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Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding

The PKK’s Transformation and Prospects for Peace

On the 39th anniversary of the commencement of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)’s armed struggle against the Turkish state, Murat Karayilan, the commander of the PKK’s armed wing, addressed the Kurdish and Turkish public in an unprecedented video. While reiterating the PKK’s commitment to self-defense and struggle for Kurdish rights, he also implicitly called on the Turkish state to resume peace talks, stating that “we fight in defense, we have not attacked anyone” and that “the Turkish state should give up this policy of genocide. It should not send its soldiers to attack the positions of the comrades.”

As conflict escalates in the region, the message seems to have been lost—but for long-term peace and stability, it should not be. Even at the height of its armed campaigns, the PKK has always kept the door open for political solutions. Their efforts started in the early 1990s, when violence related to the conflict was at its peak. At that time, the late former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was mediating between then-Turkish President Turgut Ozal and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. These negotiations saw Ocalan declare the PKK’s first unilateral ceasefire in early 1993. They were halted after Ozal’s sudden death months later. When Ocalan was arrested in 1999, he called for peace and declared a ceasefire once again.

In the notes of the Imrali meetings with the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) delegation, Ocalan points out how he announced a unilateral ceasefire that lasted from 2001 to 2004. Since then, the PKK has continuously extended and repeated ceasefires. Eventually the PKK almost completely stopped attacking the Turkish soldiers, remaining in defensive positions. In 2013, following another unilateral ceasefire declared by Ocalan, the majority of the PKK guerrillas retreated to the Qandil mountains as a preparation for the peace process.

In addition to declaring ceasefires, Ocalan also took the PKK and the wider Kurdish movement inspired by it through a historic political transformation from a Marxist national liberation movement seeking a socialist Kurdish state to a movement rejecting the concept of nation-states altogether. As senior PKK member Duran Kalkan pointed out in an April 2023 speech, under this new paradigm, the PKK has shifted its role to primarily be an educator and organizer, redefining its concept of leadership in the process.

In 2012, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) project was initiated, at Ocalan’s suggestion, to be a platform where individuals from diverse cultural identities could unite and coexist harmoniously. The intention behind this initiative was to amalgamate the pro-Kurdish political movement with other democratic forces in Turkey, a principle fervently endorsed by Ocalan and the PKK. The integration of Kurds and Turks in a single organization and the unification of the Kurdish freedom movement with the Turkish left movement and other democratic forces, under conditions of peace and dialogue, led to a historic level of electoral support for the HDP, which won 13% of the vote in June 2015. The project could benefit Turkey and be a model for the volatile Middle East, including Iraq where politics is still conducted on the ethnic, sectarian lines.

This transformation of the PKK and shift in Ocalan’s ideas was cautiously welcomed by the Turkish state when the peace talks started. Sadly, the talks fell apart as Erdogan consolidated power and developments in the Syrian civil war shifted.

Today, there are only two potential trajectories for Turkey: decimating the Kurdish movement or navigating a peaceful political resolution. The first is unlikely to ever be possible. Although the advancement of Turkish technology has had a significant negative impact on the PKK’s military maneuvers, the group has not been dampened politically. The Ocalan-inspired Kurdish movement is still the most popular party representing the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Europe in relation to the Kurdish question in Turkey.

History has proved that the Turkish state has not been able to eliminate the PKK. Drone attacks have made their armed campaigns more difficult, but have not been able to stop the group completely. This is simply because the PKK is not the kind of organization that Turkey wants to depict it as: “a terrorist organization that does not represent the Kurds.”

While it is not the only major Kurdish party in the region, the PKK does represent millions of Kurds in Turkey and Syria at a level unmatched by any other Kurdish party. It has gained significant support among Kurdish society in Iraq and Iran. Its ability to organize Kurds in Europe is unmatched by any other Kurdish organization. It even came to the defense of the Yezidis in Iraq, helping them organize militarily to defeat ISIS in Sinjar.

Under these conditions, the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue. Understanding what Kurdish demands have been in the past and what they are today is essential for making this possible.

In 2009, I had the opportunity to interview Karayilan, then the PKK’s leading official, for the Kurdish weekly Awene. This dialogue predominantly revolved around the peace processes at that juncture. Karayilan conveyed several perspectives that remain pertinent to contemporary discussions. He emphasized the indispensable role of a third-party mediator in peace negotiations. While highlighting that reconciliation requires mutual forgiveness, Karayilan contended that the Kurds, particularly, should grant clemency to the state, bearing in mind the tragic loss of approximately 75,000 innocent lives. He accentuated the salience of involving the U.S. and E.U. nations in the peace dialogue, positing that a peaceful resolution would strategically position Turkey closer to the West, subsequently fostering a more stable Middle East.

In the interview, Karayilan acknowledged Turkey’s overtures towards a diplomatic resolution but maintained that mere inclinations towards dialogue were insufficient; pragmatic measures were imperative. The PKK leader’s critiques targeted the explicit ‘red lines’ set by Turkey, including restrictions on the Kurdish language and political autonomy. He advocated for recognizing the Kurdish identity within the broader contours of Kurdista and for alignment with the EU’s standards, emphasizing the reinstatement of the 1921 constitution prior to the Treaty of Lausanne. He remarked on the prerequisites for peace, stating, “the weapons must be silenced.” This statement has regularly been repeated by Kurdish political and military leaders in Qandil, Amed, and Istanbul.

Today, I can say that little has changed from 2009. Kurds still demand self-governance and equal rights within a democratic system. The Kurdish movement has also continued to express concerns over Turkey’s ambiguous standpoints. Therefore, they have underscored the significance of international support, particularly from the U.S. and Europe, to navigate a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish dilemma.

The PKK has consistently proposed that the E.U. and U.S. act as mediators between them and Turkey to find a peaceful solution to Kurdish issues. Their contention is that in the absence of a third-party observer, Turkey tends to misrepresent facts and shows reluctance to honor agreements.

A pertinent example is the collapse of the Dolmabahce Agreement back in 2015: Turkey alleges that the PKK reignited the conflict, while the PKK argued it was Turkey. Without neutral oversight, the truth remains elusive. The global community must understand this impasse. Both E.U. countries and the U.S. are uniquely positioned to mediate without bias. Given their close ties, Turkey can’t reasonably argue that these bodies are siding with the PKK. It’s worth noting that historically, Turkey has leveraged the support of both the E.U. and U.S. against the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey. Therefore, the PKK is advocating for an international mediator, whether it is the E.U., U.S., or another qualified entity, to oversee their commitment to a ceasefire and peace talks with Turkey. Any violation by either party can then be rightfully condemned.

This point was reiterated by Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) Co-Chair Cemil Bayik in an opinion piece in the Washington Post in 2019, and again in an interview with the Kurdish Peace Institute in 2023.

When discussing peace in contexts similar to the PKK-Turkey conflict, scholars often refer to the “Theory of Ripeness.” This theory is most famously associated with the work of conflict resolution scholar William Zartman. It has been applied to numerous protracted conflicts to identify the opportune moments for intervention and peace negotiations.

Zartman points out that “negotiation may be a tactical interlude, a breather for rest and rearmament, a sop to external pressure, without any intent of opening a sincere search for a joint out- come—thus the need for quotation marks or for some elusive modifier such as “serious” or “sincere” negotiations.” That was exactly what the PKK and Ocalan were afraid of—and yet they proceeded with the peace talks in the hope of bringing peace for the country. Alas, the peace talks failed. What came afterwards has traumatized the Kurdish people for years to come and dragged all of Turkey backwards towards autocracy.

Both parties—the PKK and the Turkish state—have hurt each other badly in the past 40 years.  The time is ripe for peace. Peace is not only important for the Kurds and the Turks in Turkey: it has ramifications for the Syrian crisis as well. Turkey has become a key party in the crisis, supporting terror against the gains made by Kurdish groups inspired by Ocalan’s ideas in North and East Syria.

If the United States and European  countries seek a peaceful Middle East that is less likely to align with autocrats, they should start with focusing on peace in Turkey. A resolution to the Kurdish question will lead to a strong wave of democratization of the region in the mid-term period, including Iran.

(Photo: Alessandro Rota/Getty Images)

About the Author

Kamal Chomani

Non-Resident Fellow

Kamal Chomani is a Ph.D. student at the University of Leipzig in Germany, focusing on political legitimacy in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a master’s degree in public policy from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Erfur…

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