The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s strained Kurdish peace process

Speaking in a discreet village house adorned with Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) flags, posters of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, and three Kurdish activists killed in an unsolved assassination in Paris last year, Cemil Bayik, the co-president of the Kurdistan Communities' Union (KCK), the umbrella organization that encompasses the PKK and its affiliates, says the peace process in Turkey is over unless the governing Justice and Development Party (AK Party) moves from preliminary talks to a roadmap for a genuine solution to the Kurdish problem.

In a move last year that bred much optimism, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK Party entered into direct negotiations with Ocalan to end nearly three decades of conflict. In March, Ocalan declared a cease-fire and the PKK began a withdrawal from Turkey to its bases in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Both the PKK and AK Party agreed to "let the guns fall silent and politics speak," rhetoric Bayik says the AK Party hasn't lived up to. As a result, in early September, Bayik halted the PKK's withdrawal citing lack of progress in the talks. Some of the PKK's guerrilla forces remain in Turkey. 

"We are continuing the cease-fire, but if the government insists on its current policies then we will revise our stance," Bayik, a founding member of the PKK, said in an exclusive interview at the PKK's base in the Qandil Mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

In late September, the AK Party announced a democratization package it said would advance the peace process. Yet the reforms fell far short of Kurdish expectations, symbolically allowing for the return of village names to their original Kurdish, legalizing the Kurdish letters Q, W, X, abolishing the pledge of allegiance that forced Kurdish children to say they were Turks, and paving the way for the opening of private schools in Kurdish.

The PKK demands the release of thousands of Kurdish political prisoners including journalists, civil rights activists, and members of the legal, pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) caught up in the sweeping KCK trials. Bayik says the trials against unarmed political activists and elected officials is an example of how the government is not living up to its rhetoric of letting the guns fall silent and politics speak. The trials have been criticized by domestic and international human rights groups.

Meanwhile, demands for full Kurdish education in state schools remain unmet, as do better prison conditions for Ocalan and an independent party to observe the peace process negotiations. And as demanded by the PKK, no legal reform has been prepared to set the foundation for a sustained peace process.

"We want to solve the problem not with war, but with democratic methods," Bayik said, warning that unless the government moves from preliminary talks to a roadmap the cease-fire could end.

With a string of municipal, national, and presidential elections in Turkey scheduled through 2015, few believe Erdogan will further the reform process and recognize the Kurds as a people with natural rights, the primary demand of the Kurdish nationalist movement.

"Are we always going to wait for elections? How long do we have to wait?" Bayik asked. "We undertook the peace process and cease-fire to create the foundation for a roadmap and formal negotiations to solve the Kurdish problem, not to allow the AK Party to easily win elections and take advantage of there being no conflict. The Kurdish problem can't be used for tactical benefit, it can't be sacrificed for election gains and buying time," Bayik said.

The peace process has implications for the broader Middle East, and as the co-president of KCK, Bayik's purview extends well beyond Qandil and Turkey. In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the KCK's Syrian franchise, has established a de facto autonomous region in the largely Kurdish populated areas of Syria since the regime strategically withdrew in July 2012. Over the past six months the PYD has made headway against al Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups, and is proving to be the best organized and well-armed group in the Kurdish parts of Syria along the border with Turkey. On November 12, the PYD and more than 30 organizations announced the formation of an interim administration in the Kurdish populated areas of Syria, known to Kurds as Rojava.

Bayik accuses Turkey of using the nascent peace process to support jihadist groups against the PYD. "We didn't start the peace process so that Turkey could move the war to Rojava by supporting the al-Nusra Front, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, and al Qaeda affiliated groups," Bayik said, adding that al Qaeda has made Syria the center of its Middle East strategy. "The biggest bulwark against al Qaeda is Rojava. If al Qaeda takes control in Syria it will be a threat to everybody," he said. "This policy will backfire on Turkey, it already has."

Claims of Turkey's complicity in supporting al Qaeda have been widely reported in the media. Turkey continues to deny active support or an inability to control militants on its territory. Meanwhile, an axis including the Syrian National Coalition, Turkey, and Syrian Kurdish parties backed by Turkey and Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani accuse the PYD and PKK of working with the Assad regime.

Bayik denies the charges, arguing the PYD has chosen a "third way" that doesn't take sides and has saved Rojava from sharing the devastating fate of Aleppo and Homs. "Syria doesn't have the power to control all areas. It is good they are not attacking the Kurds. Do we have to be bombed by Assad to prove that the PYD doesn't have relations with the regime?" Bayik asked, pointing out the PYD would fight against any group that attacks the Kurds.

The advance of the PYD in Syria has complicated the budding relations between Turkey and the KRG, and the Kurdish cold war playing out between the PKK and Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the two main rivals of the Kurdish nationalist movement. In November, Barzani met Erdogan in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. More than "historic" as many including Erdogan and Barzani described the visit, the move was an election bid for the AK Party and a direct challenge to the PKK and BDP. Barzani also took a position against the PYD, which has pushed out pro-KDP factions in the Syrian Kurdish opposition much to the ire of the aspiring Kurdish nationalist leader.

"We are not against economic, political, and diplomatic relations between Turkey and South Kurdistan [KRG], this is normal since they are neighbors. We find this to be positive," Bayik said. "What we oppose are relations that have been developed against the PKK. Barzani is taking up Turkey's policies," Bayik said, accusing Barzani of losing his honor and becoming the "lifesaver" of Erdogan's failures.

By enlisting Barzani, Erdogan sought to involve the KRG leader in the strained peace process against the interests of the PKK. This policy could backfire as it threatens to sideline the PKK, the party that ultimately needs to be a part of any peace process in the region.

"The Turkish state doesn't accept the Kurds as a people with natural rights," Bayik said, describing the fundamental problem that threatens to throw Turkey back into conflict. "The Kurdish issue is one of the biggest problems in the Middle East. It's the cause of much instability and conflict. If you want stability and non-conflict, then you need to solve this problem."

Chase Winter is a journalist based in Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a BA in international studies and MA in Middle East studies from the University of Washington.

Chase Winter

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