Erdoğan’s Kurdish Gambit

ISTANBUL – Conflict in the Middle East threatens not only the security of many of its states, but also their continued existence. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and others, now gripped by sectarian fighting, risk fragmenting into ethnic sub-states, transforming a region whose political geography was drawn nearly a century ago.

Surveying the regional scene, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has conceived of an audacious plan to enhance Turkey’s regional standing and extend his own political dominance at home. Facing the end of a self-imposed three-term limit as prime minister, he is intent on changing the Turkish constitution to introduce a presidential system – with himself on top as the first incumbent to wield much-enlarged power.

Erdoğan’s plan, however, depends on ending Turkey’s 30-year conflict with its own Kurdish population. As a result, the Erdoğan government has decided on negotiations with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed Kurdish resistance movement.

The hope is to agree on a new, more liberal constitution that will strengthen the rights of Turkey’s largest ethnic minority and include substantial devolution of power to regional governments. In return, the PKK is expected to end its three-decade-long fight against the Turkish state. On March 21, at a mass rally attended by almost one million people in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, Ocalan delivered a message of peace from his prison cell. He called for the end to armed struggle, and invited the PKK’s fighters to leave the country.