Back in April, amidst a great deal of public optimism regarding the peace process between Turkish authorities and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents, I suggested that the Turkish government was more cynical than sincere, and was using the peace process for two reasons: First, to win Kurdish support for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposed constitution—one that would consolidate his power for more than a decade to come—and second, to win Istanbul the 2020 Olympic Games. (I explain in more detail, here.) I predicted that after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made its choice, Turkey would no longer need to play nice, and so the peace process would collapse in September.
Well, September is here. Erdoğan’s ambitions for the constitution have been sidelined by his own behavior against the backdrop of the Gezi protests earlier this summer, and the IOC decided three days ago to bypass Istanbul’s ill-conceived bid and choose Tokyo. Now, like clockwork, the peace process is collapsing.
The Kurdistan Democratic Committee’s Union, a PKK front group, released a statement yesterday on the breakdown of the negotiations, a portion of which I excerpt here:
While a one-hundred-years-old problem is being dealt with, imposing solitary confinement on a main factor on the one side of the problem and not making room for him to work on the solution issues is a clear proof that the government is not sincere in settling the problem. While the Prime Minister and his government are free to hold many sessions and share opinions with many circles every day, Leader APO is only permitted to have a two-hour-long meeting in a month; this fact clearly shows that the process is not developing… Constructing new military posts, building new dams and HES’es [sic] are enough to show the ill-willing approach of the government. The government is preparing itself for war, not for peace. During the 9-month-long non-conflict environment, compared to those of the years of conflict, the government has escalated its military preparation more and more. It has taken no steps with regard to the democratization of Turkey. It has not released the KCK detainees – which would have cleared the way for democratic politics – as it has not abolished the Anti-Terror Law.
Erdoğan has called an emergency meeting with his military and national-security staff to discuss the situation.
Erdoğan will castigate the PKK, but he has no one but himself to blame. While the Turkish media and their Western counterparts expressed optimism about Erdoğan’s truce achievement, few considered what the Kurds hoped to achieve.
After the ceasefire agreement, I traveled both to Brussels and to Qandil—an area of Iraqi Kurdistan controlled by the PKK—to discuss the issue with Kurdish intellectuals and senior PKK leaders. While there is still much about which they and I disagree and much of the conversation was off-the-record, it was clear that the PKK expected far more than Erdoğan was willing to offer. Indeed, aside from some radio programming and language freedom, Erdoğan offered little if anything.
Most Turks cannot conceive of what equality and reintegration inside Turkey would mean. Rather than talk about a few Kurdish language courses, they should understand that true reconciliation will mean former PKK soldiers become integrated into the Turkish army, and former PKK scouts join the MIT, Turkey’s intelligence service. Istanbul—which is the city with the largest Kurdish population in the world—should have bilingual street signs. Turkey would, in such circumstances, become a bi-national state. Under any circumstance, the PKK would want its leader Abdullah Öcalan released from prison.
There is no excuse for Turkey not to release Öcalan if Turkey is serious about peace. After all, by opening negotiations with Öcalan, Turkey made him the indispensable man. After years of declaring him irrelevant, Erdoğan transformed him into the only figure who can represent Turkey’s Kurds in negotiations. When Öcalan is released from prison, I doubt he will settle for being mayor of Diyarbakir, which would be the cap if anyone accepted Erdoğan’s plan.
Turkey and the United States consider Öcalan a terrorist, but it is well past time the United States reconsider the designation: Both sides have bloody hands in the conflict and the PKK has long acted more as an organized insurgent group rather than a terrorist group. The United States delisted the Mujahidin al-Khalq, an abhorrent cult that does conduct terrorism, has targeted Americans in the past, and has little if any support in Iran. In contrast, the PKK has never targeted Americans, has not bribed Americans as the Mujahedin does, and has widespread support not only in Turkey, but also in Iran and Syria.
Öcalan, from isolation in a prison cell, has run circles around Erdoğan and regardless of what happens next, will come out the victor. If the ceasefire collapses, he still has the relevancy Erdoğan bestowed upon him. If Erdoğan offers more concessions, he affirms the PKK’s strategy.
As problematic as some PKK behavior can be, it is time for American policymakers to reconsider its leader and the group, and end America’s blind support for Erdoğan who has used Kurds like a political football and has yet to outline his own road map or vision for the resolution of the conflict. That certainly does not mean swapping blind support for one authoritarian with another, but rather determining what is in the long-term interests of regional stability, democracy, and U.S. national interests.