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Don’t Be Fooled by Kurdish Peace Process

Speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Standing beside Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he told a news conference, “We welcome the PKK’s commitment to lay down its arms. We discussed our work to combat terrorism in all its forms … including the violence that has plagued Turkey for three long decades,” he said, adding, “No peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination.”

Kerry would be foolish, however, to believe that Turkey’s current outreach to the PKK is about peace, or permanent reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, two other factors are at play, both of which suggest that political cynicism and greed rather than sincerity are at the root of Turkey’s rush to negotiation with the Kurdish group.

The first factor that influences Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s behavior is the 2020 Summer Olympics. The announcement on Nowruz, the traditional Persian and Kurdish New Year’s celebration, came just days before a team from the International Olympic Committee came to survey Istanbul, one of three finalists for the 2020 games. Erdoğan seeks the games not only to propel Turkey—and himself—further onto the world stage but also because the Summer Olympics could provide him with a financial bonanza. Sponsoring the Olympic Games might be a money loser to many countries, but the prime minister has not been shy about directing major development contracts to a firm run by his son-in-law. Erdoğan has gone from being a humble politician with a humble salary to a millionaire, many times over. Explaining away his wealth as the product of gifts presented at his son’s wedding is not convincing. The International Olympic Committee will make its decision in September. Whatever they decide—and Istanbul is likely the frontrunner—as soon as the decision is made, Erdoğan no longer needs to pretend to pursue peace.

The second factor is Erdoğan’s own political future. Erdoğan is currently overseeing efforts to rewrite the constitution and convert Turkey to a presidential system in which the president, rather than the prime minister, will hold sway. This would give Erdoğan perhaps two more terms of perhaps five to seven years each. Erdoğan figures he needs Kurdish support to support a new constitution with a strong presidential system. As soon as the new constitution is approved, however, Turkey’s Kurds again become expendable.

Too often, American officials imagine that peace partners are sincere. Erdoğan has been quite vague about what concessions he will be willing to make to the Kurds, and whether any of the Kurds’ basic aspirations will be met. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, for example, seeks federation. That is not likely something Erdoğan could deliver, even if he were so willing. 

Let us hope that Secretary of State John Kerry recognizes that with insincere interlocutors, talk is more about the process than the peace, and often more about the money and personal power than achieving a final settlement. That was certainly the case with Yasir Arafat and it also appears to be the major factor at play with Turkey’s prime minister.


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