The recent Turkish crisis and shifting geopolitics in the region seem to have brought the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Justice and Development Party (AKP) closer than any time in the past.
Despite frequent inflammatory rhetoric by leaders of both sides, the PKK and AKP are finding it more mutually beneficial to work and cooperate together to navigate through the current challenges in Turkey. These could derail the long-awaited PKK-Ankara peace process and eventually lead to the overthrow of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government.
While it is not new for the PKK to accuse the US of being behind various plots in the region, one of the group’s top commanders made interesting comments in a recent newspaper interview that were compatible with views expressed by Erdogan.
“Behind the (Gulen) community, there is America; they want to get rid of Erdogan,” Cemil Bayik, one of the commanders at PKK’s Qandil Mountain base, told Turkey’s Vatan daily.
Erdogan, too, has accused international groups and dark forces of trying to overthrow his government, since the graft probe against his government emerged in December.
In a mid-December speech in Samsun, Erdogan went so far as to accuse US Ambassador in Turkey Francis Ricciardone of plotting against his government. Of course, he did not mention the ambassador by name, but most people agree that the premier’s words were directed at Ricciardone.
The ambassador had allegedly told other diplomats at a meeting of foreign ambassadors in Turkey that, “Now you will watch the fall of an empire” – in reference to what he saw as the AKP’s fate.
The incensed Turkish premier even threatened to expel the foreign diplomats who are allegedly interfering in Turkey’s internal affairs. “Unless they mind their own business, they will be thrown out of the country,” he warned.
Externally, the PKK-AKP axis seems to be reinforced by the facts on the ground in Syria.
Turkey is suffering from the consequences of the conflict. While it was financing and assisting various opposition groups, including the Islamists, now the threats originating from them appear to be much greater and more dangerous than Ankara had expected.
Turkey understands that Syria’s north and northeastern borders are dominantly populated by Kurds, who are sympathetic to the PKK and its Syrian wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) led by Salih Muslim.
The PYD, the main force in Syria’s Kurdish regions, has fought off al-Qaeda fighters and largely kept the civil war out of the areas under its control. The group’s ascendancy has worked as an important and reassuring buffer zone for Turkey, keeping the worst consequences of the war away from its borders.
For this reason, it is not surprising that President Abdulla Gul does not view the PKK as a major threat any longer, even though the two have not reached an agreement to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey.
“Our regional perception of the threat of today and that of four or five years ago are very different,” Gul told the Hurriyet daily. “The biggest threat of that time was the PKK terror. Today, we look and see many groups in this environment,” he added. Referring to fighters, he said, “You never know where they will end up… We have seen it in Afghanistan.”
Kurdish groups, with a long history of armed struggle, have shown to be the most effective in confronting and defeating jihadist groups, whether in northeastern Syria or Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most stable and safest part of Iraq.
Jihadist forces in Syria have been able to defeat the secular forces in almost every single confrontation and have expanded their territorial control. This has been at the expense of Syrian opposition groups which Ankara and Washington hope will govern Syria if Assad’s regime ever falls.
In the meantime, it has been PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which have defeated almost every offensive launched by various jihadist groups, including attacks by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) on the Syrian Kurdish areas.
It makes sense for Ankara to have on its border a homogenous force with one centralized command -- which has also expressed willingness to cooperate with Turkey. This is preferable to having jihadist forces -- which lack a clear leadership and are composed of different nationalities and different commands -- on the border.
PYD leader Muslim, speaking on the pro-PKK Sterk TV just a few days ago, once more reassured Turkey that the Kurdish autonomous regions in Syria would not pose a threat to Ankara. He said they would rather contribute to the security of Turkey.
“The administration is no threat to Turkey. No bullet has been fired towards Turkey and it never will. The presence of the Kurds will boost security of the borders,” Muslim said.
It is fair to say that Kurdish politicians in Syria and Turkey, including Kurdish jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, have played a wise game by not pushing against the AKP at this time. The PKK and its allies could have employed brinksmanship to further complicate things for the ruling party.
It does not seem that Kurdish politicians chose pacific gestures and statements out of naivety. Rather, they recognized that, if the situation in Turkey spins out of control, Kurds and Turks both could miss this important opportunity for a lasting peace.
Now, the situation in Turkey seems to be more stable than in December, and local elections are coming in March.
It is highly unlikely that AKP will be able to win the same number of votes it got during the last local elections in 2009, because of the government’s handling of the Gezi protests in May as well as the embarrassing graft probes. Nevertheless, the AKP clout will remain intact at the national government level.
It is, therefore, now the AKP’s turn to take concrete measures toward solving the Kurdish issue through policies and politics!
Yerevan Saeed is a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston