In the past thirty years, more than a dozen governments and myriad political realities changed in Turkey, but one trouble has remained constant: The armed conflict between the state and the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, a guerilla army driven by a blend of Kurdish nationalism and utopian socialism. Since 1984, when the PKK began attacking Turkish targets, more than 40 thousand lives perished — more than some 30,000 PKK militants, 7,000 members of the Turkish security forces, and a few thousand civilians. It is a huge death toll that is at least ten times more than that of the Northern Ireland conflict.
However, these days there is some hope in Turkey that, finally, 2013 might be the year of a farewell to arms. As the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan announced right before the New Year, a “dialogue” has begun with Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, springing a new expectation for peace in the air.
It should be noted that this will not be the first effort for peace, though. In 2009 as well, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government had initiated a process called “democratic opening”, including more reforms for Kurds’ cultural rights and a negotiation with the PKK. As part of the latter effort, the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (or MIT, with Turkish initials), Hakan Fidan, a confidant of Erdoğan, met with both the jailed Öcalan and some PKK representatives in Europe. These series of secret meetings would later be called “the Oslo Process,” and, just like the more famous Oslo Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, they would fail.
In fact, this “first peace process” was so fragile that it failed after its first visible step: The crossing of eight unarmed but uniformed PKK militants, from Iraq to Turkey from the Habur border gate on Oct. 19, 2009, with the consent of Turkish authorities. These PKK guerillas, normally captured if not killed, were given amnesty and allowed to march freely to Diyarbakır, the pivotal Kurdish city, only to be welcomed by a cheerful mass. On the other hand, the majority of the Turkish society was shocked, to see this “terrorist show,” so the government halted the process. Soon the PKK began attacking Turkish targets again, and the government intensified its counter-insurgency.
The “first peace process,” in other words, ended with a re-escalation of violence, claiming hundreds of lives on both sides in the past two years. On the question of why that process failed, both sides still have their narratives. The government accuses the PKK’s militancy, whereas the PKK condemns the government’s “lack of sincerity.” There was even a more nuanced explanation as well: Peace threatened the presence of certain hawks within both the state and the PKK, and therefore they reacted by sabotaging peace with provocative acts.
Moreover, the hawks and doves rift on the Turkish side was highlighted earlier this year with a strange political tension: On Feb. 7, 2011, an Istanbul prosecutor initiated an investigation against Hakan Fidan and his colleagues at MIT to question them about the content of their dialogue with the PKK. The AKP government, which perceived this as an investigation against Erdoğan himself, reacted very boldly. The prosecutor, who seemed to see the dialogue with the PKK as a treason, was taken off the case. The AKP group in the parliament also passed a law, which gave legal immunity to high-level bureaucrats such as Fidan on their covert jobs carried out on the orders of the prime minister. Since then, word has it in Turkey that there is a network of anti-PKK hawks within the police and the judiciary, who look at the AKP’s efforts to negotiate with the PKK as naïveté, if not outright treason.
On such a complicated political scene, it is in fact risky business for Erdoğan to re-initiate the peace process with the PKK. But he can’t afford the continuation of the conflict either, especially at a time when he wants to maximize his personal support for the presidential elections of 2014. Apparently, he hopes to put a definitive end to PKK terrorism, and add a giant medallion to his hall of fame.
And on this bumpy road, Erdoğan has an unexpected tool, if not an ally: Abdullah Öcalan, the “terrorist leader” and the “baby killer” in the eyes of the majority of Turkish society. Despite his longtime disconnect with his organization, Öcalan still has an immense prestige over it and the Kurds in general, with a cult of personality equally matching that of Atatürk for the Turks. Since Öcalan wants to be released to become the political leader of the Kurdish movement, he needs to show himself to the state as part of the solution and not the problem. He demonstrated that executive capacity lately by putting an end to the Kurdish activists’ hunger strikes with a single statement.
So, it seems that Erdoğan will now try to test Öcalan’s authority and willingness to convince the PKK to lay down its arms, while giving some concessions to the organization and, of course, Öcalan himself. That a similar effort collapsed two years ago can be an asset if both sides take lessons from that failure. But if this second trial fails, too, a third one might become extremely difficult.
Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He studied political science and history at the Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, where he still lives. His book, "Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty," an argument for "Muslim liberalism," was published by W.W. Norton in July 2011. The book was described by the Financial Times as “a forthright and elegant Muslim defense of freedom."