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

The Middle East Channel

U.S. Suspends Non-Lethal Aid into Northern Syria

The United States has suspended all non-lethal aid to the opposition in northern Syria after forces from the Islamic Front seized bases and warehouses belonging to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC). The announcement came from a U.S. Embassy spokesman in the Turkish capital of Ankara, who added that humanitarian assistance would not be disrupted. The Islamic Front is a new coalition of six major Islamist rebel groups. Last week, it severed from the SMC and Free Syrian Army and on Friday took over FSA headquarters in Idlib province at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey. According to the U.S. Embassy spokesman, the situation is being investigated to "inventory the status of U.S. equipment and supplies provided to the SMC." The United States has committed $250 million in non-lethal assistance to be delivered to the Syrian National Coalition, local opposition councils, and the SMC. The aid has included food rations and medical supplies, but under U.S. code, could additionally consist of communications equipment, intelligence assistance, and body armor. Meanwhile, one of the most prominent figures in Syria's peaceful protest movement, human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, disappeared from her apartment in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus with her husband and two other activists overnight Monday. Zaitouneh was a founder of the opposition Local Coordination Committees. Colleagues said that she began receiving threats after she started investigating abuses by rebels with another organization she founded, the Violations Document Center.

Headlines

  • The Gulf Cooperation Council has agreed to establish a joint military command and a unified police force at its annual summit in Kuwait.
  • Judges in the trial of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leaders have for a second time resigned from the trial, which has been postponed to February 11.
  • Ahead of talks between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran said it would set a date, expected in early February, for a U.N. inspection of the Gchine uranium mine.
  • The Obama administration's efforts to prevent new sanctions on Iran achieved some success Tuesday when Senator Tim Johnson said he would support a delay, however a group of senators said they may introduce sanctions legislation this week. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Repression Deepens in Egypt' (Sharif Abdel Kouddous, The Nation)

"Like many other prisoners, the worst abuse Abdullah suffered occurred when he was first detained. Officers arrested him as he was walking out of Rabaa with Gehad past a security checkpoint. They asked for his ID, but all he had was his passport, which was filled with entry stamps from the countries across Africa where he had been deployed for Al Jazeera. 'They considered me a spy,' he says. 'They thought I was a big catch.'

He was taken to the nearby Cairo stadium, where prisoners were being mistreated and harassed by the police. The next morning he was transferred with several dozen others to a police station, where they were greeted by the notorious 'welcome party'-- a common practice of forcing incoming detainees to run through a gantlet of waiting soldiers, who beat and whip them with sticks and belts. Once inside, police stole money, watches and IDs from the prisoners while continuing to beat and humiliate them, Abdullah says.

All of them were eventually transferred to Abu Zaabal, where they have remained ever since, relying on regular supplies of food, water and other essentials from relatives, as is customary in Egypt's crippled prison system."

'Overlooking Jordan' (Emma Pearson, openDemocracy)

"Revolution has not come to Jordan, but this is a result of particular time-and place-dependent circumstances rather than a lack of connectivity with the rest of the region. While in Syria and Egypt the knee-jerk reaction of those in power was suppression of protests with varying degrees of violence, the Jordanian government has, to its credit, not gone down this path. Instead it tends to promise reform -- after the protests in 2011 and currently in 2013's launching of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy -- though there is a general scepticism about how far these promises actually go. What is perhaps more important currently in staving off revolution is the effect of the war in Syria to the north, and Egypt's chaos in the south. Stability is, for now, infinitely preferable.

Revolution is not the be all and end all of the Arab Awakening, just as the initial protests in Tahrir Square were neither the pinnacle nor the end of Egypt's political journey. The waves currently rocking the region come in many shapes, good and bad, dramatic and contained -- and, crucially, all affecting each other. They will continue to impact on Jordan for much time to come."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images