Peace and PKK: Öcalan's Tenuous Ceasefire
On November 27, 1978, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] was founded from a conglomeration of radical leftist groups who sought to integrate the struggle for Kurdish independence into a broader international communist revolution, joining groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine in a protracted crusade against capitalist imperialism. This lofty initiative was grounded in the tangible suffering of stateless Kurds who rallied behind the group’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Waging a Maoist style “people’s war” against the culturally repressive Turkish state, the PKK engaged in guerrilla warfare and implemented terroristic tactics from their strongholds in Northern Iraq and regions of Lebanon formerly controlled by Syria. Since the conflict’s genesis 30 years ago, 45,000 lives have been claimed in the violence, with recent fighting chalking up to be the worst in more than a decade. However, recent developments have given both Turks and Kurds hope towards a peaceful settlement to the decades-old war. Despite his 1999 arrest by Turkish Special Forces in Kenya, and his incarceration on a small Turkish Island where he is the sole inmate, Öcalan claims to maintain the allegiance and obedience of an estimated 3,000 loyal fighters. Öcalan’s actual ability to mobilize these rebels will be soon be put to the test, as on March 21st he announced a ceasefire to coincide with the Kurdish New Year.
Favorable conditions within the Turkish state have led to this renewed political dialogue. First off, the ruling Justice and Development Party recently acknowledged the intractability of trying to continue to crush the insurgency with force, which only seemed to embolden and bolster Kurdish nationalist aspirations. Furthermore, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan’s aggressive presidential aspirations would only be possible if he were to gain the parliamentary support of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party. Such support would allow Erdogan to amend the Turkish constitution in order to give the president more than just ceremonial powers, as well as to diminish the powers of the prime minister. A third factor in this momentum is a heightened awareness of Öcalan’s salient influence after his successful intervention in a 600-person hunger strike this past November by Kurdish sympathizers
Skeptics warn that Öcalan’s influence may be more symbolic than functional, and therefore his ceasefire tenuous. After so many years behind bars, the PKK has grown into what F. Stephen Larrabee in Foreign Affairscalls, “a transnational movement with networks and operations across the region,” and its complex bureaucratic structure will surely prove difficult to dismantle, especially since the organized arm of the PKK is also supplemented by vast popular military support, which is difficult to address in operational terms on a ceasefire document.
Other critics of the ceasefire highlight the language of the agreement, which establishes a moratorium on PKK attacks against Turkish military and civilian targets, seeing it is a pledge of inaction—not action. The second part of the agreement calls for Kurd forces to withdraw from Turkish territory, rather than laying down arms or dismantling military bases in Northern Iraq, which leads some to believe that this agreement is more strategic than conciliatory.
Ongoing regional developments in neighboring Syria have also complicated matters. When Syria withdrew from five Kurdish border towns in July 2012, the PKK quickly established political and military control, leading Ankara to fear that Assad might be orchestrating a resurgence of PKK influence in an effort to destabilize the border, providing fertile grounds for an anti-Turkish insurgency to blossom.
Taking into account these complications, it is safe to say that the PKK will retain its violent capacities and arms, and remain a powerful pawn in the region’s tumultuous geopolitical chessboard. From their relative safety across the Turkish border, the PKK militants will survey Öcalan and Ergogan’s tenuous political dance, prepared to reignite the people’s war for Kurdish independence with support from the masses. The risk of losing Kurdish faith in the political process is massive, and perhaps far more damaging than the continuation of the decades-long conflict. However, Kurds should not shy away from this historic opportunity to obtain the cultural and political independence it has fought years to achieve.