For decades, Turks have vilified Abdullah Ocalan as a terrorist. But he may be the only man who can bring an end to their country's bloody conflict with the Kurds.
On the morning of Jan. 3, Kurdish politicians Ayla Akat Ata and Ahmet Turk boarded a ferry bound for Imrali, a prison island on the Marmara Sea, about 40 miles south of Istanbul. Waiting for them inside the maximum-security jail was Turkey’s public enemy No. 1: the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.
The unprecedented meeting has revived hopes that a negotiated solution to Turkey’s bloody, protracted conflict with the PKK may be within reach. Other signs also point to a concerted mediation effort: Ata and Turk’s visit was preceded by contacts between the PKK leader and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey’s intelligence agency. Then on Jan. 8, the Turkish daily Radikal broke the news that Ocalan and Turkish officials had agreed to a road map that foresaw gradual PKK disarmament in exchange for allowing education in the Kurdish language, strengthened local administration in areas inhabited by Kurds, and a new, ethnically neutral definition of citizenship. According to the daily Yeni Safak, Ocalan also offered to call on the PKK’s Syrian offshoot to suspend contacts with the regime in Damascus and join ranks with the anti-Assad rebels.
Turks and Kurds may be forgiven for not celebrating just yet. After 30 years and more than 40,000 casualties, the conflict has defied numerous attempts to silence the guns of war. A highly touted but badly mismanaged "Kurdish opening" launched by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government in 2009 ended up in tatters after a nationalist backlash. In 2011, a series of secret talks with rebel leaders, including Ocalan, collapsed amid renewed PKK attacks. In the meantime, a wave of arrests of thousands of Kurdish politicians, academics, journalists, and activists — moderates and radicals alike — has convinced many Kurds that the government has no interest in a negotiated solution.
The decision to place Ocalan at the heart of the new talks reflects not only the failure of previous policies but also something that few politicians in Turkey have hitherto dared to acknowledge — that more than a decade into his life sentence, the PKK’s veteran leader continues to hold the key to peace. A few years ago, publicly engaging with Ocalan, a man many Turks view as the devil incarnate, would have exposed the government to charges of treason. Today, in one judges by the lack of public outcry, it is simply seen as the option that has the best chance of working. Tellingly, even the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which seldom misses a chance to bash Erdogan, has given his government the benefit of the doubt.
There may simply be no way of sidestepping Ocalan. Since 1984, when he and the PKK first took up arms against the Turkish state, Ocalan has consolidated his status as the Kurds’ national icon. Just as shrewd and charismatic as he is ruthless and dictatorial, Apo, as he is known, has never lost his grip on the Kurdish movement. To this day, even from his remote island prison, he remains capable of firing up and cooling passions at will. Three years ago, when Ocalan complained through his lawyers that he was feeling cramped in his new prison cell, protests erupted in Kurdish cities across the country. In November 2012, Ocalan once again proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he urged several hundred Kurdish prisoners, some of them close to death after 68 days without food, to suspend their hunger strike. All complied in the blink of an eye.
The hunger strike intervention was a game-changer, says Cengiz Candar, a veteran journalist and the author of a 2011 report on the PKK. By showing Ocalan’s leverage with militant Kurds, he says, "it gave an opportunity to those in government who sought a negotiated solution and who wanted Ocalan to play a central role in this framework."
A number of other factors may have played into the renewed push for peace. While recent military offensives against rebel bases in Turkey’s southeast and in the mountains of northern Iraq may have weakened the PKK, they have failed to break the group’s back. In the meantime, the fallout from neighboring Syria, where the PKK’s local affiliate has emerged as the most powerful actor in areas populated by Kurds, has complicated things even further. Whether or not it has received direct aid from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as the Turks have alleged, the PKK has certainly been heartened by developments across the border, stepping up attacks against Turkish targets and, in the process, making 2012 the bloodiest year on record since Ocalan’s capture.
Then there’s the electoral calendar. Next year, Turks will head to the polls in local and presidential elections. As always, Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will vie for a chunk of the Kurdish vote. Its politicians — including Erdogan, who is likely to make a bid for the presidency — will want to point to some signs of progress toward meeting these voters’ grievances. "The unresolved Kurdish issue, with the PKK in a position of escalating its violence, it’s not a very conducive climate to have elections," says Candar.
Of course, there is no shortage of spoilers who could attempt to sabotage the talks before they get off the ground. One potential culprit is a group of hawks within the army, police, and judiciary that last flexed its muscles in February 2012, when a prosecutor subpoenaed Fidan on suspicion that the intelligence chief had exceeded his authority during the secret talks with the PKK. A hard-line faction within the PKK may also be keen to destroy any attempt at peace. On Jan. 7, a group of PKK members attacked a gendarmerie outpost in Turkey’s southeast, killing a Turkish soldier. Two days later, in what appeared to be a direct provocation, unknown assailants shot dead PKK co-founder Sakine Cansiz and two other women in Paris.
Candar is confident that PKK fighters will abide by whatever deal Ocalan hammers out with the government. "I don’t buy the argument that there is Ocalan and there’s also the PKK, that it is a two-headed organization," he said. "Whatever Ocalan decides to be done will be implemented by the organization."
Yildiray Ogur, the journalist who broke the news of Ata and Turk’s visit to Imrali, agrees. "If Ocalan says that the military operations are ended and we’ve passed into the political arena, the PKK will accept this," he says. "Ocalan is a demigod for the PKK."
At some point, however, Ocalan’s larger-than-life status among the Kurds may become part of the problem. Leading PKK members and Kurdish politicians have previously warned that no solution to the Kurdish issue would be viable unless it involves freedom for Ocalan or, at the very least, his transfer to house arrest. Whereas the conditions reportedly outlined in Ocalan’s road map might appear palatable to Turkish public opinion, this one is certainly anything but. "House arrest," Erdogan said this week, "is out of the question."
Ocalan may have a narcissistic streak, says Ogur, but he is too smart a politician to make himself the subject of negotiations right from the get-go. If the issue of his future does ever come up, it will be at the end of the process — after the PKK disbands. "Maybe after that the public view of Ocalan may change; maybe then the public will accept the move to house arrest," says Ogur.
"Yes," he says, "our prime minister said this is impossible. But in Turkey there isn’t much that is impossible."