Renewed Kurdish peace process in Turkey?

By unexpectedly allowing the lawyers, and later the family, of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan to visit him at his island jail, the Turkish government has triggered a debate about the possible revival of the peace process to end the 35-year-old conflict.

Sceptics see the moves as a ploy by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to win over hundreds of thousands of Kurdish voters in Istanbul, who responded to the president’s previous “stick” policy by voting for the opposition mayoral candidate on March 31, by offering them a “carrot” ahead of the rerun vote on June 23.

After that candidate, Ekrem İmamoğlu, was declared winner by less than 14,000 votes out of more than 8 million, Turkey’s election council annulled that result and ordered the mayoral election to be held again after Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) alleged irregularities.

Losing control of the Istanbul municipality would be a major blow to Erdoğan’s prestige as he began his rise to power when he was elected the city’s mayor in 1994 and his supporters have held the post ever since.

Öcalan’s lawyers and Turkish officials have repeatedly denied that the recent meetings had anything to do with the Istanbul elections, but social media and newspaper commentators speculated that Öcalan and the government brokered deal to help the AKP win on June 23.

Hakan Tahmaz of the Peace Foundation, a Turkish NGO that works on peace and reconciliation, said it was natural for the ruling party to try to use the visits to win Kurdish votes, but Kurds were unlikely to switch their support.

“Kurdish voters who voted for the AKP in the past will not mind what Öcalan says,” Tahmaz said, referring to the large bloc of conservative Kurds vehemently opposed to the PKK. Meanwhile, he said, the AKP could only dream of winning over the rest of the Kurdish population, which generally supports the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).

“There are no absolutes in politics. Domestic and foreign balances and alliances can always change. Turkey can once more follow this road called the peace process,” said Professor Ferhat Kentel of Istanbul Şehir University. But, he said, the bitter fighting that followed the 2015 collapse of a two-year ceasefire had led to a lack of trust that could not easily be repaired.

After their first meeting with Öcalan on May 2, his lawyers read out a statement from the PKK leader in which he said reconciliation in Turkey was more necessary than ever. Öcalan said he stood behind his 2013 call for a ceasefire. The PKK leader’s emphasis on democracy and reconciliation strengthened rumours of a potential softening in AKP policy.

Yektan Türkyılmaz, a post-doctoral fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, a Berlin-based research organisation, said Öcalan intentionally used ambiguous sentences in order to gauge the reaction to his calls.

“When the peace process ended, the situation was at a worse point than it was before the peace process began. When you look at the degree, the impact and the destruction of the ensuing violence, we saw an incomparable picture,” Türkyılmaz said. As a result, the Kurdish side was now extremely cautious, he said.

The PKK’s youth wing erected barricades in cities across Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast in late 2015 after the group’s commanders declared autonomy from central government. Security forces sent in tanks and levelled parts of the cities. Many civilians were killed in the fighting in the densely packed streets.

The peace talks that started in 2009 and ended in 2015 were closed negotiations between the PKK and the government, which did not seek the support of the opposition. Sezai Temelli, the co-chair of the HDP, said the Kurdish issue could not now be left to the AKP alone. “There will be more institutions and agencies around the peace table. A new constitution is necessary. We always keep our hopes for peace alive,” he said.

Tahmaz said that Öcalan’s statement after the May 2 meeting was not directed at the AKP alone. “It is a message to the opposition, the Kurdish political movement, the government and international powers,” he said. The efforts might in time open the way for a new peace process, Tahmaz said. “Peace processes start at moments when they seem almost impossible.”

The Syrian civil war was an important factor that led to the collapse of peace talks in 2015. Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria have captured most of the northeast of the country with the help of the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey sees the Syrian Kurdish forces – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) - as extension of the PKK.

The YPG denies links to the PKK, but both belong to the same Kurdish umbrella organisation and the YPG recognises Öcalan as its ideological leader.

Since U.S. President Donald Trump announced late last year that he was withdrawing U.S. forces from Syria, the YPG and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that it dominates have opened talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad to seek protection if Turkey launches an assault on Kurdish-held territory.

After his second meeting with his lawyers on May 22, Öcalan called on the SDF to refrain from what he called a “culture of conflict” and to keep “Turkey’s sensibilities in mind”.

SDF commander Mazlum Kobane said on Saturday he was ready to engage in dialogue with both Turkey and the Syrian government.

"With the paradigm of the leader Öcalan, we defeated the terrorist and fascist ISIS ideology. For this reason, we believe that leader Öcalan will have a big role in the solution of the Syrian crisis," Kobane said.

Tahmaz said developments in Syria had put pressure on Turkey to change its Kurdish policy and Ankara could be seeking collaboration with Öcalan to help solve the issue.

Vahap Coşkun, an academic at Dicle University in Turkey’s southeastern province of Diyarbakır, said the government’s moves were more connected with Syria than the June 23 rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election.

“There are important developments in Syria. I believe the peace process rumours are in circulation directly in relation to those developments,” he said. Direct and indirect talks between Turkey and the SDF over the fate of northern Syria were ongoing, he said.

“It seems like, if an agreement can be achieved in Syria, Turkey might launch a new process to solve the Kurdish issue,” he said.

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