On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.
Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.
That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.
A decade ago, I considered the PKK to be an unrepentant terrorist group. Turkey was a strong and consistent U.S. ally and considered them to be, and generally speaking, I believe it is important for the United States to stand by its allies. Turkey, however, changed my mind. Western police and security agencies, as well as the United Nations, now use more than 250 definitions of terrorism. Consistency matters, however. In 2006, the Turkish government not only reached out to Hamas, but that bus-bombing, rocket-launching, kidnapping group’s most militant, Damascus-based faction. In subsequent years, Turkish diplomats—like Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States—argued that Hamas was legitimate and should be engaged. It is hard to suggest that Hamas is legitimate but the PKK is not. After all, the PKK has greater popular support among Kurds, not only in Turkey but also in Syria and perhaps Iran as well than Hamas has among Palestinians. And while both groups have engaged in violence, Hamas continues to target civilians while the PKK has long since constrained itself to a more traditional insurgency.
All this is moot, of course, since the Turkish government itself has opened peace talks not only with the PKK but more specifically with Abdullah Öcalan himself, who now resides in prison on İmralı island, in the Sea of Marmara. Whatever one thinks of Öcalan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transformed him into the indispensable man and confirmed him as the most important Kurdish politician when he chose him as his partner in the Kurdish peace process rather than any other Kurdish politician. And, with regard to the U.S. terror designation, it is unclear why the PKK should be considered a terrorist group when the State Department has de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a group which—unlike the PKK—actually targeted and murdered Americans.
There is much about the PKK which should concern the United States, and certainly the personality cult which surrounds Öcalan stands in sharp contrast to some of the PKK’s reformist rhetoric. At the same time, the Öcalan personality cult is little different from the Masud Barzani personality cult that permeates portions of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Barzani is a U.S. ally.
Erdoğan’s peace process has largely held, but the PKK’s ceasefire is not the end all and be all of the process. Ultimately, the Kurds seek more than just token television programming or some recognition of Kurdish culture, especially since Öcalan now pushes not for a Kurdish state but rather for confederation, the shape of which he has fleshed out in his recent writings.
Öcalan is in prison because of alleged terrorism. But if the Turkish government now treats him as a peace partner, then it is unclear how that peace process can continue with Öcalan in prison. The decision is similar to what once confronted South Africa. Nelson Mandela, now remembered as a peaceful hero, had embraced hardcore Communism and his African National Congress had engaged in terrorism. Mandela, however, evolved with time.
It seems that Erdoğan now has a choice: If he is serious about the peace process, then he has little choice but to free Öcalan, no matter how distasteful it might be to many Turks to see the world embrace a figure they consider to be a terrorist as some sort of Mandela reincarnate. At the same time, to keep Öcalan effectively ends, if not reverses, the peace process. The ball is in Turkey’s court, and is a decision point solely of Turkey’s making.