Turkey: The Challenges of a Truce With the PKK

8 MINS READMar 21, 2013 | 13:40 GMT
Turkey: The Challenges of a Truce With the PKK
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Kurdish women wave a Kurdistan Workers' Party flag as they celebrate the Persian New Year in Diyarbakir, Turkey

In a letter read aloud during celebrations for the Nowruz holiday on March 21, Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, announced a much-anticipated cease-fire with the Turkish government. Ocalan's message was read in Kurdish and in Turkish by two deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in Diyarbakir, the southeastern hotbed for the 29-year-old Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.

Ocalan has declared cease-fires in years past on behalf of the PKK, but those truces were usually tactical, meant to give the PKK time and space to replenish forces while under heavy military pressure. This time, the Turkish government and PKK leadership have revived a strategic "road map" for a peace accord with the knowledge and cautious support of the bulk of their constituencies. In his letter, Ocalan blamed the region's violence on artificial borders created by Western imperialism and declared the beginning of a new phase. He said the time had arrived for arms to be silenced and for ideas to speak.

Though the level of public acceptance for these negotiations is unprecedented, the cease-fire announcement is only the first of many steps toward reaching an accord, and chances are high that the process could be derailed down the line. 

Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party has for several years been working to quell the Kurdish insurgency, neutralize the military's political influence and expand the party's political base. These three goals are interconnected. By creating a separate path for political negotiations with the PKK, the government was able to undermine the military's force-based approach to the conflict and thus deflate the military's overall clout in Turkish politics. By then reaching a political understanding with the PKK, the Justice and Development Party could claim it succeeded in quelling the insurgency and, through some deal-making over constitutional reforms, seek to expand its political appeal to Kurdish voters, creating a buffer for the party in Turkey's highly polarized political scene.

The Justice and Development Party has relied heavily on Hakan Fidan, who was appointed director of Turkey's National Intelligence Organization in May 2010. Fidan, who has a tight relationship with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was involved in a previous round of negotiations with the PKK, starting in Oslo in 2009, that was derailed in 2011 when news of the talks leaked. In 2012, Fidan went to the island of Imrali, where Ocalan is imprisoned, to give it another try. This time Fidan engaged Ocalan from the start, believing that only Ocalan could get all the necessary PKK elements on board and wanting to test whether the movement would respect Ocalan's views during negotiations.

By this time, two major factors were adding urgency to the negotiations from the ruling party's standpoint. First, Turkey's aggressive support of Syrian rebels against the Alawite regime had helped create a power vacuum in the Syria's northeast, where a large Kurdish population resides. Out of this power vacuum, the Democratic Union Party, which has strong ties to the PKK in Turkey, emerged as the dominant Kurdish faction in Syria and began talking about declaring an autonomous region in Syria akin to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. In addition to facing the prospect of a fledgling transnational Kurdish state that could reinvigorate a Kurdish claim for autonomy in Turkey, Ankara also faced a growing threat from the regimes in Syria and Iran, which could use the Kurdish militant threat against Turkey to pressure Ankara to back off its support for the Syrian rebels. Turkey's attempts to extend its influence beyond its borders rapidly again turned the country inward when it realized that regional unrest would only worsen Turkey's internal Kurdish conflict.

The second catalyst stems from the Justice and Development Party's political ambitions. Turkey will hold local and presidential elections in 2014, making 2013 an important campaign year. Erdogan, whose three-term stint as prime minister will expire in 2015, wants to rewrite Turkey's constitution to change the country's parliamentary system to a presidential one, thereby enabling him to run for president in 2014. The Justice and Development Party is divided over this initiative, but even if he had his party's full support, Erdogan would lack the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed to amend the constitution. Instead, Erdogan is trying to cobble together enough support to put the revised constitution to a national referendum, and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party might help secure enough votes if it approves of the progress made in peace talks with the PKK.

The Proposed Path

The PKK demonstrated its seriousness toward the talks on March 13, when the group released eight Turkish civil servants who had been held hostage in the PKK's mountain refuge in northern Iraq.

The proposed trajectory for peace negotiations with the PKK entails a number of steps, the first of which is a declaration by the PKK that it will cease hostilities. The Justice and Development Party will then react by forming an extra-parliamentary commission to guide the next steps of the peace process.

Should the cease-fire hold, the Turkish government will move forward with reforms that would redefine terrorism charges and enable the government to free thousands of imprisoned members of the Kurdistan Communities Union, the PKK's urban faction. The PKK in return will announce a phased withdrawal of some 4,000 of its fighters to the Qandil Mountain in Iraq, the PKK's main mountain refuge. (Turkey and the PKK have negotiated this portion of the agreement with Massoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.) This step would show Turkey that the PKK is forgoing the traditional spring fighting season.

The third step involves bargaining between Turkish leadership and Kurdish representatives over the constitution. The PKK and Kurdish lawmakers will demand amendments that neutralize language over ethnic recognition and remove barriers to cultural rights, such as the right to teach and use one's native language in schools. Erdogan in return expects Kurdish parliamentary support for his reform to transition Turkey to a presidential system. This is also where a negotiation over the status of Ocalan's house arrest could come into play, possibly resulting in a broader amnesty that might impact generals imprisoned in Turkey's Ergeneken coup case.

The last step of the proposed roadmap would involve negotiating the conditions of a PKK disarmament.

The Hurdles

Ocalan's cease-fire announcement brings negotiations to the first step of this strategic framework, but progress will prove difficult. Notably, Ocalan has publicly coordinated this negotiation with three essential extensions of the PKK: Kurdish lawmakers in the Peace and Democracy Party, who bring political legitimacy to the group; PKK offices in Europe that finance the organization; and the PKK military command in the Qandil Mountains.

This last extension is the most critical in assessing whether negotiations are likely to yield further progress. Getting all the leaders to talk to each other may be significant on a strategic level, especially in simply trying to launch a negotiation, but the success or failure of this round of talks will rest with the commanders and foot soldiers, many of whom do not see a future for themselves outside Kurdish militancy.

Considering that he has been jailed for more than 14 years, Ocalan has maintained a remarkable degree of control over the militant group. But serious questions — including the issue of a disarmament that precludes political autonomy for the Kurds and that could render a number of fighters irrelevant — are expected to emerge during this negotiation. Some commanders may receive amnesty and settle in Europe, but many fighters could be left in limbo if they are not accepted back into Turkey. This is where Ocalan's credibility could come into serious question and where dissident factions may feel compelled to splinter off. Even if Turkish and PKK leaders lack the political will or capability to push negotiations that far, uncertainty regarding Ocalan's intentions will stress the PKK from within.

Murat Karayilan, the PKK's military commander based out of Qandil Mountain, recently reaffirmed his support for Ocalan and recognized the importance of the negotiations. But he noted that several problems persisted. In a leaked transcript of a meeting between Ocalan and Peace and Democracy Party representatives, Ocalan reveals a disconnect between him and his fighters when he says that the PKK does not understand him, and that they see him as an older brother or a father. "I share their worries," Ocalan said, speaking about the negotiations. "Qandil is pessimistic. It would be good if they get over it. I'm angry with them."

The Justice and Development Party will also probably face spoiler attempts from its political rivals. There is already a great deal of speculation over who leaked the minutes of Ocalan's meeting to the press, while a Jan. 9 attack in Paris that killed three female Kurdish activists continues to feed a wide range of conspiracy theories. The ruling party must deal not only with staunch opponents to negotiations with the PKK, but also with the party's natural political opponents, who do not want to see Erdogan successfully reap the political support he needs to enact his constitutional reforms.

The regional environment will also work against the peace process. The Turkish government has tried to use its relationship with Barzani in Iraq and its support for the Free Syrian Army to contain more radical Kurdish elements in Syria, but the agreements Ankara has tried to forge in this regard are highly tenuous. The PKK's Syrian component is readying itself for an inevitable fight with its ethnic rivals as Syria continues to fragment, and it will try to absorb as many fighters as possible during this time. Turkey is engaged in an open regional competition with Iran, and even as Ankara tries various methods to balance its relationship with Iran, such as in helping Iran circumvent sanctions, Turkey will find itself increasingly at odds with Tehran as the conflict in Syria spreads to Iraq, creating more opportunities for regional players to compete. Turkey will struggle to manage a growing interest on the part of Iran and the Syrian regime to use Kurdish militancy as a check on Turkey's regional ambitions.

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