New Turkey-PKK peace talks: An inevitability postponed

New Turkey-PKK peace talks: An inevitability postponed

When a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire collapsed in July 2015, the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – listed internationally as a terrorist organization – entered into a dark, dangerous tunnel from which it will take a great effort from both sides to find a peaceful exit. The tragic paradox is that the previous peace efforts were born of a realization by the leaderships of both sides that there can be no winner from military confrontation.

The problem is not just that the fighting – the worst since the grim 1990s – had within seven months killed around 900 people, including at least 240 civilians, according to the Crisis Group open-source tally. It is that the two sides threw away many of the achievements of a decade of peace efforts, causing massive new polarization within Turkey that will be harder than ever to repair.

There is an expectation that violence will worsen in spring when militants can again move through mountain passes. An increased threat is also posed by the PKK and affiliated groups possibly carrying out further attacks in Turkey’s west, as has been the case in February and March already.  Turkey and the PKK should urgently build their way back toward peace talks. 

The peace process should have two tracks. On one hand, talks with the PKK should resume with the goal of obtaining the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey and possible reintegration schemes. Öcalan has underlined the need for a broader and more structured format for the peace talks that would also bring in other PKK figures and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), as well as a monitoring mechanism. To achieve a mutually agreed roadmap and timeline, the government needs to clarify its position on institutionalizing the process.

The PKK and the Turkish state must pursue a reinforced ceasefire, with well-defined parameters that can be monitored. While the state needs to ensure that politically motivated arrests end, and past and present rights abuses are investigated, the PKK must put an end to autonomy declarations that undermine the state and so-called defense of territory using young armed militants behind trenches and barricades in urban centers. 

On a separate track, the government and all legal parties in Ankara should gather together, preferably involving parliament, to address longstanding demands of Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking communities. Such an effort would need to include mother-tongue education rights, decentralization for the whole of Turkey, removal of even the appearance of discrimination from the constitution, fairer anti-terrorism laws, and the lowering of the 10 percent national vote threshold for a party to enter parliament.

However, the outlook for peace is undermined by the fact that both Ankara and the PKK are confident that their role in relation to the Syria crisis is crucial, at the same time as domestic political polarization during the election period has burned down painstakingly-built political bridges. The PKK is trying to capitalize on the successes of its affiliated groups in Syria to bolster its position vis-à-vis Turkey. The West’s growing reliance on the YPG in the struggle against ISIL has increased the legitimacy of the PYD/YPG and given momentum to their aspiration for a PYD-run project of Kurdish autonomous enclaves in Syria. The deterioration of Moscow-Ankara relations since Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet on Nov. 24, 2015 has further elevated PKK confidence. Ankara, meanwhile, is confident that Turkey’s strategic importance for the West is heightened in light of its role in the fight against ISIL, deepening fault-lines in the region, and the refugee crisis. Both the PKK and Ankara are therefore emboldened by their strategic importance, particularly for Washington. The flare-up in the PKK-Turkey conflict in turn complicates the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIL, given the infeasibility of Ankara collaboration, directly or indirectly, with the YPG.

Despite their conviction of time being on their side, both sides know that there is ultimately no military solution to the three-decade long PKK-Turkey conflict. As violence escalates to unprecedented levels in the country, the importance of returning to the negotiation table becomes ever more apparent. 

* Nigar Göksel and Berkay Mandiraci are Senior Turkey Analyst and Turkey Researcher respectively with the International Crisis Group, an independent conflict prevention organization. This is an abridged and updated version of the original article in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Winter 2016 issue.