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Threaten, Cajole, but Don’t Execute

Karen Barkey teaches at Columbia University and is the author of "Bandits & Bureaucrats: The Ottoman Route to State Centralization" (Cornell University Press, 1994)

A Turkish court this week sentenced Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan to death on charges of treason for conducting a decade-long struggle for Kurdish rights in Southeastern Turkey. The conflict within Turkey has been violent and has claimed more than 35,000 lives. Further bloodshed would surely follow Ocalan’s execution, if upheld by Turkey’s high court. But the Turkish state could heed the lessons of its predecessor, the Ottomans.

The Ottomans were faced with how to deal with rebels amid comparable levels of violence on a regular basis during their long tenure in the Middle East and the Balkans. Early on, in the 16th century, the Ottoman state developed means to deal with internal civil war and rebellion. Among these was an extraordinary flexibility and ability to negotiate with bandits and other proclaimed rebels through deals, bargains and patronage that radiated state strength rather than weakness. The rebels of the 16th and 17th centuries, the Celalis, threatened security, robbed, raped and slaughtered peasant populations, creating havoc in the countryside. They also fought local and central Ottoman armies, inflicting severe damage on the military.

While the Ottoman state fought rebels at the frontiers, it often chose to bargain with them and make rebel military leaders part of the Ottoman polity. Many rebel chiefs became Ottoman local governors and contributed to the peace and wealth of their region.

With such maneuvers, the Ottomans fostered stability, representing and finally convincing “the other” that they were really part of the Ottoman project, that they belonged and should participate. By the same token, the intense negotiation and dealings convinced the rebels and non-rebels alike that the center was all-powerful and had to be reckoned with.

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Rebels themselves quickly learned the value of such incorporation and took up the practice of initiating negotiations with the state. In one famous example, the rebel chief stationed around Aleppo wrote a letter to the Sultan Ahmed I, requesting the governorship of Aleppo in return for his mercenaries helping the sultan in his war effort on the eastern front. Ahmed I himself accepted the deal, quibbling only over the details.

By the 18th and 19th centuries, the wily Ottoman statesmen were making deals with Cossacks who escaped from the Russian Empire and creating special cavalry units to incorporate Cossacks. These units were to have chaplains to handle religious issues relating to the Christian Cossacks. Similarly, as the Ottomans consolidated Kurdish territory, they resorted to deal-making, divide-and-conquer tactics convincing Kurdish chieftains to bring their men to war, 2,000 each, with special cases, such as the emir of Cezire, providing 20,000 soldiers.

The success of the Ottomans derived from their built-in flexibility, their ability to resort to all sorts of mechanisms of threat and bargain and cajoling. But it was more than that; it was due to their inherent understanding of difference. The Ottoman state was successful and strong as long as it understood, accepted and managed heterogeneity.

Abdullah Ocalan is regenerating an old practice by asking the Turkish state for clemency and promising to work for peace and security. He offers to become a peace mediator in the struggle between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people. While there are not many precedents of such accommodation on the part of Ocalan, there are enough reasons to think seriously about such an option.

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The risks of executing Ocalan are great. The most important threat is further divisions and civil war in the Southeast that threatens to spill over the rest of the country. The state cannot ignore the internal consolidation happening within Ocalan’s party, the PKK. A remilitarization of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the focus on reorganization for accelerated struggle do not bode well for a peaceful Turkey.

On another front, the execution of Ocalan risks alienating Europe, further decreasing Turkey’s chances for economic integration. European countries have overwhelmingly condemned the death sentence and are urging the president of Turkey to reconsider. They are worried about the possibility of widespread violence within their own cities where Kurds live. Further strife between Turkey and Europe will only hurt Turkey’s chances of entering the European Union, especially as the proliferation of mini-Balkan states are captivating the Europeans lately.

The irony is that Turkey can prove its civility and Western liberalism by returning to the policies of its Ottoman predecessor. By making a deal and sparing the life of Ocalan, Turkey can incorporate and subdue its major internal adversary, much as the Ottomans did. The alternative may only bring decay and strife, as the Ottomans found after their flexibility wore out.


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