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What's behind Ankara's decision to lift visit ban on jailed PKK leader?

The Turkish government's decision to allow family visits for Abdullah Ocalan may be linked to Ankara's ongoing operation in northwest Syria.
Kurdish protesters carry flags and a banner with a portrait of jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan during a demonstration against Turkey's military action in northeastern Syria in Zurich, Switzerland October 12, 2019. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann - RC148C889EE0

The Turkish government granted jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, 71, access to his family after a seven-month pause. Coming amid Turkey’s escalating war against Syrian regime forces in the northwestern province of Idlib, the move has sparked a flurry of speculation on the government’s motives.

On the face of things, the Turkish government granted permission for Ocalan's brother, Mehmet, to visit him on Imrali, the island prison where the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) has been held since 1999, to allay concerns over his safety. Worries about Ocalan's well-being grew after authorities announced that a Feb. 27 forest fire on the island was now under control. 

But the government’s assurances failed to assuage Kurdish fears that Ocalan was dead. A growing number of Kurds launched protests, mainly in Europe, demanding proof of life.

Ocalan was last allowed to see his brother Aug. 7, but the government has repeatedly spurned the demands of Ocalan's lawyers to see their client. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had authorized a visit from Ocalan's lawyers in May 2019, after an eight-year hiatus. The move was seen as a cynical attempt to harness Ocalan’s help to get the Kurds to vote for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) candidate in the Istanbul mayoral redo election in June.

Ocalan issued a feeble endorsement via his lawyers, calling on the Kurds to “remain neutral” in the polls. But the Kurds voted for the opposition in droves, assuring its victory against Erdogan’s party — which some said was a sign that the PKK leader’s influence had waned.

But past experience has shown that the PKK can always convince its supporters that Ocalan’s perceived complicity with the state is just another brilliant tactic to outwit Ankara.

Giran Ozcan, the Washington representative of the opposition Peoples' Democratic Party, whose base is heavily Kurdish, told Al-Monitor, “We know that the government has tried to utilize visits to Ocalan for its own ends, and this could be another example of that, in a time when Erdogan and the government has its back to the wall in [the Syrian province of] Idlib and domestically.” The forest fire may have been staged to create an excuse for such an opening.

Ozcan said it was unlikely, therefore, that the meeting augured a resumption of peace talks between the government and Ocalan and the PKK. The talks collapsed in 2015, in part over Erdogan’s conviction that his continued grip on power was better assured by ditching the Kurds in favor of nationalists led by his informal coalition partner Devlet Bahceli. But the refusal of the US-backed and PKK-mentored Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to obey Turkey’s demands to join the Sunni rebels’ fight against president Bashar al-Assad was as big a factor, if not a greater one, many say.

Turkey may now be nervous that the YPG will join forces with an enemy bloc comprising Assad, Iran-backed militias and, by extension, Russia, in the ongoing battle in Idlib. So, it may have pressured Ocalan to call on the YPG this time “to remain neutral.”

A PKK source speaking via Telegram from Iraq told Al-Monitor he had “reliable information” that Turkey was ready to cut a deal with Russia over Idlib, provided it was allowed to hold on to the mainly Kurdish enclave of Afrin. His claim could not be independently verified. Unless it's allowed to regain control of Afrin, which was taken by Turkish forces in 2018 with Moscow’s blessing, the YPG is unlikely to be interested in getting itself drawn into the conflict, the source added.

However, should Erdogan ever conclude that he needs to go back to the Kurds to bolster his drooping poll ratings, he would need to re-engage with Ocalan, Ozcan asserted.

“Ocalan is still undisputed authority in terms of defining the orientation of Kurdish politics, especially in Turkey and Syria," Ozcan said. "And any right-minded Turkish policy would have to pave the way for Ocalan to resume dialogue for a peaceful resolution of the Kurdish problem.”

Aliza Marcus, the author of “Blood and Belief,” the most authoritative account of the PKK to date, agreed. She told Al-Monitor, “More than 20 years since he was captured and imprisoned by Turkey, Ocalan’s spiritual hold over the PKK remains. He hasn’t been able to really communicate with the PKK or with Kurdish supporters in years — apart from a brief statement he was allowed to make last year before the Istanbul elections — but that hasn’t reduced his importance.”

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