The Middle East Channel

Turkey's PKK talks

The resumption of talks between the Turkish government and imprisoned Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan has raised hopes for a solution to the Kurdish issue. An advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a Dec. 31 interview that disarmament negotiations were occurring in Imrali prison, where Ocalan is serving a life sentence. They are the first confirmed state-PKK talks since mid-2011. Nothing is known for certain about their specific content, which only the government has commented on to date. But the fact that Erdogan confirmed and took clear responsibility for the meetings has created hope for a breakthrough. A Jan. 3 visit by Kurdish parliamentarians to Imrali -- the first of its kind in the talks -- was also hailed as a historic.

The Imrali meetings are an important step, but Ankara's repeated failure to follow through on expectations for progress on the conflict counsels against premature optimism. If they are to result in anything more than another wave of disappointment, the AKP must drop its goal of defeating the Kurdish political movement in favor of a genuine, negotiated agreement acceptable to all parties, including the PKK. 

Some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict since the 1980s, most of them Kurds angry at a Turkish state that has trampled on their rights. Ankara has responded to Kurds' grievances with military force and, more recently, piecemeal reforms like limited education in Kurdish. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has rolled out projects on the Kurdish issue at several points in its tenure, most notably the "opening" of 2009, which was supposed to lead to a solution. Turkey-PKK talks in Oslo and Imrali between 2009 and 2011 were the most serious contacts yet, but the Turkish government cut them off before a deal could be made.

These initiatives all ended in bloodshed because the Turkish government has been focused more on crushing the Kurdish political movement than concluding an honorable peace. Since 2009, thousands of activists from the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has the same base and core political demands as the PKK, have been thrown in jail. Even as the PKK declared repeated ceasefires, Turkey announced plans to establish a professionalized army to intensify the fight as hundreds of new military bases were built in the southeast.

Western media lazily characterizes the Kurdish rebel group as "separatist," but the PKK gave up the idea of an independent Kurdistan about 20 years ago. Since the 1990s, they've called for a negotiated settlement based on rights and autonomy within Turkey's borders. Murat Karayilan -- the de-facto head of the movement since Ocalan has been in jail -- repeated this position just last week. In 2010, he told the BBC they would be willing to lay down their weapons as part of a comprehensive peace settlement.

So far, there is little indication Ankara has opted to pursue a genuine settlement in good faith. It has continued military operations against the PKK during negotiations, vowing to eliminate them with force. Police raids on pro-Kurdish political activists have not abated. In a press statement on Jan. 4, AKP Deputy Chairman and Party Spokesman Huseyin Celik said the "single goal" of the recent talks is "to get the terror organization to give up its weapons." He added: "On the issue of terrorists and the struggle against terrorism, even a slight softening is out of the question," according to the pro-government daily Zaman. Interior Minister Idris Naim Sahin confirmed military operations would continue.

But the PKK's prestige among Kurds means no peace agreement can succeed without them, and any attempt to settle the issue with arms is destined to fail. As Aliza Marcus, author of Blood and Belief, the most authoritative book on the organization, said in an email interview: "I would say the PKK has the tacit support of at least the majority of Kurds in Turkey's southeast, and a clear majority among national-minded Kurds. It is always hard to pinpoint exact numbers, because there are no surveys of this, but the PKK certainly dominates Kurdish national activities inside Turkey, from the [Peace and Democracy Party] BDP political party to news outlets that are clearly sympathetic to the PKK." 

Last year's events underscored the organization's enduring influence. After the AKP unilaterally cut off negotiations in mid-2011, fighting in 2012 reached its worst levels since the 1990s. The government's claims that the organization is on the ropes notwithstanding, the PKK went on the offensive, launching major attacks in urban areas after remaining in the countryside for most of the last decade. Rebels set up checkpoints on roads in the southeast. In August, BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas famously declared that the PKK established control of about 150 square miles in the southeast. Even if analysts said the figure was exaggerated, the basic reality was beyond dispute.

A dramatic hunger strike by hundreds of Kurdish political prisoners last fall dominated Turkey's public debate as solidarity demonstrations spread to every corner of the country. The strikers repeatedly said they would continue until their demands -- improved conditions for Ocalan and an end to restrictions on the Kurdish language in the public sphere -- were met. In the end, a terse call from Imrali issued through Ocalan's brother ended the turmoil overnight, proving again that the PKK leader is the single most influential actor in Kurdish politics in Turkey.

A new "Kurdish project" could help the AKP regain the political initiative in advance of local and presidential elections in 2014 after being squeezed by developments at home and abroad in 2012. For Turkey, 2012 was a wasted year, occupied by bloodshed in Kurdistan, Erdogan's obsession with establishing a presidential system that will enable to him stay in power after his term as prime minister ends in 2014, threats to lift the immunity of Kurdish parliamentarians, and a host of other contrived controversies. Time is also running out for work on a new constitution, which the AKP's parliamentary majority is too small to pass on its own. Erdogan might try to strike some kind of bargain establishing a presidential system in exchange for concessions on Kurdish rights, but fresh memories of unfulfilled promises make the BDP unlikely to accept.

One cause for hope is that Kurdish parliamentarians Ahmet Turk and Ayla Akat Ata were allowed to meet Ocalan in Imrali on Jan. 3. The Kurdish political movement praised the visit, as it was apparently the first time the BDP has been granted access to Ocalan in connection to state-PKK negotiations. The meeting was not announced to the public in advance -- a journalist broke the news the day it happened -- leaving one to wonder if there have been positive developments behind the scenes.

But the sobering reality is that the AKP has not clearly come out in support of a negotiated peace, let alone presented a plan for achieving one. Considering that the AKP has publicly ruled out autonomy and an education system in Kurdish, the government needs to clearly spell out its long-term view of a solution. Nor has it taken any practical steps to win Kurds' confidence, like releasing political prisoners or calling a ceasefire. The New Year's Eve attack that killed 10 guerrillas in rural Diyarbakir and ongoing detentions of Kurdish activists are signs that the AKP is more committed to vanquishing its opponents than making peace with them.

The PKK's position is spelled out in the 100-page "road map" that was prepared by Ocalan upon the government's request at the start of the parallel negotiations in Oslo and Imrali between 2009 and 2011. It foresees a peaceful settlement based on democracy and autonomy within Turkey, concluded by the PKK's complete withdrawal to northern Iraq under international supervision. In May 2011, Ocalan submitted three short protocols outlining possible steps for a solution based on the talks and his road map. According to Kurdish negotiators, the government never responded to the protocols or submitted any proposals of its own, and the last talks took place in May or June 2011. In Sept. 2012, Erdogan admitted to cutting off the negotiations.

Turkey has tried to blame its decision on a July 2011 PKK attack that killed 13 Turkish soldiers, but Kurdish negotiators involved in the talks vehemently insist that the negotiations were terminated around the time of the June 2011 parliamentary elections. Nor did the Kurdish side ever cite Turkey's constant military attacks or arrests of Kurdish activists as reasons to walk out on the meetings. Every peace process faces stumbling blocks. One way to deal with them is to outline a clear long-term plan for reaching a deal, which Turkey has not done.

Resuming negotiations with Ocalan was the right starting point, but he cannot deliver an agreement on his own. The government must also involve all relevant actors in the peace process, including the BDP and the PKK leadership in Europe and Kandil. Ocalan has unmatched power to persuade the Kurds, but the isolation the regime imposed on him in July 2011 -- he has had no contact with the outside world since then, aside from two meetings with his brother and last week's BDP delegation -- constrains his ability to play a constructive role. The government must improve his conditions for the process to succeed. The PKK could demonstrate goodwill by proposing a mutual ceasefire.

Looking ahead, there are few immediate obstacles facing Erdogan. There has been no meaningful public outcry against the talks. The military's influence is at an all-time low. The main opposition party, the Kemalist Republican People's Party (CHP), has fully backed the negotiations. The Kurds -- having endured all manners of brutality, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of thousands of their villages -- were ready for peace yesterday. Above all, the process will depend on a single question: Will Erdogan build on his brave decision to open talks, or is Turkey condemned to repeat the horrors of the past?

Jake Hess is a journalist based in Washington, DC. He can be reached at jakerhess@gmail.com.

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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