How close is Turkey to resolving its Kurdish problem?

The most dangerous fall-out of the Syrian civil war in which Turkey also played a significant role seems to be resurgence of the PKK.

On 17 January, a week after the assassinations in a Paris apartment, tens of thousands of mourners gathered in the south-eastern city of Diyarbakir. It was not the first time huge crowds had gathered in this Kurdish-majority town’s main square, carrying coffins and shouting slogans.

More than 40,000 people have died in the 25-year conflict between the Turkish state and The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK.  Over the years, both Turkish and Kurdish communities held countless funeral processions throughout the country. Diyarbakir alone had witnessed some of the biggest and most violent, adding more to the hatred and to the growing death toll.

This time, stakes were even higher. In addition to concerns that angry crowds and over-zealous security forces may clash, it was feared that a major showdown during the funerals could trigger a nationalist backlash in the west. Last month, Turkey announced that it had resumed talks with the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, aiming to bring the conflict to an end.  

The assassination of the three Kurdish women in Paris was seen as an attempt to derail these peace talks.

The bodies of  Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the PKK;  Fidan Dogan, the Paris representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress, and Leyla Sonmez, a student activist, arrived in Diyarbakir the night before.

Warning against any provocation or sabotage, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan nevertheless promised that the security forces would be “extremely sensitive and vigilant”. He called the funerals “a test of sincerity” for the peace talks.

Deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and local Kurdish politicians had also called for restraint.  

In the end, the bodies of the three women were carried in coffins draped in the red, green and yellow Kurdish flags and carried by women. Tens of thousands, many wearing black clothes of mourning and white scarves of peace, followed behind. 

Demotix/Sadık Güleç. BDP deputy Sebahat Tuncel addresses a crowd of Kurdish women at Istanbul airport. All rights reserved.

Families of the dead and leaders of the BDP addressed the crowd. Speeches were measured, messages peaceful.

One banner seemed to represent the mood: “There could be no winners in a war; no losers in a peace”.

No losers

In Diyarbakir, the centre of decades-long ethnic strife and mistrust, Turks and Kurds  have  passed the ‘litmus’ test . Both sides made a conscious effort to avoid confrontation. Kurds in particular, came out in their thousands to show their support for the peace process.

Elsewhere in the country, on the day of the funerals, increasingly self-censoring mass media choose to ignore the events in the southeast. Crowds filling Diyarbakir’s main square as far as the eye can see were nowhere to be seen on television screens. Even the state-sponsored Kurdish television looked the other way.

Yet, the next day, headlines were uniformly optimistic. Daily Vatan said “Wisdom, at last”. It may happen this time, after all” headlined the national daily Haberturk.

More than at any other time in recent years, there seems to be a will and desire to settle the conflict. As well as the government, the business community and the main opposition The Republican People’s Party (CHP) support the process. Leading industrialist, Mustafa Koc told the industrialists’ loby group TUSIAD that it was obvious the problem could not be solved by military means any more. It had to be settled by negotiations. Influential religious community leader Fethullah Gulen has also spoken for the need to make peace. It is only the nationalists both from the right and the left who oppose talks.  

The latest opinion polls show that the government hasn’t lost any support over its attempts to re-kindle the peace process. According to a poll by Konda, if there was an election today, Justice and Development Party (AKP) would get 53,6% of the votes, against 21,7 % of its main rival CHP and 12,3% of the right-wing nationalist MHP.

Towards a powerful presidency

Settling the Kurdish question is vital for Turkey’s national, regional and international ambitions. It looks as if it also holds the key to Prime Minister’s plans to become a powerful president when the post becomes vacant in 2014.

Having more than half the electorate behind him gives Mr Erdogan real leverage to make a difference in the country’s affairs. But the past experience has shown that the Prime minister’s disturbing signs of authoritarianism grow in parallel  to the popular support he receives.

His reaction to the main opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s offer of, “opening a new credit to the government” in its negotiations with the PKK was downright rude.

Despite making calls to all sections of the society to stand behind the efforts to make peace, Mr Erdogan doesn’t give the impression he is trying to get a consensus. There are few signs that the government is trying to create conditions for further confidence building.

The latest round of peace-making efforts followed heightening of tensions with a series of high profile attacks in the south-east by the PKK .  A 68-day long hunger strike by  PKK militants in jails across Turkey ended in November after  an appeal by Ocalan. The PKK leader, who has been imprisoned on the island of Imrali since his capture in 1999, was at the centre of an ongoing debate about the re-introduction of the death penalty at that time. In a speech on 11 November, reacting to an upsurge in PKK violence, Erdogan told a crowd that capital punishment should be brought back and families of murder victims should have a say in the fate of killers.

Talks or negotiations?

Abdullah Ocalan, who has been vilified and isolated for many years on Imrali, has once again become a key player. It is now known that it was Ocalan who wrote to Erdogan directly to offer help with a peace settlement. A face-to-face meeting followed between the PKK leader and the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan. At the end of a year reported as the deadliest for over a decade, two Kurdish politicians Ayla Akat Ata and Ahmet Turk boarded a ferry bound for the maximum-security jail to meet Abdullah Ocalan. A few days later, the Turkish press claimed that the authorities and Ocalan agreed on a road map and that Ocalan would ask armed PKK militants to withdraw from Turkey.

It is impossible to confirm the details of these so-called deals. It is not even clear whether these are preliminary talks or serious negotiations. In Istanbul, a well-informed source says that the Erdogan government has already agreed on a protocol with Ocalan but the real negotiation needs to take place within the PKK itself. What will determine the outcome is whether Ocalan can carry the different wings and elements of the PKK with him. 

It is obvious from the statements of the most senior officials that the government wants disarmament and withdrawal.  However, experience elsewhere shows that this can only come about after a period of serious confidence building measures - yet to be seen in Turkey.

The funerals in Diyarbakir demonstrate the popular desire for a peaceful future. But while this adds to general optimism, it is not enough to suggest that Ocalan's leadership will be uncontested. Murat Karayilan, the leader of the military wing of the PKK, based in northern Iraq, was reported as saying that he wouldn’t agree to withdrawal to bases in northern Iraq, since gathering forces in one place would expose them to Turkish attacks. However, there have been cautious remarks from Turkish officials that a cross-border withdrawal will be encouraged.  

Demotix/Sadık Güleç. Kurdish women at Istanbul Ataturk Airport holding pictures of the murdered PKK members. All rights reserved.

Even if Ocalan’s instructions were to be obeyed by armed militants inside Turkey’s borders and the military leaders in neighbouring countries agreed to this, there are still many more unknowns.

Some winners

The recent assassinations of three Kurdish women in Paris have shown once again how unpredictable the road to  peace will be. Even though the 25 year-long conflict has brought untold misery and suffering to both Kurds and Turks, it also benefited many people economically and politically. The PKK has a massive money-making machine, including international drug smuggling operations. The lucrative financial incentives of the war may stand on the way of a potential peace deal.

There have been suggestions that some of Turkey’s neighbours would not be pleased to see a prosperous, more influential Turkey with its ethnic conflict finally settled.

It wasn’t only investigating journalists pointing the finger at Iran and Syria after the killings in Paris. Independent and much-respected veteran Kurdish politician Ahmet Turk also claimed that there may be an Iranian involvement in the recent assassinations in order to derail the peace process.

Iran angrily denied the accusations.

Turkey needs to find a solution to its Kurdish conflict more urgently than at any other time. The crisis in Syria turned its national problem into a regional one.  The most dangerous fall-out of the Syrian civil war in which Turkey also played a significant role seems to be resurgence of the PKK.  

Where to start

Turkey has quietly fine-tuned some of its more controversial foreign policy decisions.

A similar re-thinking of policy, too, is needed within Turkey. The ongoing Kurdish opening is, without doubt, an important step in the right direction. But talking to the PKK and its political allies are not enough to secure a lasting peace.

First and foremost, it is necessary to acknowledge that the Kurdish issue is a political one.

Recently, the Turkish government gave a kick-start to the legal reforms permitting the use of one’s mother tongue in trials. Judiciary system with long pre-trial detentions and oppressive anti-terrorism clauses need to be changed, too.

In the words of a recent Council of Europe report, “Systemic shortcomings in the administration of justice in Turkey that adversely affect the enjoyment of human rights” remain another cause for concern.

The government’s refusal to explain and apologise about the killing last year of 35 Kurdish civilians who were mistaken for PKK fighters in a bombing raid in Uludere, was made worse by awarding a medal to the commander of the air force responsible.

There have been positive steps towards the freer use of Kurdish language on air  and optional Kurdish lessons in schools.  But as seen in recent funeral coverage, having a Kurdish language television is, in itself, not enough to address the cultural needs and demands of its Kurdish speaking population.

Despite Erdogan’s strong language and criticism directed at the defenders of media freedoms, Turkey does lead the world in the number of journalists behind bars.

There is more than one litmus test the Erdogan government needs to pass to prove its sincerity. Respecting and ensuring the freedom and pluralism of the media in Turkey would be a good start. The media could play a vital role in this much-needed process of conflict resolution and reconciliation. 

About the author

Firdevs Robinson is a London-based journalist, broadcaster and commentator specializing on Turkey, the Middle East, Caucasus  and Freedom of the Media.