As the battle against the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as they now call themselves) heats up south of Turkey's border, Ankara has been accused of awkwardly sitting on the sidelines as its allies fight the organization -- or, even worse, providing support to the group.
But is the Turkish government now preparing to enter the battle against ISIS? In recent days, Turkish tanks have been deployed along the Syrian border, in an area where Kurdish fighters are battling an ISIS advance (resulting in a wave of refugees entering Turkey). More significantly, the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forwarded to parliament a motion that would allow Turkey to send troops into both Syria and Iraq (a vote on the bill, which is almost certain to pass, is expected on Thursday). Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The mandate the Turkish government is seeking from the Parliament to authorize the army to send troops into Iraq and Syria to deal with growing threat of extremist jihadists does also include opening its bases to foreign troops, a senior government official has said, signalling about potential Turkish contribution to the international military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The release a few days ago of the group of 49 Turks being held hostage in the Iraqi city of Mosul by the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself) signals the end of one crisis for Ankara but by no means the end of Turkey's troubled entanglement with ISIS or the danger that the rise of group poses for Turkish interests and security.
Certainly, despite the good feelings created by the release, major questions remain about just how Ankara was able to get ISIS to give up a group that provided it with enough leverage to keep Turkey out of the military efforts against the extremist organization. Turkish officials have insisted that no ransom was paid, but reports in the Turkish press suggest that the hostages' release may have been part of a simultaneous release of ISIS members being held by another rebel group in Syria.
Turkey's recent approach to regional Kurdish issues has been highly contradictory. In northern Iraq, in an effort to diversify its energy supplies and further establish itself as an oil and gas hub, Ankara has entered into energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), something which has infuriated the central Iraqi government in Baghdad but which has helped the Kurds further build a foundation for their independence.
In northern Syria, on the other hand, Ankara has been so alarmed by the growing Kurdish autonomy there that it reportedly has provided support for radical Islamist groups (including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)) in their fight against the the Kurdish militia that controls the region, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
Turkey may be involved in a peace process with its Kurds, but there's no denying things have gotten bogged down. Last month, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced it was halting the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey because Ankara has failed to reciprocate with positive steps of its own. Meanwhile, a new "democratization" package of reforms unveiled last week by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was widely panned as not offering enough in terms of Kurdish reforms, stopping short of making some crucial changes -- such as lowering the 10 percent national election threshold or introducing Kurdish-language education in public schools -- that Kurds have long asked for.
In a new report, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group suggests the reason the Turkish government's Kurdish reform effort might be stalling is the fear of a nationalist backlash and its impact on the ruling Justice and Development Party's domestic fortunes. The report, though, argues those fears may be overblown. From its executive summary:
The Wall Street Journal has a great story about the travails of the makers of Nosh, a beer whose name in means "cheers!" in Kurdish (and, interestingly, "to snack" in Yiddish).
Brewed in Romania to be marketed in Turkey (perhaps with the idea of appealing to Kurdish-minded tipplers), the beer has suddenly found itself locked out of the market after government officials cancelled Nosh's import license. From the WSJ's story:
Company CEO Nurettin Keske said he had already sunk $600,000 into producing almost 40,000 bottles of Kurdish-branded beer in Romania, and imported them to be distributed and sold to Turkish consumers. Although the permissions still existed in writing, Mr. Keske concluded it would have been too risky for him to make sales agreements with distributors.
“A representative from the ministry called me and said that all of the necessary permissions to import Nosh were cancelled. We had to either drink all the beer or dispose of it,” added Mr. Keske who opted to transport the bottles back to Romania on Tuesday after storing them in a depot in Istanbul for over two months.
The Ministry of Agriculture declined to comment on the case, saying that they could not verify whether permissions had been cancelled due to technical reasons. The representative added that it was “unlikely” that the ministry will respond later on the issue, either.
The curious case of Keske Gida comes as Turkey’s government has reached a crucial stage of a peace process aimed at providing greater autonomy and language rights for the country’s 15 million Kurds to end a three decade conflict which has claimed some 40,000 lives.
Some Kurdish businessmen called on the Agriculture Ministry to explain the reason for the alleged cancellation of permission to import, or risk the perception that there was discrimination against Kurdish language.
In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Slowly but surely, the latest attempt by the Turkish government to resolve the decades-old Kurdish issue is moving along. In the latest confidence building measure, members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BD), who were given Ankara's permission to meet with jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan this past Sunday, delivered a message from Ocalan that suggested his organization's fighters would soon be leaving Turkish territory. “The peace process we are currently going through is continuing at full speed. I am striving to make the ceasefire permanent and to ensure a withdrawal. I can say we are more hopeful now that we have come to this stage. In this context, I will reveal the details of the efforts we are making,” Ocalan's statement said.
Still, the nascent "peace process" is facing some profound challenges, both domestic and external. In a new piece from the German Marshall Fund that gives a good overview of the latest developments surrounding the Kurdish issue, political scientist Ilter Turan takes a look at these challenges, suggesting there is good reason to be cautious about predicting the process's success.
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Human Rights Watch has just released its annual World Report and its chapter on Turkey contains some very strong criticism of Ankara's efforts at human rights reform. “Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's senior researcher in Turkey. “If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” she said. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”
In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.