The PKK and the problem of disarmament

The PKK and the problem of disarmament

The goal of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan government in negotiations with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was to disarm the organization and integrate it into the political system. The process would start with a cease-fire and continue with the militants’ exit from Turkey. The government would respond with legal and constitutional reforms. Then, the PKK would bid a farewell to arms. The process would end with a minimal form of “power sharing,” though the government would not acknowledge this publicly.

The recent statements on both sides point to difficulties in this plan. The most accurate assessment of the current situation seemed to have come from Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç: “We got into this process, the outcome of which we are not 100 percent sure, because we were left with no other option...”

PKK leaders Murat Karayılan and Cemil Bayık are engaged in “costly signaling” aimed at the government which, they feel, is truly out of options. There are several reasons why the process makes them overconfident.

The PKK, as a learning organization, is closely watching the political and security developments in the region, adapting to the new environment by reorganizing in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Europe. Its “unified command” matters, as it reveals the organization’s plan for the near future, in which, apparently, there is no room for disarmament.

Moreover, the advantages presented by the Syrian conflict are not simply military, but also political and diplomatic. The PKK is fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliate, al-Nusra. It is, therefore, in a natural alliance with the West which helps it attract a level of sympathy unparalleled in its history.

The government believes that the Gezi protests will flair up again in September. It is not hiding its anxiety. The PKK, on the other hand, knows the potential “multiplier effects” of Gezi-like events. This is serious costly signaling aimed at the government which sees negotiations as a strategic tool for keeping the PKK away from the streets.

Though unrelated at first sight, the government’s Egypt policy also gives courage to the PKK. The Turkish government is highly critical of the Egyptian government, which wants to contains street protests, and Ankara has voiced arguments against the wrongful use of force. But the PKK keeps learning. The most important lesson to infer is that the Turkish government will not be able to do anything against the people protesting out on the streets. A government so harsh against its Egyptian counterpart will not be able to do much to clear out official buildings if they are occupied by the masses led by the PKK.

In these hard times, a positive response from the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, to Erdoğan’s democratic reform proposal would be the best good news that the government could possibly hear.