Experts at Washington Event Express Mixed Feelings about Ankara-PKK Talks

A Brookings Institute panel discussing Turkey’s Kurdish question.

WASHINGTON DC – 23.3.2013 – Turkey has opened peace talks with the Kurds for political gain, and the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with whom Ankara is negotiating does not represents the Kurds, speakers at a Brookings Institute discussion said.

Last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) opened indirect talks with Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader who has been jailed on Turkey’s Imrali Island since being captured in 1999. The talks are reportedly aimed at disarming the PKK, which has waged a decades-long armed struggle against Ankara for greater Kurdish rights.

“Ocalan is in prison and isolated.  He has limited contact with outside. Even the delegations that visited Ocalan were stage-managed by Erdogan,” said journalist and author Aliza Marcus, one of the speakers at the discussion on Tuesday.

She claimed that Erdogan had thrust Ocalan onto the stage, elevating him to his current role.  “Unlike (the Kurdish) Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) who represent democratic demands, Ocalan does not represent such mass demands, and he is easy to manipulate,” Marcus opined.

“Ocalan is a perfect negotiator for Erdogan, because whatever he says reflects Erdogan and the National Intelligence Organization,” said Marcus, author of the book, Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.

“Why Ocalan, but not BDP?” she asked.

Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Omer Taspinar, in his comments, responded to Tol’s question by noting that the BDP itself had proposed Ocalan as the best person to speak for Turkey’s large Kurdish minority.

“I remember last year what Selahattin Demirtas, the Co-chair of BDP, said here in Washington. He said openly that Ocalan was the address for the solution,” Taspinar reminded the audience.

“Erdogan wants to become president in 2012 with a semi-presidential system, and this was his main motivator to initiate this peace process,” Taspinar said. “He needs the support of Kurds for the presidency and Ocalan can deliver this to him,” he added, calling Erdogan “a tactical genius.”

Gonul Tol, executive director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute, said in her remarks that resolving the conflict with the PKK became more urgent for Ankara after the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, where the PKK-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) has emerged as the most powerful Kurdish force.   She warned Ankara that even if PKK militants withdraw from Turkish soil, the organization would still remain intact through the PYD.

“A peace deal with the PKK has to address the PKK presence in Syria, which makes the things more complicated,” Tol said in response to a question by Rudaw.

“If Turkey can fix the problem, it won’t have to worry about the Assad regime or any other actor in the region using the PKK card against Turkey, which is a strong motivation,” Tol said. “It will allow Turkey to be a more confident actor in regional affairs and give Ankara a more effective and legitimate role in Syria to have better relations with Syrian Kurds,” she predicted.