Like so many other recent political and judicial moves in Turkey, the final verdict that was handed down the other day in the "Sledgehammer" case -- in which more than 300 active and retired military officers, among them some generals, were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of plotting to overthrow the government -- offers little resolution, only further deepening the political divide in the country.
To be sure, the 21-month case and the sentencing of the officers were history-making, the first time that members of Turkey's previously untouchable military found themselves on trial and then convicted for planning to do the kind of thing that their predecessors had done four times in the past. Needless to say, the final verdict makes it clear that the power equation in Turkey has changed for good and that the powerful military has been neutered as a political force. The military's rather tame response to the verdict, saying that it "shares the sorrow" of those were convicted and their family members, is a far cry from the more muscular kind of pronouncements the Turkish generals used to make when they weren't happy with things.
As the Kurdish issue in Turkey continues to heat up, both politically and militarily, the question of how Ankara should deal with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) becomes one that's both more urgent yet also harder to answer.
In a new report released last week, the International Crisis Group steps into the breach, urging both the Turkish government and the PKK to step back from further confrontation and providing some very sensible suggestions that provide a way towards finding settling the long-standing Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
I recently sent Hugh Pope, ICG's Turkey analyst and the report's main author, a list of questions that follow up on some of the paper's observations and recommendations. Pope, a veteran Turkey observers who was previously the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in the country, was kind enough to provide some illuminating answers. Our exchange is below:
1. Many commentators are saying that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, is moving back to a harder, more nationalist stance on the Kurdish issue. Based on your research for your report, do you think this is a correct assessment?
One of the darkest legacies of the Turkish state's fight against the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the 1990's is the large number of enforced disappearances that took place in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast region. Human rights workers in the region working on the issue believe some 1,000 people were disappeared by suspected state actors during that time.
Until relatively recently, families of the Kurdish disappeared had little hope for finding answers to what happened to their relatives and little reason to believe justice would somehow be served in these cases. In the last few years, though, have given some hope that things might be changing, with victims' families, lawyers and civil society organizations in the southeast starting to push more openly for investigations into the fate of the disappeared and with the government showing some willingness to take a look at the dirty deeds that were committed in its name.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch takes a look at this issue by focusing on one of the first instances in which a Turkish military official was put on trial for suspected crimes committed during the 1990's, including the disappearance of several men. From HRW's report:
There were positive indications of change in 2009, however, when a remarkable trial began in the southeastern city of Diyarbakır of a gendarmerie officer, retired colonel Cemal Temizöz, three former PKK members turned informers, and three members of the “village guard” (local paramilitary forces armed and directed by the gendarmerie). The prosecution accused the defendants of working as a criminal gang involved in the killing and disappearance of twenty people in and around the Cizre district of Şırnak province between 1993 and 1995.
The Syrian government protested loudly when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last August that his government doesn't view what's happening across the border as a foreign problem but rather as a "domestic" one. A year later, Erdogan's words are ringing true, although perhaps not in the way the PM meant them. With the conflict in Syria dragging out and becoming more bloody, the crisis is quickly becoming a domestic issue for Turkey, although not because of what's happening in Syria as much as because of what Syrians are doing inside Turkey.
With the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey approaching 100,000, Ankara has said it is approaching the limit of how many it can accommodate, leaving thousands of Syrian fleeing the violence in their country stranded on the other side of the border. But the Turkish government is now also facing mounting questions about how its dealing with the Syrians already in camps inside the country, particularly those in one called Apaydin, which houses a large number of defected Syrian generals and other high-ranking members of the Syrian army and which has been kept off limits -- not only to journalists but also to Turkish elected officials. A recent delegation of parliamentarians from Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was turned back at the gates of the camp after trying to visit it on Sunday, prompting the party's leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, to accuse the government of using the camp to secretly train Syrian opposition forces and to claim that Apaydin is filled with "agents and spies."
Recent weeks have seen the Kurdish issue in Turkey intensify and become more violent, in many ways marking a return to the kind of activity seen in the 1980's and 90's, at the height of the conflict between the Turkish military and the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
In late July, PKK militants essentially took over a chunk of territory surrounding the town of Semdinli, near where Turkey's border meets those of both Iran and Iraq, and then fought a 20-day battle with the Turkish military before finally being dislodged. Last week, a PKK unit operating in eastern Turkey kidnapped a member of parliament from that region, releasing the MP -- Huseyin Aygun from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) -- after 48 hours. And although there has been no claim of responsibility, the Turkish press has been quick to blame the PKK for a large car bomb explosion that occurred today near Gaziantep in southern Turkey, in which at least eight were killed and 60 injured.
Meanwhile, the growing violence is starting to put a strain on Turkey's already polarized domestic political scene, pitting the country's major political parties against the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Several senior members of the party are being investigated by a prosecutor after they were seen in a recent video chatting with and hugging PKK members at a roadblock in southeastern Turkey.
It's been a given for quite some time now in Turkey that charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's next political act will be that of serving as the country's president, albeit only after influencing the legislative process so that the office becomes a more powerful one, akin to that of the American or French executive.
Short of retirement, moving over to the presidential palace is the only move Erdogan could make, since the bylaws of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) prevent members from being elected to parliament for more than three terms and the PM is currently serving his third. With what will be Turkey's first direct presidential elections (up until now the choice has been made by parliamentary vote) set for 2014, there are indications that Erdogan's plans are becoming clearer. From a recent report in The National:
Mr Erdogan has not said publicly whether he wants to become president, but Huseyin Besli, one of his closest advisers, told a television interviewer last month that "Erdogan will be president in 2014".
The fact that Mr Erdogan has called on a parliamentary committee working on a new constitution to give the president new executive powers is also seen by political observers as an indication that he will seek the position.
Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Aktas of the Tur Abdin region
A court ruling that allows the state treasury to seize a large chunk of the land belonging to an ancient Assyrian monastery in southeastern Turkey is being described by critics of the decision as a major setback for Ankara's efforts to reform the way non-Muslims and their property are treated in the country.
The ruling, by the Supreme Court of Appeals in Ankara, allows for close to sixty percent of the land belong to the centuries-old Mor Gabriel monastery to be expropriated by the state, on the grounds that the property belongs to the treasury rather than to the monastery, which has been in existence since the year 397 and has been a major center for Assyrian Christians since that time. The Bianet website has a quick rundown of the case:
Although the the Turkish fighter jet downed by Syrian forces on June 22 has been found and the Turkish military is analyzing the wreckage, the questions regarding how the jet was brought down and what its actual mission was continue to linger and are now leading to a heated political debate in Turkey.
For now, Ankara is sticking to its version of events, which is that the unarmed reconnaissance airplane was shot down without warning by a Syrian missile over international waters while on a mission testing a domestic radar system. Damascus, meanwhile, insists the Turkish F-4 was mistakenly shot down by fire from an anti-aircraft gun after suddenly appearing flying fast and low just off the Syrian coast.
The Syrian version of events was given something of a boost by a June 30th Wall Street Journal article that quoted unnamed American defense sources as saying that US intelligence indicates the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire inside Syria's airspace. The article led to an angry response from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called it a "lie" and criticized several Turkish media outlets for publishing material based on the WSJ's reporting. But the Turkish military itself has also created some confusion, with a brigadier general telling the Milliyet newspaper that Ankara doesn't have any evidence of a missile striking the plane.
Are armed drones the answer to Turkey's continuing fight against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)? That certainly seems to be the signal coming out of Ankara, which has been pushing Washington to provide it with American-made Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be armed with air-to-ground missiles.
To a large extent, Ankara's military strategy regarding the PKK fight seems to be evolving in a direction that mimics that used by the United States in Pakistan and Yemen, where drones have become a central weapon in Washington's counterterrorism efforts. Like the US has learned in Pakistan, though, Turkey has recently also discovered that relying on drones can lead to trouble. As described in this previous post, the use of UAV's has become a topic of intense debate in Turkey after the Turkish military last December killed 34 Kurdish villagers that were mistakenly thought to be PKK militants. The deadly attack on the 34, part of a convoy of smugglers heading towards the Turkish border from Iraq, came as a result of intelligence provided by an American drone on loan to Turkey that first noticed the convoy.
In a highly illuminating article, Turkey-basd analyst Aaron Stein takes a look at Turkey's efforts to develop its drone fleet and some of the politics behind it, asking the important question of whether Turkish policymakers have really thought through the implications of introducing armed UAV's into their country's military strategy. From Stein's article:
Is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) trying to undermine nascent efforts to solve the decades-old Kurdish issue? Is the militant organization itself split between a moderate leadership and a more hardline wing that's trying to undermine these reconciliation moves? These two questions are being asked in the wake of Tuesday's brazen and well-coordinated attack by a large group of PKK militants on a military outpost in eastern Turkey, which resulted in the death of eight Turkish soldiers and has led to retaliatory strikes against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.
The timing of the attack struck many as curious, coming right on the heels of recent conciliatory messages given by Kurdish political leaders in Turkey and by one of the PKK's top leaders in northern Iraq. In an interview published on June 14 in Hurriyet, veteran Kurdish politician Leyla Zana -- who was recently sentenced to ten years in jail on charges of "propagandizing" on behalf of the PKK -- told the paper she does not believe an armed struggle can solve the Kurdish issue and that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be supported in his efforts to solve the conflict. Meanwhile, in a recent interview with veteran Turkish journalist Avni Ozgurel, PKK leader Murat Karayilan gave what many interpreted as positive messages, expressing his support for a now suspended process that brought together representatives of the PKK and the Turkish government for secret talks in Oslo, Norway.