Friday, 27 March 2015 10:06

How the Kurds' Power Play Backfired in Turkey

Aliza Marcus [2]Halil Karaveli [3]

March 27, 2015

Imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan’s recent calls [5] for the Kurdish militants to end the armed struggle [6] inside Turkey seemed designed to show that they were on the brink of a peace deal. It didn’t work. The likelihood of a formal peace settlement has never been worse, and for now this may suit both the PKK and the Turkish government.

Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, gambled that Ocalan’s announcement, first delivered by members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in a televised meeting[7] with senior government officials, would give his party a boost before June national elections. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been negotiating with Ocalan since a ceasefire took hold in 2013 and has little to show for it. Turkish soldiers, who have been withdrawn to fortified bases outside city centers in the country’s Kurdish southeast, no longer carry out military operations, giving the PKK de facto control over the region.

Erdogan used to talk about striking a deal with the Kurds to give them broader rights. No longer. The government hasn’t shown any signs that it plans to meet any of the Kurds main demands, including constitutional changes to give Kurds ethnic-based rights and devolution of power to allow some self-rule. Instead, Erdogan is focused on avoiding concessions while extracting promises that the PKK will disarm and disband. “What Kurdish problem?” Erdogan said [8] two weeks after the February 28 press conference. “There isn’t one anymore.”

Ocalan’s message to the PKK—read out again [9] on March 21, during Kurdish new-year celebrations in Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of Turkey’s Kurdish region—seemed to prove Erdogan right. He didn’t have to give the Kurds much of anything to get Ocalan to call off the PKK. Erdogan hopes voters on the right get this message and back him in the June elections, rather than the traditional ultranationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP), which is on the rise in polls.

The pro-Kurdish legal political party also seemed to think that Ocalan’s statement, in which he told the PKK to hold a special congress to formally end the war, would improve their party’s image in the run up to the polls. But they had a very different calculus than Erdogan. HDP needs a minimum of 10 percent of the national vote to make it into parliament. Kurdish votes alone aren’t enough and the party’s been trying to refashion itself as the new, liberal alternative for Turks and Kurds. Ocalan’s message appeared to fit into the party’s push to show that it’s a vehicle for peace and that it wants liberties for everyone, not just for Kurds.

The Kurdish party miscalculated. The image of the Kurdish officials standing next to Erdogan’s senior people didn’t play well among Turkish liberals and leftists, the very people HDP needs votes from to get into parliament. After all, Erdogan has long since ceased to be a democratic hope. He’s abandoned plans to reform the constitution to strengthen democracy and civil liberties, and he’s been pushing for a controversial security bill [10] that would further limit rights. He’s made clear the only political changes he wants are those that would strengthen the presidency [11], without any checks and balances. Turkey’s liberals and leftist activists will hesitate to vote for to a party that looks like it’s cozying up to Erdogan.

Kurdish politicians also have been battling rumors that they struck a secret deal with Erdogan and the announcement only added to suspicions. According to one rumor, Kurdish deputies in parliament will support Erdogan’s anti-democratic measures in exchange for Ocalan’s release to house arrest. Another, more-complicated rumor has the Kurds entering the elections knowing they are unlikely to get the minimum 10 percent needed. Under Turkey’s electoral law, without 10 percent, any seats the Kurds do win on a regional basis pass to the next party, most likely the AKP. This would almost certainly guarantee AKP the super two-thirds majority it needs to do whatever Erdogan wants.

The Kurdish party’s co-chairman, Selahattin Demirtas, has repeatedly stated that there’s no deal, secret or otherwise. He realized quickly that he needed to contain the damage from the joint statement by Kurds and the Turkish government, which helped feed the rumors. That’s why on March 17, he said [12] his party would never help Erdogan realize his ambitions for presidential rule, even as Demirtas restated [13] Kurdish commitment to making peace with Turkey.

But the Kurdish rebels, whose military leadership is based in the Kandil mountains in northern Iraq, aren’t in any rush to make any deal. Since Ocalan and the Turkish state agreed to a ceasefire two years ago, the PKK has grown more powerful: the pro-PKK Kurdish political party runs most municipalities in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast; armed rebels meet supporters and run civilian teams from mobile bases; pro-PKK activists in the de facto Kurdish capital Diyarbakir are putting into place a local parliament and other trappings of a Kurdish state.

The PKK’s image and legitimacy have also gotten a huge boost in the past two years because of the PKK’s fight against Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria. PKK militants and fighters from the allied Syrian Kurdish PYD party have emerged as a key Western ally in the fight against the violent extremists from the so-called Islamic State.

It’s clear that the Kurdish rebels aren’t planning on blindly following the leader. There’s no split between the PKK and Ocalan, but it’s been years since Ocalan was able to dictate to the rebels as he did when he ran the group from its headquarters in Damascus, before his capture in 1999. Cemil Bayik, who has been with Ocalan since the PKK was founded in 1978,responded [14]to Ocalan’s message by saying the PKK needed to see political changes on the ground. “For the armed struggle to end, there are certain steps the Turkish state and government must take.”

The PKK’s response to Ocalan’s call puts Erdogan on notice that he can’t exert his will over the Kurds the same way he’s done over the rest of the country. The rebels won’t honor demands that require the PKK to disband itself without an agreement that gives Kurds basic rights, such as mother-tongue education, protects democracy for all citizens and establishes a framework for Kurdish self rule. That is a far cry from Erdogan’s vision for Turkey, which sees power increasingly concentrated in his hands while shrinking the space for dissent and debate. Serious peace negotiations would only threaten Erdogan’s political goals.

A democratic constitution that grants Kurds some form of self-rule is not in the offing. Erdogan is showing no signs of being ready to accept a liberal environment in which everyone, Kurd or Turk, is free to debate and criticize. Last week, Erdogan lashed out at the government for allowing the Kurdish party to read out a 10-point list of democratic demands on television after Ocalan’s initial declaration. He warned that giving in to Kurdish demands for a commission to monitor the peace process would be a “disaster.” He said it designed to bestow legitimacy on Ocalan, making it a “dangerous step. [15]

His intolerance for dissent has no limits. He recently lambasted [16]the head of the central bank for not lowering the interest rates, and he hectors cabinet ministers, which he has no right to do according to the constitution [17].

The Kurdish movement in Turkey has a historic choice to make: it can choose to be either a force that helps save Turkish democracy by checking Erdogan’s power or a force that seconds Erdogan’s power grab. So far, the party’s political miscalculations—including delivering the message from Ocalan without forcefully demanding Turkish reforms in return—have only reinforced Erdogan’s claims that he doesn’t need to do anything to end the conflict and made it seem as if the Kurds are doing Erdogan’s bidding. What was billed as a historic message turned out to be more useful for Erdogan than for the Kurds.

HDP’s attempt to refashion itself as the new, broad liberal force for Turks and Kurds is faltering, endangering the party’s chance of getting enough votes to enter parliament. If HDP doesn’t make it to parliament in the general election in June, there will be little to stand in the way of Turkey becoming fully authoritarian. And with no Kurdish representation in the parliament in Ankara, Kurds will plan their own future, without Turkey.

Aliza Marcus [18] is an expert on the PKK and author of Blood and Belief: the PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence. [19]

Halil Karaveli is a Senior Fellow and Editor of the Turkey Analyst, at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

How the Kurds' Power Play Backfired in Turkey

Read 10339 times Last modified on Monday, 15 June 2015 13:09





  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

  • Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories
    Wednesday, 07 October 2020 09:01

    Rehab-coverIn 2010, the CACI-SRSP Joint Center cooperated with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus to produce a study of the methodology and process for the rehabilitation of the occupied territories in Azerbaijan. The study was written in the hope that it would prove useful in the aftermath of a negotiated solution to the conflict.

    Such a resolution nevertheless did not materialize. At present, however, it appears that some of these territories are returning to Azerbaijani control as a result of the military conflict that began in late September, 2020. While it is regrettable that this did not come to pass as a result of negotiations, it is clear that the challenge of rehabilitating territories is as pressing today as it would be in the event of a peaceful resolution - if not more, given the likelihood that such a solution would have included a time-table and provided the Government of Azerbaijan and international institutions time for planning.

    It is clear that the study is a product of a different time, as much has changed since 2010. We fully expcect many updates and revisions to be needed should the recommendations in this study be implemented today. That said, we believe the methodoloy of the study and its conclusions remain relevant and would therefore like to call attention to this important study, published in English, Russian and Azerbaijani versions.

    Click to download:



  • Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict
    Monday, 05 October 2020 08:19

    Resources on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict


    The Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program have a long track record of covering the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict. This page presents the key resources and most recent analysis. 

    In 2017, Palgrave published the first book-length study of the International Politics of the Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict, edited by Svante Cornell. The book concluded by arguing that if international efforts to resolve the conflict are not stepped up, “the ‘four-day’ war of April 2016 will appear a minor skirmish compared to what is sure to follow”.

    In 2015, CACI & SRSP released the Silk Road Paper  “A Western Strategy for the South Caucasus”, which included a full page of recommendations for the U.S. and EU on the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. These are reproduced below:


    Develop a substantial and prolonged Western initiative on the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.

    o This initiative must be led by the United States, in close consultation with its European partners – primarily the EU Commission and External Action Service, and France. Barring some process to reinvigorate the Minsk Process – a doubtful proposition given Western-Russian relations in the foreseeable future – Western leaders must be prepared to bypass that process, utilizing it where appropriate but focusing their initiative on developing direct negotiations between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders.

    o The U.S. and its European partners must abandon the practice of relying solely on the Minsk Group co-chairs to resolve the Karabakh conflict. These diplomats have contributed greatly to formulating a workable framework agreement. However, strong and sustained U.S. Government leadership from the top level is needed to complement or, failing that, to replace the Minsk Process. In practice, this means the expressed support of the President, involvement of the White House, and leadership manifested in the appointment of a distinguished citizen as Special Envoy for the resolution of the conflict.

    o The EU must take a more clearly defined and substantial role in the process, by integrating to the highest degree possible the French co-chairmanship of the Minsk Group with EU institutions. While Washington will need to take the lead on the political side, it would be natural for the EU to take the lead in organizing an international development program for the currently occupied Azerbaijani provinces and Karabakh itself. That effort, too, would need to be led by a senior EU figure.


    In 2011, CACI & SRSP helped launch an extensive study of the steps needed for the post-conflict rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's occupied territories, in cooperation with Eldar Ismailov and Nazim Muzaffarli of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the Caucasus. The monograph "Basic Principles for the Rehabilitation of Azerbaijan's Post-Conflict Territories" can be accessed here


    More background resources:

    Svante E. Cornell, "Can America Stop a Wider War Between Armenia and Azerbaijan?", The National Interest, October 2020

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, Occupied Elsewhere: Selective Policies on Occupation, Foundation For Defense of Democracies, January 2020. 

    Brenda Shaffer and Svante E. Cornell, "The U.S. Needs to Declare War on Proxies", Foreign Policy, January 27, 2020

    Svante E. Cornell, “The Raucous Caucasus”, American Interest, May 2017

    Svante E. Cornell, Small Nations and Great Powers: A Study of Ethnopolitical Conflict in the Caucasus, RoutledgeCurzon, 2001.

    Svante E. Cornell, The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Uppsala University, 1999

    More recent analysis:

    Turkey Seeks to Counter Russia in the Black Sea-Caucasus Region,” Turkey Analyst, 10/5/20, Emil Avdaliani

    Turkey’s Commitment to Azerbaijan’s Defense Shows the Limits of Ankara’s Tilt to Moscow,” Turkey Analyst, 9/25/20, Turan Suleymanov & Bahruz Babayev

     “Cross-Border Escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 9/25/20, Natalia Konarzewska

    Russia and Turkey: Behind the Armenia-Azerbaijan Clashes?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 8/31/20, Avinoam Idan

    Armenia and the U.S.: Time for New Thinking?”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 10/2/19, Eduard Abrahamyan.

    Why Washington Must Re-Engage the CaucasusCentral Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 7/8/19, Stephen Blank

    Azerbaijan’s Defense Industry Reform”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 5/7/19, Tamerlan Vahabov.

    Military Procurements on Armenia's and Azerbaijan's Defense Agendas”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/27/19, Ilgar Gurbanov

    Armenia's New Government Struggles with Domestic and External Opposition,” Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 3/20/19, Armen Grigorian.

    Bolton's Caucasian Tour and Russia's Reaction”, Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst, 12/17/18, Eduard Abrahamyan.