"> Neo-Ottoman Erdogan and the plight of the Kurds

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September 30, 2011

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Neo-Ottoman Erdogan and the plight of the Kurds ABC Online - Andrew Penny 

Should the Palestinians gain statehood recognition at the UN in the coming weeks, Mahmoud Abbas will not be the only Middle Eastern leader smiling about it. 

The event will also mark a triumph for Turkish PM Recep Erdogan in consolidating his regional influence. Not since Suleyman the Magnificent has a Turkish leader been so willing to project power abroad.

Having timed the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador and his visit to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya to coincide with the Palestinians push for recognition, Erdogan is having great success furthering his ambition to see Turkey once again, as in Ottoman times, the most powerful state in the region. On September 13, the Turkish PM addressed the Arab League in Cairo, saying: "It's time to raise the Palestinian flag at the UN." While warmly received by the Egyptian people, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood which sees Mr Erdogan's moderate Islamist AKP (Justice and Development Party) as a model, the Egyptian generals appeared to be uncomfortable at this reminder of the power of the Ottoman empire, an empire that only collapsed after WW1.

Yet as Mr Erdogan urged support for the just struggle of the Palestinians for statehood, no-one seemed to notice the Turkish PM's blatant hypocrisy in continuing the Turkish tradition of denying the existence of the Kurdish people and their rights, or of the ongoing conflict in the Turkish and Iranian parts of Kurdistan. Erdogan and the ruling AKP party are playing a complex game in the region – reaching out to the Arabs but at the same time using such a world role as a smokescreen to launch fresh offensives against the Kurds. As the 'Arab Spring' receives wide coverage in the world media there is little mention of this dirty war, where the Iranian and Turkish armies have been pounding Kurdish guerrilla bases in northern Iraq in recent months, killing dozens of Kurdish civilians in the process. Is Erdogan using his leading role in the Arab Spring as a smokescreen to push the cause of Kurdish autonomy back decades?

Ostensibly Erdogan talks peace. Two years ago PM Erdogan launched a "Kurdish initiative" with great fanfare, with the stated objective of resolving the Kurdish question. The initiative included removing restrictions on the use of Kurdish in private schools, the ending of the ban on the use of Kurdish in political campaigning and reform of the constitution, which does not recognise the existence of Muslim minorities. However, the initiative has utterly failed to gain the support of Kurds in Turkey, the introduction of a Kurdish language TV channel by the state-run TRT being seen as mere window-dressing.

Furthermore, the AKP still sees the mainstream Kurdish movement as a threat. The pro-Kurdish BDP (Party for Peace and Democracy) which stands for Kurdish autonomy within Turkey, won an unprecedented 35 seats at the Turkish general elections in June this year, demonstrating the continuing support amongst Kurds for national rights. But Mr Erdogan's government has done its utmost to ostracise the BDP, threatening that they will suffer if they fail to condemn guerrilla attacks by the PKK, the guerrilla army based in northern Iraq, engaged in armed struggle.

Bizarrely, while attacking non-violent Kurdish parties, there is little secret that the Turkish government has engaged in talks with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party). Details of contacts between representatives of the PKK and the Turkish intelligence service, MIT, have recently emerged in the Turkish press. A tape has been leaked of talks between a PKK representative and high-ranking Turkish intelligence officials. In the tape mention was made of proposals discussed at the meeting being taken to the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. This has confirmed the widely held supposition that efforts have been made by the Turkish government to come to an agreement with the PKK (despite it being continually condemned as a 'terrorist organisation'), which has been waging an armed struggle against the Turkish army since 1984. This struggle had been in abeyance following the capture of Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, with a long period of ceasefire being declared by the organisation. However, since the breakdown of talks guerrilla attacks have increased and military operations intensified.

The next few months may prove to be a crisis point. The Turkish government is now demanding permission from the Iraqi government for a cross-border operation in pursuit of the PKK. The Hurriyet Daily News of September 15 reported that the foreign ministry undersecretary had met Iraqi officials in Baghdad, including president Jalal Talabani, to discuss the situation. The Turkish government has a mandate to carry out cross-border incursions until October 17, which is expected to be renewed. Kurdish-Turkish tensions are also rising in Turkey itself. During the holy month of Ramadan there was serious disorder in the Istanbul neighbourhood of Zeytinburnu, with clashes between Turks and Kurdish supporters of the BDP. Kurdish workers in the eastern city of Erzurum were attacked and forced to return to Diyarbakir. Will Mr Erdogan be able to continue gaining the admiration of Arab leaders and the Arab street by declaring support for the 'Arab Spring' and Palestinian rights while using repression and military power to defeat Kurdish aspirations in his own backyard? Will Erdogan the Magnificent find that building an empire is a way of crushing a nation?

Andrew Penny is a London-based activist and translator, who has been involved with the Kurdish human rights movement for many years.

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