- By Jake HessJake Hess is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter: @jakerhess
QANDIL MOUNTAINS, IRAQ — Murat Karayilan’s mustached face soured as he read from the daily intelligence report prepared by his field commanders in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the rebel group that has fought Turkey since 1984.
The Turkish army is flying Cobra attack helicopters even as PKK guerrillas withdraw from Turkey to camps in northern Iraq, the report said. U.S. drones still buzz over the PKK’s mountain strongholds. Turkish military operations continue near the Iraqi border, the militants have written.
Karayilan, chairman of the executive council of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the umbrella formation that encompasses the PKK, denounced these and other "provocations," but insisted they will not upset the tentative peace process with Ankara as long as there are no attacks. The PKK’s broad popular support and impenetrable mountain fortress on the Iraqi border with Iran offer it the choice of continuing the insurgency. But Karayilan sees the PKK’s future in the cities of Turkey, not the rebel hideouts he has waged war from for almost 30 years.
"If Turkey carries out reforms, if the process is successful, our goal is to be legal and lawful, not illegal in the mountains," Karayilan told Foreign Policy in an interview at a PKK safe house in the Qandil Mountains.
Some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict, most of them Kurds. The PKK abandoned its original goal of establishing an independent Kurdish state in the 1990s. It now officially backs a negotiated settlement based on Kurdish rights and some form of autonomy within Turkey’s existing borders.
Talks between Turkey and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan resumed in fall 2012 following months of bloody fighting and a dramatic hunger strike by thousands of Kurdish political prisoners. Both sides have honored a cease-fire, and the PKK started pulling back its fighters in May. Karayilan said they are all "on their way" to Qandil, where guerrillas shelter in oddly picturesque tent camps nestled in lush valleys.
"We have fulfilled our duties in the first stage of the process. If the Turkish government and state want to solve the Kurdish issue, they should do what is required of them," Karayilan said. "The ball is in Ankara’s court. The two or three months ahead are very important."
The portly rebel rattled off a list of reforms when asked what he expects from Turkey in the next phase of the process. "There are things that needed to be done for Turkey’s democratization prior to now but weren’t, unfortunately," he said. First on the list: release the "thousands" of Kurdish politicians, activists, and intellectuals imprisoned on terrorism charges.
Next is a series of legislative changes the government could enact without amending the constitution — "road cleaning," in Karayilan’s words. This includes revision of Turkey’s notorious Anti-Terror Law, which has been used to punish nonviolent dissent, and reduction of the 10 percent electoral threshold, which has hindered representation of Kurds in Turkey’s parliament. "If the government wishes, it can do all of this right away. The fact that it has not done so is thought-provoking," Karayilan said.
But Karayilan was pragmatic, refusing to describe any of these as "red lines" or minimum requirements for the PKK’s continued participation in the peace process. Nor did he try to set a deadline for moves by the government. "It’s possible that not all of our goals will be immediately realized in the current solution process," he said. "If the political path is opened to us, we can achieve our aims through political means."
In Karayilan’s ideal scenario, the PKK’s focus will eventually shift from armed to cultural insurrection. He said that a future, legal PKK will leave the electoral realm to the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). "The PKK aims to shape society, not rule over it. It will carry out various projects to bring society to a higher level. The PKK will open academies, carry out cultural and philosophical activities, do ideological work, raise social consciousness."
Will they return to violence if the peace process falls apart? "There’s a possibility. We hope there will be no need for that, but if there’s a real collapse, we will, of course, defend ourselves."
The last round of Turkey-PKK dialogue took place from 2008 to 2011. Following exploratory contacts mediated by an unknown international guarantor, parallel sets of talks convened in Oslo, where Turkish intelligence officials held meetings with a KCK delegation, and at Imrali prison, where Ocalan is serving a life sentence.
The Kurdish side submitted three protocols for a settlement to the Turkish government in May 2011. It also provided detailed proposals for a new constitution. Karayilan asserted that the government has never "put them into practice nor rejected them" or submitted written proposals of its own. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan later said Turkey cut off the talks due to "insincerity in communication."
There is little indication that Turkey was ever sincere about reaching a negotiated settlement with the PKK. It detained or arrested thousands of Kurdish politicians during the Oslo years. Military assaults on the guerrillas continued. In 2009, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched an "opening" that quickly closed with few results. In a diplomatic cable, Doug Silliman, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Turkey from 2008 to 2011, said Turkish security officials repeatedly described the government’s goal for its "opening" as isolating and defeating the PKK’s leadership through a mixture of reform and repression.
Ankara moved to get Washington on board with this approach. Ray Odierno, then the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, began preparing a common anti-PKK "action plan" with Turkey in February 2010. Odierno described "isolating the true [PKK] ideologues and rendering them ineffective" as a goal. Turkey presented the United States with two of its own plans it hoped Washington would incorporate into the final. The first aimed at "termination of the armed presence of the [PKK] terrorist organization in Northern Iraq as soon as possible" by disrupting its logistics and communications. The second outlined steps Ankara expected the Kurdistan Regional Government to take against the PKK. Turkey, the United States, and Iraq announced the plan that April, though its terms were obscure. On the political front, Washington imposed personal sanctions on two of the three members of the Kurdish delegation to the Oslo talks. In October 2009, the Treasury Department declared KCK member Zubeyir Aydar a "Significant Foreign Narcotics Trafficker" along with Karayilan. In April 2011, it deemed PKK co-founder Sabri Ok a "Specially Designated Narcotics Trafficker."
The Obama administration’s statements in support of the current peace process leave Karayilan optimistic that this time could be different. He hopes the West will use its influence to improve prospects for a solution. "I see a softening. I see the support of the outside world, and especially the U.S.A., as important. I think development of a more active posture on their part would allow the process to speed up," he said. "We want the U.S.A. and European Union to develop policies to solve the Kurdish issue. The most important path for this is to remove the PKK from the list of terrorist organizations."
The KCK leader asserted that Western interests would be served by more cordial relations with the Kurds. "Solving the Kurdish issue will definitely pave the way to democratization and normalization in Turkey. In addition, it will have a similar impact on the Middle East. I think the West has an interest in this," he said.
Karayilan offered Syria as an example. The KCK has influence in Syrian Kurdistan due to its relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the most powerful party there. "Syrian Kurds have the most secular, modern, and democratic policies in that society. The Kurds are closest to the West. But due to Turkey’s veto, [the West] doesn’t even have relations with them. The armed opposition has a completely Islamist outlook." But he hinted that ties are improving. "I hear that America and Europe are just now looking at the PYD and Syrian Kurds. There are also positive developments on this front. There are warmer contacts, but I think America and Europe are late on this."
Karayilan added that the KCK plans to exploit the nascent diplomatic opportunities created by the peace process. "We want to carry out informational activities in the European Union and America as a first step. Up until now, the American public hasn’t learned about us from ourselves; they’ve learned about us from Turkey. We want to change this. I hope opportunities will be born in the future, and that we’ll have more effective projects. We want to carry out diplomacy, but there are obstacles. For example, America won’t give us a visa because we are PKK members."
Karayilan maintained that the sides have reached a significant spoken agreement. In a leaked audio recording of a meeting at Oslo, Turkish intelligence official Hakan Fidan is heard saying that Erdogan and Ocalan were in accord on "90 to 95 percent" of their views. Karayilan said the parties have edged closer since: "In terms of our discussions and dialogue, I can say it’s even more advanced [today] than it was then. Our leader says he trusts the delegation that’s meeting with him. But it’s not clear to what extent the state and government power behind the delegation will abide by the discussions."
For now, the PKK plans to wait and see what happens.
"How serious are they this time? I don’t know. The PKK isn’t a sitting target. We can’t just be eliminated," said Karayilan. "If America and Turkey have finally seen this, are truly sincere about a solution, and not planning to approach the process as they did during Oslo, we’re ready. Time will show their intentions."
Jake Hess is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.