His resignation is due to a conflict of interest with Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay, the coordinator of the Kurdish initiative.
Ambassador Özçelik is known as one of Turkey’s most knowledgeable diplomats on Iraq, particularly in terms of relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. The outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has long taken shelter in the Kandil Mountains there. Özçelik has advocated cooperation with the Iraqi Kurds against the PKK since the mid-2000s when Turkey’s relations with northern Iraq were chilly. At that time, Ankara rejected any dialogue with them, opting instead to talk to the central government in Baghdad. Before taking over as ambassador to Baghdad in 2009, Özçelik served as Turkey’s special envoy to Iraq. He is considered to be one of the architects of the shift in Turkish foreign policy towards mending fences with Iraqi Kurds, seeking their cooperation against the PKK and improving economic ties.
A few months ago, Özçelik and his institution proposed a new strategy for the government. His plan delivered the most realistic scenario that would bring all Kurdish political actors into a dialogue but kept the PKK out of the negotiations. Instead of the PKK, Özçelik’s proposal aimed to bring the pro-PKK political party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), to the negotiating table so that negotiation attempts would not be hurt if groups within the state or the PKK attempted to destroy the process.
A faction within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, led by Beşir Atalay, was not so happy with Özçelik’s proposal. AKP deputies who support Beşir Atalay issued statements that they do not approve of the new strategy and Atalay’s supporters in the media harshly criticized the proposal.
The reason why Atalay and his supporters are not pleased with the proposal is because Özçelik’s proposal differed from failed project by Atalay, which had aimed to negotiate only with the PKK to solve the problem. Atalay’s proposal had many shortcomings. It failed to consider the factions within the PKK and overestimated leader Abdullah Öcalan’s influence over the group. Atalay’s plan was an absolute disaster for the AKP.
It was reported that Atalay did not allow Murat Özçelik to travel outside of Ankara to discuss the Kurdish question with different community leaders. For instance, Özçelik could not travel to Diyarbakır to meet with leading figures in order to find solutions. Atalay had earned his fame with a failed Kurdish initiative proposal and had a fear of being overshadowed by other figures. Because of this, he worked against other politicians and their successful proposals. Due to this dynamic, Ambassador Özçelik was not expected to maintain his position for long.
Atalay, with the support of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), has been insisting that the initial plan, which did not work because the PKK resumed attacks, would be effective and that the AKP government should insist on implementing it. It seems that Atalay is obsessive about his plan because, in last 9 years as a minister in the AKP government, Atalay has not been able to claim a single instance of success.
When Özçelik came up with a realistic proposal to bring the necessary actors to the negotiating table, Atalay’s proposal became outdated. Atalay could not accept this and decided instead to remove Özçelik from his post. Thus, it is safe to say that in the political sphere, Atalay eclipsed Özçelik from day one.
Aside from rivalries between bureaucrats and ministers, Öçzelik’s resignation suggests much more. It means the Atalay and MİT proposal is again coming to the forefront of the agenda. Given the fact there are many Atalay supporters at media outlets these days, it is expected the Turkish media will once again polish Atalay’s proposal and present it as an updated plan rather than a recently failed one.
Furthermore, the PKK would consider this a victory because it has stayed firm in its demand to be present at the negotiations, and it seems the AKP government is giving the PKK what it wants.
Moreover, a faction within the PKK may consider this attempt a sign of weakness and consider resuming intensive fight once again. It is well documented that whenever the PKK considers the government in Ankara weak, it intensifies its terrorism campaign. All in all, Özçelik’s resignation indicates much more than just a sign of internal conflict within the government.