x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Kurdish killings in Paris will not derail Ankara-PKK peace

The momentum behind Turkish – PKK peace talks will not be stalled by the mysterious murder of three activists in Paris; there are too many reasons for talks to continue.

It's like the plot of a bad movie: parties in an intractable conflict suddenly edge towards negotiations - with no assurance of success - when someone tries to undermine the process through a violent act.

That's the film that is playing over and over in Turkey.

No sooner had the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan decided to initiate conversations with the incarcerated Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, than three of his followers were executed in Paris. The question now is will this event put an end to the dialogue? Simply: no.

The murder of three women, all members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK, in Paris has sent shock waves throughout the Kurdish community, and Turkey. One of the women, Sakine Cansiz, was a founding member of the PKK and a close confidant of Öcalan.

As to be expected, the recriminations started even before the ballistic tests could reveal a shred of information. The Turkish government and its prime minister have blamed the killings on internal divisions and factions within the PKK. It is not an unreasonable hypothesis, but nevertheless a few hours after Mr Erdogan sagely advised patience and allowing the investigation to proceed, he seemed to change tone in an unhelpful way.

For their part, the PKK and Turkish Kurds have openly blamed the Turkish authorities or at least rogue elements within the state. There are others who immediately started to point the finger at "foreign intelligence agencies", always the favourite target for conspiracy-loving Turkish pundits.

Other likely culprits are Turkish nationalist right-wingers, who have made their home in Europe among Turkish guest workers. One should also consider the possibility that the murders were planned independently of the announcement of the talks. But in the end it is perceptions that rule. People will believe what they want.

This is especially true because the chances are that the French police will have a hard time finding the real culprits. This appears to be quite a professional hit and may even have been in preparation for some time.

Whatever the case, this is not the kind of event that will derail the talks. Why? In part because this did not come as a surprise; there was almost an expectation that something "bad" was about to happen with the onset of negotiations.

Turkey and the Kurds have been here before. In 1992, the security forces massacred 90 civilians during Kurdish New Year celebrations, prompting Kurdish members of the coalition government to resign from their party. A year later, then-president Turgut Özal engineered, with the help of the Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, a ceasefire announcement by the PKK. The optimism and hopes engendered by that genuine step evaporated when PKK hardliners ambushed a busload of army recruits and massacred 33 of them. The Paris killings do not measure up to these previous ones.

There is another important difference this time: people on both sides of the conflict are genuinely tired of the war and the casualties. Moreover, as a result of decades of incessant conflict as well as regional developments, most Turks have come to recognise that there is a Kurdish problem and that it can no longer be swept under the carpet. Hence, the Kurdish question begs for a solution.

Mr Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have, to their credit, done more than their predecessors combined to acknowledge past wrongdoings and explore new solutions. But frustrated that their overtures were being spurned they tacked to the nationalist right.

However, Turkish leaders also came up short in their inability to understand how the Kurdish issue has metamorphosed over time. What would have worked 10 years ago will no longer satisfy Kurdish demands that have become more expansive and determined.

The good news this time is that it appears that both Mr Erdogan and Kurds are more willing to put an end to the conflict. The reasons are not complicated.

There is a great deal of mental exhaustion on both sides with a conflict more than two and half decades old. And the Turkish army, long the most powerful actor in Turkey and most unwilling to compromise, has been discredited.

Mr Erdogan also desperately wants to become the country's first popularly elected president in 2014 and understands that he needs to win that post with an overwhelming majority if he will succeed in running the country from the presidential palace and overrule the prime minister who constitutionally has executive powers.

The PKK and the Kurds, meanwhile, are facing a challenge: they are being pushed by their Iraqi brethren to compromise because Iraqi Kurds are increasingly cozying up to the AKP and Ankara to maintain their semi-independence from Baghdad.

And the timing is propitious, as the Syrian uprising has strengthened the Kurdish hand by making Syrian Kurds an actor where they were the forgotten minority.

Mainly though, the people of the Kurdish south-east in Turkey are fed up with the conflict that has taken a tremendous toll on them. Almost every family has been touched by it, either because Turkish authorities have incarcerated some members indefinitely or because their sons or daughters have died or are currently fighting in the mountains.

Öcalan has his own particular reasons to want a deal; he does not want to die alone in a jail cell.

 

Henri J Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania