Why Turkey Is Talking to Its PKK Nemesis


Hundreds of people of Kurdish origin wave portraits of jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan during a demonstration on January 10, 2013 in central Marseille following the killing of three Kurdish women activists in Paris.

Turks and Kurds may be trading accusations over responsibility for the execution-style murder of three Kurdish activists in the heart of Paris last week, but they agree on one point: the timing was no coincidence. The assassinations came just days after Turkey announced a new bid to find a political solution to its long-running conflict with its Kurdish population. The message? Peace-building will be no walk in the park. That’s because the conflict is too well-entrenched and the players too accustomed to violence — some 40,000 people have been killed in 30 years of insurgency and counterinsurgency. And also because it reaches into Iraq, Syria and Iran, not to mention Europe, where thousands of Kurds marched the streets last weekend to protest the killings.

“There is no question that this was a warning — it shows just how difficult a peace process is going to be,” says Sezgin Tanrikulu, a well-known Turkish-Kurdish human rights lawyer and member of parliament. “First, the choice of location in the heart of Europe, then the timing, and that they were all women — including one who was widely respected among Kurds — had a huge emotional impact.” He was referring to Sakine Cansiz, 55, a founding member of the outlawed Kurdish PKK in 1978 and a leader of its women cadres. Despite its designation as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and the European Union, the PKK retains considerable popularity among Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere.

Turkey’s government revealed earlier this month that it had begun talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader serving a life term on an island prison. These talks are aimed at establishing a ceasefire and eventual disarmament of the PKK, in exchange for addressing unspecified Kurdish grievances. Turkish media reported that Ocalan’s demands appear to be limited to greater cultural rights, constitutional recognition and regional self-governance. “Ocalan’s demands aren’t challenging for the state,” Ahmet Turk, a senior Kurdish politician, told reporters after visiting the PKK leader in prison last week. “These are demands that could be fulfilled in any democratic country,”

Being sought out for dialogue by the Turkish government marks the unlikeliest of political comebacks for Ocalan, once branded ‘baby killer’ by the mainstream Turkish media, and who escaped the death penalty in 1999 only because Turkey’s desire to join the European Union precluded the exercise of capital punishment. Despite having spent the past 14 years in isolation, he still commands unusual influence over millions of Kurds. “You have to understand that to the Kurds, Ocalan is like a father, and the father figure is very strong in this part of the world,” U.S.-based anthropologist Hisyar Ozsoy once explained when asked why the PKK would not simply appoint a replacement after his capture. “You cannot reject your father.” Ankara is now betting on its former arch-enemy to deliver where previous truce attempts — most recently in 2011 — failed. “Öcalan is still a cult leader for the PKK,” the government’s negotiator and intelligence chief Hakan Fidan was quoted saying.

Still, even Ocalan’s involvement may no longer suffice to ensure a positive outcome. For one thing, Turkey’s Kurdish BDP party, as well as PKK leaders in Europe and northern Iraq, will also have to be persuaded to accept any compromise. To that end, two BDP lawmakers had been allowed to visit Ocalan for the first time last week. The government’s intentions remain opaque: Its stated goal is a ceasefire, and Prime Minister Recep Tayipp Erdogan has ruled out the possibility of a general amnesty. “It’s not as if the government has a tangible long-term peace project, ” says Tanrikulu. “What’s happening is more a result of international pressure. Disarming the PKK has become a necessity in the current climate of the Middle East.”

The Kurds, denied a state when the British and French drew the maps of the modern Middle East after World War I, have emerged as unlikely beneficiaries of a decade of turmoil across the region. An autonomous Kurdish regional government now runs oil-rich north Iraq, while Syria’s rebellion has seen the emergence a Kurdish region autonomous of both the Assad regime and the opposition, controlled by forces with ties to the PKK.  Once Ankara’s domestic problem, the PKK now has a presence in territory’s controlled  by Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, as well as in Syria and Iran — both countries at odds with Turkey.

“It is developments towards a Kurdistan in Syria and Iraq that are forcing Turkey to end its war with the PKK and beyond that, to find a solution to its Kurdish problem,” says Soli Ozel, international relations professor at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

Turkey’s Kurds were forcibly denied their identity for many decades. And though Erdogan’s government has eased restrictions on speaking and publishing in the Kurdish language, thousands of Kurdish activists remain in jail for political reasons. Constitutional recognition, Kurdish-language education rights and an amnesty for political prisoners are some of the demands voiced by Kurdish lawmakers.

For Erdogan, the Paris murders may have underscored the stakes. He is widely expected to run for president in 2014, and his search for a solution to the Kurdish conflict may well become a defining element of his political legacy. As a result, ironically, his success now depends in part on the cooperation of Ocalan, once Turkey’s most wanted man.

Still, several factors strengthen Erdogan’s hand: Many Turks, wearied by decades of conflict with the Kurdish population, want the fighting ended; the Prime Minister has largely subdued the hawkish military; and his peace effort is backed by the main parliamentary opposition, the People’s Republican Party (CHP). But does he have the resolve to see it through? “It will be tough,” says Tanrikulu. “Turkey’s Kurds have expectations, the Turks are resistant, the process is vulnerable to international influences and then there are the PKK’s internal dynamics.” Then he adds, “But it’s not impossible.” Indeed. Many of the world’s successful political solutions to protracted ethnic and sectarian conflicts had also seemed impossible until shortly before they were accomplished.



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