How Turkey's arrest of Kurdish lawmakers risks further civil strife

The Turkey-Kurdish peace process that Erdoğan once championed hits a new low, felled by Syria's conflict and his own ambition.

Umit Bektas/Reuters
A supporter holds a portrait of Selahattin Demirtas, detained leader of Turkey's pro-Kurdish opposition Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) at a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, Nov. 8, 2016. Mr. Demirtas and other HDP lawmakers were jailed after refusing to give testimony in a probe linked to "terrorist propaganda."

Promoting Turkey’s most serious attempt ever to negotiate an end to a three-decade-long Kurdish insurgency, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared in early 2013 that, “We will drink hemlock if it will bring peace.”

But today, the total failure of that peace process could hardly be more complete, nor the possible consequences more serious. 

More than 2,300 people have died, including 360 civilians, since fighting between Turkey and the rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recommenced in July 2015, according to the International Crisis Group.

Fighting has devastated cities and towns in the Kurdish-populated southeast, and the government has pursued an escalating crackdown on nonviolent Kurdish activists, media organizations, and politicians it accuses of being linked to the militants.

That process culminated last Friday with the arrest of parliamentarians from the main pro-Kurdish political group, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), including its charismatic co-leader, Selahattin Demirtas.

The breakdown of relations between the Kurdish movement and Mr. Erdoğan, who is now president, has hinged in part on the protracted bitter conflict in next-door Syria: both the galvanizing effect that the success of the PKK’s affiliate there has had on Turkish Kurds, and the alarm bells this has triggered in Ankara.

But the reversal also serves Erdoğan’s own ambitions and political survival. Rather than continuing peace talks that were eroding his support within his nationalistic base and pursuing a settlement that could have left the PKK in de facto control of Turkey’s Kurdish areas, Erdoğan ultimately proved unwilling to “drink hemlock.”

Meanwhile the PKK, emboldened by the alliance of its Syrian affiliate with Washington and battle-hardened by the brutal conflicts in Iraq and Syria, believed it could weather whatever Ankara had to throw at it militarily.

Turkey’s woes deepened further over the weekend. The Kurdish-US alliance was reinforced as the PKK’s Syrian affiliate announced an offensive on the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa. But the imprisonment and pending trial of Mr. Demirtas and 10 other MPs as part of a terrorism investigation risk pushing Turkey further into instability and civil strife – and they come at a time when the country is already facing a dizzying array of threats, including attacks by the self-declared Islamic State.

Post-coup purge

Since Erdoğan faced down an attempted coup in July, the government has dramatically accelerated its suppression of broader domestic opposition and a purge of the state apparatus.

In terms of Turkey’s future stability, “you can predict that things will get worse after these arrests, but how much worse is hard to say,” says Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

Following Friday’s arrests, protests broke out across the southeast as well as in Kurdish neighborhoods of Istanbul, though assessing the scale of them has been hindered by the government crackdown on independent media, and its throttling of the internet and social media over the weekend.

“Demirtas is a special figure. Charismatic, youthful, speaks well, and stands up to Erdoğan. He’s not your usual politician,” says Mr. Barkey, who believes the arrest of HDP members of parliament, as well as the recent removal of locally elected Kurdish mayors in the southeast and their replacement with appointees by Ankara, will increase tensions.

“If [Demirtas] is released, that’s one thing, but if more Kurdish politicians are imprisoned, then the chances of things escalating further are quite high,” he says.

Rise of Rojava

The turning point for government-Kurdish peace efforts came in February 2015, when representatives of the HDP and Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) unveiled a 10-point roadmap billed as a major breakthrough in the talks.

Erdoğan almost immediately denounced the roadmap, saying he had not been aware of the details – a claim independent observers called unlikely, since the agreement was spearheaded by Deputy Prime Minister Yalcin Akdogan, an Erdoğan confidante. He went on to publicly disavow the peace dialogue, and tensions quickly rose.

He may have been motivated by mounting anxiety over the rise of Rojava, the autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, as well as fears for his own political future.

“There was this genuine excitement about Rojava, even among Turkey’s conservative Kurds, and I think that this is what scared Erdoğan,” says Barkey. “Rojava strengthens the Kurds in Turkey.”

That was confirmed at a general election in June 2015, when the HDP dramatically increased its share of the vote among conservative Kurds who had previously leaned toward the AKP, while at the other end of the political spectrum, the incumbent party lost ground to the ultranationalist National Movement Party, which had relentlessly attacked the government over the peace talks.

The result stripped the AKP of its parliamentary majority for the first time since it first won power 13 years earlier. 

Less than two months after the election, the mysterious murder of two policemen – the PKK initially claimed the killings but later disavowed them – provided the justification Erdoğan needed to re-launch military operations against the militants.

Kurdish hearts and minds

Erdoğan’s reversion to the hard line of his predecessors helped shore up his nationalist base, while the Kurdish party – which failed to denounce PKK attacks and was side-lined by the abandonment of peace talks – lost votes, with the result that the AKP regained power in a second election in November, called after the political parties failed to form a coalition.

Ankara may now believe that it can win the conflict, or force the PKK back to the negotiating table in a far weaker position.

Military might is one factor. But Turkish officials frequently opine that they are also winning hearts and minds as many Kurds are repelled by the destructive tactics of the PKK, which has brought the fight from the mountains into urban centers, and has increasingly resorted to suicide bomb attacks that have claimed civilian casualties.

These included a bombing in Diyarbakir on Friday, claimed by a radical PKK offshoot, which killed 11 people and injured many more, mainly civilians.

However, even if Kurdish resentment against the militants is running high, a substantial proportion of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, about 20 percent of the population, generally supports the rebel group.

Meanwhile, the government’s political outreach to Kurds is limited to nonexistent, and mainly consists of broader freedom to broadcast in Kurdish, a development that has been more than offset by the general deterioration in civil rights in the wake of July’s attempted coup. 

In this atmosphere, last week’s arrest of leading HDP figures is only likely to generate new recruits for the PKK, by further radicalizing many Kurds who no longer see any feasible route for their aspirations through politics.

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