The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Erdogan Talks Turkey with the Kurds

Turkey is talking with the Kurds, the FT is reporting. A senior political adviser to Prime Minister Erdogan has admitted that his government has opened disarmament discussions with the jailed leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.

Pointing out that after close to three decades of armed struggle with the PKK neither side had achieved its aims, Mr Akdogan explained that Turkey had tried to negotiate with the PKK before and was doing so again in an effort to end the conflict.

“You can’t win through armed struggle; you have to use other tactics and negotiation is one of them,” he said adding that the main aim of the initiative is to persuade the PKK to lay down its arms.

Conceding that Mr Ocalan’s 15 years in a Turkish prison have left him isolated from the PKK leadership, which is based at Qandil in northern Iraq, Mr Akdogan pointed out that he nonetheless remains an important figure in the banned organisation.

Turkish policy toward the Kurds can appear contradictory at times. The PKK, which is leading the violent resistance in eastern Turkey, has been getting support from Iran and Syria in retaliation for Turkey’s support for Syrian rebels against the Iranian-backed government in Damascus. At the same time, Turkey has struck up an alliance with the Kurds in northern Iraq, where they oppose the Iranian-backed government in Baghdad.

It’s all very messy and complicated, but a settlement with the PKK would bring big advantages to Turkey—not least an end to the guerrilla war in the southeast, which has drained a lot of blood and treasure and hampers Turkey’s efforts to exert influence in the region.

To some degree, it looks as if the key negotiations will have to take place among the Kurds: Will the Kurds follow the lead of their northern Iraqi brethren in an alliance with Turkey, or will the PKK and its allies stick with Iran in opposition to Ankara? Turkey has some attractive cards to play: support for regional autonomy for Kurds in Syria, Iraq, eastern Turkey, and Iran. Most Kurds at the core want independence, a goal that brings them in direct conflict with Turkey, at least insofar as Turkey’s own Kurdish regions are concerned. However, smart Kurds might well embrace a tactical alliance with the Turks in exchange for better treatment inside Turkey and support for regional aspirations beyond Turkish borders. At a later date, both sides could reconsider this alliance depending on events and opportunities.

American interests at this point favor good relations between Turks and Kurds, so these talks should be welcomed in Washington. One hopes the State Department will be using its good offices to promote a better understanding.

The collapse of the strong centralized regimes in Baghdad and Damascus plus the explosion of Sunni-Shiite hostility in the Middle East have given the Kurds their greatest window of opportunity in decades. But Middle Eastern diplomacy is difficult and treacherous, and in the past the Kurds have never been able to unite behind a pragmatic agenda. It will be interesting to see what happens this time; while the Palestinian quest for a state gets more attention, the Kurdish quest for independence is the largest single piece of unresolved business in the Middle East today.

Published on January 2, 2013 9:00 am