The Peace Process that Never Was: Turkey and the PKK

Following recent airstrikes, raids and shootings, one would be forgiven for believing that the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is over. Truth be told, it never really got off the ground. Despite there being a fragile truce since 2013, in which talks between the sides commenced on the condition that Kurdish militants left Turkish territory for their base in Kurdish Iraq’s Kandil Mountains, little has been achieved. Almost without exception, every time it appeared that progress had been made, events took a turn for the worse and the parties returned to square one.

In 2009, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government announced its ‘Kurdish Opening’. This led to a relaxation of restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language as well as other confidence building measures. Nevertheless, since then the sides have been unable to use this opportunity to forge a meaningful peace process. Take the Turkish-PKK dialogue, carried out through secret channels in Oslo and other European cities between 2009 and 2011. While a protocol of understanding was being discussed, a skirmish between the sides left fourteen Turkish soldiers dead in June 2011. Six months later, thirty-four Kurdish smugglers, apparently mistaken for militants, were killed by Turkish F15 fighter jets—and what was discussed in Oslo, stayed in Oslo.

The following year the then Prime Minister, now President, Tayyip Erdogan relaunched talks which finally led to the 2013 ceasefire. But even this was marred by violence and discontent. In Paris three female Kurdish activists were murdered in cold blood in January 2013 for motives that remain unclear. And even since the ceasefire was agreed, there have been dozens of attacks and counter attacks. Indeed, despite the joint public appearance of the Turkish government and pro-Kurdish lawmakers at the Dolmabahce Palace (the Prime Minister’s office in Istanbul) on 28 February this year, which subsequently became known as the Dolmabahce Agreement, the Kurdish-orientated Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) faced fatal bombings and dozens of attacks during its 2015 general election campaign. In addition there was much discontent, leading to civil disorder, among Turkey’s Kurds over allegations that Turkey was either complicit in or turning a blind eye to ISIS militancy and weapons crossing the border into Syria, as ISIS attacked their kinsmen in places such as Kobane.

Kurds protest against Turkish inaction following ISIS attacks on Kobane

Regardless, the deterioration of Turkish-Kurdish relations does not constitute a breakdown of the peace process quite simply because there was no real peace process to begin with. All the main components of a genuine process of reconciliation between Kurd and Turk were lacking. For example, during the talks there was no outside mediator. Instead, on occasion, there was the presence of foreign observers. This did nothing to prevent unfair play or to level the power disparity between the sides. A ‘Wise Men’ commission was set up to examine differences between the parties, but its make-up was heavily influenced by political calculations and still fell far short of a truth and reconciliation commission with meaningful engagement with political actors and civil society. There was also deep ambiguity about what the sides wanted from a peace process. Was it part of roadmap for Kurdish autonomy, constitutional recognition, or strictly linked to Kurdish cultural rights?

This cuts to the crux of the problem. Many Kurds in Turkey aspire to achieve ‘democratic autonomy’, with the hopes of electing their own governors in Kurdish regions of the country. In other words, a Kurdish canton or a self-governing entity existing under Turkish sovereignty. Many also want members of the PKK, not least its leader Abdullah Ocalan, to be released from prison and allowed to enter political life. However, for the most part the Turkish state considers the Kurdish question a cultural, social and economic issue rather than one of territory and national identity.

In addition, the dialogue was used for domestic political ends. Erdogan viewed engagement with the Kurds as a means for support to change the Turkish political structure into a presidential system. Erdogan’s plan was derailed after the 7 June elections because the HDP managed to surpass the (unfair) 10 per cent threshold to gain seats in parliament. The majority of Kurds, including religious communities, supported the HDP rather than Erdogan’s favoured party, the AKP. The HDP vowed to stymie Erdogan’s hopes for a new presidential system.

As a result the seeds were sown for the breakdown of the ceasefire with violent attacks, insults and distrust proliferating. A pity. Turkey has finally woken up to the threat of ISIS and has engaged in attacks and given access to the US to use its bases. However, by targeting the PKK and ending the fragile ceasefire, Turkey finds itself embattled on three fronts, one against ISIS, another against the Asad regime and now also the PKK. Had real and meaningful progress been made on the peace front with the PKK and perhaps also its Democratic Union Party (PYD) affiliate in Syria, Turkey would have found itself in a much stronger position both politically and militarily in Syria and the rest of the region.


Simon A. Waldman is Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London.

Emre Caliskan is a Turkish analyst and journalist who previously worked for the BBC and Turkish public channel TRT. He is now a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. They are the authors of the forthcoming The ‘New Turkey’ and its Discontents, to be published by Hurst in December 2015.

On Twitter: @SimonWaldman1 / @calemre

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