Erdogan and Oçalan: Odd Bedfellows


Turkey’s rise in power is inversely proportionate with Armenia’s interest. And Turkey recently scored two breakthroughs which will enhance its position as a regional superpower. One achievement was on the domestic front and the other, in international relations.

Three decades of bloody conflict between Kurdish liberation forces and the government, which claimed 40,000 casualties — mostly on the Kurdish side — came to a halt with a unilateral cease-fire by the jailed Kurdish leader, Abdullah Oçalan, who is currently serving a life term as a “traitor.”

His organization, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (its acronym, PKK in Kurdish) has also been labeled as a terrorist organization and is banned in Turkey. Anyone affiliated with the organization is considered a terrorist.

Basically, PKK has been a national liberation organization having the unique goal of upholding the human and ethnic rights of Turkey’s 22-25 million Kurds who have been persecuted by successive Turkish regimes since World War I. The Treaty of Sevres in 1920 had promised freedom and autonomy to the Kurds, which did not materialize, just as the pledges made to the Armenians for an expanded homeland never materialized.

Ironically, Oçalan had anointed his organization as a Marxist movement — perhaps to please his Soviet supporters at that time — providing the excuse to the Turkish government to conveniently call it a terrorist organization and convince the European Union and US to list it with other terrorist organizations.

Although divided into many factions with different — and at times conflicting — goals and ideologies, their leaders have always tried to take advantage of shifting political alliances in the region. Their sustained struggle, at the risk of tremendous sacrifices, seems to be paying off with the creation of a Kurdish region in Northern Iraq, with the creation of an armed autonomous region in Northern Syria, and building pressure in Turkey where many surprising developments are transforming society.

Turkey’s mercurial Prime Minister Erdogan reading correctly trends of history resorted to an unprecedented initiative by negotiating with Oçalan, still in prison in Imrali Island for the last 17 years. It looks like the negotiations have yielded some results that Mr. Oçalan issued a statement which was proclaimed on the Kurdish Novruz (new year) in Diyarbakir, the unofficial capital of Kurds in Turkey, to a cheering crowd.

Time will tell whether this development is a temporary respite or ruse until the Erdogan-Davutoglu team can achieve its immediate goals, or is a fundamental policy change in resolving Turkey’s Kurdish problem.

Erdogan’s immediate priority is the removal of one of the main hurdles to Turkey’s admission in the European Union, as his government’s cruel treatment of the Kurdish minority has given a black eye to his administration. The other goal is to win the support of Kurdish members of the parliament to change the current constitution — a relic from the 1980 military junta — to enhance the president’s role and to pave his way for an ascendance to that position.

Last but not least, Turkey hopes to tone down Israel’s encouragement of Kurdish aspirations in Iraq and consequently throughout Kurdish-populated regions.

After achieving these goals, Erdogan can deal a devastating blow to Kurdish aspirations from a position of power, or may come to an accommodation, taking into consideration political factors that will be present at the time.

It is not yet known what concession was promised to the Kurds, but one thing is certain, that it has infuriated the Turkish right, mostly represented by Nevlet Bahceli’s Grey Wolves Party (Milli Haraket), which has accused Erdogan of endangering Turkey’s future. In its statement, the party claims that whatever 30 years of Kurdish insurgency could not achieve, Erdogan presented to them on a silver platter: the prospect of Turkey’s partition.

This brings us to the other breakthrough which will benefit Turkey, although the credit is given to President Obama. Indeed, minutes before he left Israel for Jordan, Obama mediated between Prime Ministers Erdogan and Netanyahu for the latter to apologize for the Israeli raid on the Turkish-owned and Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara flotilla, which killed nine people.

Israel also promised to compensate the families of two Turkish citizens who had lost their lives during the raid.

The third condition which was set by Turkey to restore relations with Tel Aviv was to ease the miserable conditions in Gaza. Israel made some vague promises to allow some food items and medicines to reach the suffering population of Gaza. That was more to appease the UN and outraged international community than Erdogan himself, although the Arab masses gave credit to the Turkish leader.

Although Tel Aviv and Ankara had been working through back channels for the last two years to restore broken diplomatic relations, the breakthrough was used as a feather in Mr. Obama’s cap to add some drama to his trip to Israel, since he had been going to the region empty handed. His primary aim was to put to rest Israel’s reservations about his policies and above all to thank Prime Minister Netanyahu for refraining from meddling in the US presidential election, which could have cost Obama his second term.

Obama’s trip was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the Middle East peace process; until his trip the US official policy and the president’s personal position was that Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem presented an impediment to the peace process. This time around, not only did he not renounce that policy, on the contrary, he advised Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations even though Israel may continue its policy of settlement expansion.

After Obama left Israel, Mark Ragen, Netanyahu’s spokesman, bluntly announced,“Mr. Obama’s visit has not shifted Israel’s position.” In fact, Israel was thumbing its nose at both to Obama and Erdogan, but that charade had already inflamed the Palestinian and Arab imagination, crediting Erdogan as the champion of the Palestinian cause.

Yesterday’s jailed terrorist in Turkey overnight became the interlocutor of the country’s prime minister, who began his negotiations with the Kurdish leader through his internal security agency, MIT.

It is interesting that in his call for a cease fire, Oçalan, an avowed Marxist-atheist invokes the Muslim religion as a common bond between the Kurds and the Turks. He also refers to Fethullah Gulen, Erdogan’s nominal opponent, who has been successful in running hundreds of charter schools throughout the US.

Oçalan’s statement does not advocate a “farewell to arms.” It only proclaims a ceasefire, asking PKK militants to leave Turkish soil and wait for the government’s corresponding steps. The PKK’s military leaders have positively responded to Oçalan’s call, effectively solidifying his position as their spokesman.

Erdogan’s plans are anyone’s guess. Among the many rumors are that Oçalan’s life sentence may be commuted to house arrest, some cautious steps may be taken to demilitarize the Kurdish region, Kurdish schools and publications may be allowed without any autonomous local self-government, which may expedite the independence movement.

What do all these developments mean for Armenia and Armenians? To begin with, the Kurds — who seem to be apologetic for their ancestors’ grisly role in executing the Genocide — will their apology translate into a territorial compromise with Armenia? Recently Ahmed Turk, a Kurdish member of the parliament in Turkey, had apologized for Kurdish participation in persecuting Armenians. It is very doubtful that should the Kurds achieve independence, they would be willing to cede an inch of their newly-liberated homeland, which squarely sits on historic Armenian territory, because Armenians have not played a significant role in their liberation. Perhaps some compromise may be reached in salvaging, preserving and rebuilding Armenian architectural monuments, deliberately destroyed by the Turkish government over a full century, or converted into mosques, movie theaters, jails and stables.

Erdogan’s government will come out the winning party in all these developments, with enhanced prospects for joining the European Union, which has put on the back burner its earlier condition of Turkey’s recognizing the Armenian Genocide.

After restoring relations with Israel, Turkey will become one of the two strongest pillars of US hegemony in the Middle East. Turkey was able to cripple Greece’s economy with its unrelenting arms race, and these days, economic collapse also has been visiting Cyprus, a Turkish victim of aggression, losing its northern sector to that nation, where a sham republic has been set up. Therefore, coupled with a booming economy, Turkey will clamor for the role of regional super power, challenging any party that would ask its leadership to recognize the Armenian Genocide or lift the crippling blockade of Armenia. Turkey’s status will further embolden President Ilham Aliyev in his belligerent rhetoric or even encourage him into an armed conflict with Armenia.

It is incumbant upon the Armenian leadership to have a sober assessment of these developments and put its house in order, rather than be carried away with internecine fights. The Turkish media and government agencies have been gleefully announcing that the “Arab Spring has jumped to Armenia.”

The Arab Spring — or rather the nightmare — has brought a continuing bloodbath to Iraq and Libya, has pushed Egypt to the brink of disintegration and has been knocking at the door in Damascus, with the same anticipated results. Meanwhile, despotic regimes in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar — euphemistically called “moderate regimes” — are hard at work to destroy Arab sovereign governments and let their peoples fight each other and thus refrain from bothering Israel.

A conniving media is also at work, vilifying the people of these countries accusing them of not being able to govern themselves, oblivious to the fact that turmoil in those countries is often introduced — if not abetted — externally, with flagrant armed interventions, like Iraq and Libya yesterday, Syria today and perhaps Iran tomorrow.

Any kind of “spring” can promise mayhem to Armenia and comfort to Turkey.

As we can see, the “love affair” between two odd bedfellows has broader regional ramifications, with ominous fallout for Armenia.