The Kurdish Opening in Turkey: Origins and Future?

December 1, 2009 Washington, D.C.
The Kurdish opening, referred to as a Democratic Opening, has already transformed Turkey's relations with Iraq, the Kurdish region in northern Iraq in particular. It also has the potential of fundamentally altering Turkish state-society relations
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The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched what it describes as a comprehensive approach to ending Turkey's decades-long conflict with its Kurdish minority. The proposal is believed to include greater cultural rights for Kurds, some form of local autonomy, and incentives to Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters to lay down arms. Carnegie’s Henri Barkey, Steven Cook of the Council of Foreign Relations, and Kemal Kirisci of Boğaziçi University in Istanbul discussed the implications of the Kurdish Opening for Turkey and for the United States. Carol Migdalovitz of the Congressional Research Service moderated.

What is the Kurdish Opening?

The Kurdish Opening is intended to be a comprehensive, multi-tiered policy approach to resolving tensions between the Turkish government and Turkey’s Kurdish population. Although not all details of the Kurdish Opening have been made public, Kemal Krisci explained that Ankara plans to begin by taking several confidence building measures. The first of these measures includes allowing Kurdish prayers in Kurdish mosques and officially changing the Turkish name of some Kurdish cities back to Kurdish. The second phase of the opening likely involves granting amnesty to PKK militants. The final and most difficult phase comprises a constitutional amendment redefining Turkish citizenship to be less ethnically based and allowing Kurdish language classes to be taught in schools.

Why is the Kurdish Opening Happening Now?

According to Barkey, a confluence of factors has provided Turkey with its first real opportunity since 1993 to resolve the Kurdish issue. 

  • The war in Iraq upset the status quo in the region, particularly in Northern Iraq. Turkey has found that its best allies in Iraq are the Kurds, because they themselves desire better relations with Ankara. 
  • Ankara realized that in order to achieve its goal of having a larger regional role, it needed to resolve its domestic disputes. Increasingly, Ankara has accepted that a military solution to the Kurdish problem is not possible. 
  • The PKK and a majority of Kurds themselves have little appetite to return to war and have indicated that they would welcome a peaceful solution to the issue.

What does the Kurdish Opening mean for the United States?

Steve Cook noted that although the Obama administration is supportive of the Kurdish Opening, some of Turkey's recent foreign policy decisions have gone against U.S. interests, which has Washington concerned. Most notably, Turkey's relations with Israel have cooled, marked by Turkey’s decision not to conduct joint military training exercises with Israel. Ankara has also become friendlier with Damascus and expressed support for Iran's nuclear program. These issues will certainly be on the agenda for Prime Minister Erdogan’s upcoming visit to Washington.



About the Middle East Program

The Carnegie Middle East Program combines in-depth local knowledge with incisive comparative analysis to examine economic, sociopolitical, and strategic interests in the Arab world. Through detailed country studies and the exploration of key crosscutting themes, the Carnegie Middle East Program, in coordination with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, provides analysis and recommendations in both English and Arabic that are deeply informed by knowledge and views from the region. The program has special expertise in political reform and Islamist participation in pluralistic politics.


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