No peace process in Turkey while Erdoğan in charge – PKK co-chair says

A renewed peace process to resolve Turkey’s more than three-decade-old Kurdish conflict is not possible while the country is ruled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist party and its far-right coalition allies, said Remzi Kartal, the co-chair of the Kurdistan People's Congress (Kongra-Gel), also known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The government this month lifted restrictions on the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, allowing him to see his lawyers for the first time in eight years. The move prompted speculation that the government was considering re-launching peace talks with the PKK that collapsed in 2015, ending a two-year ceasefire in a conflict that has killed more than 40,000 people. 

But despite the government’s accession to a long-standing PKK demand, there was still no chance of peace talks as long as Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) coalition allies remained in power in what they call the People’s Alliance.

“A solution means democracy and freedom. But the AKP-MHP war cabinet is both far from it and serves as a wedge that prevents it,” Kartal said in an interview with Ahval. “Unless the nationalist fascist People’s Alliance collapses and dissolves, there can be not new solution process.”

The statement was in an apparent response to remarks by Öcalan relayed by his lawyers after two meetings this month. A message from the PKK leaders, read by his lawyers four days after they met him for the first time on May 2, said problems in Turkey and the wider region could be solved with reason. 

Some observers saw the lifting on the ban on meetings between Öcalan and his lawyers as an AKP ploy to try to win Kurdish votes in the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election on June 23. Öcalan’s messages further stoked suspicions of a deal between the government and PKK leader, who is widely respected by Kurds in Turkey and its neighbours, ahead of the polls. 

“As he did during the previous meeting, Mr. Öcalan recalled that the permission to have these meetings did not mean the presence of a negotiation process,” one of his lawyers said in a press conference organised to convey the PKK leader’s message. 

Kartal said the lawyer visits were allowed in response to some 3,000 prisoners who have been on partial hunger strikes since late last year in protest at the restrictions on the PKK leader.

“That is the essence and the right version of the situation. There was a high risk that the protestors, particularly those who were on hunger strike, could lose their lives,” he said.

Following a second meeting with his lawyers on May 22, Öcalan called on the hunger strikers to end their protest, which the prisoners duly did.

Öcalan also called on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a mainly Kurdish group backed by U.S. forces in northern Syria to refrain from what he called a “culture of conflict” and to keep “Turkey’s sensibilities in mind”.

Turkey sees territorial gains made by the People Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish backbone of the SDF, as a threat to its own national security. But Turkey’s plans to clear the border area of YPG forces have come up against opposition from the United States, which worked alongside Kurdish forces to clear Islamic State from northern Syria.

The issue is one of a series of disputes between Turkey and the United States.

Kartal said the fact that the Syrian issue was discussed during Öcalan’s meeting with his lawyers indicated the Turkish government was seeking ways to solve the deadlock in Syria with the help of the PKK leader.

“Such a solution of course will be a relief for the United States. The leader of the Kurdish people, Mr Öcalan, offers this perspective, but the AKP is far away from a solution,” he said. 

This week, the rights group Amnesty International started a campaign over reports that a group of 47 people, including men, women and three children, detained last week during police raids following clashes between security forces and PKK in the Halfeti district of the southeastern province of Urfa, were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment

The Turkish military also launched an operation against PKK bases in northern Iraq on Monday. 

Kartal said both the Halfeti arrests and the military operation in northern Iraq demonstrated that the Turkish government still sought war not peace. 

Erdoğan’s government launched peace talks with the PKK in 2009 to end the conflict that began with the PKK’s first attack in 1984. After a rocky start, Öcalan announced a ceasefire in 2013, but the peace process collapsed in 2015 under the pressure of domestic and international problems, particularly the ongoing civil war in Syria. At least 4,280 people have lost their lives in clashes between the PKK and Turkish armed forces since the ceasefire broke down, the International Crisis Group said in March. 

Kartal said, apart from meetings between Öcalan and his lawyers on the island of İmralı where the PKK leader has been held since 1999, no Turkish government agency had attempted to meet representatives of the Kurdish movement. 

“There may be some reconciliation attempts by the United States or by some civil society organisation they see fit for the job, and those attempts are natural. Yet, even if those take place, due to the state’s war-oriented policies, they are not peace-focused,” he said.