The jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, was captured and brought to Turkey on Feb. 15, 1999. Turkey had taken the risk of going to war if necessary when it called on Syria to return Öcalan, according to a retired ambassador who was the deputy undersecretary of the Turkish Foreign Ministry at the time. His capture, however, did not end the support of foreign powers to the PKK, Uluç Özülker has told the Daily News in a recent interview.
A: First let me start by saying that Syria had turned to the Soviet Union after 1973. The relationship between the Soviets and Syrians has its role to play on the Öcalan matter. In fact Öcalan initially set on the road with a Marxist, communist mentality.
By the mid-1990s Turkey had come to a point where it was being harmed from both within and from outside. Öcalan started to feel very strong. Let’s not forget that the PKK was never recognized as a terrorist organization by Russia. Moscow always kept the PKK as leverage against Turkey.
Öcalan was also a delicate issue for father Hafez al-Assad. It was important first of all in terms of the water issue. Father Assad was concerned that Turkey could cut off the water supply of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. We proposed to the Syrians several times to modernize their irrigation infrastructure, but they never accepted it. Assad chose to use Öcalan against Turkey.
We knew everything about where Öcalan lived in Damascus, when and where he moved in the country. But at those times we had to be careful about our means and capabilities, because at the end of the day it was not just Syria Turkey was supposed to challenge but the Russians as well. But in 1996 we issued a note to Syria on Öcalan.
Q: This was a turning point. But why in 1996?
A: In 1994 the army struck a deadly blow to the PKK. We thought the PKK was over. But by 1996 we saw that nothing had changed. It was back to square one. That was because of the foreign support Öcalan received. We had to neutralize the powers supporting Öcalan. So we had to give a clear-cut message. We had come to a point where it was no longer bearable. So we had to tell them (Syrians): “Take action or else it is war.”
Q: Did the note mean “if you do not return Öcalan I am ready to go to war?”
A: Yes it was obviously said in a diplomatic way; that if Syrians were not to revise their position there will be consequences to it and that we were resolute to solve the problem. But there was no immediate response to it. Assad thought Turkey’s hands on the PKK were weak. But this was not an issue only in the hands of Assad. The same is valid today. So you have to fight the power behind (the PKK).
We realized (in 1998) that the note in 1996 was not going to bring the desired result. Either you have to do what you said or you have to back down. Land Forces Commander Atilla Ateş went to the Syrian border and challenged the Syrians, giving them the message, “if you don’t take action the Turkish army has already taken the decision. We will come.”
Q: Was it the initiative of the army or was it a state decision?
A: It was a state decision. The army at that time worked hand-in-hand with the government.
This issue was being debated in the National Security Council. And a few days before Ateş’s visit to the border, the decision to address Syrians and to go to war if necessary was made at the National Security Council.
Actually the number of soldiers on our southern border at that time was probably not enough to enter a war with Syria. But Syrians used to keep small contingents on their border with Turkey telling us all the time, “our army is deployed fully against Israel. You are also protecting our border for us.”
Perhaps there was not going to be a war but we had had enough and we had taken the risks.
At that point came the mediation of the Iranian regime and of the Egyptian president of the time Hosni Mubarak. Turkey’s president at that time, Süleyman Demirel, accepted their mediation despite opposing voices. That paved the way for the Adana agreement. Mubarak convinced Assad that there will be war if he were to say no to Turkey. He also convinced him that he can arrange an agreement that could be acceptable to him. At the end, when the Adana agreement was signed, Öcalan was not handed over to Turkey. He went to Russia. From Russia he went to Athens, Rome and ended up in Kenya. And the Americans left in our hand a bomb ready to detonate.
The moment they handed him to us we had two problems: They said you cannot sentence him to death. He will live under isolation; but that paved the way for foreign pressure such as easing his conditions under isolation. At the end Öcalan became a force that can play a role in a solution. Turkey could not prevent that. Turkey had to either use him or to be his prisoner.
Q: Let’s go back in time again. Why did Russia decide not to keep Öcalan?
A: Russia was not that strong at that time and did not want to enter a contention with Turkey.
A: Let’s not forget (the then prime minister of Turkey Bülent) Ecevit’s famous statement, “I never understood why they [Americans] handed him to us.” If he did not know I don’t know what I should say. But I think I tried to explain it previously. Americans tied our hands. We were forced to keep Öcalan alive. And the PKK continued to be used as a tool by foreign powers against Turkey. This remains so to this day. Look at Americans. They say the PKK is not a terror organization. Even though they have officially recognized the PKK as a terrorist organization, they say it was an ally (in Syria). The United States has no interest in seeing the PKK vanish.
Following Öcalan’s imprisonment, we have seen some other leaderships emerge. They sound as if they are listening to Öcalan but actually they started to act in an independent way. But they continue to receive support from foreign powers. In a way Öcalan became uninfluential.
Q: Why do you think the Russians felt the need to recall the Adana agreement this time around?
A: First of all, that agreement was signed between two parties and does not give the right to Turkey for a unilateral intervention. Bashar al-Assad is currently not fully in control of all the territories in Syria. Following (U.S. President Donald) Trump’s statement of withdrawal, Russia says it should be for the Syrian regime to go to these territories. Russia says Assad might go tomorrow, but as of today he is the interlocutor.
At this stage I would like to underline a point. A reality has emerged following the (failed) referendum initiative in northern Iraq. Turkey, Iran and the central government in Baghdad joined hands. Massoud Barzani (who decided to go to the referendum) understood that it is better to continue in a culture of compromise and that one is stronger when one cooperates with the central government. An agreement between Turkey, Iran and Damascus could help solve the problem. We need to use diplomacy. Russia uses diplomacy and shows us the way for the solution and tells us if you don’t take this road there won’t be a solution.
Who is Uluç Özülker?
Born in 1942, Uluç Özülker graduated from Galatasaray High School and later the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University.
He joined the Foreign Ministry in 1965 and retired in 2006.
During his career, he worked three times on Turkey’s permanent delegation to the European Union. In the last time, between 1995 and 1999, he served as ambassador. He was also ambassador in Libya (1993-1995) and in the OECD in Paris (2000-2002). He served as Turkish ambassador to Paris between 2002 and 2006 before retiring.
He has been the vice-president of the “Turkey-Europe Foundation” since 2000 and has been giving post-graduate courses since 2006 at different universities.
He is the author of the book “The game is going on in the international scene,” published in 2017.