Attacks on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition mask government weakness

There was a time when the Turkish government claimed to be serious about the peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). That time has long gone. In 2013, government talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan saw the group agree to withdraw its forces to Iraq. But when the Syrian civil war changed the balance of power in the region, it was the Turkish government who decided to abandon the peace process.

Turkey’s combative Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu, is now attempting to tie the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to the PKK through photos of HDP members on a government-authorised diplomatic mission to PKK bases in Iraq.

Following the deaths of 13 PKK hostages during a Turkish rescue attempt in Gara, Iraq, Soylu claimed in parliament that a HDP MP had gone to the area. Soylu then went on television to claim this was the HDP MP Dilan Dirayet Taşdemir, resulting in the Ankara chief public prosecutor's office opening a criminal investigation. In response, Taşdemir held a press conference, announcing that “she will file a criminal complaint about the remarks of Süleyman Soylu about her,” according to Bianet.

Taşdemir went on to compare Soylu’s “character assassination” to the methods formerly used by the Gülen movement against their opponents. Soylu had no evidence for his claims, she said. "I am asking again: When did I go to Gara? On which day did I go there? Announce it with documents. Don't tell us stories." Tasdemir suggested Soylu’s attacks on the HDP were intended to distract from the failures of the rescue operation, which resulted in the hostages’ deaths.

In February 2013, members of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the forerunner to the HDP, met with Öcalan on Imrali island. “The delegation, which was granted special authorization by the Ministry of Justice to hold deliberations with Abdullah Öcalan, will hear out the PKK leader's proposed roadmap for the government to put an end to the issue of terrorism in the country,” pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper reported at the time.

Between 2013 and 2015, HDP members acted as go-betweens in the peace process, relaying messages between the Turkish state and the PKK leadership based in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. "Every Qandil visit of the HDP was to represent the parties of the resolution process that could not go to Qandil," the HDP said in a statement. “The photo was taken when we took Öcalan’s letter of disarmament to Qandil,” HDP Co-Chair Pervin Buldan said responding to Soylu’s allegations.

These meetings were never a secret, with numerous news reports at the time. Daily Sabah used one of the photos of HDP members in Qandil to publish a timeline of the peace process between 2013 and 2015.

Soylu’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) asked HDP members to negotiate with Öcalan and take messages to the PKK leadership in Qandil on their behalf. But members of the government are now acting as if the peace process never happened, and that HDP members went to a secret militant base in the Iraqi mountains to hang out with their PKK buddies.

Soylu knows that this is a misrepresentation, but doesn’t seem to care. For him, it’s further ammunition for, presumably, imprisoning every elected HDP member and getting the party banned.

In 2013, a Turkish government poll showed 58 percent favourability for the peace process with the PKK. But then the Syrian conflict changed the balance of power between Turkey and armed Kurdish groups. “The war against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq had the unexpected consequence of empowering the PKK and its affiliates in Syria,” academic Arin Savran suggests in a recent paper. “The PKK’s sudden and large empowerment had significantly raised Turkish mistrust, fears and insecurity.”

Savran describes the problem at the heart of the peace process: “Turkey is afraid that (greater autonomy) would eventually lead to Kurdish secession and the very thought of recognizing the Kurdish identity is understood as posing a threat to the long-standing Kemalist interpretation of the unitary state. Herein lies the incompatibility of the conflict.”

This “Kemalist interpretation” is perhaps better understood as an nationalist belief in a unitary Turkish state, with opposition towards Kurdish autonomy increasingly held by AKP politicians who have historically rejected the political movement associated with Turkey’s secular founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Soylu is very much on the nationalist wing of the AKP. 

Nationalist fears of Kurdish secession seem to erupt during periods of political change and government weakness in Turkey. Anger and frustration can easily be redirected away from the government and towards old enemies like secessionist Kurds, who have long been suspected of undermining the state. 

But this does nothing to address the underlying concerns. A renewed peace process with the PKK will take political capital and determination that the AKP simply does not have anymore. It was a measure of the AKP’s strength in 2009 when it announced the steps towards peace. It is now a measure of the party’s weakness that it has totally abandoned the process in favour of harsh rhetoric and political repression of the democratic Kurdish opposition.