In what could prove to be a historic day for Turkey and the decades-old Kurdish issue, fighters from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) today started withdrawing from Turkish soil and returning to bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.
Turkish security forces manned checkpoints along the mountainous border with Iraq, keeping watch as the agreed pullout started by the first small groups of up to 2,000 Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters.
The withdrawal, ordered late last month by top PKK commander Murat Karayilan, is the biggest step yet in a deal negotiated by the group's jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan with Turkish officials to end almost 30 years of conflict.
The PKK has accused the army of endangering the pullout with reconnaissance drones and troop movements they said may trigger clashes. But there was no sign of military activity in the grey skies over southeast Turkey.
"I can say the withdrawal began today based on the information we have," pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) co-leader Gultan Kisanak told Reuters. "Local sources report that the armed PKK militants are on the move."
Iraq has been the site of one of the great turnarounds in Turkish foreign policy. On the one hand, in the north, Ankara has gone from having dreadful relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government -- it was not that long ago that Turkish government officials refrained from even using the word "Kurdistan" -- to working closely on a host of political and economic issues with the Kurdish-led government there. On the other hand, Ankara's relations with Baghdad have taken a nosedive over the last few years, with the Turkish and Iraqi governments failing to see eye-to-eye on a score of issues.
These simultaneous changes are, of course, not isolated from each other. One of the issues driving a wedge between Turkey and Iraq is the question of Ankara's energy ties with the KRG and whether the Iraqi Kurds can bypass the central government in Baghdad and sign independent energy deals with the Turks. The issue may get even more complicated if a recent report by Bloomberg, which claims Ankara and the Iraqi Kurds have signed a secret deal to send northern Iraqi oil and gas to Turkey, is true. From Bloomberg's report:
Iraq’s Kurdish region has signed a landmark agreement with Turkey to supply it directly with oil and gas, two people familiar with the matter said.
The accord was signed last month when Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Ankara, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans are private. Turkish Energy Minister Taner Yildiz, contacted via his press office, declined to comment, as did an Iraqi Kurdish official. The Oil Ministry in Baghdad didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Slowly but surely, the latest attempt by the Turkish government to resolve the decades-old Kurdish issue is moving along. In the latest confidence building measure, members of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BD), who were given Ankara's permission to meet with jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan this past Sunday, delivered a message from Ocalan that suggested his organization's fighters would soon be leaving Turkish territory. “The peace process we are currently going through is continuing at full speed. I am striving to make the ceasefire permanent and to ensure a withdrawal. I can say we are more hopeful now that we have come to this stage. In this context, I will reveal the details of the efforts we are making,” Ocalan's statement said.
Still, the nascent "peace process" is facing some profound challenges, both domestic and external. In a new piece from the German Marshall Fund that gives a good overview of the latest developments surrounding the Kurdish issue, political scientist Ilter Turan takes a look at these challenges, suggesting there is good reason to be cautious about predicting the process's success.
He may be the sole inmate of an island prison in the Sea of Marmara, but Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), still knows how to command the headlines. Thursday, as Kurds celebrated the spring holiday of nevruz -- in years past an occasion for often violent protests -- Ocalan made what could turn out to be a game-changing call for the fighters of the PKK to cease fire and withdraw from Turkish soil.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the regional center of Diyarbakir, cheered and waved banners bearing Ocalan's mustachioed image when a letter from the rebel leader, held since 1999 on a prison island in the Marmara Sea, was read out by a pro-Kurdish politician.
"Let guns be silenced and politics dominate," he said to a sea of red-yellow-green Kurdish flags. "The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders ... It's not the end. It's the start of a new era."
Ocalan's call for a ceasefire, which had been expected for some weeks now, gives a major boost to the ongoing "peace talks" between Turkey and the Kurds and represents a major turnaround in how both sides had been dealing with each other. Up until a few years ago, it was common for Turkish courts to charge Kurdish politicians with the crime of referring to the jailed PKK leader as "the honorable Mr Ocalan." On the other hand, until fairly recently, many Kurdish leaders in Turkey had written off the government led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), considering it and its leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as having been cut from the same Kurdish-identity denying nationalist cloth as previous Turkish governments.
Human Rights Watch has just released its annual World Report and its chapter on Turkey contains some very strong criticism of Ankara's efforts at human rights reform. “Despite some moves for reform, the efforts have been patchy, incomplete, and the new human rights mechanisms are under government control and lack independence,” said Emma Sinclair-Webb, HRW's senior researcher in Turkey. “If the government is serious about its latest moves to address the Kurdish issue in Turkey, freeing the thousands of detained peaceful Kurdish political activists, journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, and students would be a good first step,” she said. “Turkey needs to make human rights a priority in its approach to all of its citizens.”
In Turkey, the cross-party work on a new constitution during 2012 was a positive development, Human Rights Watch said. But tight government control of appointments to the national human rights institution created in March and the ombudsman office established in June undermined confidence in potentially important oversight mechanisms. There are serious concerns about how independent or effective either institution will be in practice.
Turkey’s restrictions on freedom of expression are evident both in its laws and in the pattern of prosecutions and convictions under these laws, Human Rights Watch said. Judicial reform packages passed by the parliament, most recently in June, suspended prosecutions and convictions for some speech offenses, amended penalties for various terrorism laws, and attempted to curb excessive detention on remand, but have not yet had a significant impact. Politicians’ intolerance of dissenting voices – extending as far as criticizing television soap operas – and their willingness to sue for defamation perpetuates a chilling climate for free speech.
Although it's still quite early to know which way Turkey's new peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) will go, this week saw some very encouraging signs coming out of Ankara.
Late Thursday, the Turkish parliament passed legislation that will allow defendants to use Kurdish in court, a long-standing demand put forward by Kurdish activists and politicians. Up until now, Turkish courts have regularly refused to allow Kurdish defendants to use the language during proceedings.
Also yesterday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet, most significantly replacing the hawkish Interior Minister Naim Sahin with Muammer Guler, a former governor of Istanbul who originally hails from southeast Turkey. Sahin, an old school nationalist, had managed to enrage Kurds on numerous occasions, especially in the wake of the 2011 Uludere incident, in which 34 Kurdish villagers were killed in an errant military operation. At the time, Sahin dismissed the killed villagers as "extras" in a PKK operation and said there was no need for Turkey to apologize for the incident.
Following today's burial in Turkey of the three Kurdish women activists murdered last week in Paris, Ankara's renewed peace talks with the outlawed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, are facing a critical test.
There were some concerns that the funerals, which drew a massive crowd in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, could turn violent and become another provocative development which could jeopardize the nascent talks, but the event turned out to be peaceful in the end. Writing in the Hurriyet Daily News today, analyst Semih Idiz takes a look at the significance of both the murders in Paris and today's funerals:
The bottom line is that today’s developments, whether are positive or negative, will determine the course that the ongoing peace talks between the government and the PKK take, perhaps much more than the actual murders in Paris. Despite the horror of that event, a positive result has been that the government, the PKK leadership, and the BDP have all indicated views suggesting that this as a provocation aimed at derailing the current peace talks. This shows that there is a desire for these talks to continue.
The highly disturbing murder of three Kurdish women activists in Paris -- among them one of the co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- is casting a long shadow over newly launched talks between the Turkish government and the militant organization.
The Wednesday killing of the three women, which took place inside the Paris office of a Kurdish institute, was described by the French Minister of Interior as “without doubt an execution.” Along with Sakine Cansiz, the PKK co-founder, the victims included Fidan Dogan, a leading Kurdish figure in Europe and Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist.
The murders occurred in the midst of a critical time for the Kurdish issue. The new year started off with the announcement that the Turkish government and Abduallah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, have restarted talks aimed at resolving the decades-old Kurdish problem (a previous effort at talks was stymied after a strong backlash in Turkey). In recent days, several Turkish papers have reported on a possible "roadmap" being worked out between Ankara and Ocalan, which, among other things, includes numerous political reforms and the release of Kurdish prisoners on the Turkish side in return for the PKK disarming.
Under the guidance of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey completely abolished the death penalty in 2004, one of several reforms enacted with an eye towards meeting the criteria required for joining the European Union. So what to make of the suggestions made recently by the AKP's leader, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that Turkey should consider reintroducing capital punishment?
First, the background. Erdogan got the debate going earlier this month when he told an annual gathering of AKP members that, in response to recent upsurge in attacks against Turkish forces by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), public opinion now supports reintroducing the death penalty. Soon after, Erdogan told a crowd in Ankara, "In the face of deaths, murders, if necessary the death penalty should be brought back to the table (for discussion)." While Turkey's Minister of Justice has said that there are no plans to bring the death penalty back, the fact that Erdogan -- Turkey's most powerful politician -- has brought up the issue, was enough to raise concern among many Turks and some European politicians.
As the Kurdish issue in Turkey continues to heat up, both politically and militarily, the question of how Ankara should deal with the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) becomes one that's both more urgent yet also harder to answer.
In a new report released last week, the International Crisis Group steps into the breach, urging both the Turkish government and the PKK to step back from further confrontation and providing some very sensible suggestions that provide a way towards finding settling the long-standing Kurdish conflict in Turkey.
I recently sent Hugh Pope, ICG's Turkey analyst and the report's main author, a list of questions that follow up on some of the paper's observations and recommendations. Pope, a veteran Turkey observers who was previously the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in the country, was kind enough to provide some illuminating answers. Our exchange is below:
1. Many commentators are saying that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, is moving back to a harder, more nationalist stance on the Kurdish issue. Based on your research for your report, do you think this is a correct assessment?