Speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Standing beside Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he told a news conference, “We welcome the PKK’s commitment to lay down its arms. We discussed our work to combat terrorism in all its forms … including the violence that has plagued Turkey for three long decades,” he said, adding, “No peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination.”
Kerry would be foolish, however, to believe that Turkey’s current outreach to the PKK is about peace, or permanent reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, two other factors are at play, both of which suggest that political cynicism and greed rather than sincerity are at the root of Turkey’s rush to negotiation with the Kurdish group.
Sometime in the afternoon or evening of January 9, three Kurdish activists were assassinated in their office in Paris, France. To enter the office required being buzzed in and the office was not marked by signs. This was no random mugging or robbery: Whoever entered and shot dead Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK); Fidan Doğan, a representative of the Brussels-based Kurdistan National Congress; and Leyla Söylemez was deliberate. French Interior Minister Manuel Valls visited the site of the murders and called the slaughter “intolerable.”
There are two main suspects: Turkey and Iran. Many Kurds are pointing the finger at Ankara. After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan feigns moderation toward the Kurds only when it suits him, but embraces a hardline approach when he wants to whip up Turkish nationalists. In recent years, the PKK has been winning its insurgency: The Turkish army has effectively lost control of much territory which the PKK now administers in far southeastern Anatolia.
I had the opportunity to have dinner with some Kurdish journalists last week in London, where events in Syria were very much on peoples’ minds. Kurds make up perhaps 10 percent of Syria’s 22.5 million people; much of northeastern Syria is almost entirely Kurdish. I asked my friends how the allegiance was breaking down among these Kurds. Their answer: 50 percent of Syrian Kurds support Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and 50 percent support the Kurdistan Workers Party, best known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. Others Kurds I have since talked to—diehard opponents of both the Syrian regime and the PKK—say that perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds favor the PKK. PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan long called Syria home, and so it is natural that many Syrian Kurds would pay their loyalty to him.
The United States government defines the PKK as a terrorist group. The group engaged in a long insurgency inside Turkey, during the course of which it targeted not only Turkish troops, but also Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The Turkish government—a brief interlude of secret negotiations aside—takes a zero tolerance approach to the PKK. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraces Hamas and imbues it with political legitimacy, his criteria is not subjective; he is unwilling to ascribe any legitimacy to the PKK even though its popularity in Kurdish areas of Turkey is far greater than Hamas’ popularity in the Gaza Strip.