Reality Check on a Kurdish Peace Agreement in Turkey

July 11, 2013

Has the latest peace initiative between Turkey’s government and the country’s Kurdish population dubbed the Imrali Process after the island on which Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan is incarcerated already collapsed? On June 30th, at the first of a series of demonstrations called for by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party aimed at pressuring the Ankara government to advance the peace initiative, police used water cannons and tear gas against thousands of protestors in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir. A day earlier, a protest at Gezi Park in Istanbul turned into a vociferous pro-Kurdish rally. On the previous day, a demonstrator was killed and others were injured as security forces opened fire on a crowd objecting to the expansion of a security outpost in the Kurdish province of Lice.

These incidents reflect a growing impatience with the government’s delayed response to the withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey that had been ordered by Ocalan as part of the first phase of peace negotiations. It is expected that the second phase will consist of a series of government reforms designed to address Kurdish demands. Yet the likely terms of these reforms have not been made public. Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has already made it clear that he has no intention of meeting some of the Kurdish demands, such as making Kurdish an equal language with Turkish, the right to Kurdish-language education, and lowering the electoral threshold to enable smaller and regionally based political parties (such as the Peace and Democracy Party) to enhance their parliamentary presence. There are as yet few indications and some believe little likelihood that the government is willing or able to concede many of the other demands, which include disbandment of the pro-government village guard militias, a significant slackening of Turkey’s draconian and catch-all anti-terror laws, the release of Ocalan, and above all, regional self-government. Indeed, tens of thousands of pro-Kurdish activists – including elected officials, academics, journalists, human rights lawyers, and the like – are currently awaiting trial in Turkey. Ankara might agree to release some of these people; however, it is currently busy sentencing others to long spells in prison.

Does all this suggest that the Kurds have fallen into a trap set for them by Erdoğan? Some appear to think so. Murat Karayilan, the leader of the PKK fighters based in the Qandil Mountains of Northern Iraq, has struggled from the onset to disguise his skepticism. He refused to comply with Erdoğan’s demand that his guerrillas disarm before withdrawing from Turkey back across the Iraqi border; he sought legal guarantees that they would not be attacked, and has continued to complain of harassment and intrusive surveillance by Turkish security forces (which resulted in at least one exchange of fire in early June on Iraqi territory).  Karayilan has also noted that Turkish security forces have been busy expanding their security installations throughout the region. In line with senior figures of the Peace and Democracy Party such as Ahmet Turk, Karayilan has repeatedly cast doubt on the government’s commitment to peace. Many other Kurdish activists, and Turkish commentators, have expressed similar reservations.

The one breakthrough has been to openly include Ocalan in the peace negotiations. During the so-called “Kurdish opening” lasting from 2009 until 2011, Ankara refused to countenance such a step. For many ethnic Turks, and the government as well, he was regarded as no more than a brutal terrorist. But his role in ending a mass hunger strike by Kurdish prisoners in November 2012 appears to have finally convinced the government that no progress can be made without him. Indeed, his call for an end to the violence and for political dialogue during Newroz (Kurdish New Year) in March 2013 made it impossible for the PKK’s militants to refuse to cooperate. In having demanded for so long that Ankara recognize Ocalan as the leader of Turkey’s Kurds, the PKK may now be beginning to regret that it got what it wished for. Only time will tell if Ocalan’s involvement in the peace process will be enough to convince Kurdish fighters to finally lay down their arms. Ocalan may prove to be out of touch with the rank and file; and, having spent more than a decade in solitary confinement, his agenda may no longer fit with that of the PKK. It is not at all evident that he drove a very hard bargain in return for a PKK ceasefire and for talks to commence.

For its part, the government is discovering that including Ocalan in the peace process does not guarantee its success. Erdoğan is already complaining that only ten to 15% of the PKK’s fighters have withdrawn back into Iraq, against Peace and Democracy Party leader Selahattin Demirtas’s insistence that the figure is closer to 80%. In any case, the PKK has surely not fought a 30-year campaign just so that a few cultural rights might be granted. Erdoğan may yet pull a rabbit out of a hat, but there is little sign that he understands let alone sympathizes with Kurdish identity politics. He talks of a “brotherhood” between the Turks and Kurds, and of a shared Islamic and Ottoman identity, rather than a bi-national state and federal constitution. Additionally, his behavior during the Gezi Park protests hardly indicates his commitment to minority rights, inclusiveness, or to the consolidation of Turkey’s democracy.

There could be more than a grain of truth to the observation that both the government and the PKK are exhausted with the conflict, hence the attempt to negotiate a peace. Nevertheless, this was presumably the case during Turkey’s last “Kurdish opening” and that endeavor was abruptly halted by the brutality of government security forces, the inability of the government and population to embrace the Kurds, the continued attachment to the use of violence by the PKK, and the triumphalism of some Kurds and the maximalism of their demands. Furthermore, on both sides are groups that are quite willing to play the role of saboteur should progress rear its unwelcome head. The PKK can still recruit, raise money, and fight. This applies to Turkey’s somewhat politically neutered security forces as well. Indeed, both sides may have a stake in the continuation of this violent struggle in order to maintain support and funding. If this is the case, then a lull in the fighting may serve only to provide an opportunity to better prepare for its resumption. The bitterness that another failed peace initiative could produce may even intensify future violence.

At root, there is a simple fact – Kurds are not Turks, any more than they are Arabs or Iranians. Even in quite recent years, contrasting and conflicting identities have torn apart the territorial integrity of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Sudan, and Indonesia, and continue to threaten Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Bosnia, Cyprus, India, Pakistan, Tajikistan, many African states – and even the UK, Spain and China. Why should Turkey be any different?  To crudely paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of an imminent Kurdish peace agreement in Turkey have been much exaggerated.


William Park is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.


Photo Credit: James Gordon