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Turkey and the PKK: Edging closer to peace or a road map going nowhere?

 

Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 4, August 2009 - by Thomas James

 

There are many wars that seem intractable; wars in which whole generations grow up knowing nothing else. The Troubles of Northern Ireland was one such war, but in 1998 that conflict did find an end, and today Northern Ireland rarely grabs headlines in Britain or the rest of the world.

 

Another long-lasting and even deadlier war is that between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Lasting 25 years now, it has cost the lives of tens of thousands and left hundreds of thousands of others displaced and destitute.

 

It is a war of identity and ethnicity that apparently neither side is capable of winning. Begun in 1984 as a reaction to the second-class status of Turkey’s large Kurdish population, it continues to rumble on. While the PKK point to human rights abuses and to the denial of ethnic and cultural rights by Turkey, they and all perceived sympathizers are in return vilified for alleged attacks on Turkish military and civilian targets.

 

Qendil Mountains, Iraqi Kurdistan © Kurdish Herald 2009

 

As of late, there are whisperings that some sort of solution to the “Kurdish question”, the root cause of this war, may be at hand. Turkish newspapers are now more than ever dominated by debate on the Kurdish question, and for once, some commentators can see a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Current hopes rest on a thaw in attitudes from both sides. Turkey and its current ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), are coming around to the idea of a non-military solution. Turkish President Abdullah Gul, formerly a high ranking member of the AKP, has spoken of an “historic opportunity” to resolve the Kurdish question and move the country away from it’s past. Over the past few days, certain features of the government’s initiative have apparently been leaked to the Turkish press, though the government is apparently still working out the details of this plan.

 

On the other side of the fence, and deep in the mountainous border areas of south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran, the PKK seems increasingly keen to take the initiative to engage in an honest dialogue with Turkey in hopes of reaching a solution. At the same time, the PKK strongly rejects any attempt to find a solution that does not include input from the PKK or its supporters.

 

On April 13 of this year, the PKK entered into a unilateral ceasefire, pledging not to launch offensive operations. In an interview with this writer, Bozan Tekin, a PKK Vice President and Spokesman for Murat Karayilan – the acting military leader of the PKK – said that the ceasefire is an attempt to “open ways for a peaceful and democratic solution for the Kurdish people.” The ceasefire has now been twice extended, most recently from July 15 to September. A PKK statement of July 15 explained that this was to give time to “prepare the ground” for a roadmap to peace to be issued by their imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

 

Speaking from the Qendil Mountains on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq border, Tekin also explained that the huge success of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), accused by Turkish politicians as being close to the PKK, in Turkish provincial elections this past March had “demonstrated the will of the Kurdish people to find a democratic solution to the conflict”. Emboldened by the DTP successes, Tekin added, “The solution of the Kurdish question is very near, yet the other parties have to sense this”.

 

On the Turkish side, there is also an increasing will to solve its Kurdish question and in recent years steps have been taken to reverse an institutionalised policy that left Kurds deeply marginalized. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s vision of modern Turkey allowed little to no room for recognition of the cultural identity of the country’s significant Kurdish population, and a number of Kurdish resistance movements were formed following the founding of Ataturk’s republic. The PKK, which was officially established in 1978, is the latest, and perhaps most significant incarnation of the Kurdish protest movement in modern Turkey.

 

Graffiti on the walls of the Kurdish city, Diyarbakir, write, "Long live peace, freedom" in both Turkish and Kurdish - Photo Courtesy © Kurdish Herald 2009

 

 

Turkey’s political and military establishment has long been suspicious of Kurdish political aspirations for autonomy or independence, either from within Turkish borders or from the Kurdish areas of Iran, Iraq or Syria. Indeed, Turkey has even viewed Kurdish movements outside of the national borders as targeting Turkey itself. The post-Ottoman battle for newly-born Turkey’s territorial integrity left many Turks deeply sensitive to the possibility of Kurdish self-rule or independence, and thus any negotiations with Kurdish rebels draw fierce criticism from a significant portion of Turkey’s ruling establishment and population.

 

Recent statements from state officials including Army Chief of General Staff, Ilker Basburg, suggest that the Turkish government realizes that the Kurdish question cannot be solely resolved through military means. Yet the violence continues on both sides and the government has refused to open talks with the DTP, despite their clear support from ordinary Kurds, most recently seen in Turkey’s nationwide municipal elections.

 

Years of bitter conflict have resulted in deep recriminations and suspicions on both sides. Thus, any resolution will be painfully difficult to come by for many on either side of the conflict. If the Kurds choose to push for a road map to a solution authored by Abdullah Ocalan, it may be unacceptable for many Turks regardless of the content. Currently serving a life sentence as the sole inmate on the Turkish island of Imrali, Ocalan is much reviled figure among Turks and is often referred to as a “baby killer”.

 

There has recently been a great deal of talk in the Turkish press of the government pre-empting Mr. Ocalan’s road map with a plan drawn up by the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). That said, despite increasing optimism, it is important to note how far apart the two sides remain and how the years of often brutal violence have created a climate of deep distrust.

 

During the interview with this writer in May, Bozan Tekin outlined the conditions for peace and the laying down of PKK arms. Tekin listed the PKK demands as including freedom for Abdullah Ocalan, freedom of identity for Kurds, democratic autonomy within Turkey “on the Basque model”, and of an end to the village guard system set up by Turkey to combat the PKK.

 

Recent statements from PKK officials confirm these conditions, and analysts think that it is likely that Ocalan’s forthcoming roadmap will be broadly based on these. However, his freedom is unlikely to be granted, and the prospect of democratic autonomy will not wash well in a country seemingly obsessed with territorial integrity.

Indeed, one US academic and Kurdish affairs expert, Dr. Michael Gunter, recently commented that despite progress, “Turkey remains too far removed from being ready fully to satisfy what the Kurds ultimately want and that is recognition of the Kurds as co-stakeholders in modern Turkey.”

Dr. Gunter expressed his doubts on the roadmap, and speculated that any progress would be “incremental” at best. News of the extended ceasefire and Ocalan’s roadmap has gained a mixed reception in Turkey, but many are cautiously optimistic.

 

Ayhan Bilgen, editor at Gunluk newspaper and spokesman at the Turkey Peace Parliament, greeted the news positively, noting that Ocalan may be able to help encourage people to lay down their arms. However, he also offered a note of caution, warning: “People should not expect these problems that have festered for years to be solved with a magic wand.”

 

Despite the ceasefire, there continues to remain some skirmishes between rebel group and the Turkish military. Some view this as an indication that the rebel organization may not be entirely keen on halting violence. Indeed, an ex-PKK member stated that a peace deal remained far off, as some PKK elements were committed to continuing the armed struggle. However, PKK leaders contend that the rebels are acting in pure self-defense, and Karayilan apologized for the deaths that have resulted from the skirmishes in a recent interview this year.

 

Nonetheless, judging by the protracted history of the conflict, it seems that although the road to be peace has begun, it is likely to be a long one, with many setbacks along the way.

 

Thomas James is a freelance journalist with an M.A. in International Relations. He previously studied Arabic at the University of Damascus and has lived and reported from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

 

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