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Can Erdogan Keep PKK Peace Process on Track?

The Kurdistan Workers Party attempted to showcase its force in Sirnak’s Cizre province on Sunday, June 23, creating concern that the PKK is violating the negotiation parameters.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan reviews students of the Police Academy upon his arrival to their graduation ceremony in Ankara June 24, 2013. REUTERS/Stringer (TURKEY - Tags: POLITICS CRIME LAW) - RTX10YXL

That was really some coincidence when there was a cheering crowd from Cizre listening to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s weekly parliamentary group talk on Tuesday [June 25]. “Cizre is here,” one shouted out. “He is now saying Cizre is here,” responded the prime minister right back. “Inshallah we will soon be in Sirnak, because the (construction of) Sirnak airport is completed, and we will be at its opening.”

But right before this exchange, Erdogan drove attention again to the Gezi Park protests, which started on May 27 with about 500 people who wanted to counter the government’s proposal to build a replica there of an Ottoman artillery barracks constructed in 1870 and demolished in 1940. Although Erdogan tried to portray these protesters as being violent, the majority of his party members have remained silent on this issue. It’s no secret in Ankara’s beltway that many ruling party members are disappointed with the way this issue has been handled.

That’s not the point, however. The point is that Erdogan continues with his effort to link the Gezi Park protests to the resolution process he initiated to bring an end to the country’s chronic Kurdish issue. “From the very beginning, my Kurdish brothers who have seen the racist dimension of the protests in Taksim, Ankara and Izmir, who felt that these protests targeted Turkey, our unity, our brotherhood, (and) especially the national will, have not fallen into this game,” the prime minister said. “All the 81 provinces, almost all the 76 million people have united with one heart against this dirty game and have acted with caution and patience to spoil it.” 

“Cizre is here,” someone from the audience shouted out.

While the prime minister continued with his harsh rhetoric about the protesters and accused them of allying with terrorist organizations like the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Hurriyet Daily News reported that PKK’s “so-called police unit, the Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H), had carried out roadblocks  in the southeastern province of Sirnak’s Cizre district, while the Sirnak governor’s office launched an investigation in response.” The daily said: “Some media reports yesterday showed photos of a military ceremony held on June 23 by YDG-H delivering diplomas to members whose faces were covered with scarves. The group also carried posters representing the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.”

It must be considered unthinkable that Erdogan did not know about this incident on Tuesday [June 25] when he was delivering his speech. Therefore, it may be fair to speculate that the prime minister chose not to address the issue and continue portraying the protesters in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir as being allied with terrorists. As he also admitted during his meeting with the Wise Men group selected by him to visit all corners of the country to talk about the benefits of peace with the Kurds, Erdogan said that only 15% of the PKK has withdrawn from the country.

There is no doubt that Erdogan will adjust his rhetoric soon and talk about this incident with the PKK attempting to present itself as if establishing an independent police force. When the Erdogan government took its first step in an effort to make peace with the PKK, the government agreed to allow a group of PKK members to cross the border from Habur and get cleared at courts tentatively placed in tents at the border. But Kurds in the region were carried away and welcomed these PKK members on Oct. 19, 2008, with cheering crowds, PKK flags, and Ocalan posters.

Erdogan’s first reaction to these photos was also noteworthy. “Is it possible not to get hopeful in the face of these photos at the Habur gate? That was (the picture) of hope. Something is happening in Turkey,” the prime minister said on Oct. 20, 2008. “There are good things happening.” After seeing public opinion polls, though, Erdogan changed his view of these photos, and condemned the act as an utter provocation striking at the peace of the country.

In brief, Turks from all ethnicities and different backgrounds do want peace, and to see the end in the fight against the PKK terror. People, however, are concerned that the government will fail to responsibly carry out what it launched and could create a bigger conflict than already exists. People do have a right to be concerned, and even express severe disagreement, with the process. But it’s not them, or their rhetoric, that will define the end result. Erdogan and his government have the ultimate responsibility to bring this process to a successful conclusion.

The problem is that Erdogan first demanded that the PKK leave its arms in the country and then withdraw outside Turkey’s borders. That did not happen. Now, he says only 15% of the PKK forces have left the country, where Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, says they can’t wait until the last PKK force withdraws. He says “80% of the PKK have moved,” hinting that while they may still be in the country, they are on the move.

Demirtas argues that they have already started negotiations to make changes in laws that will give Kurds the rights they demand under the constitution. These are issues relating to their requests for autonomy to receiving education in their mother tongue — Kurdish. None are easy topics to deal with, and many lawmakers are pausing and wondering about the value of taking a step in this direction when only a small group of the PKK has kept its promise to withdraw from the country. This is really a difficult knot for the prime minister to resolve — and he seems to have cornered himself with his harsh rhetoric and his excessive dream of making the ultimate deal with the PKK to end the Kurdish issue once and for all. Time will tell whether he will be able to fulfill his dreams in this way. And one wonders about what might happen if he can’t successfully conclude this process of his own making.

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