While Turkish politics have found themselves back in the view of the western hemisphere thanks to the Pope Francis’ and later European Parliament’s statements on the Armenian Genocide. There was another incident last weekend related to Turkey’s diverse ethnic makeup that I fear has been overlooked.
On April 11, in the far eastern province of Agrı, a two-year cease fire was broken when clashes broke out in the district of Diyadin between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (more commonly known by its Kurdish abbreviation, PKK).
It may not seem like events in a far flung Turkish village will have a strong effect on our lives as Drexel students here in west Philadelphia and maybe it won’t, but as Americans and citizens of the world we should be aware that the events in Agrı could have far reaching ramifications throughout the region.
The breakdown of the cease-fire comes at a conspicuous moment in Turkey. First, it happened just as people were beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel regarding the 30-year conflict between the Turkey and the PKK. Peace negotiations were in full swing between the Turkish government and Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the leader of the PKK, who has been negotiating from his current residence on Imrali island, a prison built out in the middle of the Sea of Marmara before World War II, where until recently Ocalan had been the sole resident since soon after his capture in 1996. In recent years, Ocalan has communicated his messages to the people through annual written addresses read on Nevruz, the Kurdish New Year, which is held on the first day of spring. He announced the cease-fire within his 2013 Nevruz address and in this year’s address, urged a democratic solution to the struggle.
Secondly, it comes shortly before Turkey’s general elections in June, after which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to push forward sweeping changes to Turkey’s constitution, moving the country toward a presidential system of government rather than the current parliamentary one and thereby increasing the power of Erdogan’s current office. An office he won this past summer when he prematurely vacated the position of prime minister, the post he has held for over a decade to run in the country’s first national presidential election. Previously the president was appointed by the parliament and in the past has held a largely ceremonial role similar to that of Israel’s president or England’s monarch.
What actually happened in Agrı is a matter of debate. The general staff of the Turkish army released a written statement saying, “Upon intelligence that the separatist terror organization will organize an event named ‘Spring Festival’ on April 11-12 in Yukarıtutek village near Diyadin district of Agrı, and they will promote the separatist terror organization and pressure our citizens to vote for candidates they are supporting in the elections, a security force of 15 teams were sent to the area upon the orders of the Agrı Governor’s office to ensure public order.”
Separatist terror organization is of course the Army’s favorite way of referring to the PKK. The general staff went on to say that during the course of their efforts to “ensure public order” they were fired upon by PKK militants leaving four soldiers wounded. Later helicopters and commando units were dispatched to the region and five PKK militants were ultimately killed in the clashes.
So Kurds and Turks are fighting again. What else is new? Well for one thing, the People’s Democratic Party (HADEP), a far left Kurdish party in Turkey is poised to win a significant number of seats in the June election, enough seats to overcome Turkey’s particularly high electoral threshold to enter the parliament as a party. HADEP is also heavily involved in the Kurdish peace process and is seen either, by their supporters, as a legitimate representative of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who account for between 10 and 20 percent of the county, or by their detractors as a puppet of the PKK with Ocalan pulling their strings from his prison cell.
Whatever they may be, the Candidates the army believed that the “separatist terror organization” were pressuring people to vote for at their summer festival were likely HADEP candidates, or those from allied parties. The prospect of HADEP gaining a foothold in the Turkish general assembly is a legitimate threat to Erdogan and the ruling justice and development (AK Party), as they would likely be taking seats from the AKP itself and could thus help to block Erdogan’s constitutional changes. AK Party co-chair Selahattin Demirtas, who ran against Erdogan in this past summer’s presidential election, believes that they are enough of a threat to the AKP that the AKP concocted the whole operation intending to cause army deaths and reignite the conflict to take votes from HADEP.
“They [the army] left 15 soldiers at the conflict zone in Agrı. Eight of them were injured. They withdrew from the conflict zone and left the injured soldiers behind. Why? So that the soldiers would die there and the AK Party’s votes would increase. What actually happened? Some HADEP officials went to the site of the clash and saved the injured soldiers,” Demirtas said.
Erdogan and other AKP leaders denied this claim however the army corroborated it, specifically thanking locals for saving the injured soldiers, AKP officials later claimed that rescue helicopters were delayed because they were taking fire from PKK fighters.
Whatever actually happened in Agrı, whether PKK or Turkish military shot first, the effects of Agrı will come up in June and likely decide not just the fate of HADEP’s parliamentary aspirations but the future of Turkey and the wider Middle East.
The prospect of a left leaning Kurdish presence in Turkey’s parliament should not be underrated, not only will they hold the hope of resolving the country’s decade long ethnic crisis but also the power to keep one of the Muslim world’s largest and most economically stable nations, not to mention NATO’s second largest army and a European union candidate, on the path of democracy.
Beyond that while Turkey has generally been apathetic towards U.S. requests to join the coalition against the Islamic State, Demirtas, HADEP and Kurds in general hold a much stronger position on them due to the fact the two of the most prominent forces fighting ISIS are the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq’s Pashmerga Militias, and the Peoples Protection Units (YPG) in Rojava, the Kurdish name for what was northern Syria. YPG gained worldwide recognition defending and eventually liberating the town of Kobane during a several month long siege by ISIS. YPG has also been alleged to be the Syrian arm of the PKK. Though it will likely be small, a HADEP presence in parliament could have some effect on reversing Turkey’s position.
Thankfully, the Turkish army is not treating Saturday’s incident as full-fledged breach of the ceasefire. Perhaps because that would give reason for PKK to return to Turkey the bulk of their active fighting force which had been retreated to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Qandil mountain region after the 2013 ceasefire. But I nonetheless fear that the political of ramifications of Agrı will not be so easily ignored.
It may not affect my walk down Chestnut Street to class, the price of milk and eggs at the 7-Eleven on Lancaster Avenue, but the events on a sleepy Saturday in a small village in a backwater Turkish province could just have decided the future of the Middle East.
David Klein is a junior double communications and anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].