It was an announcement many people in Turkey had hoped to hear: On February 28, in Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace, imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan called for the PKK to abandon its thirty-year armed struggle. This was the outcome of a process started by Turkey’s current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, which took significant risks in initiating a dialogue with both Öcalan and his organization ensconced in the mountains of neighboring northern Iraq. The announcement also included a vague, ten-clause pledge on behalf of the government to democratize.
While the Turkish government’s initiative has been laudable, its timing—coming after a two-year long successful ceasefire, domestic and regional developments, and Turkey’s election schedule—could cause the whole effort to collapse, setting the stage for a return to a far more damaging conflict for both Turkey and Turkish Kurds. Currently, with the ceasefire still holding, most of the PKK’s fighters are either in northern Iraq’s Qandil mountain range or spread throughout Iraq and Syria, engaged in battle with the Islamic State.
The Kurdish insurrection in Turkey, just like the others in neighboring countries, is the product of a generations-old problem that saw the Kurds divided among four states whose titular majorities deemed them unworthy of trust. Efforts to suppress Kurdish culture, identity, and political expression have almost always resulted in instability and rebellion.
This AKP-led Turkish government decided that the Kurdish problem was undermining domestic stability, consuming enormous amounts of resources, and preventing Turkey, with its abominable human rights record, from progressing regionally and globally and assuming what the AKP saw as Turkey’s rightful leadership role. Whatever the motivations, the AKP’s willingness to take risks has been impressive—perhaps even brave, especially for a country (and party) whose nationalism is deeply imbedded.
There are three reasons, however, why the call for abandoning the armed struggle before the upcoming June 7 parliamentary elections will not work. The first concerns the fate of the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who are threatened by the Islamic State. Whereas the Iraq army and Iraqi Kurdish fighters fared poorly during the June 2014 IS sweep through Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and its environs, the PKK-affiliate in Syria (the PYD, or Democratic Solution Party) put up stiff resistance against IS in the town of Kobani. In fact, the PYD’s ability to resist earned it American air support—despite Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s scathing objections to this aid as tantamount to supporting the PKK, an organization that both the U.S. and Turkey agree is a terrorist one. Regardless, the air support led to a rollback of IS in the region. The PYD and the PKK have also fought against IS in Iraq alongside Iraqi Kurdish forces.
In effect the PYD’s (and by extension the PKK’s) ability to resist and roll back IS has been one of the few bright spots in the fight. It is therefore unlikely that the PKK’s military wing—its extraordinary reverence for its leader Öcalan notwithstanding—would agree to give up its arms and abandon the fight, leaving Kurdish communities to face the wrath of IS on their own.
A second reason has to do with the AKP government’s vague promises of democratization. While putatively led by its Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish government is really controlled by the supposedly non-partisan President of the Republic Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan is intent on changing the constitution following the June parliamentary elections and creating a presidential system that would give him complete executive powers. In fact, everything the AKP government has initiated since Erdogan assumed the presidency in 2014 has raised concerns of creeping authoritarianism and the emergence of a one-man state. Hence, the vague promises of democratization made at the Dolmabahce Palace briefing appear to be at odds with the system Erdogan is building. From the judiciary to the press to the presumably independent Central Bank, Erdogan cajoles and sometimes threatens these institutions to follow his diktat. Without any sort of proof of genuine intent, why would Turkish Kurds, who have suffered more than anyone during the years of crisis and turmoil, accept the government’s vague promises of political reforms?
To be sure, and by definition, the PKK leadership is anything but democratic. Hence, if Öcalan is making a side deal with the AKP—a deal which may include support for the constitutional changes that Erdogan desires but may not be able to obtain without Kurdish support—he may also cause a fracture within the Kurdish political front. Erdogan almost seemed to be wishing for this outcome when he praised Öcalan for coming through with his declaration even as he attacked the People’s Democracy Party (HDP), the Kurdish version of Sinn Fein, and the Iraq-based PKK military leadership for failing to automatically endorse the deal. Öcalan himself may be worried that, with the increasing popularity of HDP, whose leader Selahattin Demirtas captured close to 10 percent of the national vote in 2014, he may soon be eclipsed.
Still, the process of demilitarization remains opaque. The devil is always in the details. How will this be conducted? My guess is that the PKK, were it to agree, would want to turn over its arms to the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG, under American supervision. Still, the fate of the PKK fighters has yet to be determined. Where will the demobilized fighters go? Presumably, they will want to go back to their families in Turkey. Will Turkey accept them?
Finally, by prioritizing their own interests in the few months remaining before the June elections, Erdogan and Öcalan, may be creating a false set of expectations that could end up doing more harm than good.