When Syrian Kurdish-led forces declared victory against the Islamic State in Raqqa last October, a group of women fighters unfurled a giant banner amid ululating and cheering. The canary yellow cloth was emblazoned with a portrait of Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose fate is of growing concern for Kurds worldwide. The move sparked furor in Ankara, casting a pall over celebrations to mark the collapse of the so-called capital of the IS “caliphate.”
“How is the US going to explain this,” growled Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Was the United States still going to pretend that its Syrian Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have nothing to do with the PKK? The PKK, the rebel outfit that oversaw the establishment of the YPG, has killed thousands of Turkish soldiers, targeted hundreds of civilians and has been designated a terrorist organization by the US Department of State.
The Pentagon hastily rebuked the YPG, but the groups' members displayed no regrets. “The writings and the philosophy and the influence of Abdullah Ocalan, were very, very decisive in motivating the soldiers with an ideology of peace and democracy that allowed this liberation to be possible,” intoned a YPG fighter in a videotaped statement.
Until recently, Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) government might have agreed. With its enigmatic spy chief, Hakan Fidan, in the lead, Ankara had been steeped in peace talks with Ocalan, universally known to millions of doting Kurds as “Apo,” Kurdish for “uncle.” The two-and-a-half-year effort to end more than three decades of mutual bloodletting, however, collapsed in 2015 under the weight of Erdogan’s domestic political calculations, Turkish fears of the PKK’s expanding heft in Syria and deeply ingrained mutual distrust. Turkish authorities have since restricted access to Imrali, the prison island off the coast of Istanbul where Ocalan has been held since his capture by Turkish special forces in Nairobi on Feb. 15, 1999.
The last time Ocalan was publicly heard from was Sept. 11, 2016, when his brother Mehmet was granted a visit to Imrali. The official reason was the occasion of Eid al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of Sacrifice, but the real reason was to quash rumors that Ocalan was dead. Since then, the government has rebuffed family requests to visit him, including on the eid last month.
Kurdish lawmakers in Turkey have stepped up calls for the isolation of Ocalan to end. Pro-PKK groups in Europe have organized “Free Ocalan” demonstrations and are lobbying Western politicians for support. Ocalan’s fate matters, to Kurds and to Turks alike.
The 70-year-old political science dropout remains the uncontested leader of the PKK. Even his most-bitter rivals acknowledge that he is the only figure who can credibly broker a deal on his fighters’ behalf. The cult of personality that Ocalan himself diligently constructed – he even claimed that his writings were of greater importance than Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital” — is now being perpetuated by a global network of media outlets, civic associations and a panoply of armed and political groups that confer on him demigod status.
A cabinet minister in the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government speaking on the condition of anonymity resorted to hyperbole to explain the adulation Ocalan inspires. “If Ocalan asks his fighters to stand on their heads, they will stand on their heads. No question,” he said.
Frederike Geerdink, a Dutch journalist who recently spent a year embedded with the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan to write a book, told Al-Monitor, “Whenever I asked a young fighter about something, they would often begin their answer with ‘Our leader [Ocalan] said.’”
Ibrahim Bilmez, one of the scores of lawyers offering Ocalan pro bono services, said his legal team had sought and had been denied access to him at least 770 times since July 2011. That was the last time Ocalan’s attorneys saw him. “We are deeply concerned about his well-being, and until we have credible proof that he is alright, our worry can only grow,” Bilmez told Al-Monitor.
The Committee to Prevent Torture (CPT), the Council of Europe’s watchdog, which carries out impromptu visits to prisons, published its most recent findings on Imrali in March. They pertained to an April 2016 visit to the island. The CPT observed that conditions of detention for Ocalan “had significantly improved” and that it had formed a “favorable impression of the establishment’s healthcare services. But ‘the situation regarding the prisoners’ contact with the outside world has further deteriorated.” A total ban on telephone calls to all four prisoners on the island, all of them from the PKK, had been imposed.
Despite the government’s radio silence on the matter, the consensus within the PKK leadership is that Ocalan is still alive. “We sense this from the manner in which the Kurdish question is discussed by Turkish officials,” an authoritative member of the PKK’s political wing currently based in northern Syria, who spoke to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, said. “Their strategy is to bury him behind a wall of silence, but they will fail.”
Selim Curukkaya, a former PKK member and now a diehard Ocalan critic, agrees that his bête noire isn’t dead. “The Turkish state has put Ocalan into the deep freeze for now,” Curukkaya told Al-Monitor. “If and when it suits their agenda, they will wheel him out again.”
Mehmet Ocalan reported following their 2016 encounter that his brother was in fine physical health, though at times “agitated,” blaming the failure of the peace talks on the Turkish state and its “lack of sincerity.” The PKK leader had, nonetheless, offered to resume jaw-jawing, provided that “the state is ready” to end the conflict that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, mostly PKK members', so far.
The Syria-based source asserted, “Mr. Ocalan knows what he wants. He is wedded to his ideals, but at the same time he is infinitely rational. He is capable, even within the current circumstances, to establish alliances and policies that would secure the Kurds concrete gains.”
Asked if the PKK would still go along with his demands, the source responded, “For the PKK, Mr. Ocalan’s word is of the essence. His word is final.”
Turkey, however, gets to decide if Ocalan gets to be heard. “Right now Ocalan has no impact,” said Aliza Marcus, author of “Blood and Belief and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.” “He’s incommunicado, so he is more of a symbol.” Marcus also told Al-Monitor that overall, however, “He retains influence for sure but only to the extent that he is allowed to speak.”
On the domestic front, there seems little incentive for Erdogan to permit him to do so. Marcus explained, “The government doesn’t want a peace process, so letting him speak only creates a reminder that there is a potential partner to make peace with. By not allowing him to speak, it’s also easier for the government to portray the PKK as intractable militants — or as Turkey calls them, terrorists — who can only be dealt with militarily, not politically.”
The conventional wisdom is that unless Erdogan believes he would be better served by the support of Kurdish voters who sympathize with Ocalan — such voters currently account for roughly half of the Kurdish electorate — he won’t alter his course. The last time Erdogan weighed the matter was in 2015.
The new climate of openness created by the AKP had eased the meteoric rise of Selahattin Demirtas, the now-imprisoned former co-chair of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the largest Kurd-friendly bloc in the parliament. Pious Kurds who had traditionally voted for the AKP defected to the HDP in droves. At the same time, the AKP’s nationalist base was infuriated by Erdogan’s dovish stance and left for Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Action Party (MHP). The army as well was deeply unhappy with the government’s overtures to the PKK.
The result was that in the June 2015 elections, the AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time. Erdogan, with his obsession for polling, had likely suspected this possibility, and thus decided to end the peace talks before the elections. His first move was to bar all contact between Ocalan and the HDP. The last time the party's lawmakers were permitted to see him was on April 5, 2015. Erdogan then set about demonizing the HDP and reigniting the war with the Kurds, with plenty of help from the PKK. The strategy worked: The AKP regained its majority in November 2015 snap elections.
Erdogan has since cemented his alliance with Bahceli, securing the nationalists’ backing in parliamentary and presidential elections held on June 24 of this year. Erdogan recently said he would like to field joint candidates with the MHP in municipal elections scheduled for March. Regardless, electoral politics, and therefore Kurdish support, no longer matter as much now that Erdogan has concentrated power in his own hands after narrowly winning a tainted referendum on scrapping Turkey’s parliamentary democracy for an executive presidency. The government has set about dismissing any evidence of taking a laissez-faire approach. Public manifestations of Kurdish identity, be they statues of Kurdish philosophers or signposts in the Kurdish language, have been removed.
Until recently, the slightest hint of any ill befalling Ocalan would have triggered collective hunger strikes among PKK inmates and mass protests. Should Ocalan die in prison while incommunicado, the conspiracy mill will work overtime in claiming that he was killed. For now, however, the AKP’s harsh authoritarian turn, jailing thousands of Kurdish politicians, and its brutal suppression of a reckless PKK-led insurrection that raged across towns and cities in the mainly Kurdish southeast in 2016, are keeping Kurds off the streets.
With the charismatic Demirtas behind bars for the foreseeable future, the HDP looks rudderless and its strategy unclear. This leaves Syria as the other immediate incentive for the government to seek Ocalan’s cooperation. With a showdown looming in Idlib between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army and opposition rebels, might Turkey feel compelled to co-opt the Kurds before the Syrian strongman does? The YPG has hinted that it might help the regime tackle al-Qaeda-backed militants in Idlib in exchange for the regime helping it drive Turkey and its Free Syrian Army allies out of Afrin.
Turkey captured the Kurdish-dominated enclave of Afrin with Russia’s blessings in March, dealing a severe blow to the retreating YPG’s morale and prestige. The group is waging a low-intensity counter-insurgency in Afrin amid allegations that the Turkish army is overseeing ethnic cleansing and abuse of local Kurds by its proxies. The YPG’s victims are mainly FSA rebels, however, which can only sharpen the Kurdish-Arab divide. As ever, the Syrian regime benefits the most.
Turkey gains as well, and pressure remains its favored approach. It may be no coincidence that Erdogan is threatening to revive the death penalty, which was slapped on Ocalan at the end of his courtroom trial but later commuted in line with Turkey’s now-stalled bid to join the European Union. Some wonder whether the intent is to strong-arm Ocalan and the PKK into getting the YPG to submit to Turkey’s will, a tactic attempted (unsuccessfully) during the last round of peace talks. In practice, this means a full withdrawal of all PKK fighters from Turkey and leaving their weapons behind. The other Turkish hope is for the YPG to disavow the PKK — even as Ankara insists, with some merit, that they are one and the same — and to share power with Turkey-backed Syrian Kurds in the Iraqi Kurdistan-based Kurdistan National Council.
Ocalan and the PKK refused to go along then, and for the very same reasons, they are just as unlikely to do so now. For one, Turkey has always balked at any constitutional changes allowing the Kurds greater autonomy, which would be the baseline for a comprehensive peace. Not a single such change has been legislated to date.
Cynics claim that the PKK would not, in any case, be interested in a deal that would rob it of its relevance. Some go as far as to suggest that the PKK sabotaged the peace talks in part to undercut Demirtas’ growing popularity. A Western diplomat with intimate knowledge of the region echoed this view, asserting, “The PKK’s main purpose is to ensure the survival of PKK Inc.”
The notion that US mediation can somehow fix things is fanciful at best. The Kurds’ dizzying territorial gains since the start of the Syrian conflict in 2012, and above all, the YPG’s partnership with the US-led coalition against IS, reignited Turkish paranoia about supposed Western plans to establish an independent Kurdish state. This prompted Turkey’s August 2016 military intervention in Syria to clear IS from its borders, but more importantly to limit the YPG’s westward push to link up with Afrin.
At most, the United States can continue to stave off Turkish attacks against the YPG, and vice versa, in the areas under its control. As viewed from Ankara and Qandil, that is not enough to stop their war. The US shield is temporary. US troops are unlikely to stay in Syria “indefinitely” as Donald Trump administration officials now claim. Moreover, even as the Pentagon continues to arm and train the YPG, it also continues to provide actionable intelligence to Turkey on the PKK in Iraq. This makes the United States more of a duplicitous, self-serving interlocutor than an honest broker.
Mazlum Kobane, commander of the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, acknowledged in a September 2017 interview with Al-Monitor that US assistance had come at a price. Kobane, better known as Sahin Cilo, his nom de guerre from his years in the PKK, said, “Until the Americans came here in 2015, our relations with Turkey were good. Our politicians used to travel to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials.”
Minutes of all the meetings held between Ocalan and HDP lawmakers, published in November 2015 in book form, are a treasure trove of information on how deep the peace effort delved. They reveal that not only did Syrian Kurds meet with Turkish officials in Turkey, but that Turkish officials met with Cilo in Syria at least once. In a Feb. 4, 2015, meeting with Ocalan, Pervin Buldan, now HDP co-chair, says that Turkish officials had raised the possibility of opening a border crossing with Afrin during their assignation with Cilo. Now Cilo is on Ankara’s list of “most wanted terrorists.”
So what will it take for Turkey to resume talks with Ocalan, if ever? A wave of PKK attacks targeting civilians and sowing chaos in big cities as Turkey grapples with its worst economic crisis in over a decade, as some analysts suggest? It's unlikely, not because the United States would find it that much harder to justify its continued dealings with the YPG, but because the PKK knows that acts of urban terror are reviled by the Kurds themselves.
“If the people stop supporting the PKK, they will be done,” Geerdink remarked. The most obvious reason why Turkey should reach out to Ocalan is that once he dies, ending a conflict that continues to claim lives on both sides will be much tougher. Yet, for as long as peace is not the end goal, there can be none. “Peace,” Geerdink concludes, “is the magic word among the people.”
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