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.
The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has for many years matched a tough stand against PKK terrorist activities with periodic efforts to entice the organization into ending the violence. Two heads of Turkish National Intelligence, Emre Taner and the current incumbent, Hakan Fidan, put backchannel efforts at dialogue at the top of their agenda since at least 2005. The process was fitful, and periodic breakthroughs consistently fell apart. But from late last year, the peace process started achieving traction, though what political bargains will ultimately emerge is unclear.
Some believe that Erdoğan has made a deal with Öcalan to trade greater recognition of Kurdish rights for support in amending the constitution to establish a strong presidency–for Erdoğan himself. This might or might not be a bad trade for Öcalan and the Kurds, but surely the story is vastly more complicated. It will in any case play out in unpredictable and unexpected ways:
- Spelling out what Kurdish rights means will not be easy. Turkish nationalists have huge reservations about concessions many Kurds want, such as use of their mother tongue in national discourse, to say nothing of local or regional autonomy that many regard as a one-way trip to the country’s breakup along ethnic lines. Actions by extreme nationalists to break up the pretty music between the government and Öcalan seem more likely than not, and their consequences will be hard for Turkey to stomach.
- While the ethnic Kurdish wing of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) is substantial, so is its Turkish nationalist wing–and even the country’s most effective coalition builder since Ataturk will have a hard time holding it together over Kurdish rights issues, especially if the party is to reap political benefits among Turkey’s Kurds, which surely is an Erdoğan objective: he has no interest in seeing the Öcalan-allied, pro-Kurdish nationalism Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) benefit in any way and will seek to marginalize it as thoroughly as he has marginalized the Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Action Party. The fact that dissention also exists within the AKP on matter of a strong presidency will also weigh on Erdoğan’s political calculations.
- Delivering results will be hard for Öcalan, too. He wants the BDP to succeed, but that involves a complicated kabuki dance with a strong-willed Erdogan who also controls the megaphone and public discourse. If the PKK was ever a monolithic entity under his control, a decade of field operations led by various lieutenants while Öcalan sat in prison has made it less so. At least one hard-line segment of the PKK led by a top Syrian Kurd would seem to have no interest in peace with Turkey. Significant numbers of the PKK fighters have made terrorism their career; like counterparts of the Irish Republican Army, they are not going out of business quickly, and Kurdish politicians may not want them to go away altogether either. There is the “business” side of the PKK, too–individuals and families whose livelihoods depend upon the organization’s extortion, organized crime, and drug trafficking networks, which they have no intention of giving up.
- The Turkish-Kurdish opening is not unfolding in a vacuum, either. Actions by or affecting Syria, Iran, and perhaps other regional actors could also scotch the process. It may be no accident that the extreme leftist Turkish Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C) has found the resources to step up its violence that culminated in the suicide bombing of America’s Ankara embassy on February 1 after years of relative quiet.
While the true story remains murky, the January 2013 murders in Paris of three female PKKers, one of them an organization elder and colleague of Öcalan’s, was surely a warning by someone to knock off the Kurdish-Turkish opening. More warnings or worse will occur in the future among the sometimes violent Kurdish, Turkish and other communities as issues of “rights,” political interests and competition, and livelihoods at risk become more piquant.
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.
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