Talking With Öcalan: A Futile Effort?

Talking With Öcalan: A Futile Effort?

In recent weeks, dialogue efforts between the Turkish government and Abdullah Öcalan, a prominent imprisoned Kurdish separatist leader, have intensified, with the stated aim of disarming the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after three decades of conflict and over 40,000 deaths. On Jan. 8, Turkish media outlets published reports that cautiously indicated that negotiations with Öcalan had yielded a potential four-point roadmap for PKK disarmament in exchange for minority rights and amnesty for thousands of Kurdish prisoners in Turkish jails. Notably, calls for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey were not mentioned as part of Öcalan’s demands.

Turkey’s Regional Concerns

Concerns over regional instability have also likely increased the willingness of the Turkish government to negotiate an end to the insurgency. Instability in Syria has severed previously strong economic and diplomatic ties between Ankara and Damascus, and increased concerns that Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria could join the PKK insurgency in Turkey’s southeastern provinces.

The close relations in the 1990’s between the Assad regime and the PKK, then under the command of Abdullah Öcalan, serve as a precedent and have raised concerns in Turkey over Assad’s attempts to create instability inside Turkey in response to Ankara’s meddling inside Syria.

Öcalan’s New Role as Mediator
The notably absent criticism of the Öcalan talks from Turkish media and hawkish political elements highlights the growing fatigue among large swathes of Turkish society regarding the continuation of fighting. Since the collapse of a long-standing ceasefire in 2011, hundreds of PKK militants and Turkish soldiers have been killed in hostilities in the southeast, while Turkey has been forced to devote additional economic resources toward protecting key energy pipelines in the region from attack. As such, the unprecedented permitting of Kurdish politicians to hold talks with Öcalan is likely part of a Turkish government effort to strengthen moderate Kurdish elements, while allowing Öcalan himself to gain political influence in exchange for other concessions.

Öcalan’s influence over the bulk of the PKK militant network remains strong, despite his imprisonment and disconnect with operational fighting units. In November 2012, Öcalan instructed PKK prisoners to end a 68-day hunger strike, bringing about an end to a potentially destabilizing crisis.

Öcalan’s statements are unlikely to bring about a comprehensive end to the PKK’s current insurgency campaign without the agreement of militant leaders in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey. Following the meeting between Öcalan and Kurdish politicians, the PKK’s military leadership in northern Iraq’s Qandil Mountains stated that the negotiation process had become more credible, but warned that a new settlement process had not yet begun. The aforementioned reaction from the PKK military leadership in northern Iraq highlights the group’s willingness to re-enter a ceasefire with Turkey, pending certain demands being met.

Any ceasefire agreement between the Turkish government and the PKK will likely be challenged by radical Kurdish offshoots inside Turkey, in addition to those based in Iran and Syria. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) have claimed responsibility for numerous attacks, including bombings of civilians, in recent years in major cities. Meanwhile, reports indicate that Kurdish militant factions based in Iran and Syria have increased their operations in Turkish border areas with the backing of those respective governments. The Turkish government has continuously alleged that Iranian operatives had been apprehended in its territory, while asserting that Iran had begun to use its own Kurdish militant groups as proxies to deter Turkey from continuing involvement in Syria.

With the clock ticking down to Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s first bid for the presidency in 2014, Erdoğan may find his fate tied with Öcalan’s ability to change course and rein in violence. Erdoğan likely knows that his ability to solve the Kurdish problem without enflaming hawks within his AKP faction as well as within Turkey’s nationalistic opposition may just be the defining moment of his political career.

*Brooklyn Middleton and Daniel Nisman are intelligence analysts at Max Security Solutions, a global geo-political risk consulting firm.