The Kurdish question loomed large in NATO’s meeting last month in Madrid. The headlines focused on Turkey’s objection to Sweden and Finland joining the military alliance while Ankara’s long-standing concern about Kurdish separatists was an unspoken elephant in the room. Turkey has long claimed that Sweden and Finland harbor Kurdish militants along with other high-profile opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. This frustration looks like it will remain a contentious issue in future relations between Turkey and NATO.
Erdogan made a triumphant return to Ankara from the summit, having wrestled the desired concessions from Sweden and Finland on the matter of curbing the activities of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the European Union, United States, and the United Kingdom.
Since the summit, Swedish and Finnish lawmakers have faced backlash from political opponents, mainly from those on the left. In Sweden, the Green Party and the Left Party, warned against the risks of allying with Turkey.
Turkey is demanding the extradition of more than 70 people it describes as terrorists from Sweden. In early July, members of the Left Party posed with flags from the PKK, as well as its Syrian offshoot YPG, which has received arms in the fight against ISIS from western countries such as the US. Although left-wing MPs have historically shown some sympathy to the group, the latest incident, which took place during a political meeting on the island of Gotland, was designed to call attention to the summit. Although the Left Party is not in government, it helps prop up the Social Democrat cabinet. Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson condemned the images, saying “posing with such flags is extremely inappropriate.”
The domestic implications of what was arguably a foreign policy win will continue to play out over the coming months in Turkey. Erdogan has his own challenges at home ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections, coinciding with the centennial anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Kurdish voters have been a significant block in previous polls. In the past, their votes have swayed tight elections. While Turkey might have gained ground on the international dimensions of its fight against Kurdish separatists at the NATO summit, there are still profound challenges in the domestic dynamics of the Kurdish question that will gain fresh urgency in the next election cycle.
Just look at the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). From his prison cell in the western city of Edirne, the jailed former head of the HDP, Selahattin Demirtas wrote a passionate letter stating that politics and violence cannot go together. Demirtas was imprisoned on charges of support for terrorism following an urban guerrilla insurgency orchestrated by the PKK and its affiliates in the summer of 2016 in parts of southeastern Turkey.
In the letter published on July 1 in the pro-Kurdish daily Yeni Yasam, which is banned in Turkey, Demirtas called for “change,” urging Turkey’s opposition parties to find new paths to unite in a joint effort against Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). He also called on his own party to embrace Turkey and seek an honorable peace within the unity of the country. His words were a clear call for the Kurdish opposition to act like an autonomous political party, free from external interference by PKK militants based in the Qandil mountains in northern Iraq.
However, it is unclear how far the plea will resonate within the wider Kurdish movement, which has been angered by the events at the Madrid summit. Whether the Kurds can separate legitimate demands for political rights and continued armed insurgency will determine the fate of future generations of Kurdish people in Turkey and across the Middle East.
Time could be limited as Turkey moves to ban Kurdish political parties. Turkey’s Constitutional Court will review a case seeking to ban the HDP – the third largest party in parliament, with a mandate of 12 percent of national voters – on grounds of its links to terrorism. Two-thirds of the court’s members are required to agree on a decision, however, it is not yet clear when the review will take place. In April, the HDP submitted its defense to the Constitutional Court, repudiating the charges.
A ban ahead of next year’s elections would unfairly silence millions of pro-peace Kurdish voices and play directly into the hands of PKK fighters spoiling for armed violence against Turkish targets. It would also jeopardize dying hopes for Turkey’s EU ascension bid. But the HDP cannot continue its rights struggle within Turkey’s political system while refusing to sever its ties with a proscribed terrorist organization. No other NATO member would accept such a situation.
Having wrestled written commitments from Sweden and Finland, Turkey may believe it has the upper hand in the battle with Kurdish militants and can afford to take reconciliatory steps toward the Kurds in Turkey. There may be an opportunity here for restarting dialogue, which has been frozen since the resurgence of violence six years ago. Things could change in Turkey’s international approach to the Kurdish issue if Sweden and Finland fail to uphold their commitments agreed to in Madrid. As such, this issue is bound to hang over NATO. The view in Ankara is that the accession process has only just begun, meaning that the standoff between Turkey and NATO may not yet be resolved.
Dr Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, the international think tank. She holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @BurcuAOzcelik