Fréderike Geerdink
Jan 14 2019

Despite brother’s visit, Öcalan remains in isolation

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to attack the predominantly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria, but he also wants his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to perform well in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast in March 31 local elections. The latter goal would not be enhanced if Leyla Güven, a member of parliament for the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), dies while on hunger strike in prison.

This might be one of the explanations why Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984, received a visit from his brother Mehmet on Jan. 13. The expectation that this would encourage Güven to end her hunger strike, which started early November in a bid to end Öcalan’s isolation, has now largely faded away, as she continues to refuse to eat. But the joy many of his supporters was premature.

Öcalan has been denied visits from family members and lawyers since early April 2015 when the peace process between Ankara and the PKK, which had begun two years earlier, was unravelling. This isolation was only broken once, also with a visit from his brother Mehmet, in September 2016. At the time, after the coup attempt that shook Turkey, many Kurds worried about Öcalan’s condition, and a group of politicians (including Güven) started a hunger strike to demand access to him. The state made the meeting between the Öcalan brothers coincide with the Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. Just as in September 2016, the first statement from Mehmet’s most recent visit is that his brother is in good health.

Meanwhile, there is wild speculation about the broader meaning of this visit to Imralı, the prison island where Öcalan has been kept since his capture in 1999, and whether it is merely an interesting coincidence that it happens now, when tensions over northern Syria are rising? Did U.S. national security adviser Bolton not call on Erdoğan not to attack the YPG, and even demanded made Turkish guarantees a condition for the departure of U.S. troops from the area?

Some speculated that Erdoğan had been convinced to talk to the YPG and now wanted to add Öcalan to the equation, since such talks would touch upon the most fundamental issues between the state and the Kurds.

Dream on. First, we do not even know if this is really an American condition – the Trump administration isn’t exactly talking with one voice on the withdrawal. Secondly, Erdoğan does not compromise when it comes to the YPG. He has been explicit about his wanting to attack YPG forces. When it comes to the Kurds, Erdoğan’s pragmatism melts away like snow in the sun. Thirdly, ever since the peace process started to crumble, there have been countless occasions begging for the end to Öcalan’s isolation, and it has never happened.

What is different today? The YPG – and the diverse communities east of the River Euphrates in northern Syria – is between a rock and a hard place, with Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army to the south, the Turkish army on the north and soon with no U.S. presence to protect them. Erdoğan is massing troops at the border, eager for the climax, why would he now want to talk to Öcalan?

In the end, there is only one relevant development, one relevant occasion when it comes to the isolation of Öcalan, and that is the Kurdish issue itself. Öcalan’s isolation will not end until Erdoğan drags the negotiating table out from the dungeons of his palace and launches a serious, genuine peace process. A 10-minute visit by Mehmet Öcalan does not in any way suggest that such progress is imminent. Only if Öcalan’s lawyers are again allowed regular visits – which, keep in mind, they have not since mid-2011 – might there be some reason for optimism.

Talking about the need for negotiations and peace is a crime in Turkey. It is considered terrorist propaganda. Of course I hope Erdoğan will prove me wrong. Of course I hope he will prove that I do not know him and the Turkish state at all. But unless Erdoğan starts making terrorist propaganda himself very soon, I prefer not to be fooled.

Güven, and more than 150 political inmates who started hunger strikes in solidarity with her, seem to have decided to not start eating again. She may die in the coming days, although the situation remains unclear. May she rest or recover in peace.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.