Prospects for Kurdish peace in Turkey

All peace processes need periodic assessments every once in a while even if they seem to be going nowhere.

Turkey’s last attempt to find a resolution to its decades old Kurdish conflict lasted about two-and-a-half years. The not-so-secret negotiations between jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan and Turkey’s National Security Agency abruptly ended when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan decided to call the negotiations off after his party lost its parliamentary majority in the June 2015 general elections.

By mid-July, the Turkish Armed Forces had launched operations against PKK targets in Iraq and Syria, and the PKK happily reciprocated.

The loss of hundreds of civilian lives in bomb attacks in Turkey’s busy urban centres and assassinations of police officers and military personnel darkened the public mood. The majority then voted for a new AKP-ultra nationalist coalition in the repeat elections of November 2015 while alleged gross violations of human rights against civilians by the security forces across a number of Kurdish towns further alienated the already radicalised Kurdish youth from the rest of the Turkish society.

The failed coup attempt in July 2016 and the subsequent state of emergency further eroded democratic rule in Turkey. Prominent Kurdish politicians, investigative journalists, and pro-peace academics take turns in Turkey’s prisons on charges of treason.

Things seemed to have settled down a bit after Erdoğan consolidated his political authority in the contested April referendum. Nonetheless Turkey’s authoritarian regime runs the country with executive decrees, bypassing the weakened parliament with minimal oversight by the judiciary, most of whom were handpicked by Erdoğan.

Sooner or later Turkey will have to revisit the peace process. There are three critical components that deserve further elaboration; timing, third parties and the process. 

Turkey’s state of emergency rule is not sustainable. Both presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place in 2019. Erdoğan’s game plan is to continue the coalition with the nationalists and to eventually lift the state of emergency once presidential elections take place. Up until then, the Erdoğan regime is not interested in any revival of the peace process. Kurdish members of parliament within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) are very well aware that Erdoğan’s coalition with the nationalists is at best tactical until the constitutional amendments are fully in place and a new system kicks in by the end of 2019.

Erdoğan and his consultants at the presidential compound maintain their contacts with some prominent Kurdish political figureheads. Obviously Erdoğan hopes to negotiate a peace deal on his own terms in 2020. However, that might not be the case as the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) is showing around 13% in recent opinion polls despite the systematic political pressure. Negotiating with a self-confident HDP will be a very different experience than conducting back door meetings with imprisoned Öcalan.

A new peace process will need international third parties who can deliver. There are already rumours that some European governments have offered to step in if parties ask for mediation. Both PKK and HDP officials have previously talked about how a strong third party could re-inject trust into the process, but the Turkish government officially denies there has been any outreach.

Looking into Turkey’s contemporary conundrum in its foreign policy, either the United States or Russia might play a constructive trust-building role. U.S. mediation may sound unrealistic, considering Turkey’s current strained relations with Washington. But many in Washington circles point out that only the United States could convince the PKK to voluntarily demobilise and disarm in Turkey in return for a guaranteed Kurdish-controlled autonomous region in northern Syria.

This may be a tough sell but the United States has a variety of instruments that can help sweeten a possible deal. The other possible mediator is President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Turkey has reoriented its foreign policy in Syria in congruence with the Russian presence in the region and has sought active cooperation in strategic sectors such as energy and defence industries. Similarly, Russia historically has close ties with the PKK leadership and operational coordination with Syrian Kurdish forces. It would not be surprising to hear Putin suggesting Russian mediation to Erdoğan once he sees a ripe moment. 

The lack of transparency and a timeline with set objectives were the two most critical deficiencies of the previous peace process. The new process will have to have parliamentary oversight and a transparent structure with clearly mandated working groups on disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, as well as a law on truth and reconciliation that would grant amnesty to those who publicly admit their crimes against civilians. This is the only way to rebuild trust between victims and perpetrators. 

These predictions suggest that Ankara will consider re-launching peace talks with the PKK after a possible Erdoğan victory in 2019. However, if Erdoğan persists with his tough talk and action, the pills Ankara will be asked to take in an eventual peace process may prove too bitter to swallow.

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