TURKEY -- PKK -- Peace Proposals

Amman, 7 August 1999/P/K/16570c-is

Commentary by Dr. Musa Keilani

It would appear that the Turkish government is turning its back on a historic opportunity to address one of its pressing issues by rejecting calls by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) to initiate a dialogue over the basic roots of the Kurdish problem in Turkey. Indeed, the guerrilla war waged by PKK in support of its demands for autonomy for Turkey's Kurdish minority is an internal affair of that country. But the problem has always spilled over Turkey's borders, dragging its neighbors as well as countries which host Kurds into the affair. Moreover, it is an issue that also concerns international organizations which have repeatededly called on the Turkish government to respect the human rights of the Kurds while tackling the issue head on.

The statement issued by the PKK last week accepting its leader Abdullah Ocalan's call to abandon the group's 14-year-old struggle and to quit Turkey is an unprecedented move by any guerrilla group. Obviously, the PKK hopes that its goodwill gesture will be accepted in good faith and spirits by the Turkish government. That explains the parts of the statement where the group expressed hope that Ankara will "show  common sense, responsibility and respect in the face of the realities before them (and) adopt a solution-seeking approach in the face of this historic steps."

It is easy to reject the PKK out of hand by giving it the traditional label of a terrorist group responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands in its battle against the Turkish military. There is no question either on Turkey's position that violence is not the means to achieve anything.

Of course, the Ankara government sees the conciliatory move as stemming from the military defeats the group suffered in the past few months capped by the capture and trial of Ocalan. As such, it does not see any reason to be lenient towards the group and believes insisting that Turkish Kurds totally abandon all hopes of asserting their ethnic identity and culture, including the use of their language. The latest Turkish move in this context came when the Ankara government took action against a pro-Kurdish member of parliament for mentioning his knowledge of Kurdish even as a "foreign language" (whereas the truth is that it is his mother tongue).

Ankara can congratulate itself for having made headway in its fight against Kurdish efforts to assert themselves as a distinct ethnic group with a rich culture and history. But can that posture negate the Kurdish content in the Turkish population?  At best, it is a short-sighted view from Ankara that the PKK and the Kurdish movement in general are spent forces and all it needs is a few more calculated moves to finish them off once and for all. Kurdish nationalism and quest for identity cannot be wiped out that easily.

There are many practical questions that stare at Ankara's face with the PKK agreement to accept Ocalan's call.

By Turkish accounts, there are about 3,500 PKK fighters in the Turkish mountains and another 1,000 across the border in Iraq. Independent accounts speak of much higher figures and better equipped PKK fighters than the ragtag army that many Turks describe them to be. But if one were to accept the Turkish figures and assume that the PKK fighters would quit, the question is: Where would they go? And what will be Turkey's approach to the possibility that those leaving Turkish territory might only join their comrades across the border in Iraq? Another armed invasion of northern Iraq?

Ankara cannot afford to forget that the possibility is very strong that the Kurdish cause could only pick up momentum on the diplomatic and political front after the PKK's move to quit Turkey. And it is only natural that that momentum would only bring stronger regional and international attention on the issue, which, by then could very well be beyond the scope of a bilateral negotiation. And if Turkey maintains a tough posture, the collapse of the diplomatic and political effort would only lead to a heightened military situation on the border involving the country's neighbors.

The people of this region are fed up with conflicts and bloodshed. They are witnessing the reality of horrible conflicts in the region. But a silver lining is flashing in the horizon in the form of the potential for peace between some of the bitter enemies in the region. However, what is happening and could happen in Turkey does not bode well for the hopes of the people of this region to live in tranquility. The way things are turning around in Turkey's Kurdish problem could of course be seen as an end to the crisis of the Turkish Kurds. But that will be an illusion. The problem will only simmer and explode at a later stage, perhaps at a time when the region's people are least expecting it.

It takes courage to recognize and accept the rivals' will to seek a negotiated settlement of a problem. It might be easier in the short term to reject all overtures and insist on tough postures, but the price for that short sighted stand would be too high in the long term, particularly if the issue at stake involves a people with a definite identity who are seeking to preserve their identity and maintain their culture and traditions. If that search had gone in the wrong direction of militancy and extremism, then it has to be recognized and accepted that the tough posture of one side in the conflict could easily push the other into a similar stand. And the road to solutions begins from that recognition and acceptance; that is something that seems to elude the Turkish leadership today as it faces the question of quo vadis Ankara or where to from here with the PKK, and, by extension, with the Kurds themselves?