Turkey and the Kurds: progress on the horizon08.02.2013 04:01
Turkey and the Kurds: progress on the horizon
If a Kurdish spring happens, the rewards for both sides are significant – not just the end of a conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives
Optimism has broken out prematurely several times in the past 30 years of conflict between the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and Turkey. An embryonic deal in 2009 on the return of 34 PKK fighters from Iraq ended in chaos. A popular demonstration proclaiming victory prompted government anger, a further wave of arrests, court charges and some of the fighters fleeing. Neither side had prepared. The same cannot be said this time.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has publicly ordered the head of his national intelligence organisation (MIT) to direct talks with the man who has been locked up on a prison island for the last 14 years, Abdullah Öcalan. Erdogan has both a parliamentary consensus and the majority of public opinion behind him. After one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict, both at home and abroad (three Kurdish women affiliated with the PKK were killed in Paris in what is increasingly seen as an attempt to sabotage the talks), this is some achievement.
A number of factors have led to this. Four years ago Ankara felt on uncertain ground, not just with the Kurds, but with the stirring of its own deep state. With the convictions of army officers plotting a coup in the "sledgehammer" trial behind him, Erdogan has had a change of heart about negotiating directly with the PKK leader. He was helped on his way by Öcalan's call to end a hunger strike conceived by PKK commanders in the Qandil mountains. Overnight, hundreds of Kurdish prisoners ended their action, reinforcing the imprisoned leader's authority.
There is still some way to go before a PKK ceasefire declaration. Just the logistics of extracting 2,000 PKK fighters from Turkish soil, and getting a further 6-7,000 down from the mountains in northern Iraq, to lay down their arms to Massoud Barzani in Irbil, makes the decommissioning of IRA and loyalist paramilitary arms in Northern Ireland seem like a walk in the park. But if a Kurdish spring happens, the rewards for both sides are significant – not just the end of a conflict that has claimed 40,000 lives.
For Öcalan, it is the prospect of ending his sentence under house arrest and, ultimately, freedom. For the Kurds, it is a new constitution, rewritten anti-terror laws, the end of indefinite pre-trial detention and the persecution of thousands of peaceful activists, education in Kurdish, and devolution. For Erdogan, an even more glittering and controversial prize looms – the presidency, which he wants with full executive powers. With the backing of the Kurdish BDP, with its 36 seats in parliament, he could secure a majority to hold a referendum. Many hurdles lie ahead. For the moment, the fact that talks are on must, after the mayhem of recent times, be good enough.
The Guardian; Wednesday 6 Feb. 2013