Can PKK leader deliver peace for Kurds in Turkey and Syria?

Turkey’s government may be turning to its public enemy No. 1 to broker a new peace with Kurdish fighters in Turkey and neighboring Syria, the Los Angeles Times reported on Monday.

Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), has spent the last two decades imprisoned on an island off the coast of Istanbul, with most of that time in solitary confinement.

Last Wednesday, Turkish officials said they lifted restrictions on visits to Öcalan, a little more than a week after the first visit made by Öcalan’s lawyers in eight years. All of this has occurred alongside the largest mass hunger strike in Turkey’s history, as imprisoned Kurds have urged Turkish authorities to end Öcalan’s confinement.

At last week’s meeting, Öcalan handed his lawyers a statement urging the hunger strikes not to risk their lives and calling for a transition to political struggle. “The problems in Turkey and even the region, primarily the war, cannot be solved through physical violence, but with reason, and cultural and political force,” the statement read.

Öcalan also extended the call to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in northern Syria that sees him as their ideological leader. Ankara has repeatedly threatened war against the forces. Öcalan advised the group to refrain from a “culture of conflict” and keep “Turkey’s sensibilities in mind,” according to the statement.

SDF leaders have in recent weeks begun meeting with Turkish intelligence officials, who in turn have been meeting with Öcalan.

“Öcalan is still the unrivaled, undisputed leader of the Kurdish movement. There is no other figure that can come close to his stature,” Galip Dalay, visiting scholar at Oxford University, told the LA Times. “That doesn’t mean whatever decision he makes, the organisations follow it without question, but those organisations cannot take a public stance against his decision.”

Dalay sees the latest moves as a sort of trial balloon from Turkey and Öcalan. “They are saying, ‘Let’s test the waters, see what is out there, and if this proves to be positive, we can build on it’,” he said.

Since 1984 the PKK has waged an armed insurgency for self-rule in southeast Turkey. Turkey the United States and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist group. Legally, Öcalan has a right to see his lawyers once a week, but his counsels’ requests — more than 800 of them — have been denied in often bizarre ways, said Sarica, such as bad weather or boat troubles.

“When you isolate him, you are isolating the problem itself, the political aspect of the problem, and the person that you should be speaking to regarding this problem,” Tayip Temel, a lawmaker from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) told the LA Times.

HDP leaders helped broker the 2013 cease-fire between Ankara and the PKK, which lasted until summer 2015, when the SDF started claiming territory Syrian taken from the Islamic State.

“Inspired by the events across the border, Kurdish militants in Turkey renewed an armed struggle,” said the Los Angeles Times.

“At least 7,000 members of the HDP, the third-largest political party in the country, have been sent to prison, including its top leadership and dozens of lawmakers. The group’s calls for a political dialogue with the PKK have been branded by authorities as support for terrorism,” said the Times.

In Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest majority-Kurdish city, 21-year-old Naime Celik has lost more than 40 pounds since beginning her hunger strike on March 1. She has been charged with being a PKK member, but her trial has yet to begin. She said the peace process was best for Turkey, and that Öcalan just needed to be free to speak.

“Kurdish youth watch his statements closely,” she told the Times. “If Öcalan said to the youth in Turkey today to destroy the country, to rise up, they would do it for him. But instead Öcalan says to go and educate ourselves, to learn to express ourselves better, and peace will come without conflict.”