Erdogan’s Political Drama in Istanbul Gets a Surprise Actor

(Bloomberg) -- Incarcerated on an island outside Istanbul for the past two decades, Kurdish militant leader Abdullah Ocalan has no view of the skyline. But that might not stop him influencing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to keep control of the city.

Just hours before Turkey’s highest electoral body on Monday ordered a rerun of a vote for mayor, Ocalan made a rare public statement through his lawyers. The government had allowed the Turkish state’s No. 1 enemy to meet with them for the first time in eight years.

Ocalan urged his guerrillas to mind “Turkey’s sensibilities” as the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia tries to carve out a semi-autonomous region in Syria. “We can solve the problems in Turkey, and even in the region, starting with the war,” according to a letter purportedly written by Ocalan.

Erdogan’s Political Drama in Istanbul Gets a Surprise Actor

The timing of the comments could prove significant in Turkey’s latest unfolding political drama. The prospect of the new vote on June 23 sent Turkish financial markets into a tailspin on concern about further upheaval as the economy flounders and the country remains locked in a dispute with the U.S. over plans to buy Russian missiles.

But it handed Erdogan a potential reprieve in the city where he built his political career and the lifeblood of the economy – and Ocalan a chance to leverage some advantage for the Kurds, whose support Erdogan may end up depending on.

“Erdogan is reaching out to Ocalan as he is weakened the most in the face of a galvanized opposition against his one-man rule, a severe economic recession and threat of U.S. sanctions,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan, author of several books on Ocalan’s PKK group, which is branded a terrorist organization by the U.S., the European Union and Turkey. “That gives Ocalan a golden opportunity to seek concessions for the Kurds from Turkey.”

Erdogan desperately wants to win back the mayor’s office in the commercial hub of Istanbul, which accounts about a third of the largest economy in the Middle East. It was originally won by the opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, who made a victory speech last month while the ruling AK Party claimed fraud. That complaint was upheld by the electoral authorities, which came under heavy public pressure from Erdogan.

Erdogan’s Political Drama in Istanbul Gets a Surprise Actor

The pro-Kurdish HDP party has become a game-changer amid a surge of deadly clashes between Turkish troops and Kurdish militants at home and Syria. In public, the party is steadfast, with HDP official Saruhan Oluc pledging continued support for Imamoglu.

Indirectly, Erdogan and Ocalan are now feeling each other out, said Mehmet Kaya, head of the chamber of commerce in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city. Ocalan, who is revered by most Kurdish nationalists, can try and move the pro-Kurdish vote away from the opposition, said Kaya.

HDP lawmaker Imam Tascier said about 300,000 Kurdish voters known to be supporting the AKP in Istanbul largely shunned the ballot box on March 31 to protest the pressure on the Kurds. More than 2 million Kurdish voters are believed to be living in Istanbul and about 1.3 million of them are supporters of the HDP, he said.

“Kurdish voters may support whoever takes steps to end the jailing of Kurdish politicians and prosecution of many others and display a sincere stance toward a solution for peace,” Tascier said by phone from Diyarbakir on Friday. “It’s up to the AKP whether to take some of those steps in a short time before the elections in Istanbul.”

Erdogan, who is allied with a nationalist party, on Tuesday denied that his government was reviving the nascent Kurdish peace process that collapsed in 2015 after an inconclusive national election.

A June vote brought the HDP into parliament for the first time, ending AKP’s 13 years of single-party rule. A repeat poll six months later, restored the parliamentary majority, but also prompted the renewal of violent clashes in the country’s eastern Kurdish region.

Since then, the PKK played a key role in Syria through the Kurdish militia that’s a critical part of the Syrian Democratic Forces. The Kurds took heavy casualties and eventually gained control of about one-third of the country after driving out Islamic State. But their prospects of holding onto it took a blow when President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would withdraw military support.

Turkey has strongly opposed the U.S. weapons supplies to the Kurdish militia, which it sees as the Syrian branch of a terrorist organization that’s been fighting for autonomy from Ankara. After Turkey threatened to move into parts of northeast Syria when the U.S. departs, the two NATO allies engaged in talks to set up a “safe zone” to push the Kurdish militia about 20 miles (32 kilometers) from Turkey’s borders.

Erdogan’s Political Drama in Istanbul Gets a Surprise Actor

“Syria has virtually become the starting point of potentially a wider search for a reconciliation with the Kurds at home,” said Ozcan, the specialist on the PKK. “However, Ocalan is likely to seek assurances such as possible involvement of the U.S. as a third eye and mentor to guarantee that the talks are not derailed again.”

Turkey, however, is determined to keep its troops in northwestern Syria to deny the Kurds access to the Mediterranean Sea, a prized target for a planned Kurdish corridor running all the way to northern Iraq.

Most importantly, Ocalan’s letter – distributed in English, Turkish and Kurdish – signaled a compromise deal in Syria, according to Kaya in Diyarbakir. Ocalan reiterated his willingness to “deepen” and maintain the path for peace. “The road to peace with the Kurds goes through Syria,” said Kaya.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.