Erdogan ♥s Ocalan?

Last week Soner Cagaptay and James Jeffers asked Can Obama Save Turkey From a Syrian Quagmire? in the New York Times:

The Syrian war has also awakened Turkey’s once dormant Marxist militant groups. These groups vehemently oppose any government policies they see as serving American imperialist interests and have already launched a number of attacks, including one at the United States Embassy in Ankara on Feb. 2. Turkish media reports that these Marxist groups, in cooperation with elements of Mr. Assad’s regime, may have been behind the May 11 attack that killed 51 people in Reyhanli.

This is bad news for Mr. Erdogan’s bid to remake the Turkish political system with a strong French-style presidency. Mr. Erdogan has aligned all the domestic political stars to be elected president in 2014. He has even made peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or the P.K.K., a move that would have been an unthinkable taboo just a few years ago. By entering a peace process with the P.K.K.’s reviled leader, the imprisoned Abdullah Ocalan, Mr. Erdogan has effectively ensured the country’s domestic stability in the run-up to 2014 and secured himself at least some Kurdish support. Yet an economic downturn brought on by the war in Syria could upset his plans.

Mr. Erdogan is aware that unless he secures greater American assistance against the Assad regime, Turkey could become the big loser in Syria, and Mr. Erdogan the big loser at the ballot box if he can’t cobble together an absolute majority in 2014. This is also bad news for the United States, which sees Turkey as one of the few stable, strong pillars of Western values in the region.

(Keep the last sentence in the quoted paragraphs above in mind for later.)

Jonathan Spyer, though, writes that Erdogan’s outreach to the PKK, may be more posturing than substance.

So what was the breakthrough which has led to the current appearance of progress? From late 2012, the Turkish government began a new round of talks with Ocalan alone, on Imrali, denying the PKK the possibility of presenting a coherent stance as a movement. This process has led to the orders by Ocalan for the withdrawal of PKK fighters and the appearance of progress. But what exactly the government has or has not proposed on Imrali remains shrouded in mystery. Nothing in writing has emerged from the Imrali talks, on any of the core issues of the conflict.

While Ocalan retains an iconic status within the PKK and parts of the broader Kurdish world, it is not difficult to discern caution and some confusion among movement cadres regarding their leaders’ latest orders.

In an interview this week with renowned Turkish journalist Hasan Cemal, prominent PKK commander Bahoz Erdal stressed that the current PKK decision for a ceasefire does not imply surrender, nor remove the possibility of a return to armed action if the Kurdish issue remains unresolved. “They asked for a cease fire – we declared. They asked for withdrawal, we are doing this now. If tomorrow they ask that this is not enough, you should lay down your arms – they can’t force us to do this. This means surrender for us which we (the PKK) have never accepted, even in the most difficult times,” Erdal told Cemal.

Both articles note the outreach of Erdogan to the Kurds, but there seems to a difference of opinion how substantive the outreach is. Still both essays note that Erdogan seeks Kurdish support to consolidate his hold on power. (The Cagaptay/Jeffrey essay seems to consider this a good thing; the Spyer article is more pessimistic about the benefits of Erdogan’s improved position.)

Note in the first essay, that the authors write that the United States considers Erdpgan’s Turkey to be one of the “pillars of Western values in the region.”

Not even a month ago, Secretary of State Kerry urged Erdogan not to visit Gaza. Despite the objection of the American government, Erdogan declared in the front of the President last week:

With respect to the Middle East peace process, we discussed with the President this important issue, which is very important for regional peace. In the attack against Mavi Marmara, which was taking humanitarian aid to Gaza, Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American citizen were killed. And as you know, we are working with the Israeli government for compensation for those who lost their lives. And the visit that I will pay to Gaza will contribute to the peace in Gaza and to unity in Palestine, in my opinion.

Barry Rubin provides the context here:

While the U.S. government has pressured Erdogan not to visit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, Erdogan announced in the White House Rose Garden that he would do so. An alleged U.S. ally says publicly in front of Obama while being hosted by him that he is going to defy the United States.

This is not some routine matter. With previous presidents, if an ally was going to do something like that he would say nothing at the time and then months later would subvert U.S. policy. Or better yet the foreign leader would not do so. To announce defiance in such a way is a serious sign of how little respect Middle East leaders have for Obama—and U.S. policy nowadays—and how little Obama will do about it.

(In contrast, do you recall a decision made on the municipal level by Israel was considered “insulting” by the administration? Will Netanyahu’s critics who, for example, accused him of “Driving Drunk in Jerusalem,” browbeat Erdogan for his in-your-face disrespect shown the President?)

For President Obama to take Erdogan’s insult with equanimity is a demonstration of how poorly he understands the Middle East.