Turkish-Kurdish Peace: It Is Different This Time

Arriving at a peaceful settlement will take some time and will require a great deal of honesty as well as transparency. But the short answer is yes, this time it is different and there is reason to be hopeful for peace.

Following the PKK's offer a ceasefire in March, those living in Turkey are beginning to wonder if there is hope for peace now. The PKK has declared a ceasefire quite a few times in the past. On previous occasions this did not lead to any meaningful peace process. Is it any different this time?

Arriving at a peaceful settlement will take some time and will require a great deal of honesty as well as transparency. But the short answer is yes, this time it is different and there is reason to be hopeful for peace.

One of the reasons is that Turkish government seem willing to listen to the PKK for the first time in this decades-long conflict. Over the years, Turkey has refused to recognise the PKK and its leader as a party to negotiate peace. The official discourse of Turkey still does not openly admit negotiations, but they have been going on in all but name. Intelligence officers, ministers and members of parliament have been in touch with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, who is jailed in a prison island off the shores of Bursa. These visits enabled Ocalan to share his views and policy recommendations with pro-Kurdish BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) among others. The Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan openly stated that the government is responsible and runs the "process" - clearly referring to negotiations with the PKK leader. This is something they notoriously rejected until very recently.

Recently, three letters by Ocalan have been dispatched to the PKK leadership, BDP, and the European organisation of the PKK. Each party expressed their responses to Ocalan's recommendations and these formed the basis of Ocalan's now famous call for peace letter which was read by BDP MPs in the Kurdish New Year celebrations, Newroz, on March 21st. The essence of the letters was that political struggle should continue while armed conflict ceases. All parties responded positively to this call. The guerrilla leader Murat Karayilan was cautious but appreciative.

However the real source of hope is not the letters but the shift in the overall environment towards a peaceful settlement. The letters and visits to Abdullah Ocalan in prison are just symbolic - reflecting a change in attitude on the government's part. Further evidence for this was the peaceful Newroz celebrations, which lasted about a week building up to the grand finale in Diyarbakir, a Southeastern city often recognised as capital of Kurdistan by Kurdish nationalists. And when the funerals of the three PKK activists who were assassinated in Paris were held, the Turkish authorities allowed them to be carried out more or less in the ways in which determined by the PKK and BDP. Wrapped in PKK flags, the three women's coffins were carried to their hometowns for final burial, with hundreds of thousands in attendance. All in all, they showed the strength of support for the PKK and how calm these demonstrations can be when not unnecessarily provoked by security forces.

There are further reasons to be hopeful for peace. For one, the death toll and damages have been so high that almost every household in the country has been touched by death of soldiers, civilians or PKK militants since 1984. Both Turkish and Kurdish families have begun to come out and express their dismay at a conflict which has taken over forty thousand lives. Similar sentiments have been expressed by local governors and ministers alike.

Further, Turkish rapid economic growth is fast reaching its natural limit. If Turkey can secure stability in the eastern parts of the country, then the economic growth will continue with new investments and markets opening up in the eastern provinces. For Turkey's Middle Eastern ambitions these provinces, once industrialised, could play a vital role.

Finally, a controversial but increasingly apparent motive for the Kurdish peace in Turkey is the emergence of a PKK-led military force in Syria. The PYD, a Kurdish guerrilla movement in Syria, apparently controls northern parts of the country where Kurdish population is dominant. Following the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdistan in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, Turkey is understandably anxious for the same to happen in Syria. A stronger Turkish Kurdish existence in the region will help forge better relations with neighbouring countries with strong Kurdish communities.

Despite all of this, the history of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey and the current demands by pro-Kurdish parties demonstrate that there will be no quick fix. Citizenship, discrimination, local government reforms, mother tongue arrangements, and independence, all remain unresolved. Turkey and the Kurds need to prepare a long period of negotiations supported by goodwill as well as plans for rehabilitation of people, cities, economies, and inter-community relations. Sorting the nearly 100 year old question and 30 year-long blood shed will take at least a couple of generations - but for the first time in decades there is hope.

Ibrahim Sirkeci is the Director of the Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies at Regent's University.

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