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Prospects for Kurdish Peace

A masked Kurdish boy flashes the 'V for victory' sign while another holds a flag showing a portrait of PKK jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan during a protest in Diyarbakır on June 30, 2013. (Mehmet Engin/AFP/Getty Images)
A masked Kurdish boy flashes the ‘V for victory’ sign while another holds a flag showing a portrait of PKK jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan during a protest in Diyarbakır on June 30, 2013. (Mehmet Engin/AFP/Getty Images)
Things are looking good for the Kurds. In Iraq, the region they control is a relative haven of peace and prosperity. In Syria, they are building a semi-autonomous entity in the northeast of the country. Later this month, Kurdish leaders from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran will meet in Iraqi Kurdistan for an unprecedented Kurdish National Congress that was previously shelved by regional governments united only by their hostility to Kurdish political demands.

In Syria and Iraq, Kurdish advances have been accelerated by the weakness of the central governments. In Turkey, though, it is the state itself that has changed direction. After decades of paranoid opposition to even the slightest hint of anything Kurdish, the idea that Kurds have rights has become a political commonplace, and for the second time in five years the Turkish government is negotiating with the former separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to end a thirty-year war. Meanwhile, Iraqi Kurdistan, whose leaders were habitually dismissed by Ankara as “mere tribal chiefs” as recently as six or seven years ago, is now probably Turkey’s closest ally in the region.

In the case of the Syrian Kurds, Turkey has U-turned even faster. Turkey’s reaction was redolent of the old days when the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK-affiliated party powerful in Syria, hoisted its flag mid-July over Ras Al-Ayn, just over the Turkish border. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared that Turkey would not “close its eyes to this fait accompli.” His chief advisor, Yalçın Akdoğan, who writes a column in the daily Star, described the “developments on the border” as a “national security issue.”

All this was in line with Turkey’s official approach to the PYD since Syria’s civil war had started. A year earlier, Turkey’s intelligence chief had called the party “an unofficial terrorist group.” In addition, there is considerable evidence to suggest that Ankara was supporting the Islamist militias in their war against it, or at least turning a blind eye when their militants crossed in to Turkey in an effort to strike the PYD from behind.

But then, on July 25, PYD leader Salih Muslim arrived in Ankara for talks with senior Turkish officials. In public, Erdoğan presented the visit as a dressing-down, and the most visible immediate effect was the removal of the PYD flag at the border post. (It was replaced by the flag of an affiliated group.) Yet the underlying reality seems to have been rather different. Muslim told reporters the two sides had reached an agreement after “constructive” talks. Reports in the Turkish media suggested Turkish officials had signaled their acceptance of Syrian Kurdish autonomy, at least until peace returned to the country. There were also hints Turkey had severed any links it may have had with radical Islamic groups. Without mentioning specific names, the Turkish foreign minister recently condemned the behavior of Salafi militias as “a betrayal of the Syrian revolution” that was “as damaging to the revolution as the regime itself.”

For Cengiz Çandar, an influential Turkish foreign affairs expert, Ankara’s abandonment of its initially allergic reaction to the PYD raises hopes that it is capable of taking the steps necessary to integrate its own far larger Kurdish minority. Surely, he says, a Turkish state that recognizes the rights of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds can provide the legal framework needed to protect Turkish Kurds’ rights. A Turkish state that has engaged in talks with Salih Muslim, a politician who has a photograph of the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan on his mobile phone, has to address the issue—dear to Turkish Kurds—of Öcalan’s solitary confinement in an island prison.

The question, though, is just how deep the transformation of mentalities underlying Turkey’s foreign policy U-turn goes. Does it signal the end of what Çandar calls the “Kurdish phobia,” or is it just a question of Ankara having its hand forced by circumstance?

Roughly four months into Turkey’s second round of domestic peace negotiations with the PKK, the public still knows almost nothing about what the government intends. Negotiations have taken place at a very high level between Öcalan and Erdoğan’s most trusted lieutenants. Both sides—encouragingly, in a sense, given the sensitivity of the process—have maintained tight discipline.

Piecing together what information there is, there are a few promising signs. PKK fighters continue to withdraw from Turkey (some of them, it seems, moving to Syria to fight the radical Islamic militias there). With the end of this year’s fighting season fast approaching, the ceasefire in Turkey seems certain to hold until at least the spring of 2014.

In Ankara, meanwhile, the Turkish government seems willing to make some concessions to the Kurds, and there are rumors that many of the several thousand Kurds arrested over the past three years for alleged membership of the civilian arm of the PKK will be released over the summer.

But for the most part, it appears that the peace process will still have to overcome many obstacles. Erdoğan has already made clear his opposition to two key Kurdish demands: full language rights and the lowering of the 10 percent electoral threshold that has hampered Kurdish access to parliament.

Evidence of an unyielding attitude on the part of the Turkish government makes it increasingly difficult for Kurdish politicians to justify the concessions their side is making to their support base. Recent weeks have seen a series of increasingly explicit expressions of frustration. Visited in prison by his uncle on July 29, Öcalan reportedly said, “You can’t run a peace process like this. If this is the way it is going to be, I’ll give up and just watch.” A day later, PKK head Cemil Bayık said the government had to act before September 1. If it does not, he said, “it will be clear that [Turkey’s] aim is not a [peace] process but the liquidation [of the PKK]. Of course if that is the case, the Freedom Movement [the PKK] and the Kurdish people will defend themselves.”

Of course, all this could be rhetoric aimed at maintaining the loyalty of the rank and file. (As a paramilitary organization, the PKK is much better at maintaining discipline when it is actually fighting.) Some analysts, like Bayram Balci of the Carnegie Endowment, think Erdoğan has more reasons to push on with the peace process now that his once-unassailable hold over Turkish politics has been rocked by mass protests in Istanbul and other western Turkish cities.

But there is a more cynical view, too: that Ankara’s turnaround on Syria’s Kurds is an expression of the increasing instability of peace efforts within Turkey. Unwilling or unable to make the concessions the PKK demands at home, it is buying time by making friendly noises at a PKK offshoot in Syria. Only time will tell which is closer to the truth.

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Nicholas Birch
Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.

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