x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Return of Kurds puts Turkey in a bind

The voluntary return of Kurdish fighters to Turkey from Iraq last week has turned into a political headache for the government in Ankara.

ISTANBUL // Hailed as a turning point in Turkey's 25-year-old Kurdish rebellion, the voluntary return of Kurdish fighters to Turkey from Iraq last week has turned into a political headache for the government in Ankara. Television footage of returnees, dressed in the battle fatigues of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, being welcomed by tens of thousands of Kurds in celebrations that looked like victory parades, sparked strong protests from the opposition and the military. The returnees, calling themselves members of a "peace group", were seen standing on the roof of busses and greeting huge crowds with victory signs. As a result, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, stopped the planned return of further groups.

"Mistakes are possible," admitted Besir Atalay, the Turkish interior minister and a key figure in orchestrating last week's arrival of 34 PKK supporters at the Habur border crossing from northern Iraq to Turkey. Managing a peaceful end to a conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, displaced millions and has cost the country billions of dollars since the PKK took up arms for Kurdish self rule in 1984 was always bound to be difficult. But reactions triggered by the celebrations for the returnees have shown that the deep wounds of both Turks and Kurds mean that even small bumps have the potential to derail the whole process.

Groups opposed to the government initiative staged marches in several cities around Turkey in recent days to protest against what they see as a sell-out to enemies of the state. "Take a stand for the republic and do not leave town squares to separatists," ran the slogan of a recent march in Istanbul. "Terrorists have become heroes," Deniz Baykal, the opposition leader in Ankara, said after the welcome parties for the returnees. Gen Ilker Basbug, the chief of Turkey's general staff, said that "no one can accept what happened" in Habur.

Ankara had hoped that the return of the 26 civilians and eight unarmed PKK fighters at Habur, all of whom who were released after questioning by prosecutors and a judge, would be the start of a wider return movement that could lead to the PKK dissolving itself. In an effort to push that process along, Mr Erdogan's government has promised to widen cultural rights for Turkey's estimated 12 million Kurds in the framework of an initiative that has become known as the "Democratic Opening". The return movement was to be continued with more than a dozen PKK supporters flying to Turkey from their exile in western Europe.

But Turkish authorities refused to issue travel documents to the second group, in effect cancelling their trip, when Kurdish activists said they planned another welcome parade, this time in Istanbul, Turkey's biggest city. Mr Erdogan warned that if there were further welcome parties like the ones last week, the government would consider stopping the whole initiative aimed at ending the Kurdish conflict. Abdullah Gul, the president and a strong supporter of the government initiative, appealed to PKK supporters to return to Turkey, but behave "like gentlemen".

Some observers blame the Party for a Democratic Society, or DTP, Turkey's main Kurdish party, for organising the victory parades and thereby ignoring the sensitivities of many Turks. "The DTP has to be a little more sensible," the Zaman newspaper wrote. In Diyarbakir, the main city of Turkey's Kurdish area, 15 business organisations called on the DTP to behave "more sensitively". The DTP leader Ahmet Turk has publicly defended the celebrations, but media reports said that a meeting of the DTP leadership held after the Habur receptions concluded that "we have to be more careful".

Meanwhile, Mr Atalay said the government was considering its next moves. "We are taking a break from bringing people home from the mountains," he said. "But our efforts for the Democratic Opening continue." Mr Atalay pointed out that Ahmet Davutoglu, the foreign minister, was due in Iraq this coming weekend. During his visit, Mr Davutoglu will hold talks in the southern city of Basra but will also go to Erbil, the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region in the north of the country near the border with Turkey.

The visit marks the beginning of a new era in relations between Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds. For a long time, Turkey refused to engage in official contacts with the Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq for fear of strengthening moves for the establishment of an independent Kurdish state there. But in recent months, Ankara has changed its position because it wants the Iraqi Kurds to put pressure on the PKK, which has its headquarters in the Kandil mountains of northern Iraq.

The Turkish newspaper Taraf reported yesterday that one issue expected to be taken up during Mr Davutoglu's visit to Erbil was the possible return to Turkey of about 1,500 Turkish Kurds who split from the PKK in 2004 but were still living in Iraq. A key figure of that group is Osman Ocalan, a brother of the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. tseibert@thenational.ae