Turkey must negotiate with PKK, Yaşar Yakış says

Former Turkish foreign minister Yasir Yakis

 ISTANBUL – Turkey must negotiate with the Kurdish PKK guerrilla organization and “correct its mistakes” in Syria, former Turkish foreign minister Yaşar Yakış says. Speaking in an exclusive interview with Beirut-based reporter Marwa Osman in Istanbul for Italian Insider, Dr Yakis said that if Turkey were made a better democracy, everyone would benefit from the fundamental rights and freedoms including Kurds, Turks and other minorities as well, which would solve the Turkish-Kurdish problem. He says the fight against PKK has proved to be unsuccessful, making negotiations an alternative to military means.

 “Turkey of course will also be affected by the Kurdish declaration of a federal state inside Syria because Turkey will be surrounded from the South by the remainder of Syria with a belt inhabited by Kurds,” Yakış told Osman.

 Marwa Osman: What brought the Turkish-Kurdish crisis to such a deadlock and do you think that the military approach is the best way out of it for Turkey?

 Yaşar Yakış:“Turkey’s repression of the Kurdish PKK terrorist organization is not a war because war occurs between two nations. Which is why this is a repression of a movement. Turkey has an experience of trying to solve the Kurdish problem by military means since the 1980s. In the early 90s, the then president Turgut Özal was the very first leader in Turkey who referred to the Kurdish problem by its own name. In that time the Kurdish problem was ignored as if it did not exist whereas late president Özal said that he is half Kurdish and half Turkish. He approached the problem to solve it not only with military means. However, after the death of  Özal, the Kurdish question remained dormant for some time. After the year 2013, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that he is going to solve the Kurdish question. He started by acknowledging that there is a Kurdish problem for Turkey which should be referred to by its proper name without circumventing it. The Kurdish problem was left undealt with for a long time, it was regarded as an initiative of a small group of idealistic young men. However, people who knew the graveness of it, people like me who served in diplomacy in Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere, we knew that it was a real problem and that you cannot ignore it by closing your eyes.”

“When President Erdoğan was Prime Minister, he started an initiative which was known sometimes as the Kurdish Opening, however because this terminology was a bit sensitive, Erdoğan desided to call it the democratization process. This meant that if we made Turkey a better democracy, then everyone will benefit from the fundamental rights and freedoms among whom are Kurds, Turks and other minorities as well which would solve the problem. At that time I was very hopeful that this was the right approach especially after Turkey had understood that this problem cannot be solved with the military approach alone, it should be combined with other methods by reaching for the heart of the matter rather than suppressing it. The fight against PKK proved to be unsuccessful, then negotiations were decided as an alternative to military means. Now that President Erdoğan started this process when he was a Prime Minister, at one stage the process came to a standstill, and now this process has collapsed and I am still in favor of resuming this process rather than using, military means only. When one favours military means, people will ask: ‘Military means until when?’ You cannot kill the last Kurd fighting for this cause. If this is the aim behind the military approach then it is a very distant goal, because if you kill many people, new ones will be born to continue the same fight. Military means have proved insufficient in the past, while the negotiation process was a right decision and now one can wonder why it has collapsed and aspire to resume it.

                                        “If Syria disintegrates, the next step will be a Kurdish independence”.

 Marwa Osman: Will there be a link between the move made by the Syrian Kurds who declared a federal state inside Syria and the PKK movement inside Turkey?

 Yaşar Yakış:  "The linkage which is being established with the Syrian Kurds is an additional reason why Turkey has to try to solve the Turkish–Kurdish dispute through negotiations. The international community regards this Kurdish issue as a problem because Kurds are the largest group of people without a state. There are about 35 million inhabitants without a state. They are scattered in mainly four countries. The biggest Kurdish population is found in Turkey with about 15 million Kurds then in Iraq, Syria and Iran. However, in Iran they are living in a place known as the “Kurdish Province,” while in Syria Kurds are scattered between the north and Damascus the capital. The Kurdish population closest to independence are those located in northern Iraqi Kurdistan because they have their Parliament, their Prime minister and their deputies. The only thing they still lack is a seat at the United Nations. If they are granted the seat then they will gain independence. They don’t need to mark the borders, the UN seat is enough.

 "Meanwhile if Syria disintegrates then the next step will be Kurdish independence. Whether they will merge with Iraqi Kurds or not we still cannot tell because when the idea is distant it is unclear. For example the moon looks romantic from a distance, however when you get closer you will realize it is inhospitable and in reality is just one big rock. So when we come closer to the idea of independence many differences will emerge between the leaders, between the different ways of life and culture etc. So we cannot readily accept or presume that as soon as the Iraqi Kurds become independent then the Kurds of northern Syria will merge with them to become one state. This is not the case here. In Iran we do not how far or close the Kurdish independent is because it is a closed society.

 “Turkey should not aim at satisfying the last Kurdish young man”.

 Marwa Osman: Then how is the Kurdish situation in Turkey different than that of Iraq and Syria? Why would it be difficult for the PKK to declare a federal state?

 Yaşar Yakış:In Turkey, the situation varies slightly from Iraq and Syria because in Turkey the biggest Kurdish city is Istanbul and not Dyar Bakr. The second biggest city for Kurds is again not Dyar Bakr but rather Izmir or Mersin or Antalya perhaps. Secondly the intermarriages between Kurds and Turks is so wide spread that they are everywhere. Kurdish seasonal workers were located into various areas in Turkey where many of them stayed in those areas, got married and had children. The society in Turkey became a mixed society and Kurdish business men thrived inside the city of Istanbul where they even now own houses on the waterfront in the Bosporus. They own holiday villages in and around Antalya, there are thousands of Kurdish young men who work in these holiday villages and resorts. If one day the Kurdish independence is raised inside Turkey they will have to leave all that they have ever worked for and leave to that presumed federation, but will they agree to leaving everything behind and walk away? Of course inside the Kurdish community there are idealist young men who wouldn’t settle for nothing less than an independent Kurdistan full stop. Turkey should not aim at satisfying this last Kurdish young man, Turkey should try to satisfy the mainstream Kurdish public opinion. It is true that we do not have statistics to know what the mainstream Kurdish opinion is but how many of them would prefer to leave up to the mountains in the South Eastern part of the country in a landlocked country with no experience in democracy. Despite everything Turkey is not a paradise of democracy but it has a multipartite democracy experience which dates back to 1946 and is still improving. Turkish democracy has traditions, institutions etc…and rather than leaving these traditions and starting from scratch in a tribal society as the Kurdish society is, so many Kurds will ask themselves, “should I remain a citizen of turkey with 80 million inhabitants, with Istanbul being the huge market it is or shall I confine and become the citizen of a small country, 10 to 15 million inhabitants, up in the mountains landlocked etc.? We don’t know the answer.

 Marwa Osman: Might the declaration of a Kurdish federation within Syria prompt Turkey to take matters into its own hands and possibly invade Syrian territory to try to stop such a move?

 Yaşar Yakış:We do not know if such a declaration will prompt Turkey to reach to the level of a ground invasion against Syria because it depends on other circumstances. At the present there is no major player in Syria supported this move of Kurds in northern Syria. Neither have the Americans who were closer to this idea than other were, nor Russia. Syria of course rejected this declaration immediately because it is a partition of their country. Turkey obviously opposed as well and other Arab countries also voiced their discontent with this move. This rejection comes from a nationalist idea because as you may remember when you look at the Baath party’s emblem, the “Arab World” notion goes all the way into northern Syria and also takes part of southern Turkey, so such a Kurdish declaration will mean the dismembering of the “Arab World” notion which will threaten the disintegration of other Arab countries as well.


 Marwa Osman: Considering the current regional crisis and wars, would you say that now might be the right time now for the Kurds of the region to demand their independence?

 Yaşar Yakış:Kurds have so far proved prudent in not pushing too hard the Kurdish cause. Even Masoud Barzani, President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, whose area is closest to independence stated that they did not give up the idea of independence in Kurdistan and that they can go to referendum at any time but it is not the right time right now. This shows that they do not want to push too hard and destroy everything at the last moment. Saleh Muslim who is the leader of the PYD in northern Syria was invited to Turkey at one stage and the Turkish government asked him to cooperate but on condition that he should take his place opposing the regime inside Syria. Saleh Muslim did not accept this condition because he thought that with or without President Bashar Assad the regime inside Syria may survive so he thought to himself, if I cooperate now with Turkey and the regime survives what will be of my movement? Saleh Muslim was prudent and did not want to put all his eggs in the Basket that presumes that President Assad will fall in the nearest future. This also shows that the PYD is not sure whether or not to take an immediate move towards independence. What the Kurds inside Syria did now is simply use this confused atmosphere in order to take a one step further in their own cause. It is like when you are stuck inside a crowd and each movement the crowd makes you would want to go ahead of all the people inside and this is what most probably the Kurds are trying to do. So when the dust settles, when everyone opens their eyes, they will find the Kurds one step ahead of where everyone else resides.

At the beginning of the Syrian crisis the Kurds had no identity cards, they were later issued birth certificates so that they can own and buy land and issue ID cards to travel and within a few months after the crisis the Syrian army withdrew from Hasakeh and the Kurds immediately organized and formed a local government there. So each time there was a movement they took a step forward. This does not mean that tomorrow they are going to declare independence but Turkey of course will be affected in two ways form this. First it will set an example for Turkish Kurds to claim their independence and second Turkey will be surrounded from the South by the remainder of Syria with a belt inhabited by Kurds.

 Marwa Osman: Where does this put the Kurds of Syria on the map?

 Yaşar Yakış:So far when you look at the map the Jazira canton is in the North Eastern part of Syria and next to it there is the Kobane canton and there is a vacuum which is occupied now by Daesh which is between Azaz and the Euphrates River and then there is another canton which is the Afrin canton. So between the Afrin canton and Kobane there is an occupied base. When it will be liberated from Daesh sooner or later, most probably Kurds would like to move there. And they have a bad record in Kobane because when Kobane was liberated from Daesh, the PYD moved there and expelled Kurds and Arabs from their houses and fields and banned the Kurds and Turkmens who left when Daesh had occupied from moving back in, they did this in place like Kobane where Kurds are a majority. Now in this new canton that can be established between Kobane and Afrin, the majority of the population there is Arab which makes the Kurds in that area a minority. If they establish a canton in a place that is not predominantly Kurdish then it will be against democratic rules and Turkey does not want to see this happening.

“Turkey had no reason to get involved to that extentin the Syrian crisis”.

 Marwa Osman: Recently, President Vladimir Putin ordered the withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria, might this move prompt mending The Turkish-Russian relations?

 Yaşar Yakış:The Russian withdrawal of soldiers from Syria is a window of opportunity for both countries. I was in Russia 15 days ago and apart from the top men, Erdoğan and Putin, everyone seems to be eager to find a way out of this impasse. So the intentions to improve  relations is there and with the withdrawal of Russian soldiers may constitute an opportunity but whether or not it will be done remains to be seen because it is up to the top men and nobody can read their minds easily. However, there are a lot of windows of opportunity for cooperation within Syria and in the Middle East in general between Turkey and Russia and it will be a real pity if for sentimental reasons it kept dormant or restrained.

 Marwa Osman: Might a restored Turkish-Russian relationship set the stage for a rapprochement between Turkey and the Syrian government?

 Yasar Yakis: "I always thought since the beginning that Turkey had no reason to get involved to that extent in the Syrian crisis. Turkey did the right thing at the beginning to side with the people as did the international community.

 "But later on when the international community noticed that the weapons and ammunitions being provided to the “opposition” were ending up in the wrong hands, they put on their brakes but Turkey was not able to put on its own brake. Turkey is left now in the offside position as we say in the football terminology and it could not correct its mistakes. This mistake has to be corrected as soon as possible because the interests of the Syrian and Turkish peoples are much more important than the mistakes made by governments."


Marwa Osman