Turkey is going through a crisis, not only political in nature but moral as well. Once on a trajectory toward democracy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of control over the last decade has reversed what gains Turks had already made in terms of press freedom and separation of power. Erdoğan has become Turkey’s Vladimir Putin.
Even as Erdoğan has rolled back Turks’ freedoms, Kurds have become more assertive. While Erdoğan condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) as a terrorist group, the group does not meet the terrorist criteria based on Erdoğan’s own embrace of Hamas. Certainly, some PKK off-shoots still conduct terrorism, but the PKK itself is more an insurgency. It fights the Turkish army, not civilians, and increasingly holds and controls territory.
The United States has long designated the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) a terrorist group. The PKK certainly has a long and bloody history, one in which it targeted not only the Turkish army but also many local Kurds who refused to submit to its leaders’ will.
The PKK has always enjoyed popularity in Syria. While the Turks were fighting the PKK in the 1990s, the Syrian government hosted the group’s headquarters. Almost 15 years ago, the Middle East Quarterly actually interviewed PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan inside Syria. While Öcalan has since been captured and imprisoned, the legacy of his long residence in Syria reverberates with Syrian Kurds who overwhelmingly favor the PKK (and its local political offshoot, the Democratic Union Party, PYD) over Masud Barzani’s autocratic Kurdistan Democratic Party in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey almost a decade ago, it promoted itself as a clean alternative after years of governance by corrupt parties and politicians. Many Turkish politicians made no secret of their desire to hold seats in parliament in order to shield themselves behind parliamentary immunity. The most prominent case was Cem Uzan, who created a party and almost bought his way into parliament after, as courts subsequently confirmed, he defrauded Motorola of more than a billion dollars.
AKP leader and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his allies, however, have been just as corrupt. As mayor of Istanbul and subsequently prime minister, Erdoğan accumulated tens of millions of dollars; as of 2008, before he completed his take-over of the judiciary, he faced 13 separate corruption cases. He retains immunity so long as he remains in parliament, but as soon as he leaves office, he is fair game for any independent prosecutor who remains. So too are his cabinet ministers who together face almost three dozen separate corruption probes. One Wikileaks cable reported AKP informants accusing several trusted Erdoğan aides—most notably current Minister for European Affairs Egemin Bağış—of corruption. Regarding Erdoğan, it said, “We have heard from two contacts that Erdogan has eight accounts in Swiss banks; his explanations that his wealth comes from the wedding presents guests gave his son and that a Turkish businessman is paying the educational expenses of all four Erdogan children in the U.S. purely altruistically are lame.”
A few days ago, I speculated in my occasional Kurdistan Tribune column that Turkey might be losing its fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its acronym, the PKK. Considered by the United States, European Union, and Turkey to be a terrorist group, the PKK has waged a bloody insurgency since 1984, which has claimed the lives of 45,000.
I have been a vocal critic of the PKK in the past, and was held up at gunpoint by the group once in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PKK—like many Kurdish political parties—trends toward the personality cult and is intolerant of dissent. Make no mistake: I still find the group to be noxious and, so long as the U.S. government considers the PKK to be a terrorist group, I will as well. But, as an analyst rather than an advocate, it is important to consider what events bode. Frankly, it seems as if Turkey could now lose its fight against the PKK:
Rich Richman and Jonathan Tobin are both correct to lambaste the Obama administration’s exclusion of Israel, first from the global counter terror forum in Turkey, and most recently from the most recent counter-terror forum in Spain. That Obama and Clinton would allow the exclusion of any democracy and victim of terrorism does a great deal to legitimize the very terrorism that the White House says it is against.
Still, any counter terrorism conference is a sham until diplomats and policymakers actually come to an agreement on what terrorism is. This past April, I gave an address to the Counter Terror Expo in London in which I tried to address the problem:
Terrorism is a tactic of choice for state sponsors and rogue groups when its ability to achieve political aims outweighs the costs. The lack of consensus over the definition of terrorism complicates the fight against terrorism. A 1988 study found 100 different definitions of terrorism used by professionals. More than two decades later, Alex P. Schmid, editor of Perspectives on Terrorism, compiled 250 definitions. In many ways, terrorism’s definition parallels U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1973 quip about pornography, “I shall not today attempt further to define [obscenity]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it….”
The chance that diplomats will ever agree at a round table on a definition of terrorism is between zero and nil.