What motivates Turkey's peace process?

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Unidentified Turkish men and women protest against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) on Oct. 30, 2011, in The Hague, The Netherlands.

Article Highlights

  • Announcement of a truce between Turkish forces and the PKK brought optimism to Turkey

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  • Winning the Turkish nationalist vote always has trumped the push for necessary reforms

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  • Neither ceasefire nor apology will bring peace

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The Nowruz announcement of a truce between Turkish forces and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) brought optimism to Turkey. The liberal daily Taraf declared, “This is the Spring of Turkey.” Milliyet headlined “Farewell to arms,” and Hürriyet bannered, “The era of weapons is over.” 

The U.S. government also welcomed the ceasefire. “We applaud the courageous efforts of the Government of Turkey and all parties concerned to achieve a peaceful resolution that will advance democracy in Turkey and improve the lives of all of Turkey’s citizens,” the State Department spokesman declared.

Masud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, endorsed the ceasefire as well. “We not only support and welcome this call by Mr. Öcalan, [but] we believe this is the right course of action and a vindication of our long-standing policy that the Kurdish…question cannot be resolved through armed or military means,” he declared.

That Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan celebrates is no surprise. In one week he scored not one coup, but two. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to apologize to Erdoğan for the botched 2010 commando action against the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish ship seeking to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, affirmed both Erdoğan’s position and bluster. By winning a ceasefire in an insurgency against which the Turkish army has struggled for decades, he can wear the mantle of peace-maker. That the cease-fire came against a PKK resurgence made the PKK’s apparent surrender even more surprising.

Neither ceasefire nor apology will bring peace, however. Indeed, peace most likely is not Erdoğan’s goal. There is little indication that Ankara will do what is necessary to meet even the most basic Kurdish demands. Both Erdoğan and his predecessors often reached out to the country’s Kurds, but reversed course as soon as elections neared. Winning the Turkish nationalist vote always has trumped the push for necessary reforms.

Erdoğan’s outreach to Kurds has always been conditional. He is willing to embrace those Kurds who internalize a more conservative, religious outlook, but he has little tolerance for those who express Kurdish culture above religion. He may not be a Kemalist, but he is just as dictatorial: Either the Kurds conform to his ideology, or they become enemies.

Still, Erdoğan’s outreach is risky. Why would he be so willing to take such a leap now? While the Turkish press, the State Department, and Masud Barzani celebrated the PKK ceasefire, a completely different issue may motivate Erdoğan’s new outreach. While diplomats applauded the ceasefire, on March 23, a 15-member International Olympic Committee delegation was in Istanbul on the final leg of the three candidate cities. When they arrived in Istanbul’s Atatürk International Airport, Turkish papers reported not stories of corruption and war, but peace and celebration. Compare that with the dire financial news that greeted the Committee in Madrid, or the North Korean saber-rattling that coincided with their trip to Tokyo.

Erdoğan sees hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics not only as a crowning achievement for his more than decade-long rule, but also as international affirmation of Turkey’s rise. “We have no flaws to host the Olympics,” he told the press before visiting London last July. A successful bid would also provide a personal windfall to Mr. Erdoğan, whom diplomats say is not shy about directing contracts to Çalık Holding, whose chief executive officer is his own son-in-law. The Olympics would bring a windfall of investment to Turkey which could be worth billions of dollars.

So where does this leave the Kurds? On September 7, 2013, the International Olympic Committee will make its final selection as to whether Madrid, Tokyo, or Istanbul will host the 2020 Olympics. Barring world war, there is no chance that the International Olympic Committee will reverse its decision once made. Should Erdoğan’s goal be the prize of the Olympics rather than the hard concessions necessary to bring peace then he has no incentive to continue to the peace talks after September.  That so many promises remain vague and undelivered should raise red flags.  Unless the Kurds speak up now and see the implementation of irreversible reform rather than simply vague promises, they may see themselves on the sidelines as 2020 becomes not the date of Kurdish autonomy let alone independence, but an international celebration of the worst aspects of Turkish nationalism.

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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