News / Europe

Turkey's Peace Talks With PKK Begin to Falter

Kurds sit next to a banner that reads 'government, take steps' after Kurdish rebels gave Turkey a 'final warning' to take steps that would move forward peace talks aimed at ending a 30-year old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, in Anka
Kurds sit next to a banner that reads 'government, take steps' after Kurdish rebels gave Turkey a 'final warning' to take steps that would move forward peace talks aimed at ending a 30-year old conflict that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, in Anka
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Dorian Jones
— Before mass protests in June, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was working to end Turkey's biggest problem: the country's Kurdish conflict. But now, efforts by the government to end a decades-long insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, are facing roadblocks.

Earlier this month, Selahattin Demirtas, leader of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, warned that the peace process to end the PKK insurgency was in trouble and there was the danger of a return to violence. He said his party was working hard to avoid this.

Some analysts say that in the wake of the government crackdown on the June nationwide protests against Erdogan's style of leadership, the prime minister was distracted by trying to keep his own core constituency together, making him less willing to cede ground to the Kurds.

At present, the government is accusing the PKK of failing to fully withdraw its forces from Turkey, while the Kurds say promised reforms have not been introduced.

Peace proponents

Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar of the Carnegie Institute, said there still are powerful forces supporting the peace process, but negative rhetoric on both sides is raising fears of a return to violence.

"Well that is what everybody is afraid of. The important thing there, of course, who will be seen as responsible for the collapse of this process? Because if the PKK is seen as the party responsible for the collapse of the process and it returns to violence then arguably it will get much less support from its regional and international partners. If the Turkish government is seen as responsible then of course then it's going to create a very heavy cost in terms of security impact," said Ulgen.

At the beginning of the year, the Turkish government began talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, in an attempt to end a conflict in which more than 40,000 people have died over three decades. A cease-fire soon followed, as did an announcement the PKK would withdraw its fighters from Turkish territory to northern Iraq. The PKK has given a deadline of September 1st for the government to unveil its reforms.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, a parliamentary deputy for the pro-Kurdish BDP said that even if the peace process collapses, there will not be a return to fighting.

"The PKK is very sincere in their shift of strategy, which means civilian protest is the basic element in the new Kurdish strategy and they will not resort to arms in any sense. Neither in terms of urban guerilla, nor in terms in rural guerilla. Guerilla times are over for the Kurdish movement," said Kurkcu.

Questions about fighting

Some leading PKK rebels based in neighboring northern Iraq, though, allegedly have not ruled out a return to fighting. Analysts say a debate probably is going on within the PKK and the wider Kurdish movement over what to do if the peace process does fail.

Soli Ozel, who teaches political science at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, said any decision also will be colored by regional considerations.

"A lot of things are happening in the wider Kurdish world if you will, with different interests emerging: the Syrian Kurds, Iraqi Kurds, the PKK as a political player. So we cannot just look at the PKK nationally in order to determine what is going on. We cannot really be analyzing the PKK issue independently of what is going on in the wider Kurdish world among the Syrians and Iraqis, as well," said Ozel.

Turkey already shares a border with a semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, while in neighboring Syria, Kurds have taken control of part of the country as the Syrian government battles a broader insurgency. Analysts say that as October and the onset of winter weather has traditionally marked a halt to PKK fighting in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish areas, any resumption of fighting is unlikely until the following spring. That means a window of opportunity still remains for peace efforts.

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