Jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan (on poster)
Kurds protest in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah in February 2011 to demand the release of jailed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan. © Shwan Mohammed
Jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan (on poster)
Last updated: April 29, 2013

Turkey and the Kurds: Peace or a two front war?

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This year, many Turks put their hope for peace in Newroz – the Kurdish New Year that takes place on March 21, a holiday which was previously forbidden in Turkey.

In the best case, Newroz could mark the first step towards an end to the almost thirty year long bloody conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish nationalist movement PKK, which have cost at least 40,000 human lives.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has indicated that his organisation is prepared to release a number of captured government soldiers and civil servants before Newroz, as well as – which has a much bigger symbolic value – start an evacuation of PKK’s guerrilla warriors from Turkish soil.

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This optimistic signal from the legendary Öcalan, who is feared as much as he is revered, has created large commotion in Turkey. To many, this seems to confirm that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AFP government did the right thing when in December it commenced secret (well, apparently not entirely secret) negotiations with the PKK leader, who has been held at the Imrali prison island in the Marmara Sea outside Istanbul since his arrest in 1999.

After a number of collapsed truces and negotiation rounds with other actors from the Kurdish opposition, it is a widely held conclusion among Turks that if you are to negotiate with the Kurds it should be done with the top dog within the PKK.

For Erdoğan, this surely represents an about-turn. During the so-called Kurdish spring or “Democratic Opening” from 2005 to 2011, his government seemingly whole-heartedly reached out their hands to Turkey’s Kurds with promises of language, cultural and political reforms.

But when the Arab Spring threw neighbouring Syria into a bloody civil war in 2011, the PKK took the opportunity to step up its separatist war against the Turkish state with high death tolls on both sides, unseen since the full-scale wars of the 1980s and 1990s. This was met with massive force from Ankara, and made Erdoğan proclaim again and again in 2012 that there is no Kurdish question in Turkey, only the fight against PKK terrorism, and that he would have had Öcalan executed if it was up to him.

But now Ankara is negotiating with Öcalan again. Perhaps cynical, but probably realistic tongues in Ankara and Istanbul are saying this is a strategic move by Erdoğan to secure a new constitution that gives the president significantly increased powers, and himself a sure win in the 2014 presidential election.

To achieve peace with the PKK, once and for all getting rid of the “Kurdish question”, would grant an already successful Erdoğan mythical status on par with the state founder Atatürk, and also the opportunity to lead Turkey as president until the republic’s centenary in 2023.

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For Öcalan, on the other hand, a deal now with AKP and Erdoğan may be the last chance to go to history as the Kurd’s definite liberation hero. If the frail 64 year old in the Imrali prison strikes a deal with Erdoğan before the presidential election in 2014, he will probably not get another opportunity to crown three decades of guerrilla fight with something reminiscent of triumph.

And who knows: perhaps both Erdoğan and Öcalan could get the Nobel Peace Prize – names like Arafat, Kissinger and Begin shows that even terrorist branded war criminals are sometimes deemed worthy of Nobel celebration.

The catch that could threaten the hopes of peace till Newroz is that Öcalan is no longer the undisputed top dog within PKK. When words of his new peace feeler leaked out from the cell at Imrali, angry sneezes were heard from younger leaders in the PKK executive committee who are hiding in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains. Why give up the armed struggle now, they ask, when PKK’s Kurdish comrades in Syria have set up a self-governing, armed enclave along the border with Turkey and thus given the PKK the opportunity to strike against Ankara’s forces from two fronts?

The now two-year-old revolt in Syria has created a double dynamic in the Turkish-Kurdish civil war. On the one hand by making Erdoğan and the AKP government seek a peace agreement with the Kurds and avoid the risk of a Turkish armed intervention on two fronts in Syria. On the other by inciting the hawks within PKK to run over their old leader Öcalan and step up the war against Ankara from both “Southern Kurdistan” in Iraq and “Western Kurdistan” in Syria.

Peace for Newroz? As long as peace in Syria is far away, so will we have to wait for peace between Kurds and Turks.

Translated from Swedish by David Hedengren.

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Per Jönsson
Per is an Associated Editor at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. For 30 years, he worked as a reporter at the foreign desk of Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning newspaper. He recently returned from a longer trip to Israel.
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