BACKGROUND: In late 2012, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – who was then prime minister – ordered the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to initiate a dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan on the prison island of İmralı, where the latter has been incarcerated since February 1999. Öcalan has long regarded himself as a major historical figure, whose plans and proposals constitute the key not only to the resolution of the Kurdish issue inside Turkey but to peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East. This conviction has grown rather than diminished the longer he has been isolated on İmralı. On March 21, 2013, confident that he would be able to convince the AKP to implement his proposals, Öcalan ordered the PKK to announce a unilateral ceasefire and to withdraw its fighting units from Turkey to its main camps in northern Iraq.
Unlike Öcalan, the PKK high command in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq was always considerably more skeptical of Erdoğan’s intentions. In 2009, Erdoğan had launched a similar initiative, this time involving the PKK high command in Qandil and culminating in face-to-face talks between PKK representatives and Turkish officials in the Norwegian capital Oslo. PKK members who participated in what has become known as the “Oslo Process” complain that their Turkish interlocutors merely listened to their proposals for a resolution of the Kurdish issue. They never made any commitments. Nor did they put forward any proposals of their own. The PKK scaled back its rural insurgency while the dialogue continued. But its high command became increasingly suspicious that Erdoğan was trying to drag out the talks as long as possible so that he could reap the benefits of a reduction in violence in the June 12, 2011 general election. As soon as the AKP had been returned to power, Erdoğan launched an aggressive military campaign against the PKK and the Oslo Process collapsed.
To the PKK, it looked as if Erdoğan’s main motivation in launching the dialogue with Öcalan again was to reap the political benefits of a decline in violence, this time in the run-up to the local and presidential elections in 2014. The PKK high command was reluctant to implement a ceasefire and withdrawal without something concrete from the AKP in return. But the organization was constrained by its own propaganda. Although it removed him from day-to-day command, Öcalan’s capture and subsequent seclusion on İmralı had boosted his personality cult to the point where the PKK routinely portrayed him as the embodiment of the Kurdish nationalist cause and his imprisonment as a living martyrdom. As a result, it had little choice but to comply with Öcalan’s call for a ceasefire and withdrawal.
But the PKK’s suspicions deepened still further through summer 2013. Although Turkish officials continued to meet with Öcalan, Erdoğan refused to develop the dialogue into comprehensive negotiations to address the broader issue of Kurdish cultural and political rights. The only concrete proposals that AKP officials made were related to the rehabilitation of PKK members after they had laid down their arms, not the measures that would be necessary to persuade them to do so. In addition, as the talks continued, the government not only reinforced existing military bases in southeast Turkey but started building new ones. The PKK accused Erdoğan of preparing not for peace but for a new war. It first slowed and then -- in September 2013 – completely halted the withdrawal of its units from Turkey.
In March 2014, as the spring thaw reopened the mountain passes along its main infiltration routes, some of the PKK units that had been withdrawn the previous year began to return to Turkey. On March 16, 2014, Murat Karayılan, the commander of the PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Force (HPG), gave an interview to the pro-PKK Sterk TV. Karayılan accused the Turkish state of trying to use the dialogue with Öcalan to “liquidate” the PKK rather than resolve the Kurdish issue. After reaffirming the organization’s loyalty to Öcalan, Karayılan warned that the PKK would nevertheless refuse to heed any call from him to lay down its arms while he was still in Turkish custody. It was the first time that a PKK commander had publicly declared that the organization was prepared to defy an order from Öcalan.
Although it stopped short of abrogating its ceasefire, through summer 2014 the PKK sought to make its presence felt on the ground in southeast Turkey. HPG units became more active and more visible: setting up checkpoints on roads in rural areas, targeting construction sites – particularly of military bases – and staging occasional attacks against the Turkish security forces. The PKK also intensified its efforts to assume many of the functions of the Turkish state in urban areas in its strongholds in southeast Turkey, including “law enforcement”, “taxation” and the arbitration of social and commercial disputes. Although local commanders are allowed a degree of operational autonomy, the HPG is relatively tightly structured and controlled. In contrast, the networks now being used by the PKK to try to regulate Kurdish society are much more loosely organized and consist primarily of young volunteers rather than trained militants.
IMPLICATIONS: Despite the rhetoric of both the PKK and the Turkish state, the Kurdish nationalist movement is not homogenous. Although they share the same ultimate goals of full Kurdish language rights and what is termed “Democratic Autonomy” for the southeast, even the PKK and the HDP are at best allies rather than parts of an organic whole. There are often tensions and ultimately they are rivals for relevance and preeminence.
Even though it is a legal political entity with elected members of parliament, Erdoğan has consistently refused to include the HDP – much less other groups and organizations with strong grassroots support in Kurdish areas, such the Islamist Free Cause Party (Hüda Par) – as active participants in the dialogue initiated with Öcalan in 2012. Instead, the HDP has been used primarily as courier of information. A small delegation of AKP-approved HDP members has been allowed to meet regularly with Öcalan – usually once a month – and then issue public statements and/or courier messages between Öcalan and the PKK high command in Iraq.
To date, the HDP has arguably had little choice but to accept its current peripheral role in the hope that the PKK will maintain its ceasefire and that the dialogue with Öcalan will eventually be developed into comprehensive negotiations in which it is also included. Unlike the PKK, the HDP does not have the option of a recourse to violence in an attempt to pressure the Turkish government into acceding to its demands. Indeed, if the PKK does increase its attacks, the HDP risks not only becoming more marginalized but increasingly stigmatized – paying the price for sharing similar goals as the PKK without having the ability to moderate the latter’s methods.
In predominantly Kurdish areas, pro-HDP candidates in local elections stand as members of the Democratic Regions Party (DBP).The DBP was established in July 2014 in an attempt to differentiate the southeast from the rest of the country and effectively serve as a “government in waiting” for when the region is granted autonomy. Although there is sometimes some overlap in terms of personnel, organizationally the parallel “quasi state” PKK networks that have recently begun to gain strength in southeast Turkey are not controlled by the DBP. In some areas they have become as much a challenge to the authority of the DBP-run local administrations as they are to the organs of the central government. In early October 2014, it was HDP Chair Selahattin Demirtaş who called for Kurds to take to the streets in protest at the AKP’s perceived support for the Islamist State militants besieging the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. But it was the PKK’s urban networks that were responsible both for most of the subsequent violence that left at least 48 dead.
Even if Öcalan appears convinced that he is capable of formulating solutions to the problems of the entire Middle East, there is no doubt that the reason that the AKP has engaged with him is his perceived ability to deliver a PKK ceasefire leading eventually to the organization’s disarmament and/or its withdrawal from Turkey. But, even if the PKK initially had little option to comply with Öcalan’s orders for a ceasefire and a withdrawal, as has been demonstrated in September 2013 and by Karayılan’s comments in March 2014, his authority over the PKK is neither total nor is it necessarily permanent.
Öcalan currently has nothing to show for over two years of talks. If he perseveres with the dialogue, he now risks losing credibility in – and thus influence over – not just the PKK but also the broader Kurdish nationalist movement. In his meeting with the HDP delegation on November 29, 2014, Öcalan ruefully admitted that he had made a mistake in calling for a PKK ceasefire and withdrawal before receiving concrete concessions from the AKP in return. Yet, with a general election due by June 7, 2015 at the latest, even if they had the will, Erdoğan and the AKP do not have the time to weather a potential Turkish nationalist backlash from any major concessions to Kurdish nationalist demands.
CONCLUSIONS: In early summer 2014, it was the PKK which appeared most at risk of losing relevance. Traditionally, both recruitment to the organization and its influence within the broader Kurdish movement have been greatest when it has been actively engaged in fighting against the Turkish security forces. However, the PKK’s recent involvement in the war against Islamist extremists in Syria and Iraq has not only dismissed any questions about its relevance but considerably enhanced its prestige both inside and outside the region. The PKK’s relative status within the Kurdish nationalist movement is likely to rise still further if neither Öcalan nor the HDP is able to deliver any concrete achievements over the months ahead.
Disturbingly, Erdoğan and the AKP still appear unaware of the implication of their refusal to expand the dialogue with Öcalan to include as active participants other non-violent stakeholders in the Kurdish issue, particularly the HDP. A PKK commitment to suspend or even abandon violence may be a necessary precondition for negotiations with the PKK. But it is not a prerequisite for negotiating a solution to the question of Kurdish cultural and political rights. This is not an issue that is going to fade away. Just the opposite. Perhaps most worryingly, the AKP’s decision to engage with Öcalan rather than the HDP has left the younger generation of Kurdish nationalists – who are both more demanding and less patient than their parents – in do doubt about which methods to use in order to get the attention of the Turkish state.
Gareth Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, based in Istanbul.
(Image Attribution: Nora Miralles, via Flickr, CC 2.0)