by Austin Bay
March 26, 2013
Shared concern with Syria's deterioration and potential fragmentation has spawned two promising diplomatic turnabouts: a rapprochement between Israel and Turkey and the prospect of peacefully ending Turkey's war with Kurdish separatists.
U.S. President Barack Obama helped orchestrate the Israel-Turkey reconciliation. A made-for-media phone call and apology, from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, publicly sealed a deal U.S., Turkish and Israeli diplomats had pursued since the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident.
In that fiasco, Israeli commandos stormed a Turkish ship attempting to run Israel's Gaza blockade. A fight ensued between the ship's hard-core activists, who were seeking a confrontation, and the commandos. Nine activists were killed. The incident scuttled Turkish and Israeli political relations.
Syria's tragedy, however, spurred restitution and resolution. Israel and Turkey both border on Syria, and they face a common threat: a Pandora's box of terrorists would exploit a fragmented Syria. They both fight shadow wars with Iran, which backs Syria's Assad dictatorship. The Assad regime wages perpetual war with Israel. Since early 2011, when Syria's rebellion erupted, for all practical purposes the regime has been at war with Turkey.
Cynics assert that Israel traded the apology for permission to overfly Turkish airspace when its jets attack Iran's nuclear targets. Obtaining a tactical advantage didn't drive this deal; demonstrating strategic partnership when confronting regional problems did.
Syria's convulsions may have influenced Turkey's Kurdish separatists. Kurds live in four countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Since August 1984, Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) guerrillas have fought the Turks. Check the Cold War date and the "workers' party" label. The Soviet Union used the PKK as a tool for destabilizing Turkey, NATO's southern flank. Soviet ally Syria provided supplies. The PKK built bases on another Soviet ally's territory, Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
However, communism didn't motivate the PKK's recruits. They wanted an independent Kurdistan, cut from southeastern Turkey. Eventually it might include northern Iraq, a slice of Iran and Syria's northeastern corner.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria, Iran and Iraq used the PKK to harass Turkey. Iran's dictatorship co-opted its Kurdish separatists. Last year, Turkey all but accused Iran of perpetuating the PKK insurgency.
PKK leader, Abdullah "Apo" Ocalan, once openly relied on the Assad regime's support. While the PKK conducted terror attacks inside Turkey, Ocalan enjoyed the Damascus cafe scene. In 1998, several Turkish Army divisions appeared on the Syrian border. The Turks told Syria to give up Ocalan or the tanks would roll. Ocalan sought refuge in other countries. The facts surrounding his capture are disputed, but in 1999 Turkish agents apprehended him in Kenya.
Ocalan has spent the last 14 years in prison. Last year, however, Turkish government officials began hinting that both they and Ocalan were interested in reaching a political settlement. Why? Consider what Ocalan knows. The Soviet Union is gone. Saddam is gone. Bashar Assad is losing. Iran's ayatollahs are desperate. Though many Turkish citizens despise the PKK for its heinous terrorism, the Turkish government wants to take the Kurdish card from Assad and the ayatollahs.
On March 21, Ocalan called for a permanent ceasefire and a political solution. There will be no separate Kurdish state. Turkey provided economic guarantees, however, and agreed to protect the cultural rights of Turkish Kurds. His most senior field commander, from a camp in Iraq's Qandil Mountains, ratified Ocalan's decision on March 23.
This is by no means a done deal. Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government supports the peace, but Assad and Iran's ayatollahs don't. Hard-core Kurdish terrorists could wreck it.
Turkey's Kurdish citizens, however, will benefit. Many Turkish Kurds opposed the PKK because its violence stalled economic development. They also valued Turkey's comparative political stability. They argued that an independent Kurdistan, with Iraq, Iran and Syria as neighbors, would only survive if Turkey were an ally.
Perhaps, after surveying the regional chaos, Ocalan reached the same conclusion.