At Nevruz five years ago, peace seemed so close
Today is Nevruz, which means “new day” in Persian and which marks the start of the new year for a number of peoples in Eurasia - from Azeris to Iranians to Kazakhs. It is also considered a key national day by Kurds across the region.
As is the case for many other things, Nevruz has become a site of polarization for many decades. As soon as it was secretly established in 1978, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) declared Nevruz the national day of Kurds and Kurds only. After the PKK started an armed campaign for independence in 1984, Turkish nationalists rediscovered this ancient festival and claimed that its origins are purely Turkic. As a result, Nevruz has started to be celebrated - or at least respected - by many in Turkey. On March 20, President Tayyip Erdoğan sent a message celebrating everyone’s Nevruz in a rather protocol-heavy way yesterday.
Just five years ago there was a totally different atmosphere at Nevruz.
In Diyarbakır, southeast Turkey, on March 21, 2013, a letter written by jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was read in Turkish and Kurdish to a crowd of hundreds of thousands by Kurdish-origin Pervin Buldan and Turkish-origin Sırrı Süreyya Önder, MPs from the Kurdish problem-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). In the letter, Öcalan voiced support for (then Prime Minister) Erdoğan’s initiative for talks trying to bring an end to the three-decade-long clashes through National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan. The HDP deputies were facilitating indirect dialogue, which started in autumn 2012, by acting as go-betweens with the PKK headquarters in the Kandil Mountains of Iraq.
Öcalan lived in Syria under Hafez al-Assad from 1982 but was expelled in 1998 after Turkey threatened Syria. He was arrested by MİT agents in February 1999 after leaving the Greek Embassy in Kenya, thanks to cooperation between MİT and the U.S. intelligence agency, the CIA. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison and has been held in İmralı island prison, south of Istanbul, since then.
For two years between autumn 2012 and autumn 2014 the PKK stopped all acts of terror, and clashes between the Turkish security forces and PKK militants also halted. In October 2014 there was a sudden jump in violence, when more than 40 people were killed in street clashes on Oct. 6-8 mostly in Diyarbakır, which could only be stopped after a message from Öcalan to Kandil.
The sudden jump in PKK attacks - and the first signs of the “barricades and trenches” urban uprising - one year later coincided with then U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision not to cooperate with his NATO ally Turkey but instead with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) siege of Kobane (or Ayn al-Arab, by the Turkish border). The YPG is the armed wing of the Syrian extension of the PKK, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and Turkey has long objected to such a partnership.
As the dialogue process continued the PKK in Kandil started to put increasing pressure on the HDP, and indirectly on Öcalan, to revise the terms of the agreement with the Turkish state. This was partly motivated by the fact that the PKK thought it was in a much stronger position due to its agreement with the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) to be the U.S.’s foot soldiers against ISIL, as Obama was keen not to send any more U.S. soldiers to get killed in the Middle East any more.
Ultimately, the day when ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) government members appeared before the cameras together with a HDP delegation to read separate statements promoting social peace for the country in 2015, the process was about to come to an end.
Öcalan’s statement on Nevruz in 2015 fell short of calling for arms to be laid down, as had been anticipated. At the same time, polls being shown to Erdoğan indicated that the AK Parti’s grassroots were not at all happy about the peace process.
In retrospect, the statement around those days from then HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş saying his party would never support Erdoğan being given extra presidential powers effectively put an end to the process. The last visit of an HDP delegation to Öcalan was in April 2015. In the June 2015 election the AK Parti lost its parliamentary majority; in July a PKK statement said the dialogue process was over and the PKK resumed acts of terror right, after which came the major urban uprising attempt in the southeast. Erdoğan abandoned the dialogue process, considering the suggestion of Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli. He declared early elections for Nov. 1, crushing the PKK’s urban uprising with massive force and winning the elections with promises of a pushing a constitutional shift for a stronger presidency.
Relations between Turkey and its major NATO ally the U.S. have been worsening ever since - regardless of the election of Donald Trump as president - amid the U.S.’s continued support for PKK-affiliated organizations and the fact that U.S. policy in the Middle East is being practically shaped by CENTCOM.
In diplomatic circles in Turkey nowadays some wonder whether there could ever be room for a similar dialogue process in the future. Considering that, it would be useful for everyone to remember what has taken place over the past five years.