Why Now for Erdogan's Initiative With PKK?

Cengiz Çandar analyzes the links between Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's initiative to negotiate with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), regional developments and the Turkish elections.

al-monitor Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in traditional clothes, greets Syrian refugees with his wife Emine Erdogan as they visit a refugee camp near Akcakale border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border, Dec. 30, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Handout.
Cengiz Candar

Cengiz Candar


Topics covered

recep tayyip erdogan, pkk, ocalan

Jan 9, 2013

Turkey was ushered into 2013 with great expectations that major steps would be taken to resolve the Kurdish question, considered to be the gravest problem in the country’s 90-year republican history. A suppressed sense of cautious optimism prevails among the people: the developments appear to be too good to be true and nourish anxiety about the devastating consequences if the hopes give way to disappointment.

Unprecedented things have happened. For instance, the head of the War Veterans and Martyrs Association in Adana urged the authorities “to do whatever it takes to stop the bloodshed.” This was significant because previously any initiative or meeting aimed at reconciling with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was conducted secretly, or no action was taken at all, out of fears of angering associations for the families of "martyrs" — or security forces killed by the PKK.

Those associations, made up predominantly of relatives of soldiers and police who have lost their lives since the PKK took up arms in 1984, have often functioned as front organizations for nationalist groups opposed to a peaceful political settlement to the Kurdish problem. The conflict, which has raged for almost three decades now, has claimed more than 40,000 lives, despite several lulls during unilateral PKK truces, the longest of which lasted from 1999 to 2004. Although PKK members and other Kurds account for more than three quarters of the death toll, the number of “martyrs” was high enough to prompt the establishment of numerous associations and the creation of an “anti-settlement lobby.”

The fact that even a few of those associations have lent support to the current negotiation process — centered around PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, behind bars on Imrali Island, and led by the country’s intelligence chief on the instructions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — is of critical importance both for the public to believe in the legitimacy of the government’s approach and for political results to be obtained.

The "public credit" extended to the new "opening" underscores what an unbearable fatigue the Kurdish problem became for Turkish society — for both Turks and Kurds — from the second half of 2011 to the end of 2012, the period which saw the highest death toll since the peak of the conflict in the 1990s.

Still, the fatigue of Turkish society doesn't sufficiently explain “Why now?” to observers outside Turkey.

So, why now? Why not earlier or later?

The timing relates to several developments and the intersection of internal and external factors. The meetings with Ocalan began as part of efforts to end a hunger strike joined by thousands of Kurdish inmates in prisons across Turkey from September to November last year. This was an opportunity for Ocalan to demonstrate the influence he wields over his followers. The Erdogan government, for its part, sought to capitalize on Ocalan’s clout in order to resume negotiations aimed at convincing the PKK to lay down arms.

Why did the government demonstrate this desire now?

It's because the Syrian crisis resulted in the PKK’s offshoot in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), taking control of Kurdish regions along the Turkish border, while Iraq faced the risk an “Arab-Kurdish war” between Baghdad and Arbil. All this happened when Ankara was becoming increasingly alienated from Baghdad, while moving closer to Arbil at a pace that made even Washington worry about Iraq’s stability and integrity. Those developments meant that the muted rivalry between Turkey and Iran was expanding on a regional level and growing more complicated.

Amid those developments, the PKK was becoming part of the Russian-backed Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus axis, giving it influence outside Turkey. Turkey’s leaders, in fact, never openly described the situation this way and continued to refer to the PKK as a "terrorist organization." But in their political calculations, they saw in the PKK the uncontrollable and unmanageable regionalization of Turkey’s Kurdish problem.

As of the beginning of 2013, the developments in Syria and Iraq posed risks that threatened to undermine Turkey’s stability and its positions towards Syria and Iraq via an out-of-control PKK. The only non-military option for Turkey to take control of the situation was to transform jailed PKK leader Ocalan from a liability to an asset.

That's the answer to “Why now?” in the context of external regional dynamics.

There is also an internal dimension, which concerns Turkey’s political schedule, and, more directly, Erdogan’s 2014 timetable.

Turkey will hold two consecutive elections in 2014. The first will be a municipal election. To win the local administrations in the east and the southeast, the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) will compete for the Kurdish vote with the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is seen as a PKK supporter. Even before the dust settles from the local elections, Turks will go to the polls again for the first popular vote to elect a new president, which requires a majority to win. It is no secret that Erdogan wants to become the first Turkish president elected directly by the people.

A Turkey destabilized by a Kurdish problem and becoming more violent with developments in the Middle East may fail to withstand the jitters of two elections. Erdogan doesn't want 2013 to be a year of destabilization.

Adding up all those factors answers the question of the timing of the “new Kurdish opening” launched with Ocalan, the inmate on Imrali Island. 

But “Why now?” is not the question that matters most for Turks and Kurds. The more important questions are: Can we get results this time? Will the “new process” lead to another disappointment?

These are questions with no easy answers. And they are crucial and legitimate questions.

Cengiz Çandar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. A journalist since 1976, he is the author of seven books in the Turkish language, mainly on Middle East issues, including the best-seller Mesopotamia Express: A Journey in History

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