Courcy's Intelligence Brief - 17 July 2013

Kurds looking to take advantage of Erdogan's setbacks

The Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is struggling with domestic unrest, economic uncertainty, and a foreign policy that has been shredded by the resilience of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood administration in Egypt.  Now there is evidence that the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) may be under strain, partly as a result of the government’s preoccupation with other matters and partly because PKK hardliners sense an opportunity.

As we reported last week, there was a surge in violent incidents reportedly carried out by the PKK in the first week of July.  There were incidents in a wide range of cities, including Adana, Ankara, Diyarbakir, Hakkari, Istanbul, and Mersin.  The attacks included setting buildings on fire and attacking police cars and a gendarmerie outpost.  Many of the attacks were in rural areas of the Kurdish southeast and included abduction.  Turkish intelligence sources let it be known that they believed the PKK was trying to capitalize on the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul.  They also said that the group is continuing to recruit.

The other problem has been a belief in Kurdish circles that the government has not been delivering on its side of the bargain.  On 30 June, the Kurdish-based Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is represented in parliament, presented a list of demands for the “second phase” of the peace process that began in October.  These include the release of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan from jail.

In the past week there have been further developments suggesting increasing difficulties.  Last Wednesday (10 July), for instance, it was announced that the Kurdish umbrella organization, the Kurdistan People’s Congress (KGK) had appointed a new joint leadership: Cemil Bayik and Bese Hozat.  The interesting aspect of this is that Bayik is known to be a hardliner close to Iran, and his appointment is seen as likely to move the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) closer to Iran, perhaps as a counter to the Turkish government’s close relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.  Iran, of course, is also strongly opposed to Turkey’s anti-Assad policy in Syria.  In the past month there have been intelligence reports of Iran sending messages to the PKK not to implement its ceasefire with Turkey.

Bese Hozat is a co-founder of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), and significantly she is an Alevi.  The Alevis are seen to be the least pro-peace members of the PKK, particularly with Turkey supporting the Sunni opposition forces in Syria against Assad’s Alawite regime.  Although different from the Alawites, the Alevis are also a Shia sect.

The BDP, despite its complaints about lack of progress on the government side, is still maintaining that the peace process is on target.  Its co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas claims that the negotiated pullout from Turkish territory by PKK guerrillas has “picked up speed” and that 50% of PKK guerrillas have withdrawn from Turkey, not the 15% recently claimed by Erdogan.  A BDP sources said this week: “No KCK official can say right now ‘the last person will be out by this or that date’.  They cannot even make a guess here.  There are geographical difficulties, organizational difficulties, security difficulties.  However, the organization’s leadership called on them to pick up the pace.”

Demirtas has also denied that the Kurdish leadership reshuffle is negative, but not in an overly convincing manner.  He said: "Every period has a way of shaping the leadership.  Right now the KCK is experiencing a new period.  We are talking about a peace process.  Therefore, it is perfectly natural for them to carry out this reshuffle that takes into account this new process as a whole.  This is not counter to the spirit of the process.  It is an arrangement done to add strength and support to the process.  It is not opposed to the process but a reshuffle done for the sake of stronger participation in the process."

Demirtas added: "All the names are part of the process and are lending their support.  It is not a case of this person being opposed and that person being in favour.  This is not a coup within the KCK.  It is a reshuffle in keeping with the spirit of the process."

A less positive spin was provided by Murat Karayilan, who has stood down from the leadership of the KGK and instead become leader of the PKK’s armed wing, the People’s Defence Forces (HPG).  During the past week, he has described the peace process as being “in a tight spot”.  He added: “If the attitude of the Turkish state continues as it is now, the process will be blocked up.  It is not blocked now, but it is on the way to being blocked.”  He also talked about a continuing “big oppression of our people” following the clashes on 28 June in Lice district of Diyarbakir in which one person was killed and nine others seriously injured.

That Erdogan’s government is in a difficult place, thus providing the PKK with an opportunity, cannot be in doubt.  The key points are:

* Although Erdogan’s core support appears to be holding up, the Gezi protests have shown that a significant proportion of the population is opposed to his Islamist-tinged vision of modern Turkey.

* Erdogan now has to add economic difficulties to his political problems.  The central bank, against Erdogan’s wishes, has signalled its intentions to raise interest rates in order to shore up the lire.  Foreign direct investment (FDI) was down 35% in the first five months of 2013, following on from a 23% fall in 2012.  And this exit by foreign investors comes at a time when Turkey’s external funding needs are increasing.  The current-account deficit is forecast to reach 7.5% of GDP by the year-end.  The central bank has revised down its 2013 growth estimate from 4% to 3.6%.

* On the foreign front, Erdogan’s policy of alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood axis has been shattered by the ouster of Egypt’s MB president, Muhammad Mursi

* Erdogan’s alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood has run in parallel with the alienation of Turkey from its earlier alliance with Israel and, to a lesser extent, from the European Union. 

* Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran are strained and are set to become more strained as Moscow and Tehran redouble their efforts to save Assad in the wake of Mursi’s ouster.

Theoretically Erdogan’s support for the MB in Egypt, and his opposition to the ouster of Mursi, could be seen as taking a high moral position on the importance of supporting democracy in the Middle East, but because of his domestic and foreign-policy track record it is seen by the outside world as just a further indication of Erdogan’s pro-Islamist sympathies.  Even his stance against military intervention, rather than being seen as principled, is being dismissed as self-serving.

And so, at a time of high domestic tension, Turkey under Erdogan finds itself at odds not only with Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria but also (in varying degrees) with the European Union, the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan, Israel, and post-Mursi Egypt.  Even Hamas is now likely to tack back towards Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah.

Sources close to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leadership say the problem is Erdogan himself.  At home, while some see the need to be more conciliatory, there are no indications that the Erdogan is prepared to change the AKP’s domestic strategy.  The AKP will seek to win next year’s election by maintaining current policies as far as it can and by relying upon its core constituency. 

And on the foreign front, while he could endear himself more to the Western powers by seeking to compensate for the collapse of his pro-Muslim Brotherhood policy by mending fences with the EU and Israel (which is what the United States would like to see happen), again there is little sign of any significant modification.

So this  extraordinary catalogue of (mostly self-imposed) woes is likely to persist, with two main consequences for the Kurdish peace process.  The first is that Erdogan is using up much of the political capital that he will need to push through a comprehensive peace agreement.  The second, as we have seen this week, is that hardliners within the PKK are sensing an opportunity to harden their approach to the negotiations.  The Kurds could be about to make life even more difficult for ErdoganJdeC.


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