New Turkish-Kurdish opening ‘is remarkable, momentous, and fraught with risk’

PKK supporters in 2003

From Ross Wilson, New Atlanticist:  Turkey’s long-time nemesis Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the so-called Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), delivered an historic message on the March 21 Nowruz holiday that marks the beginning of spring calling for a new beginning between Kurds and Turks.  Read out by two Kurdish nationalist members of the Turkish Parliament to a crowd reported to number as high as two million in Diyarbakir, the informal capital of southeast Turkey’s large Kurdish minority, Öcalan’s message declares the start of a new era in which his fighters should silence their guns and leave the country. “I call on everyone to build democratic modernism” and for moving “from armed to democratic struggle,” Öcalan stated. To underscore his message that the era of militant separatism is over, Öcalan spoke of unity among Turks and Kurds going back to the battle over Gallipoli in World War I and the launching of the new Turkish Republic’s parliament in 1920.

The turnabout for America’s NATO ally Turkey is remarkable, momentous, and fraught with risk. PKK-related violence has claimed 40,000-plus lives–the majority of them Kurdish–over the past thirty years. It indirectly stimulated xenophobic Turkish nationalism, supported a militarized state by virtually requiring an outsized role for the country’s armed forces, and seemingly ensured second class status for its Kurds, especially in the southeast where the recurring cycle of PKK violence and authoritarian reaction almost guaranteed against investments that might break the region’s poverty and create hope for people there. 

This, a growing weariness of fighting among many Kurds, and perhaps Öcalan’s hope to end his lifetime sentence to solitary confinement, presumably led the long-time terrorist leader to change tack. That Turkey is, despite many warts and an authoritarian streak that remains strong, a vastly freer, more liberal, and more opportunity-filled place than when Öcalan founded the PKK as a Marxist-Leninist movement in 1978 surely also counted for something. He and the terrorist group he has led are increasingly anachronistic, and he may have decided to play his cards while they still have some value. . . .

Hopefulness about the new Turkish-Kurdish opening surely is warranted. No one who cares about Turkey, wants to see greater respect for human rights and pluralism there, or values its role on the Alliance’s southeast frontier should want anything but the best for the effort. Optimism, however, seems unwise. Erdoğan and his government, Öcalan, and the more prudent Kurdish politicians associated with him are on a risky, mine-filled road. Much can go wrong and probably will. The most important thing that the United States and Turkey’s other allies can do is to speak positively about the effort, stay out of the details, and pray.

Ross Wilson, director of the Patriciu Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, was US ambassador to Turkey from 2005-2008.  (photo: Wikimedia)

Image: 640px-Pkk_supporters_london_april_2003.jpg