkey. The deal also makes the economic viability of Kurdish autonomy in Iraq a real possibility.

The oil deal and the withdrawal of PKK militants from Turkey to northern Iraq have drawn the ire of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Indeed, Baghdad’s relationship with Ankara has been fraught for years. But the peace process and better ties with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government in Iraq offer Turkey a way to pursue its own interests there without the need to rely on the central government in Baghdad.

By capitalizing on the promises of the Kurdish peace process, Erdogan stands to benefit both at home by finally making headway on Turkey’s most violent domestic conflict, and abroad by securing Turkish interests in the region. While this initiative is sure to ruffle the feathers of its neighbors, on balance the region stands to benefit from Turkish influence. 

Alexander J. Brock is a research associate for the Middle East department at the Council on Foreign Relations and Alexandra A. Kerr is the program coordinator for the International Institutions and Global Governance program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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