Observers of the on-going peace talks between incarcerated Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) head Abdullah Öcalan and the Turkish government to end a three-decade- long conflict are cautiously optimistic that a deal can be reached. Deep fatigue from conflict on both sides, a shared understanding that force alone cannot neutralise the PKK nor convince the Turkish state to significantly bolster the protection of Kurdish rights, along with greater support for talks from a larger cross-section of the Turkish population, are cited as the ingredients for potential success. Political will on the part of the Turkish authorities and their negotiating partners has also been a deciding factor.
“I think a proper peace deal has a chance,” says Hugh Pope, the project director for Turkey and Cyprus at the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Istanbul. “The PKK is pretty coherent. If the cease-fire is broad-based it could succeed.” Previous talks have been scuppered by provocation on one side or the other. For instance, a short-lived October 2009 amnesty led some PKK fighters at the time to return to Turkey from Iraq, causing celebrations and what had the appearance of victory parades through local Kurdish communities. In view of this development and the public uproar that it caused, Prime Minister Erdoğan was quick to return to a less compromising stance.
By contrast, the assassination of three Kurdish women activists – including PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz – in Paris this January has not derailed the current peace talks. Irrespective of whether the killings were the result of an internal Kurdish feud, as French investigators claim, the result of Iranian meddling, or action by Turkish nationalists, such an event and the subsequent fallout would have in previous years led to a breakdown in negotiations. The funerals of the three victims in the volatile south-eastern city of Diyarbakır were peaceful with no significant clashes between the police and supporters of the PKK.
One of the fundamental characteristics of current discussions with Öcalan is the number of stakeholders who hope for a breakthrough. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) currently enjoys the support of the main opposition Peoples’ Republican Party (CHP) in current talks, while the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has close links to the PKK, also supports the process.
This has arguably reduced the need for Erdoğan to keep the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which has long opposed an accommodation with the PKK – sweet. “The MHP will not be an obstacle,” says Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.
“It is much more important to gain the support of the other parties, including the Kurdish party.” Paradoxically perhaps, violence in Syria may have increased the prospect of a peace deal with the PKK in Turkey. The Turkish government fears that sustained bloodletting in Syria could make conflict with the PKK all the more violent and intractable if a political settlement is not reached. This has partly accounted for the significant efforts vested by the Turkish Prime Minister and the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, Hakan Fidan, into negotiations with Öcalan.That the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party has strengthened is control over parts of northern Syria is a serious concern for Ankara, even though the PKK has conventionally launched cross-border attacks from the Qandil mountains in Iraq or from within south-eastern Turkey.
The fact that at least 900 people have lost their lives in the conflict with the PKK over the last 18 months as violence has raged in Syria cannot be ignored.
The conflation of the above factors may have encouraged Prime Minister Erdoğan to shuffle the cabinet on 24 January. Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin – a Turkish nationalist and hawk loathed by the PKK – lost his portfolio and has been replaced by Muammer Güler, an MP from the south-eastern city of Mardin and former governor of Istanbul. Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party certainly welcomed the move.
Despite these positive conditions, the Turkish government and PKK will have to address and overcome a large number of obstacles. Hugh Pope makes the point that talks between the Turkish government and Öcalan are unlikely to result in lasting peace unless a comprehensive conflict-resolution strategy accompanied by broader political and social change are adopted. From a longer list, this involves the granting of mother-tongue education where sufficient demand exists, the removal of discrimination from the Turkish constitution and laws, and the lowering of the threshold for parties to enter parliament from 10% to 5% to provide the Kurds with sufficient political representation. Significant progress should also be made in political decentralisation.
Like the AKP, the PKK will have to engage in confidence building measures. The organisation has indicated that it will halt hostilities imminently. According to the plan, approximately 100 PKK fighters will hand over their weapons and leave Turkish territory. This would represent the first step in a long process of disarmament, withdrawal and reconciliation.
The risk that talks will be derailed remains, however. Nationalists and hardliners within the Turkish security forces and the PKK may seek to prevent a breakthrough, or exploit sticking points, and precipitate an escalation of violence. Even in the event that a peace deal is adopted, a hard-core PKK faction may continue to struggle against the Turkish state in the years to come. While this core group of fighters would likely continue focusing on eastern and south-eastern Turkey in a bid to absorb more recruits, it will also be tempted to target central and western hubs such as Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. Maximising media exposure and drawing the world’s attention to their demands – including greater autonomy or full-blown sovereignty for the Kurds – will be a key objective of this splinter group. Ülgen nonethe- less points out that the majority of Kurds are likely to support a peace deal so long as it is robust enough, rather than a reversion to instability and violence.
The challenge for Öcalan and Erdogan is to mitigate the risk of such an eventuality. Having caused over 30,000 deaths and cost $300bn since 1984, the conflict between the Turkish state and PKK will take a carefully crafted and incremental approach to solve. The difference between now and previous failed negotiations is that there appears to be the political will amongst the primary players to put decades of violence to bed. Negotiations are fragile, but cautious optimism prevails.