On May 8, fighters of the Kurdish PKK militia began to withdraw from their
positions in Turkey, bound for their mountain strongholds in Kurdish-ruled
northern Iraq. The decision by the PKK to withdraw is the result of orders
issued by jailed movement leader Abdullah Ocalan.
This re-energizing of
the Turkish-Kurdish “peace process” is one of the most important of the
phenomena generated by the seismic shifts currently underway in the Middle East.
But the foundations of this process are far more shaky than the guerrillas’
redeployment from Turkey would suggest.
The newly minted Turkish-Kurdish
peace process resembles the veteran Israeli-Palestinian version in a number of
ways. Perhaps most importantly, the process has been launched without any clear
picture of how it is supposed to conclude. There is no evidence of any “historic
compromise” between the sides on the core issues which caused the conflict in
the first place.
For the Kurdish side, the struggle is no longer about
separate statehood. Rather, their demands now center on the right to use Kurdish
language in education, equal status of Kurds in the Turkish constitution,
greater autonomy for local authorities in Kurdish majority areas, and the
release of thousands of Kurdish political prisoners held in Turkish
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has committed himself
on none of these issues. For him, the existence of the process appears more
important than its result. Erdogan’s Kurdish gambit is intended to form part of
his broader campaign to transform the Turkish polity.
September 2008, representatives of the Turkish state and of the PKK engaged in
intermittent face-to-face talks in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
August 2009, the Turkish side were led by Hakan Fidan, a close associate of
Erdogan who now heads the MIT, the Turkish National Intelligence Association.
Parallel talks between MIT representatives and PKK leader Ocalan also took place
at Imrali, the island jail where Ocalan has been incarcerated for the last 14
From the outset, the Kurds suspected that the Turkish intention of
the talks was to induce the PKK to end its insurgency – for the sake of the
process, while offering no concrete path for solving the conflict. As a result,
recent years have been marked by long ceasefires and periodic bursts of
conflict, as the Kurds sought to remind the Turks that the quiet should not be
taken for granted as long as the core issues remained unresolved.
was the breakthrough that has led to the current appearance of progress? From
late 2012, the Turkish government began a new round of talks with Ocalan alone,
on Imrali, denying the PKK the possibility of presenting a coherent stance as a
This process has led to the orders by Ocalan for the withdrawal
of PKK fighters and the appearance of progress. But what exactly the government
has or has not proposed remains shrouded in mystery. Nothing in writing has
emerged from the Imrali talks, on any of the core issues of the
While Ocalan retains an iconic status within the PKK and parts
of the broader Kurdish world, it is not difficult to discern caution and some
confusion among movement cadres regarding their leaders’ latest
In an interview this week with renowned Turkish journalist Hasan
Cemal, prominent PKK commander Bahoz Erdal stressed that the current PKK
decision for a cease-fire does not imply surrender, nor remove the possibility
of a return to armed action if the Kurdish issue remains unresolved. “They asked
for a cease-fire – we declared. They asked for withdrawal, we are doing this
now. If tomorrow they [say] that this is not enough, you should lay down your
arms – they can’t force us to do this. This means surrender for us which we [the
PKK] have never accepted, even in the most difficult times,” Erdal told
The point, Erdal said, was not a cease-fire for its own sake, but
to remove the reasons why Kurds took up the guerrilla struggle in the first
The veteran PKK fighter also noted that the Turkish army has begun
to construct a new infrastructure along the border, intended to hinder the
ability of Kurdish fighters to return to Turkey should the conflict
This observation is part of a broader concern in the PKK that
Erdogan’s intention may be to neutralize and distance the movement and render it
irrelevant, rather than to reach a true rapprochement with it.
Erdal is a
very prominent commander, well respected among the Kurds, and his statements
will be carefully studied by all sides.
Murat Karayilan, the de facto
leader of the PKK in Qandil, said that the withdrawal from Turkey would “stop
immediately if there is any attack, operation or bombing of our guerrilla
forces, and our forces will use their right to reciprocate.” Karayilan also made
clear in a rare press conference at the end of April that PKK disarmament would
take place only after the Turkish government carried out constitutional
amendments in line with the movement’s demands relating to Kurdish
Serious questions therefore remain as to whether the peace
process will in the end bear fruit.
From Erdogan’s point of view,
however, the move toward the Kurds makes obvious political sense. The Turkish
prime minister’s current central goal is to ensure the passing of a constitution
that would radically reshape the nature of the Turkish republic. Most
importantly, the new constitution would replace the current parliamentary system
with a presidential one.
This would then pave the way for Erdogan himself
to stand in presidential elections in 2014, and rule with vastly increased
Many in Turkey fear that at this point, Erdogan will
complete the process of a Putin-style hollowing out of Turkish democracy which
they discern is already under way – in the emasculation of the free media, the
jailing of senior officers on trumped-up charges, and the incarceration and
harassment of journalists.
To bring the constitution to a referendum,
Erdogan needs a 330-seat majority in the 550-member parliament.
currently controls 325 seats.
One of the ways in which Erdogan could
ensure his majority would be by securing the support of the Kurdish BDP (Peace
and Democracy Party). Many observers discern the central goal in Erdogan’s
current peace process as being to secure BDP and Kurdish support for the new
This brings with it the possibility that once the new
constitution is in place and Erdogan is securely ensconced as president, he
could abandon the perhaps impossible task of reconciling Turkish and Kurdish
desires, leaving a neutered PKK, and reverting to the previous policies of
Should the peace process falter, however, Erdogan will need
to take account of a strikingly improved Kurdish strategic position. Perhaps
most importantly of all, a franchise of the PKK now controls northeast Syria.
Kurdish fighters resisted a Turkish backed attempt by Syrian rebels to begin a
reconquest of this area in January. There is also a flourishing de facto
sovereign area in the Iraqi Kurdish region (which is not, of course, aligned
with the PKK).
So Erdogan has launched an audacious gamble, initiated
with the help of the ever-eager diplomats of Norway. PKK leader Ocalan,
meanwhile, has reportedly said that if the process fails, 70,000 fighters await
his orders. Whether Erdogan’s move will result in a lasting rapprochement
between Turks and Kurds – or flounder into renewed conflict – remains very much
to be seen.