On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:
And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.
Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.
Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of officials close to the PKK in both Brussels and some from the region who are visiting Washington, D.C. For many years, I had avoided contact with the PKK but, because the Turks now talk openly to the group and have thus legitimized them as the indispensable partner, it seems silly that American officials would also not engage with them, even if I have reservations about their internal organization and past activities. At any rate, all my interlocutors emphasize that Öcalan seeks not territorial readjustments or outright Kurdish secession from Turkey, but rather they expect to be equal partners inside a reformed Turkish state.
What would this mean in practice? Over the nearly 30 years of conflict, two Turkish institutions in particular have targeted the PKK and their sympathizers: The Turkish General Staff and the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. The questions Kurds and Turks must ask is whether the Turkish government is willing to enable PKK supporters to serve in decision-making capacities in both the Turkish military and MIT. If the answer to that is no, then the Turkish government is effectively asking the PKK to lay down its arms in exchange for no substantive reforms. After all, the Kurdish fight has not been simply to listen to Kurdish music on the radio or learn Kurdish in schools, but has been a battle for functional autonomy. And for those Turks who would say that the PKK are criminals—and do not represent Turkey’s Kurds—that may once have been plausible, but since Erdoğan has put the imprisoned Öcalan on a pedestal, he has made the PKK leader the pivotal man.
Whether the talks succeed or, more likely, fail, Öcalan is now the undisputed leader of Turkey’s Kurds. The reaction of his followers to the fact that Erdoğan is unwilling to implement all but the most superficial reconciliation will probably neither be non-violent nor limited to the traditional Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Van, or Urfa. Erdoğan may soon discover that the price of insincere talks is quite high indeed.