June 24, 2009
The New York Times
By ASLI AYDINTASBAS
ISTANBUL — On hillsides across southeastern Turkey, you often see the national slogan — “Happy is one who can say I am a Turk” — in giant letters that can be read from miles away.
The slogan was coined in the 1920s by modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, as part of an effort to create a national identity out of the ashes of a bankrupt empire.
But that’s not why the message was written on the southeastern hills. The people who live there are not Turkish, but Kurdish.
And for the last four decades, the Turkish government has been telling them that there is only one acceptable identity in this country — that of a happy Turk.
Turkey’s long struggle with the Kurdish issue is a painful episode involving blunders, victories, and, along the way, plenty of abuse from all sides.
Since 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been waging a bloody guerrilla war for an independent Kurdish homeland. Ruthless and dogmatic, the PKK has wreaked havoc, killing civilians and soldiers in terror attacks across Turkey. (The death toll stands at about 30,000.)
Turkey’s fight with the PKK tainted our political system and clogged our minds for decades, and made Ankara even more resistant to Kurdish demands for political and cultural rights.
All that is changing.
Armed with new self-confidence and higher democratic standards, the Turkish government has quietly crafted a bold initiative to persuade the PKK to surrender in return for political representation and, eventually, an amnesty. The deal has the potential to put an end to one of the deadliest conflicts in this region.
After thousands of casualties and decades of guerrilla warfare, there is now an awareness at the highest levels of the Turkish body politic that the Kurdish issue is not simply a terror problem — that a solution has to include reforms that go to the heart of Kurdish identity.
Accordingly, Ankara recently lifted an archaic ban on the Kurdish language and started aid programs for underdeveloped Kurdish regions. State-owned television has launched a Kurdish-language network, and the Higher Education Board is working to open institutes for Kurdish studies. It has become de rigueur for politicians to do a public mea culpa over the past.
The next steps are still a little hazy. There is talk of changing the Constitution — particularly the definition of citizenship, which is currently defined as Turkishness — and there is a consensus in the government to return the original Kurdish names to towns and villages.
But the hearts-and-minds campaign is only one side of the coin. The real challenge is dealing with the PKK. Senior government officials privately admit there have been discussions with PKK leaders based in northern Iraq through Iraqi Kurds and other intermediaries to convince them to surrender in return for an eventual amnesty.
Remarkably, the initiative has not been vetoed by the Turkish military. It has received support from the media and even a tacit nod from Turkey’s main opposition party. Still, officials in Ankara have yet to make a public case for the strategy, which so far has been only quietly whispered in the corridors of power.
Yet what happens within Turkey is only one part of the equation. Turkey’s efforts can only go so far if not matched by support from Iraqi Kurds, who control the areas from which the PKK operates, and from Washington, the ultimate guarantor of the region.
Having been in the business of terrorism for too long, the PKK will not easily accept any deal offered by Ankara. Its leadership is fractured and cut off from the reality of the modern world. It will need to be pressured militarily and logistically.
Iraqi Kurds could help by repatriating the thousands of pro-PKK Turkish Kurds who have been living for years in the Mahmur refugee camp across the border in Iraq, and by moving ahead with a planned pan-Kurdish conference.
In turn, if Turkey can channel the PKK into a legitimate political force, it can once again become the protector of Kurds in northern Iraq, as it was for a decade after the Gulf War. That would free Washington from worrying about the security of the Kurds once U.S. forces withdraw.
And if President Obama put his weight behind Turkey’s initiative, it could become the first real overseas success story of his administration.
This could be the year we leave one of the bloodiest Middle East conflicts behind. But the window of opportunity is short.
Asli Aydintasbas is a columnist for the Turkish daily Aksam.