The Middle East Channel

The PKK cease-fire and Syria's Kurds

After nearly three decades of bloody struggle with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Turkey might finally be entering a post-conflict era. On Wednesday, the PKK's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving a life sentence on Imrali Island since 1999, called for an immediate cease-fire and for thousands of his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. The call followed a round of talks that began in October 2012 between Turkey's National Intelligence Organization (MIT) and Ocalan to convince the PKK fighters to lay down their arms and withdraw from Turkish soil. On Ocalan's counsel and in a gesture of good will, the PKK released eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants last week that had been abducted almost two years ago.

Ocalan's call could mark the first step in ending one of the world's longest running insurgencies. If it were to succeed, it would also favorably impact Turkey's democratization process, as well as possibly change the course of the Syrian uprising. 

The Syrian conflict has reshuffled the strategic cards of all regional and international actors but has posed a particular challenge for Turkey due to the unique place Syria occupies in Turkey's regional and domestic calculations. Prior to the start of protests in 2011, Syria had been a key component of the Turkish government's "zero problems with neighbors" policy. Following a near war between the two countries in 1998, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made Syria the test case for his vision to engage all regional actors, including former adversaries, through trade, investment, and political and cultural exchanges. Domestically, engagement with the Syrian regime ensured its cooperation with Turkey's nearly three-decade fight against the PKK.

Confronting a high-stakes crisis on its southern border, Turkey has pursued a cautious approach toward Syria's uprising. Ankara initially asked President Bashar al-Assad to carry out reforms. However, frustrated with the growing bloodshed, it finally joined the anti-Assad camp in the fall of 2011. Beyond its efforts to shelter refugees and increase international diplomatic pressure on the Syrian regime, Turkey took a proactive role in hosting and providing an organizational hub for the Syrian opposition. In retaliation, Assad granted several concessions to the Kurds and to the PKK in particular. He allowed Saleh Muslim, the head of the PKK's Syrian offshoot Democratic Union Party (PYD), who lived for years in Iraq's Qandil Mountains, to return to Syria and permitted the PYD to operate freely in the northern part of the country. Competing for influence with the PYD in the Kurdish areas of Syria is the Kurdish National Council (KNC), an umbrella organization of about 16 Kurdish parties close to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Founded under the patronage of KRG President Massoud Barzani, the KNC is seen as an ally of the KRG and lacks legitimacy among the Kurdish population. The PYD, on the other hand, is organizationally strong and active on the ground. It provides social services as well as security in Syria's Kurdish areas in the northeast. Yet, skeptical about Turkey's role in the Arab dominated Syrian opposition as well as fearful of an Islamist take-over in post-Assad Syria, the PYD has largely remained on the sidelines of the conflict.

Kurds could be the decisive minority in the Syrian uprising, yet they are either reluctant to fight against the regime with full force or stifled by internal divisions. In an effort to unite Syrian Kurds as well as boost his image as the leader of Kurds, Barzani tried to broker a power-sharing agreement between the PYD and the KNC in June 2012. With the Erbil Agreement, both parties pledged to become a unified Kurdish front -- a factor that might boost the overthrow of the Assad regime. But the prospect of a long-lasting unity between the PYD and KNC has been looking slim. The PYD does not trust the KNC due to Barzani's close ties to Turkey and the KNC is a loose organization struggling with internal divisions without the muscle to exert influence in the armed conflict.

But that could all change if Ocalan's call for a cease-fire and withdrawal leads to disarmament of the PKK and a democratic resolution of Turkey's Kurdish problem. In a recent phone interview PYD leader Saleh Muslim said that the eventual success of Ankara's initiative could dramatically change the PYD's relations with the KNC and Syria's Arab opposition. The PYD's distrust could give way to a working relationship with the non-Kurdish Syrian opposition if the opposition, freed from pressure by Turkey, addresses Kurdish demands. It could also build trust between the KNC and the PYD and lead to a united Kurdish front in Syria that has international legitimacy and strong standing with a fighting force on the ground.

As the Syrian crisis rages on with no resolution in sight, a united Syrian opposition that includes Kurds, fighting with Arabs on the same front could finally tip the balance against Assad. Turkey can be the glue that keeps Arabs and Kurds unified if it can finally find a long-lasting solution to its decades-old Kurdish problem. Only then can Turkey reclaim its hard-fought image as a regional superpower on the Arab street and pursue a confident Syria policy without subcontracting it to Barzani. So far, Turkey has refused to meet with the PYD due to its links to the PKK. Now that Turkey can talk to Ocalan openly, maybe Foreign Minister Davutoglu could talk to the PYD leader Saleh Muslim. That would tip the balance in Syria.

Gonul Tol is the founding director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Obama visits holy sites in Israel ahead of trip to Jordan

On his final day in Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama visited holy sites and urged action against racism and anti-Semitism. In his only public remarks on Friday, Obama said we have a collective "obligation not just to bear witness but to act" against racism "and especially anti-Semitism." He visited three of the country's most powerful national sites including the Holocaust memorial as well as the graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. On Thursday, Obama addressed Israeli students in a speech in Jerusalem appealing for a negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He said "the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine." However, Palestinians were largely disappointed with his short visit to the West Bank. Some were put off by Obama's frequent use of Hebrew and stressing the "eternal friendship" between the United States and Israel. Additionally, some Palestinians were troubled by Obama's suggestion that a freeze on Jewish settlement building in the West Bank need not be a prerequisite for peace talks. Obama is traveling to Jordan on Friday, where he is likely to focus discussions with King Abdullah II on the Syrian conflict, and the impact on Jordan. About 436,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the beginning of the conflict two years ago.


A suicide bombing at the central Damascus Iman mosque killed a top pro-Assad cleric and at least 41 other people on Thursday during evening prayers. The death of Sheikh Mohammad Said Ramada al-Bouti is a major blow to the regime -- he was a prominent Sunni supporter of the government. In Bouti's weekly sermons, he frequently called on Syrians to join the fight against the uprising. President Bashar al-Assad issued a statement of condolences to the country promising to destroy "extremism" and cleanse the country. The main opposition armed group, the Free Syrian Army, denied responsibility for the attack, stressing its forces would never have targeted a mosque. Moaz al-Khatib, the head of the main opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, condemned the assassination. Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon authorized an investigation on Thursday into an alleged chemical weapons attack in Aleppo province. The government and opposition forces have traded blame over a missile attack in Khan al-Assal, which they say contained chemical weapons. 


  • Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said has pardoned all dissidents who have been imprisoned for defaming him or participating in protests. However, Oman's state news agency did not say how many people would be released.
  • Family members of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi who had sought refugee in Algeria in 2011 left the country "a long time ago" according to Algeria's envoy to Libya.
  • Shiite community leaders in Saudi Arabia have condemned the arrests of 16 Shiite citizens accused of spying and have called for political reform. 


Arguments and Analysis

"The U.S. invasion of Iraq cost me my country and my family (Yasir Abbas, The Washington Post)

"When I was a high school sophomore, the United States invaded my country to depose Saddam Hussein. Ten years later, I have lost scores of family members and friends. I am viewed as a traitor by many of my compatriots, and I was forced to leave Iraq - probably for the rest of my life.

Soon after the invasion, Iraqis were forced to choose sides between the new, U.S.-backed government and the insurgency. Many decided to join the militias and insurgents or passively accepted their actions in return for the protection and security they offered. I chose a different path: siding with the people who had invaded my homeland.

My decision to work with the U.S. military as an interpreter was not easy, but for me it was the only choice. When I saw the sectarian violence that rapidly filled the void left by Saddam Hussein's fall, I realized that the U.S. military was the only actor with sufficient resources to resolve the intensifying conflict. Siding with the Americans also spared me from societal pressure to join a militia and take part in the violence.

... Was it worth it to me? I can't deny that my wife and child are healthy or that there is limitless opportunity for me in the United States. But is that worth losing my friends, family and country? Never."

"Nice Speech, Mr. President (Daniel Levy, Foreign Policy)

"Something odd happened during Wednesday's press conference between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility -- a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.

When Obama finally did get around to addressing that Israeli public in Thursday's speech in Jerusalem, the president made the point unequivocally: "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see." Some might say Obama was following his own domestic playbook, as he has on issues from taxes to budget cuts to gun control. It's as if he sees Bibi as an obstacle to change on par with the House Republicans or the Tea Party.

Obama made his appeal to the Israeli public in an interesting way. He hit all the buttons in endorsing Israel's own narrative -- as one would expect from a visit that has resembled a schmooze-a-thon -- but he added a surprising twist. Obama essentially offered Israelis a blank check while attaching a health warning: "Use with Caution.""

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/Uriel Sinai