Being Recep Tayyip

“To see me does not necessarily mean to see my face. To understand my thoughts is to have seen me.” – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

A penny for the thoughts of the Turkish Prime Minister as he surveys his world this weekend.

Almost forty years ago the leader of Cyprus fled a military coup. With cover from the upheaval, Turkish troops invaded the island’s north and still control it today. None of the rest of the world recognizes Turkey’s legitimacy there, but the Turkish flag still flies and Turkish Airlines runs nine domestic flights from Istanbul daily.

This weekend the Prime Minister will be watching as turmoil roils the other side of the island. Brought to ruin by exposure to Greek banks, the two largest banks in sovereign Cyprus have been closed for a week. Without a bailout, they are insolvent. The European Union, into which Turkey has been steadfastly denied an invitation, threatens to eject the “legitimate” half of Cyprus by Monday.

Nicosia, where ethnic Turkish and Greek Cyprus meet, is 225 miles across the sea from Aleppo near Turkey’s border with Syria. It’s Turkey’s longest land border, and as the PM surveys his domain from Ankara, the Syrian opposition meets under Turkey’s auspices in Istanbul.

A UNHCR map dated March 5th shows 185,000 Syrian war refugees living on the border within Turkey. Last June the Syrian military shot down a Turkish F-4 Phantom II military jet and at peril of being dragged into active combat, the PM bit his lip and took it.

Ten months ago Syrian forces withdrew from the Kurdish desert to defend Aleppo and Damascus. In January fighting broke out between Kurdish and Arab militias in Syria’s far northeast. The Turkish Prime Minister will be wary of a pan-Kurdish movement spanning Syria, Iraq and his own southeast emerging from the Syrian conflict.

So now comes Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s boldest gambit.

Erdogan is a former mayor of Istanbul. Twenty miles across the Sea of Marmara from Istanbul on Imrali Island sits a man vilified by Turkish media as “The Baby Killer.” Abdullah Öcalan is leader of the Turkish Kurds, a fifth of the population, and leader of a waxing and waning guerrilla war blamed for some 40,000 deaths. Since his arrest in Nairobi in 1999 (he had been based in Syria before being forced to flee) Öcalan has been one of just six terrorist-prisoners there, held in solitary confinement.

Last Wednesday March 13, in the first of a series of choreographed moves, the PKK, the organization of the Turkish Kurds, released eight Turks held for a year. Yesterday, on the occasion of the big Kurdish spring festival of Nowruz, Abdullah Öcalan called for PKK forces to cease fire and withdraw from Turkey to their base across the border in northern Iraq.

Öcalan has been allowed to meet in prison with Kurdish lawmakers. It’s said he sent a hand written letter authorizing Kurdish guerrilla leaders to lay down their arms, in return for guarantees of peace, and protection of the Kurds in a new Turkish constitution.


Prime Minister Erdogan is in the maximum third successive parliamentary term allowed by his party, the AKP. He eyes the Presidency, now largely ceremonial. Speculation is that support from Kurdish lawmakers would give him the parliamentary heft to pass constitutional reforms redefining the powers of the presidency, for which he would stand as the AKP’s candidate in 2014.

Erdogan is widely popular and in firm control, but “The Baby Killer” facilitating his continued rule in return for peace and constitutional guarantees of inclusion for the Kurds may be a tough sell. Last month 50% of Turks advocated military force to resolve the terrorism problem. They have been taught to revile the imprisoned leader of the Turkish Kurds for more than a decade.

The ironies are plenty. Today Turkey is the biggest foreign economic player in Iraqi Kurdistan. 20,000 Turks have moved to Erbil. Turkish VakifBank opened there last month. 1500 trucks cross the border every day in each direction. Turkish and Atlasjet Airlines offer daily flights from Istanbul, and Turkish another to Sulaymaniyah. The Turkish consul general in Erbil says trade with Iraqi Kurdistan “… is equal to what we have for Syria, Lebanon, Jordan combined.”


Prime Minister Erdogan will be watching as the situation on Cyprus (brought on, in turn, by calamity in another of Turkey’s neighbors, Greece), comes to a head next week. Meanwhile, with a refugee emergency in his own country, opposition groups meeting under Turkish auspices in Istanbul and accusations of the use of chemical weapons, what good can he hope for from across his Syrian border?

What’s remarkable is that those aren’t his biggest challenges.

Erdogan will now try to forge an enduring peace with the Turkish Kurds. In the process he will need to at least partially rehabilitate the Baby Killer, Abdullah Öcalan before a skeptical Turkish public. If he can manage that, writing a new constitution to allow his continued rule may seem like the easy part.

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