Intriguing Peace Feeler from Turkey’s “PKK” Kurdish Movement

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Drop of Light via Shutterstock)

by Helena Cobban

On July 3, the Washington Post carried an intriguing op-ed from Cemil Bayik, whom it identified as “one of the five founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK.)” The PKK is a militant movement of ethnic Kurds who are Turkish citizens and who make up a large portion of the population of Eastern Turkey.

From the mid-1980s through 2012, the PKK maintained an armed insurgency in Eastern Turkey — often enjoying logistical support from neighboring Syria. Turkey, a member of NATO, hit back hard against the Kurds in the east of the country, committing numerous gross rights abuses there — as noted in this UN human rights report from 2017.

Turkey also tried to force Syria to give up its support for the PKK. In 1999, the Turkish military captured PKK head Abdullah Ocalan (“Apo”.) He has been in an island prison in Turkey ever since; and on occasion, from there he has participated in negotiations with Ankara.

In his WaPo op-ed, Cemil Bayik called on Ankara to transfer Ocalan to a safe house where, presumably, the other PKK people could communicate more freely with him.

Bayik wrote:

Ocalan is our lead negotiator. We agree with all the points in Ocalan’s most recent communications and specify that to ensure a lasting cease-fire, Ocalan’s ability to work and contribute freely is indispensable to us.

He also spelled out that:

We once again declare that we are committed to negotiating a political solution of the Kurdish question within Turkey’s borders.

This latter statement is one that should be of value to the Turkish government. If viewed as credible it could help to assure Ankara both that the PKK does not seek the secession of the Kurdish-populated parts of Turkey from central Turkish rule, and that the PKK does not associate itself with any kind of transnational “pan-Kurdism” such as might seek the the unification of the Kurdish-populated parts of Syria, Iraq, and Iran along with those of Turkey.

Bayik’s claim that the PKK has disavowed transnational pan-Kurdism might be viewed as not terribly credible, given that the main (US-backed) Kurdish forces fighting in north Syria have clearly, all along, been an Apo-loyal offshoot of the PKK — though the US military people fighting alongside them have tried to completely ignore that fact.

(Regarding the other main center of specifically Kurdish power in the region, Northern Iraq, the two dominant political trends there have all along been distinct from the PKK. On occasion they have cooperated with it; on occasion, not.)

If Bayik’s political overture, as expressed in the WaPo, is serious, then it could provide an opportunity for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — if he chooses — to test the PKK’s intentions.

The “recent communications” from Ocalan that Bayik referred to carried a link specifically to this report (posted, intriguingly, on the VOA website) of a press conference Ocalan’s lawyers gave in Istanbul in early May. The lawyers had read out a message from the imprisoned leader for the 3,000 PKK prisoners in Turkey who have been carrying out a hunger strike to protest his isolation, to limit their protests.

Lawyer Nevroz Oysal said Ocalan had stated: “We respect the resistance of our friends inside and outside prisons but want them not to carry this to a dimension that will threaten their health or result in death.”

His message also, the VOA report continued, addressed the situation in neighboring Syria where the YPG— also branded as “terrorists” by Ankara — controls some areas in the north:

“We believe that problems in Syria should be resolved by avoiding the culture of conflict,” Ocalan said according to the lawyer.

He said the Syrian Kurds should have constitutional guarantees, while respecting “Syria’s integrity.”

In early 2013, Erdogan’s government and Ocalan had concluded a ceasefire based on a fairly comprehensive agreement regarding how ethnic Kurds in Turkey could exercise their rights, including some cultural rights, within the unified Turkish state. Ankara had, to some degree, been forced into making those concessions because of a re-emergence of PKK military activity in the country over the preceding 18 months. That military activity was, actually, one of the ways in which the strong support Erdogan had given to the regime-change project in Syria ever since late Spring 2011 was triggering “blowback” within Turkey.

(Another major form of such blowback was the continuing eruption of takfiri violence in Turkey, emanating from many of the same takfiri networks whose anti-government activities in Syria were so robustly supported all along by Erdogan’s own government and security services.)

The length, complex topography, and permeability of Turkey’s long border with Syria meant that it was an ideal conduit through which, from late Spring 2011 on, Turkey could pour anti-Damascus fighters into Syria in their tens of thousands. But it also allowed for some non-trivial permeability in the other direction. And once the Turks started pouring anti-Damascus fighters south across the border, Damascus no long had any incentive to try to prevent cross-border travels by Kurdish nationalists of all kinds…

Anyway, in 2013, Erdogan was forced to negotiate with Ocalan. But the situation between the government and ethnic Kurds in Turkey remained fairly tense.

Then, in the summer of 2014, the genocidal takfiri extremists of ISIS rapidly took over large portions of heavily Kurdish-peopled land in both northwest Iraq and northeastern Syria, committing numerous, horrendous, large-scale abuses against all the residents of those areas who did not hew exactly to their own vile form of Islam — which most Kurds certainly did not. Anguished Kurds throughout the region pled for help from anyone they could find (including the governments of the United States, Iraq, and to some extent Iran.) And Kurds throughout the whole region — including inside Turkey — blamed Turkey for having provided so much support to ISIS and its precursor groups over the preceding years.

The Turkish-Kurdish peace process inside Turkey fell apart again at that point.

So now, it seems that the PKK is making another overture for peace talks. It’s not clear exactly why they’ve chosen this period to do so. But Erdogan has shown some political weakness in recent weeks, especially after his party lost the recent Istanbul municipal election — not once, but twice. Plus, the PKK may feel that — though it remains on the U.S.government’s “terrorism list” — it can hope for some support in meeting its political goals in Turkey, from Washington.

All of this is, of course, in the context of great ongoing uncertainty (and the possibility for further military escalations) in northern Syria… and of the ongoing unease between Ankara and Washington over Ankara’s decision to buy S-400 missiles from Russia. The first deliveries of these are expected to start “in the coming days,” and may trigger some calls for U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

Initial responses to the PKK’s overture from some in Turkey have been outraged and scathing. Esra Karatas Alpay wrote in the Daily Sabah:

This is an unacceptable scandal because the terrorist group is an outlawed armed group, that has already been listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU member countries… Since when has a terrorist been given the opportunity to publicly defend and advertise their criminal activity in a renowned newspaper?

The case has been compared by Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as giving an opportunity to members of a terrorist organization such as, al-Qaida or Daesh, to write and have their article published in a prominent newspaper. Therefore, the opportunity has provided propaganda for a worldwide accredited terror group.

However, that was an initial reaction. Let’s wait to see if the PKK overture gains legs…

This piece originally appeared at Medium and has been republished with permission.

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Helena Cobban

Veteran Middle East analyst and author Helena Cobban is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and the CEO of both Just World Books and the nonprofit Just World Educational. JWE’s website Justworldeducational.org makes freely available to the public a variety of resources on war, peace, justice, and the Middle East. The views she expresses here are her own.

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