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Case Analysis 10 April, 2013

Turkey and the Kurdish Issue: Opportunites for a Negotiated Solution


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 

Abdullah Ocalan, leader of Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) announced "the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one". The PKK leader called on the armed wing of his group to freeze their military operations against the Turkish state, thus clearing the path for a negotiated, political settlement to the Kurdish question. Ocalan's statement came in a letter read on his behalf by one of the leaders of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP, the PKK's political front) on March 21, 2003.

This historic statement from the PKK leader was the result of direct communications between Ocalan and Hakan Fidan, Turkey's Intelligence Chief. The two first held talks in 2012 on the island of Imrali in the Sea of Marmara, where Ocalan has been jailed since 1999. The details of the Road Map agreed upon during these meetings were subsequently made public by BDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas in 2013.

According to the agreed plan, Ocalan was to officially call for a cessation of military operations during Nowruz celebrations, which fell on March 21, 2013, in the mainly Kurdish province of Diyarbakr. This was to be followed by measures on the part of the Turkish state to create legal channels for the release of Kurdish detainees in its prisons. Next, some Kurdish fighters would withdraw from Turkish territory in Northern Iraq. The PKK would then completely renounce the use of force in exchange for the release of all remaining Kurdish detainees; constitutional amendments recognizing Kurdish cultural identity and allowing for education in the mother tongue; and the granting of a status similar to autonomy for the Kurds. Such changes would have followed the ratification of Turkey's new constitution, and mark a substantially different approach to the Kurdish question, a significant transformation since the birth of the modern nation-state in Turkey.

Analyses run in the Turkish media and current thinking within Turkish policy institutes have demonstrated cautious optimism to the announcement. Indeed, there is hope that this latest initiative will produce an outcome qualitatively different from previous promises and undertakings, despite accusations from the Republican People's Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) of a lack of transparency on the part of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in its handling of the Kurdish question.

This report examines the path of the negotiations held between the Turkish government and the PKK, which reached a peak with Ocalan's announcement of a cessation of military operations against the Turkish state. It will also examine both the domestic and foreign factors that framed the broad terms of the agreement between Ocalan and Fidan.

On the Kurdish Issue in Turkey

The Kurdish problem has been one of the most complex issues to burden the Turkish state since its establishment in 1932. Over the course of the last century, there have been 29 Kurdish uprisings against the state, the most famous of which was that led by Sheikh Said Piran in 1925.

The driving forces behind these rebellions were only partially nationalist, with the other being Islamist sentiment in opposition to the policies of the secularist Turkish state. It was only after the establishment of the PKK in 1978-which placed the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan on its list of main priorities-that the Kurdish uprising came to have a decidedly nationalist character. In 1984, the PKK adopted armed struggle as the sole means to achieve its goals.


The Turkish state classified the PKK as a separatist, terrorist organization, and used force to deal with the rebellion in the country's south and southeast. The security-military approach remained the single means with which the Kurdish question was dealt from 1984 to 2009, apart from two exceptions in the 1990s.

The first, during the presidency of Turgut Oezal (1991-1993), involved a partial lifting of the ban on the use of the Kurdish language in schools and government agencies. Oezal's unexpected death in 1993 prevented meetings he had planned with the leadership of the PKK from going forward. The second exception occured when former Prime Minister Necemitin Erbakan's attempts to hold indirect talks with the PKK leadership in 1997, though these were shelved following his removal from power by the military establishment.

The security-military approach to the Kurdish issue did not change with the AKP's rise to power in 2002. The Islamist group avoided an early confrontation with the military establishment and with sections of the opposition-particularly the Nationalist Movement, which is known for its uncompromising position on the Kurdish question-by declining to discuss proposed political solutions to the Kurdish question between 2002 and 2009. Without the control of an absolute majority in the Turkish parliament, which would have given the AKP the chance to form a ruling government on its own, the group could not have tackled a question as controversial as the Kurdish issue without first gaining the support of major blocs, such as the Republican People's and Nationalist Movement parties. The transformation of Iraq into a federalist state following the US invasion, and the emergence of a bastion where PKK fighters could be based in Iraqi Kurdistan in the north, were further developments Turkey viewed as threats to its national security.

This reality changed following the Turkish parliamentary elections in 2007, during which the AKP secured 48.8% of the votes cast. The party gained control of a technical majority that allowed them to form a government on their own. In the same year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan launched an investigation into an attempted coup d'etat against the ruling party. Later known as the Ergenkon Plot, Erdogan's bringing the accused to trial was an unprecedented step in Turkish politics, with a political party daring to limit the extra-constitutional role of the military establishment.

All of the above factors provided Erdogan with the popular support and political momentum he needed to propose the "Democratic Opening Initiative" of 2009. Erdogan's aim was to find a permanent, comprehensive solution to the Kurdish problem. Up to that point, Turkey's dealings with the Kurds had been a huge burden on the state. Between 1984 and 2009, the conflict with the Kurds had cost the Treasury USD 400 billion, in addition to the lives of an estimated 50,000 people and the hinderance of development plans in the afflicted regions in the south and southeast. Turkey was officially recognized by the European Union as a candidate for ascension in 2005, but its bid for membership has been hindered by the conflict with the Kurds.

Indirect negotiations between the Turkish government and the PKK, mediated by Norway, began in earnest in 2008. These negotiations resulted in a cessation of military operations between the two sides, which held until July 2011 when PKK fighters attacked a Turkish military outpost, killing 14 Turkish soldiers (7 PKK fighters also died).

The Path and Opportunites for a Solution

The resumption of armed clashes notwithstanding, the Turkish government has not discounted the possibility of a political and negotiated resolution to the Kurdish question. Beginning in 2012, the AKP government began taking a slightly different approach to negotiations with the Kurds, and started holding direct talks with Ocalan. By tasking Turkish intelligence with holding discussions on behalf of the state, Erdogan was able to make the point that it was the Turkish state, and not the AKP, which was a party to the discussions. In doing so, Erdogan both bolstered the legitimacy of the negotiations and protected his own party from the opposition's criticisms.

Following the first discussions with Turkish Intelligence Chief Fidan, the imprisoned Ocalan was, for the first time, allowed to have telephone contact with the BDP leadership in July 2012. In January 2013, two BDP MPs visited Ocalan on his prison island of Imrali. Following the visit, Ocalan delivered his draft proposal for a negotiated settlement to the Kurdish problem to the Turkish authorities.On February 22, 2013, the Turkish government announced proposed amendments to the Turkish legal code. Should they take effect, these amendments would make the release of thousands of Kurdish prisoners-members and supporters of the PKK-easier. This step made the release of Turkish public sector workers held by the PKK possible. Ocalan had previously requested as much from the military leadership of the PKK in the Qandil Mountains in Northern Iraq on March 9, 2013 via a delegation from the BDP. The captives were eventually released on March 12. Ocalan's speech following these events was the culmination of a long path of negotiations and the first ever event in which a detailed solution to the Kurdish issue was presented. Ultimately, both domestic and external factors contributed to the onset and acceleration of the negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK.

Domestic Factors

The Turkey 2023 Project

The 2023 Project represents the AKP's vision of the future, including an economic resurgence that would place Turkey within the group of the leading 10 countries of the world in terms of GNP. The Kurdish problem has so far been an obstacle to the achievement of such goals.

A Change in the System of Government and Erdogan's Personal Ambitions

Erdogan would like to change Turkey's system of government by giving the president expanded powers. After such changes, Erdogan could run for the presidency in 2014, and continue to lead the country until 2022. Both the Nationalist Movement and the Republican People's Party are strongly opposed to such changes, thereby foiling the attempts to pass them at the Constitutional Consensus Committee, which includes all of the parties represented in Turkey's parliament. Unless it can get the amendments through the committee by June of this year, the AKP will have to face the wider parliament on this issue. One option is to secure the support of 367 MPs out of the 550 who make up the Turkish legislature. The present balance of powers between different political parties makes this unlikely. A second option is to secure parliamentary support for a referendum on these changes. Doing so would require the backing of 330 MPs, only five less than the tally of AKP members within parliament. With such considerations in mind, the AKP might try to win over the BDP, with its 29 MPs, in order to achieve its aims. Erdogan has undertaken plans to reciprocate any such support by making changes to how citizenship and nationhood are defined in the Turkish constitution in a manner that would make a future resolution of the Kurdish question possible. Erdogan, thus, has a personal motivation, related to his desire to remain in power, to engage in this process.

The Impact of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring has forced the PKK to reexamine its use of the armed struggle as a sole means to bring pressure to bear on the Turkish state. The leadership of the PKK and organizations subordinate to it, particulary the banned Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) and the BDP, had previously stated their intention to launch a "Kurdish Spring" in Turkey on March 21, 2013, the date of the Nowruz Festival. Observers of Turkish affairs will have noticed how Erdogan's tour of majority-Kurdish areas in the south of Turkey on February 16, during which he promoted the idea of a peace agreement with the Kurds, was meant to preempt such a possibility. With the announcement by the BDP that it would make do with a unified rally in Diyarbakr, Erdogan can be said to have succeeded in his efforts.

External Factors

The Syrian Revolution

The Syrian regime's forces withdrew from the areas along the Turkish border that have a majority Kurdish population during August 2012. These included Afrin and its surrounding areas in the north of Syria, and the Jazeera region in the northeast. With this withdrawal, those areas came under the control of the Joint Kurdish Authority, which includes the Kurdish National Council, the Kurdistan People's Council, and the PKK-aligned Kurdish Democratic Union. Turkey had feared that such a development could give rise to a Kurdish region geographically contiguous with majority Kurdish areas in both Turkey and Iraq. Such an area could have served as a bastion from which PKK fighters could strike at the Turkish state. Direct negotiations with the leadership of the concerned parties preempted the prospective negative repercussions of the fall of the Syrian regime.

Competition with Iran over Syria

Turkey broke off all diplomatic and political relations with the Syrian regime in September 2011, and demanded that President Bashar al-Assad step down. The Turks further supported the Syrian opposition, and allowed both relief supplies and weapons to flow through its borders. Iran, in contrast, stood beside the Syrian regime, providing logistical and financial support to fight off the international sanctions imposed on Damascus. On December 24, 2012, Turkish Minister of Interior Idriss Naim Sahin accused Iran of supporting PKK fighters as a pressure point against Turkey in the Syrian situation. Ankara's decision to hold direct talks with Ocalan can thus be seen as a way of depriving regional players of a bargaining chip they can use against Turkey.

Allying with Masoud Barzani to Fend Off Nouri al-Maliki

Turkey regards the Iraqi cabinet, led by Nouri al-Maliki, to be subservient to Iran, and, therefore, an enemy. Simultaneously, Maliki's government accuses Turkey of intervening in domestic Iraqi affairs, and of igniting sectarian strife in Iraq. Since 2010, Turkey has taken its competition with al-Maliki further by developing its relationship with Massoud Barzani, leader of Iraqi Kurdistan, further straining Barzani's own relationship with al-Maliki. The latter is reliant on Turkey to export oil extracted in Iraqi Kurdistan through Turkish pipelines. Turkey sought to leverage its good relations with Barzani by making him an intermediary between the Turkish government and the PKK forces stationed in northern Iraq. Notably, the Road Map to a resolution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey described above stipulates that the regional administration of Iraqi Kurdistan will host PKK fighters who lay down their arms. By cooperating with Barzani on resolving the Kurdish issue, the Turkish government also furthered its political credibility in the battle against al-Maliki. With parliamentary elections coming later this year, Turkey also hopes Barzani will join forces with the anti-al-Maliki camp.

In conclusion, one can speculate that the new rapprochement with the Kurds, whether it is a tactical move or a long-term strategy, has all the components of a resilient resolution of Turkey's Kurdish issue. This becomes an especially pressing need as the Turkish political circumstances, both domesticand external , compel the prioiritization of a negotiated, political solution over a protracted military conflict. However, the grievances accumulated over a century, and the presence of extremists on either side who have their own political, ideological objections to a conciliatory settlement, make it impossible to predict the success of these efforts. In addition, other regional actors may be working to limit Turkey's burgeoning role or to continue using the Kurdish question as a bargaining chip against the Republic.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.