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January 10, 2013

Kurds, Turks Vow to Continue Talks Despite Killings

by Dorian Jones

In Turkey, Kurdish and Turkish politicians alike say the killing in Paris of three Kurdish rebel activists should not derail efforts to end the decades-long conflict between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) rebel group and the Turkish state. Those efforts appear to have already achieved significant political momentum.

While Kurdish and Turkish politicians differ on who they believe was responsible for killing the Kurdish activists in Paris on Thursday, there is consensus that the murders should not undermine government efforts to bring to an end the nearly three-decade conflict with the PKK.

Political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University says in contrast to previous peace efforts that failed, this time there appears to be widespread support.

"Probably we have reached the largest coalition regarding the peace talks and negotiations. With the exception of the MHP and another extreme rightist party, I think the consensus is there in the political world and the no-sayers, the so-called war lobby, is shrinking everyday," Aktar said.

In recent weeks, Turkey's government confirmed its head of intelligence, Hakan Fidan, met with the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. According to newspaper reports, those talks made progress.  

A sign of that progress, observers say, is that authorities allowed two senior Kurdish politicians to meet with Ocalan.

The leader of the main legal Kurdish party in Turkey, the BDP, has also requested a meeting with Ocalan.  But the parliamentary leader of the rightist Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP, condemned the efforts and accused Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of giving in to terrorism.  

Stung by those charges, Erdogan this week ruled out any general amnesty for the rebels and called on them to disarm immediately.

"Our sincerity can be seen in the steps that we have taken in the last few days," he said. "Our aim is to have the separatist terrorist organization’s cadres leave Turkey. We want to make them to lay down their arms and leave."

Political observers say with the Kurdish rebels stronger than they have been in a decade, the demand is unrealistic.  Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based research institute Edam says any disarmament will have to be part of a process.

"One of the first steps would be for the PKK to lay down its arms. But nonetheless, that would come as a package with the steps defined in advance," Ulgen said.

Analysts say those steps are likely to include enshrining Kurdish rights in the fields of education and administration in a new constitution currently being written by lawmakers.  

Ertugrul Kurkcu, a deputy for the pro-Kurdish BDP, welcomes the prime minister's peace efforts but worries about his consistency.

"Tayyip Erdogan can do anything anytime, he is the most unreliable person in the government and he is the most unreliable person in the Turkish state for the time being.  We can talk about coherent arbitrariness of the Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan," Kurkcu said.

Analysts say that patience will be crucial to the talks' success.

But political scientist Aktar says with the country going into two years of elections starting next year, some progress has to be made soon, especially with spring only a few months away.

"What is important is to make visible and tangible achievements in the first year before the elections. I think one of the first aims of these talks is to make sure the PKK fighters will leave the Turkish territory and therefore won't be able to conduct military actions anymore when the snows start to melt down," Aktar said.

Experts estimate that about 2,500 PKK rebels are based in Turkey with the rest camped in neighboring northern Iraq.

Winter usually sees a drop in fighting with the region heavily snowed in.  But the onset of spring traditionally sees a surge in fighting, and observers say both sides will want to achieve progress before the melting of winter snows.