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The Turkish-Kurdish peace process is on hold

A letter written by a Turkish soldier has been published in the local media in Turkey. The soldier is currently fighting against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Cizre, which is a hot spot in the conflict between the Turkish army and the Kurdish insurgents.

“We are all the children of this country,” he wrote, “and we love the people of Cizre. We are here to ensure the territorial integrity of our country. We came here not to kill or to shed blood; we are here just to save your peace and tranquillity.” With his colleagues, the man was clearly billeted in someone’s house. “We’ve stayed as guests at your home and we’ve used some of your stuff. Please forgive us and accept this sum of money which is all what we got; it might not be enough but please forgive us.”

Some background to this is useful. The Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation process was initiated with secret meetings involving what was later revealed to be senior officials within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. The latter ostensibly had inclined to be involved actively in the political approach and abandoned the armed struggle. In 2013, Ocalan, as the PKK’s founder, called on the group’s fighters to lay down their arms as part of a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, the AKP-led government made fundamental legal revisions and constitutional amendments in favour of the Kurds, including the approval of Kurdish as a second language of instruction in regions with a Kurdish majority. The government also authorised the right to publish and compose in Kurdish. In 2009, an official Kurdish TV channel was launched and in 2012 Kurdish was offered as an optional language in Turkish schools. Moreover, in 2013, new laws allowed defendants to use Kurdish in Turkish courts.

In 2013, the then Prime Minister (and now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced a package of democratic reforms which ended discrimination based on ethnicity. The new laws provided for harsh penalties for those found guilty of racism and discrimination on the basis of language, ethnicity or nationalism.

The constitutional amendments were accompanied by economic incentives for investors and entrepreneurs in South-East Turkey’s Kurdish-majority regions. Dozens of development and infrastructure projects went ahead, including, hospitals, universities, airports and other facilities.

In the political arena, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 13 per cent of the votes in last June’s elections, which was considered to be a great triumph. It was the first time that a pro-Kurd party had exceeded the 10 per cent vote threshold, which was imposed by the 1982 military coup constitution and which the AKP wants to lower or even cancel in a new reform package to be approved by parliament or a national referendum. The political success of the HDP prompted expectations of a political compromise for the Kurdish question.

The AKP lost almost 9 per cent of its voters last June, a drop that was attributed to general discontent with the government’s approach to reconciliation with the PKK as well as an intensive campaign against Erdogan’s so-called “violations” of the constitution. He was accused by the opposition of not maintaining his objectivity as the president of the Republic of Turkey by participating in AKP events; the AKP is Erdogan’s own party. This was cited by the opposition media as clear evidence of Erdogan’s “dictatorship” for which he strives with his all-powerful, tailor-made presidential system.

On 20 July last year, a Daesh suicide bomber killed 32 pro-Kurdish activists in the city of Suruc in the South-East of Turkey. Without hesitation, the HDP alleged that the government was just as responsible as Daesh. The PKK retaliated immediately by killing Turkish policemen and soldiers; that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and ended the almost 3-year lull in the conflict with Ankara.

In the snap election of 1 November last year, the HDP lost ground, polling just 10.6 per cent of the vote and just scraping past the threshold. It was seen as a punishment by the electorate for the party’s attitude in the aftermath of terrorist attacks against not only military posts but also civilian properties. Suggestions that the HDP favour reconciliation and peace over violence were not supported by its approaches and media statements which showed that the party was unable to distance itself from the terrorism of the PKK. This underlined the internal conflict amongst Kurds; Ocalan wants to move on from armed conflict and encourages the PKK to disarm in favour of engagement in the democratic process.

Murat Karayilan, on the other hand, does not. The PKK military commander in the Qandil Mountain area of northern Iraq does not believe that the peace process is an effective solution to the Kurdish question; he does not agree with the disarming of the PKK and will not lay down his arms. Karayilan is believed to be supported by regional and international powers which are keen to keep him in place as an irritant for the ruling AKP in Ankara. Although the HDP is a legitimate political party in Turkey and the PKK is a designated terrorist movement, many Turks believe that they are two sides of the same coin.

The PKK is unlikely to abandon the armed struggle, and Erdogan has said that the war against terrorism will not end until and unless the group’s fighters lay down their arms. He also insists that the HDP should distance itself from the PKK and demonstrate its independence.

The dilemma facing the Turkish government is that the HDP, despite being a democratically-elected pro-Kurdish party, does not serve as a true interlocutor or partner in the peace process. The HDP, in turn, believes that the reconciliation talks failed merely because of Erdogan’s wish to grab more authority in the presidential system that he is keen to adopt.

That is why HDP representatives in Europe always call on Washington to take part in the Turkish-Kurdish reconciliation process. It also explains a side of the US agenda in Vice President Joe Biden’s latest visit to Turkey and his criticism of the Turkish government’s human rights record and abuse of power.

The While House has declared the PKK to be a terrorist group but it openly backs the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is a secular, armed, Syrian-Kurdish group identifying exclusively with the PKK. This presents an immediate threat to Ankara, especially in the light of recent talks to deploy multinational ground troops on the ground in Syria; there would be ambiguity about such troops and their targets.

The quagmire of Syria’s civil war has mixed-up all the cards and, if Turkey is fortunate, the struggle between the Turkish army and the PKK insurgents will be a transitory war of attrition. If not, the whole reconciliation process will eventually be buried, not just put on hold.

The leaders of the HDP and spokespersons of the Turkish government have all declared that the stalled peace talks have reached “a different chapter” or even “a point of no return”. However, Leyla Zana, the HDP MP and a leading Kurdish figure, has said that Erdogan alone can solve the Kurdish issue. She requested a meeting with the president recently and Erdogan welcomed her. According to Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chairman of HDP, however, this was an old appeal and there are no such current requests by Zana or any other MP. The plot thickens and the peace process is still on hold.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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