Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, surrounded by many difficult and complicated internal and external issues, has decided to make a move on the Kurdish front, based on the adage: “The best defense is a good offense.”
He went to the town of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey, a town with a Kurdish majority, on the pretext of launching dozens of development and commercial projects, as well as holding a mass marriage ceremony for 300 brides and grooms. However, he turned the visit into a political festival and an important step on the way to real reconciliation between Ankara and Diyarbakir first, and Ankara and Erbil second.
Mr. Erdoğan, as usual in cases of this kind, surprised us first by inviting Massoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to participate in the celebrations in a city he had not visited for 21 years. He surprised us again by choosing November 16 for the visit, which coincides with the thirteenth anniversary of the death of the famous Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya in exile, after a forced migration caused only by his announcement of his desire to sing in his mother tongue.
Erdoğan’s visit gave the impression that the government wanted to bring the curtain down on painful events and open a new chapter, preceded by apologies and reconciliation. Diyarbakir is a town which suffered for decades from overcrowded prisons, torture dungeons and dozens of crimes which were recorded against unknowns. However, this time, it adorned the costume of peace, dialogue and love, and went out to greet its guests.
The historical aspect of the visit can be summarized as follows:
—Erdoğan’s official recognition of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and its president, Massoud Barzani. Perhaps the results of recent elections in the region and the volume of trade which nears USD 8 billion, and continuous regional developments which reflect negatively on the course of Turkish foreign policy in the region, are what prompted the Turkish prime minister to take such a step.
—The Turks acceptance of Massoud Barzani–who until recent times was a persona non grata in Turkey–as a brother who lives on the other side of the border, a leader and a partner in building the future of the Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian triangle. Barzani even brought with him popular Kurdish singer Şivan Perwer, who left Turkey around 40 years ago, and now returned singing Kurdish songs in front of leaders of the Justice and Development Party and his own fans in Diyarbakir, and within earshot of the Peace and Democracy Party [Kurdish political party in Turkey], who looked on in disbelief.
—The rush by dozens of leading figures of the Peace and Democracy Party to welcome Erdoğan at the steps of the airplane which brought him to Diyarbakir–in a strange move–when they discovered he was going to visit the mayor of the town, Othman Baydemir, who was boycotted by the Justice and Development Party for many years. Erdoğan decided to make amends for the past with this visit, despite Baydemir’s reproach: “You came as I was leaving.”
—The move by the government of the Justice and Development Party—which procrastinated and hesitated on opening the Kurdish issue—in finally deciding to engage in real dialogue with its Kurdish population and listen to them. Erdoğan’s government can no longer play the card of the Kurds of northern Iraq, and call Barzani to the “Kurdish Castle” in southeastern Turkey, ignoring Turkish Kurds and their demands, and their wait for the implementation of promises made months ago. This is because Kurdistan Workers’s Party leader Abdullah Öcalan provided it with the security and political cover, when he called his followers to give dialogue a chance to end the historic and costly conflict in Turkey.
—Erdoğan’s surprise for the tens of thousands of people who came to welcome him when he talked about “the future which awaits us with the return of those who are in the mountains and the emptying of prisons.” This was a message which was described as a prelude for a discussion of the issue of general amnesty in the country, which could also include Öcalan, which is a demand by the leadership of the Peace and Democracy Party. So, will they get what they want before the municipal elections in March 2014, especially when one of Erdoğan’s closest aides, Beşir Atalay, who deals with the Kurdish dossier, calls for an end to terrorism and the surrender of arms, while in return “we will do what we need to do”?
—There are voices in the ranks of the Kurds who insist that what happened last week in southeastern Turkey was a political, electioneering maneuver by Erdoğan and his party, no more, and that he wanted to play it as the local elections were drawing near, in an attempt to strengthen his position and influence in the Kurdish strongholds. They also insist that Barzani himself helped Erdoğan to reach his goal, ignoring the repercussions of a move of this type, which could mean political suicide at best for Erdoğan. The anger of the Peace and Democracy Party was reflected by its boycott of the celebrations to welcome Barzani and Perwer when they entered Turkish territory, hinting that if he had been their guest, hundreds of thousands would have moved to welcome him instead of the head of the customs office at the Khabour border point.
The visit of the Kurdish leader to Diyarbakir will encourage him to pursue his great dream in realizing the Greater Kurdistan, after his dream of the minor Kurdistan in northern Iraq. However, we still do not know if [Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party leader] Salih Muslim’s rush to announce a self-administration region in northern Syria, was a message of encouragement to Barzani on the eve of his visit to Diyarbakir, or if it was a challenge and a step to weaken his position and disrupt his chances of success. It is a leap which may have been carried out in coordination with local and regional parties who did not like what was taking place, and moved to respond by carrying out two sudden attacks on Turkish military forces in Mardin and Diyarbakir, despite the announcement of a unilateral ceasefire by the Kurdistan Workers Party.