PKK peace offer: a chance too good to ignore

PKK peace offer: a chance too good to ignore
Analysis: Abdullah Ocalan's call for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to lay down its arms has the potential to solve regional problems, says Bayram Balci.
8 min read
08 March, 2015
Ocalan's call will have significant repurcussions across the region [Anadolu/Getty]

From his island-prison in the Sea of Marmara, Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and historic leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), the Kurdish "terrorist organisation" battling the Turkish state since 1984, has just delivered an astonishing declaration to the visiting delegation.

Indeed, in the wake of negotiations between the PKK and the Turkish state, which have been going on for almost three years, Ocalan has asked his party officials to put an end to the armed struggle against Turkey and to pursue its cause through exclusively political means.

This is a historic declaration, which, if observed, could have a significant positive impact not only on Turkey, but on the Middle East region, where the Kurds have become major political and military actors.

It is important to remember that the goalposts concerning the Kurdish question in Turkey have moved considerably. The modern Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923, does not recognise the Kurds as an ethnic group, and this would have the reverse effect of crystallising their ethnic and national consciousness and feeding their claims to specific cultural and political rights.

In 1984, under the command of Ocalan, the PKK took up arms. Its orders eminated from bases in northern Iraq, but it also had the support of Syria's Hafez al-Assad.

In 1998, following Turkish threats to directly intervene in Syria to end this support, Hafez's son and heir, Bashar al-Assad, abandoned its protege Ocalan, expelling him from the country and closing the PKK bases.

     The PKK took up arms in 1984. Its orders eminated from bases in northern Iraq, but it also had the support of Syria.

After a brief time on the run, and thanks to close co-operation between the Turkish secret services and their allies, Ocalan was handed over to Turkey. He was imprisoned but continues to manage Turkey's Kurdish national movement from a distance.

Despite his situation, he remains a key interlocutor for Ankara in its Kurdish policy. Indeed, as of 2002 and with the Justice and Development Party (AKP) taking office, political power became more inclined towards reform and negotiation on the Kurdish issue.

Despite this, a military solution was still largely favoured, even if in parallel, secret negotiations were held in 2009 and 2010 between the Turkish state and representatives of the PKK in Europe to resolve the conflict.

This climate of suspicion where relations alternated between political openness and a return to armed violence lasted until the Summer of 2012 when Turkey, increasingly bogged down in the Syrian conflict, was forced to review its Kurdish policy.

Tactics in Syria

The Syrian crisis had a profound effect on the regionalisation of the Kurdish cause. Early on Turkey, eager to maintain good relations with its neighbour, attempted to convince Bashar al-Assad – its ally at the time – to make concessions to the Syrian opposition in order to ease tensions.

The intransigence of the regime in Damascus pushed Turkey to support the opposition, despite fears that the son - like his father - would play the Kurdish card against Ankara. It was the worst possible scenario and it came to pass in the summer of 2012. Losing on all fronts against his opponents, Assad withdrew from the majority Kurdish region along the Turkish border.

The cost for Turkey was two-fold. It saw an autonomous Kurdish entity emerge on its borders undergoing a phase of regional renaissance, and witnessed the formation of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which amounts to little more than an offshoot of the PKK.

     Losing on all fronts against his opponents, Assad withdrew from the majority Kurdish region along the Turkish border.

In practice, this Syrian branch allows the PKK to gain strength and build on its capacity to take action in Turkey, where it inflicted heavy losses on the Turkish army during the summer of 2012.

The Syrian crisis, in which Turkey finds itself supporting a weakened Syrian opposition and where the PKK-PYD benefits from troubled and ambiguous relations with the Assad regime, has served to accelerate the search for a resolution to the Kurdish question in Turkey.

The deteriorating Syrian conflict and the deadlock in which it finds itself, pushed the AKP to initiate a new phase of talks with the PKK in March 2013. Both parties seem committed to a necessary increase in tempo of negotiations that would settle the status of Kurds in Turkey.

The AKP is demonstrating unprecedented boldness in beginning direct and public negotiations with Ocalan, in stark contrast to events up until now, such as the secret negotiations that took place in Oslo 2010 between the Turkish secret services and PKK envoys.

But the Syrian crisis brings with it a new kind of logic. Acting via elected officials of the legal pro-Kurd Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), which pays him regular visits, Ocalan remotely manages the administrative staff of the PKK based in the mountains of Qandil in Iraq.

In search of respectability?

As of 2013, the PKK calmed its activities and observed the truce it had signed. Attacks on military targets have stopped. The ceasefire even withstood the particularly delicate and disturbing battle for Kobane, a turning point in relations between Turkey and the PKK.

Turkey continues to press the Syrian Kurds to turn their arms against Assad. They have shown their proficiency in Kobane but the PKK remains on the blacklist of terrorist organisations drawn up by the EU and the US, despite its victories against the Islamic State group and the military support provided by the West.

Is Ocalan's recent declaration a drive to make the PKK a respectable political actor, in order to pursue the Kurdish cause through other means?

     Turkey continues to press the Syrian Kurds to turn their arms against Assad.

Achieving the end of the armed struggle would compensate the AKP for its policy of openness towards the Kurds. The calendar plays an important role: for greater impact the announcement comes just a few weeks before Nowruz, the Turkish-Iranian new year celebrated on 21 March, but most importantly a Kurdish national festival for the PKK which every year sees huge demonstrations of Kurdish nationalism.

It is also often a time of historical decisions concerning the direction of its national struggle.

The announcement also came less than three months from major elections in Turkey. The AKP that has headed the country since 2002 hopes to remain in power with a large majority in parliament.

This is the essential condition for a significant revision of the constitution that would allow turning the presidency into the major force in Turkish politics, which present incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been dreaming of for years.

For the Kurds, it would present an opportunity to inscribe their political rights into a new constitution, and perhaps win administrative rights that would encourage the eventual establishment of autonomy for the majority Kurd provinces.

The whole Turkish economy would benefit from a calmed national context in which Turkish and Kurdish populations would live more harmoniously. The hope for the PKK is its transformation into major political actor with a respectable image, enjoying a legal status allowing it to act on the Turkish political scene, as well as the regional one.

Dealing a new hand to the region

The success of a peace talks would have repercussions across the region. Improving its image might earn the PKK removal from the blacklist of terrorist organisations and real political status. But this will not happen without Turkey's approval.

A more influential PKK in Turkey and furthermore one that is at the helm of an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria, could steal the leadership of the Kurdish political space in the Middle East from Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq.

     Improving its image might earn the PKK removal from the blacklist of terrorist organisations and real political status.

As a result, this 'peace of the braves' could easily disrupt Turkish policy all over the Middle East. For the moment, Turkey is maintaining its good relations with Barzani's regional government in Iraq which helps it exercise some leverage over the PKK.

Disarmament of the PKK and its legalisation could put an end to this cooperation, or at the least make it less necessary than in the past.

As for Turkish policy in Syria, it focuses obsessively on the Kurdish question, and more specifically on the future of the Kurdish region in Syria, whose growing autonomy is a considerable source of irritation for Ankara.

Peace between Turkey and the PKK would imply that the two parties call an end to their differences over the question of the Assad regime. Turkey wishes to see it gone, while the PKK continues to show its indifference through a limp and rather suspect facade that many interpret as reciprocal collaboration.

The Turkish dream of seeing the PKK join the Syrian opposition is not wholly unrealistic but would come at a price. Renouncing the armed struggle offers it concrete perspectives for negotiation.

But before speculating on the implications and impacts of a historic agreement for Turkey and the region such as this, what are its real chances of success?

There are still significant difficulties and obstacles, but the fact that this agreement is the fruit of a long process led with transparency concerning Kurdish and Turkish public opinion, means that it has a better chance of success.

Failing to seize this crucial opportunity would be a political error punished by public opinion demanding peace and stability in a region that has already been plagued by widespread unrest since the deterioration of the Syrian crisis and the increased power of the IS.

Dashing these hopes would have serious electoral ramifications next June, when the AKP and the legal front of the PKK - the HDP - both hope to reinforce their positions.

Ironically, the future of the two parties is intrinsically linked to the success of this agreement, as each has too much to lose were it to end in failure.

This is an edited translation from our sister website, Orientxxi.