For decades, the Turkish government has been embroiled in a low-intensity conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed separatist group.
Now, unprecedented direct talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the PKK, and Turkey’s intelligence agency have produced their first major outcome: Ocalan has called for a truce and the withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey.
The talks, which were publicly announced at the end of 2012, aim to find a solution to the almost 30-year-long armed conflict.
In jail, Ocalan had not been allowed to see anybody apart from his relatives for 17 months. But as part of the initiative, Ocalan has met with Kurdish or pro-Kurdish MPs three times so far this year, delivered messages to the public through these delegations, and sent letters to PKK wings in northern Iraq and Europe laying what many consider to be a framework for peace. After one of Ocalan’s messages, the PKK released eight Turks it had been holding captive, including six army members.
“I am declaring in the presence of millions of witnesses that a new era is beginning; politics is rising, not arms. It is time for our armed forces to withdraw out of the [Turkish] border,” Ocalan said in his declaration, which MPs read out to hundreds of thousands of Kurds at a rally in southeastern city of Diyarbakir on Thursday for new year’s celebrations, called Newroz. The declaration did not clarify exactly how the withdrawal will take place.
The PKK has been implementing a de facto cease-fire for the last couple of months even before Ocalan’s remarks, so analysts expect his call for a truce will be adhered to. But Ocalan’s call for the withdrawal of PKK fighters was unexpected, and has become a major topic of discussion in Turkey.
Kurdish group releases captured Turks
The process’ framework, which was leaked to Turkish media and not denied by the Turkish government, sets out four steps: Truce; approval of a judicial reform package that will release thousands of imprisoned Kurds and the withdrawal of PKK members beyond Turkey’s borders; democratisation talks; and finally disarmament.
Orhan Miroglu, a writer and former Kurdish politician, believes some of the armed PKK members without criminal records will simply go back to their villages, pointing out that this often happens in practice anyways. “They are just questioned and released,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Apart from people at the [PKK’s] leadership level, Turkish authorities do not have criminal records of all of the 3,500 PKK members who are inside Turkey today. They do not know in what actions they have taken part,” Miroglu noted. “Security is the main concern for Ocalan and [the] PKK, as some 400 members of the group were killed during the 1999 withdrawal.”
Miroglu also stressed that the government and PKK would likely carry out the withdrawal before proposed judiciary reforms are finalised.
No roadmap for withdrawal
While some believe the withdrawal could take place without pre-conditions, other analysts say the absence of a roadmap in Ocalan’s remarks suggests the withdrawal may be accompanied by negotiations on the judicial reforms.
Cengiz Candar, a political analyst and author of a comprehensive 2011 report on the Kurdish issue, thinks there are still many uncertainties about the process.
“Ocalan did not reveal the date, schedule and method of the withdrawal. There is nothing concrete yet. However, it does not mean that the issue did not come up in the talks [between Turkish intelligence and Ocalan],” Candar told Al Jazeera. “It seems that these [technical details] will be handled through negotiations with some provisions.”
It is not clear whether disarmament of PKK fighters would include affiliated armed groups such as the Free Life Party of Kurdistan and the Democratic Union Party, who are active in Iran and Syria respectively, Candar said.
Ocalan has public support on his side in Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeastern region, and also carries weight with the PKK’s armed fighters. But the way forward for the PKK’s leaders in Iraq and Belgium remains unclear.
Murat Karayilan, the leader of the PKK’s armed forces in northern Iraq, said his group would “implement Ocalan’s plan in a decisive manner”.
Kurds struggle for rights in Turkey
“The leadership is trying to solve all parts of the Kurdish question,” he said in a Newroz message right after Ocalan’s declaration was read out. “If sovereign states are ready, we are ready to free Kurdistan through peaceful means.”
Miroglu, the former politician, says he thinks the PKK’s position will stay close to Ocalan’s proposals throughout the process.
Despite the general positive mood during recent festivities, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was somewhat critical of the Newroz celebrations in Diyarbakir because Turkish flags were not displayed at the event
Muammer Güler, Turkey’s interior minister, went a step further, reminding citizens that it is illegal to carry Ocalan posters under Turkish law. Many who attended the celebrations in Diyarbakir carried posters and banners of the jailed PKK leader.
Some opposition MPs in Ankara, meanwhile, hung Turkish flags on their desks in the parliament, protesting developments in the country’s southeast.
Yalcin Akdogan, Erdogan’s chief political adviser who played an active role in the process, believes the current peace plan is different than past attempts. In a television interview on Thursday, he said Kurdish politicians are far more involved this time, the PKK is weaker due to arrests and military operations, support among Turks for a peace deal is stronger, and political forces opposing the settlement of the Kurdish issue are weaker.
The existence of talks between Turkish intelligence and senior PKK figures was first made public in 2011 after a recording revealed the so-called “Oslo Talks”, a series of meetings that took place in the Norwegian capital between 2009 and 2011 to settle the decades-long armed conflict.
But these efforts had been effectively frozen since the summer of 2011 amid intensified PKK attacks on Turkish security targets.
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras