Turkey Pulse

Kurdish academic who met with jailed PKK leader speaks out

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Article Summary
Abdullah Ocalan remains uncontested leader of PKK, opposes US mediation and Kurds separating from Turkey, says Kurdish academic

The Kurdish vote played a critical role in helping Ekrem Imamoglu of the main opposition Republican People’s Party win a do-over of the Istanbul mayoral elections on June 23 by a landslide. With only days left before the vote, an academic largely unknown outside of Kurdish circles dropped a bombshell in a press conference in Istanbul. Ali Kemal Ozcan, a British-educated academic who chairs the sociology department at Munzur University in the mainly Kurdish province of Tunceli, read out a letter he said had been penned by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with whom he met twice ahead of the do-over Istanbul elections. The PKK — an armed militant group that Ocalan founded, initially to establish an independent Kurdish state — has been at war with the Turkish army since 1984. Ozcan said Ocalan is viscerally opposed now to Kurdish independence.

In the letter, Ocalan called on the largest pro-Kurdish bloc in the Turkish parliament, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to remain neutral. This was widely interpreted as a call for the HDP to scuttle its electoral alliance with Imamoglu. The vagueness of the call, couched in Ocalan's signature obfuscatory language, however, allowed for plausible deniability. In the end, the HDP backed Imamoglu anyway.

Claims that Recep Tayyip Erdogan was trying to enlist Ocalan’s help for the election had already begun to circulate after the militant leader was permitted to meet with his lawyers after a nine-year-long hiatus. Ozcan, who has authored several books on the PKK and its leader, was accused by Erdogan’s critics of allowing himself to be roped into Erdogan’s alleged efforts to use Ocalan’s influence in his own favor.

Ocalan was last allowed to meet with his lawyers on Aug. 7 and with his brother Mehmet on Aug. 12. Authorities have reportedly since imposed a three-month ban on any meetings with the septuagenarian, who has been held on the prison island of Imrali since his capture in 1999.

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In his first detailed interview in the aftermath of the letter incident, Ozcan denied the claims of complicity with the state and other accusations being leveled against him. They include the outlandish charge that he was a notorious hitman code-named "Green" who murdered Kurdish nationalists on behalf of the Turkish state at the height of the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s. During the 2½-hour-long exchange over Skype, the academic argued that Ocalan and Erdogan remain Turkey’s best hope for solving the decades-old Kurdish problem. He insisted that the PKK had to withdraw from Turkey and end its armed insurgency against the Turkish state in order for any new peace initiative to succeed. He also blamed the HDP for the failure of the latest round of talks, which collapsed in 2015, and argued that the United States had no role to play in any future peace moves, a view vocally upheld by Ocalan.

The following are the highlights of the interview, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

Al-Monitor: How did you arrange to meet with Ocalan?

Ozcan: Why I met with him matters more than how I met with him, but since you asked, let me explain. I met twice with Ocalan on Imrali in June. And the background was this: I had been trying hard to meet with Ocalan for years, so the request for a meeting was mine. I believe that no one but Ocalan can resolve the [Kurdish] problem.

In 2012 and 2013, while the settlement process was still underway, I had 30 to 40 meetings with state officials, ministers and deputy prime ministers. Most of those meetings were with Muhammed Dervisoglu, the then-deputy to the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, who was apparently conducting talks with Ocalan on the ground on behalf of the state. I met with him six times, including once after the settlement process collapsed. In my meetings with the officials, I told them, “Turkey has an opportunity — Ocalan is in the hands of the Republic of Turkey and not America or some other international power.” In other words, I always emphasized the problem could be resolved via Ocalan only.

I had requested a meeting with Mr. Erdogan as well, for I believe he, too, has a serious desire for a fundamental resolution of the Kurdish problem by ridding politics from violence and terrorism. In 1993, Ocalan had said, “I’m looking for an interlocutor,” and 20 years later, he had Erdogan before him. Upon my request, I met with Mr. Erdogan on June 13 at [the Presidential Palace] in Ankara. MIT head Hakan Fidan was also present. I explained in detail why I should meet with Ocalan. The meeting lasted about an hour.

Al-Monitor: Yet the fact that Ocalan was allowed to meet with his lawyers after so many years just ahead of the June 23 [do-over] of the Istanbul elections led to various speculations. Some claimed the permission was granted so that Ocalan could call on the HDP and its voters to take a stance in favor of the AKP. And Ocalan’s letter, which became public thanks to you, only fueled those speculations. Didn’t you discuss the elections with Erdogan?

Ozcan: I did most of the talking during the meeting. I talked very little about the Istanbul election with Erdogan, and it was within a specific context. I believe some wanted to use the Istanbul election as a springboard to hinder the solution of the [Kurdish] problem and trip up Erdogan and Turkey. So, I talked about that.

Al-Monitor: Making uncalculated moves is not typical for Erdogan. I guess he must have expected something from you when he agreed to let you go to Imrali?

Ozcan: His basic expectation was a step toward the settlement of the [Kurdish] problem. I don’t know whether the Istanbul election was somewhere in the back of his mind, but he did not talk about it to me.

And the step that needs to be taken is obvious: All armed PKK elements must quietly leave the territory of the Republic of Turkey, with not even a popgun left behind. If [the PKK leadership in] Qandil wants to maintain a role in politics, the elements loyal to Ocalan or the elements who favor Ocalan’s continued role in politics should do this quietly, together with Ocalan.

They could do it. This would ease the political atmosphere and mark the beginning of a new, historic, peace-oriented era in Turkey. Nothing can be achieved unless this [withdrawal] occurs. The Kurdish population in Turkey is estimated at between 15 million and 20 million. But there are at least 50 million other people [in the country]. Any discourse that downplays or disregards the Turkish nationalist dynamics and the sensibilities of the Turkish people is either ill-intentioned or foolish.

And no one in Turkey and even the Middle East has studied the sociology and philosophy of Turkish-Kurdish ties to the extent Ocalan has. He has been studying those issues very comprehensively in the past two decades. I have been studying his works and I was very excited to talk about it with Hakan Fidan. And he told me, “You are doing some historic work.” And he did not say it [in the context of] the Istanbul election. Hakan Fidan, too, has been studying this problem, even if not to the same extent. He has studied it not only as the MIT head, but also academically.

Al-Monitor: So you say your discussion with the president was only about the peace process and not the elections?

Ozcan: Ninety percent of the meeting focused on the aspects of violence and politics of the [Kurdish] problem and on Syria. I told Erdogan the Syrian issue cannot be resolved through a safe zone or a military operation to the east of the Euphrates. I said a solution is possible by engaging Ocalan, without irking the nationalist dynamic in Turkey. I told Erdogan, “You can resolve anything through dialogue with Ocalan.” He listened silently and must have approved, for he did not stop me from meeting with Ocalan. Nevertheless, at the start of our meeting, I spoke also about the basic mistakes that were made in the past in the settlement process with Ocalan.

Al-Monitor: What mistakes? Could you elaborate?

Ozcan: Look, Ocalan says something but then something else happens in practice. I reiterated to the president what I have been telling state officials since 2010. I told him not to use others as intermediaries in the talks, who as such carry messages from Imrali to Qandil, then bring back letters from Qandil and so on. The messages get distorted along the way, with completely different meanings emerging as a result.

Al-Monitor: Do you mean this is done intentionally?

Ozcan: There are many cases in history of charismatic leaders being stabbed in the back by those closest to them. Ocalan is not an exception. Neither is Erdogan.

Al-Monitor: These are serious allegations. Could you provide a concrete example of how an instruction from Ocalan has been distorted?

Ozcan: I am refraining from giving concrete examples because, as I said, my words are being distorted as well. … Ever since the year 1999 — the beginning of what I call his “Imrali period,” which I have studied extensively, including in published academic books — Ocalan has been urging his organization, “Tell the Turkish people about me [so they can understand me]. I want nothing else.”

In his defense [during his trial in 1999], he says, “You speak of 30,000 to 40,000 dead, but actually I am responsible for the deaths of 50,000 people. True, I rebelled. But now I no longer want to die and kill, but to live and make others live and strengthen Turkey.” Also, he says, “Separating Turks and Kurds is not even like separating nails from flesh, but rather like slashing a body into two. If anyone attempts to break away from Turkey, I will be the first to disown them.” Is anyone telling the Turkish people about this? Is that political movement [the HDP] conveying how concerned Ocalan is about maintaining Turkey’s unity, beyond [simply] calling him “esteemed” and “leader” or saying they will erect his statue?

Al-Monitor: Who do you mean precisely?

Ozcan: I don’t think that giving names is right, but I’m referring to a certain mindset and certain figures who will be put out of business once peace is achieved. They have deceived both Ocalan and [the PKK leadership in] Qandil. Those figures are rendering Qandil helpless as well. I have information to that effect, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to share it.

Al-Monitor: You argue that Erdogan maintains a sincere wish to resolve the Kurdish problem. Yet the picture in Turkey appears just the opposite. The “military solution” policy has been activated anew. Erdogan has allied with the Nationalist Movement Party. Hundreds of Kurdish politicians have been imprisoned, chief among them Selahattin Demirtas. Elected HDP mayors have been unseated on trivial grounds. Trustees have been appointed to run local administrations again. The list goes on and on.

Ozcan: Ocalan carried out the settlement process with Erdogan and his government, but those in the civilian realm [referring to the HDP] are totally in the camp opposing Erdogan, aren’t they? Erdogan did not give up on the peace process. Those who carried the messages between the two sides drove the process into a dead end. We know what was discussed toward the end, at the meeting in the Dolmabahce Palace [in February 2015]. Shortly afterward, Demirtas told Erdogan from parliament, “We will not let you become [executive] president.” At that point, I guess, Erdogan thought, “We cannot carry on with such people. It’s not worth pursuing any longer, for even Ocalan cannot rein them in,” and then he put an end to the process altogether.

Al-Monitor: You think Demirtas was wrong to declare opposition to Erdogan’s executive presidency?

Ozcan: It was a historic mistake — one of the biggest train wrecks in the millennia-old Turkish-Kurdish relations.

Al-Monitor: If we go back to your meeting with Ocalan, what did you discuss with him? Did he touch upon Demirtas’ discourse?

Ozcan: I did, and he listened. He said nothing on this issue, but, no doubt, he has an opinion. And he could express it if asked. That’s why I insist on going back to Imrali again.

Al-Monitor: How many times and when did you go to Imrali?

Ozcan: I met with Ocalan twice on Imrali. The first meeting took place several days after my June 13 meeting with Mr. Erdogan. The second one was on June 20, the day I released Ocalan’s letter. At the start of my first meeting, I told him this: "I came here as a friend, but I’d like to prove it by telling you about your mistakes. If I cannot tell you your mistakes, I’ll eat my pudding, drink my tea and go and never come back." And he replied, “But of course! Tell me what I did wrong, right now.”

Al-Monitor: So what did he do wrong?

Ozcan: I’d rather not get into this right now. It’s a long story — something to do with his coming to Imrali.

Al-Monitor: And what did you discuss next?

Ozcan: You probably know that Ocalan says, “What brought me here [to Imrali] was inadequate comradeship.” And in our first meeting, in the presence of a state official, I told him somewhat excitedly: "Two decades on, I’ll take revenge — philosophically, of course, not in terms of psychical violence — from the international conspiracy forces and your opponents within your organization who are responsible for bringing you here.” The state official was, of course, surprised. So was Ocalan. In our second meeting, Ocalan exclaimed, “You are a godsend.”

Also, please note that my first meeting with Ocalan was actually back in 1996, while he was still a free man, in a [PKK] camp in Syria. I met him as part of my academic research, in my capacity as a scholar who has written his master’s and doctoral dissertations on the PKK and Ocalan. At that meeting, I realized how interested Ocalan was in philosophy. I asked him questions containing the words “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan,” and he consistently avoided using those words in his replies. He said, “These words are keywords. What matters, though, is to see what lies beyond after unlocking the doors with those keys.” Ever since, I have consistently focused on Ocalan’s spiritual and philosophical side. I found a different man to the one who was using weapons and terrorism to a political end and had established an organization that is internationally described as “terrorist.”

Al-Monitor: If we go back to your last meeting on Imrali, did the Istanbul election come up?

Ozcan: Ocalan had already shared his thoughts on the issue in his letter that I read out to the public. And in our second meeting, he was surprised and angry when he learned that his lawyers had not released the letter to the public.

And look, I want the public to know this in particular: Ocalan told me firmly to not release the letter without his lawyers by my side. “What if the lawyers refuse to come?” I asked. He said, “How come? If the lawyers are absent, it will backfire and you will be declared a conspirator.” And it all happened exactly as he said.

Al-Monitor: Then why did you choose to go ahead without the lawyers? Were you instructed to do so by the state?

Ozcan: How could I have released the letter without [the consent of] the state? Those who took me to Imrali wanted me to make that statement, and I complied. I did nothing unethical. I complied because I am among those who believe this problem cannot be resolved without the state. After all, I went to Imrali within President Erdogan’s knowledge. I went there to help resolve a century-old problem — as a citizen, not on the behalf of the state. I went there as an academic who has been reflecting and writing on this issue for years. I am not an intelligence operative.

The public, however, should know this as well: I was opposed to releasing the letter in the absence of the lawyers. After my meeting with Ocalan, I tried to contact the lawyers, but to no avail. At the press conference, while reading out Ocalan’s letter, I pointed out that I had failed to reach the lawyers and they had not called back despite seeing my messages on WhatsApp.

Minutes before the presser, a state official who saw I was worried implied that I was afraid. I said I was never scared for myself but concerned over the likely negative consequences of releasing the letter without the lawyers in attendance. Those consequences are now evident. Ever since, I have been trying to reach the president and Hakan Fidan. I need to meet Ocalan again and rectify this mistake. I wrote letters to both of them, but I don’t even know whether they have read them. Very dangerous lies are circulating around.

Al-Monitor: What lies?

Ozcan: I mean a very dangerous lie is being repeated frequently to the public, namely that the Istanbul election showed how Ocalan no longer has any influence over his movement. This is a very big and dangerous lie. Ocalan continues to wield huge influence over his movement — perhaps to an extent that is unprecedented in the world. He has final say and remains the final decision-maker. Anyone who opposes him stands no chance of surviving within the organization. Ahead of the Istanbul election, Ocalan said in advance that his letter would backfire if it was released without the lawyers’ presence, and he proved right.

Al-Monitor: Going back to the issue of Syria, some people — including PKK members — suggest that the United States should mediate between Turkey and the Kurds. Do you think that US prompting could lead Erdogan to revive the peace process?

Ozcan: There is no need for America’s mediation. Ocalan himself says from Imrali that the worst aspect of Turkish-Kurdish ties is that external forces — America, Germany or Britain, who knows — have been provoking the two sides against each other. He repeatedly said, “I won’t allow Syria to be used against Turkey.”

He made similar comments to me as well. You would recall that Sahin Cilo [commander of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), known also as Mazlum Kobane], in the interview you had with him, made a comment along the lines, “The United States came to Syria, and our relations with Turkey collapsed.” It was the most important remark in that interview. And it is proof that Cilo remains loyal to Ocalan and his thinking. Cilo used to be the PKK’s man in charge of Europe. I met with him in Brussels in 1999. Now, he is at the helm of the military force in Rojava. Mr. Erdogan says that extensive dossiers have been presented to the United States, proving that the organization in Syria is essentially the PKK. There is no need to explain that, for the Americans are fully aware of it. The YPG [People’s Protection Units] and the SDF are not PKK extensions; they are the PKK itself. And they are headed by the PKK’s former Europe representative. These are bare facts. Ocalan once said, “The United States wants a PKK that fights and not a PKK that makes peace. That is the PKK they need.” This is not something secret; it is a comment that has appeared in [PKK] publications.

Al-Monitor: The United States is currently pressing the SDF to cut ties with the PKK leadership in Qandil.

Ozcan: A rift between the Rojava administration and Qandil is impossible. Anyone who defies Qandil in Rojava would forfeit their position and perhaps even their lives. There may be individuals who get carried away by US policies, but at the end of the day, they have to heed Qandil.

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Amberin Zaman is a senior correspondent reporting from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe exclusively for Al-Monitor. Zaman has been a columnist for Al-Monitor for the past five years, examining the politics of Turkey, Iraq and Syria and writing the daily Briefly Turkey newsletter.  Prior to Al-Monitor, Zaman covered Turkey, the Kurds and conflicts in the region for The Washington Post, The Daily Telegraph, The Los Angeles Times and the Voice of America. She served as The Economist's Turkey correspondent between 1999 and 2016, and has worked as a columnist for several Turkish language outlets. On Twitter: @amberinzaman

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