‘Gov’t put ball in PKK court, Paris murders not likely to derail talks’

Interview with Henri J. Barkey

13 January 2013 / YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL – Amid the Turkish senior intelligence officials’ meetings with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) chief Abdullah Öcalan in his jail cell near İstanbul yielding a plan to halt Turkey’s Kurdish conflict, an analyst said for Monday Talk that the Turkish government has put the ball in the Kandil-based PKK’s court.

“It is too early to judge the reaction of the PKK. This is going to be a long process where there will be lots of signaling, false starts and minor accomplishments,” said Professor Henri J. Barkey, a specialist in Turkish affairs and a long-time observer of the Kurdish issue, currently chair of international relations at the department of international relations of Lehigh University.

“It is natural that the interests of the two, Kandil and İmralı, would diverge with time,” he also said.

As previous negotiations between Turkish officials and the PKK were highly secretive, the open acknowledgment of the latest contact has raised hopes for a renewed peace effort, but Barkey said there will be ups and downs such as the Wednesday murders in Paris of three female PKK officials. “It is inevitable that there will be hard-liners on every side who will want to sabotage it for their own particular interests,” he said, adding that the murders are not likely to derail talks. Additionally, Barkey evaluated the regional conditions, especially events in Syria and Iraq, prompting the Turkish government to act on the Kurdish issue.

Answering our questions, he elaborated on the issue.

What is your assessment with regard to National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan’s recent talks with Öcalan on behalf of the Turkish state and then a visit by two Kurdish deputies to Öcalan on İmralı Island, where Öcalan has been held in isolation since his capture in 1999?

While many may be skeptical of yet another attempt by the government to tackle the Kurdish issue, one needs to look at it as a process. It may not necessarily result in an immediate solution, but it is a step forward. This is because every time you start some sort of negotiations, you advance the bar; once advanced, it is very difficult to go back to the situation before the advance.

Would you explain what you mean by raising the bar?

For instance, by negotiating with the PKK in secret, the Turkish government had already broken a taboo. Hence, as it starts this new round, it could no longer have argued that it does not negotiate with a “terrorist” organization. That chapter has been closed. This time, Turkish government adviser Mr. [Yalçın] Akdoğan clearly stated that Öcalan is the critical actor in this drama. The door has now been opened for Öcalan to become more active. Akdoğan also implicitly extended an invitation to the leadership in Kandil when he said that they were waiting for Kandil’s response. In some ways, the government has put the ball in the PKK’s court. The challenge for the PKK is a hard one. It has to respond with concrete proposals. Of course, it will be unrealistic for anyone to expect that the PKK will lay down its arms; that is the last step in the process. However, it can certainly do other things.

What other things, would you elaborate? If the PKK attacks persist, does that mean İmralı and Kandil are not in sync?

It is too early to judge the reaction of the PKK. This is going to be a long process where there will be lots of signaling, false starts and minor accomplishments. One should not have expected that the conflict would be over simply because Öcalan has had two meetings, one with Fidan and one with BDP [pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party] people. It is natural that the interests of the two, Kandil and İmralı, would diverge with time. Lack of communication, conditions on the ground, misunderstandings — especially the intermittent and infrequent way Öcalan could communicate left much ambiguity to emerge — will breed suspicion. Besides, Öcalan has a different role to play than the PKK.

‘PKK still attracts many young men’

Were you surprised by the government’s recent move to start talks with Öcalan? In a fairly recent interview in the Turkish press, you had said that you do not expect a second Oslo meeting until the presidential elections and you had added, “Making war is easier than peace.”

I was pleasantly surprised. This said, I do think that this is related to presidential elections. It may be that the prime minister decided that he was not going to win a large enough majority by tacking to the right. This would especially be true if the war continued at the same pace as earlier this year. Both sides suffered severe losses. Having the presidential elections during a period of heightened tension would have been counterproductive for [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan. He wants to win with a large enough majority, and that would have eluded him. I think two calculations have made the government change its mind. The first is the extent of the ferocity of the conflict this year. Although the PKK suffered huge losses, it is still attracting many young men. Erdoğan may have decided that the military solution will not work, or at least has little chance of succeeding before 2014. Besides, regional conditions are making it more complicated; events in Syria and Iraq are particularly worrisome. The second has to do with timing. It is true that making war is always easier than a peace overture. So if you are going to take a chance on a peace deal, you need time to give it a chance. Hence, why now?

Yes, why now?

This is sufficiently distant from the elections that if it does work, you will have time to show the results. A year-and-a-half from now, if no soldiers or very few have died and calm reigns in the country and there is real sense of movement on the Kurdish question, Erdoğan will be elected with a considerable majority. He will not only get the votes of his party, but also many Kurds will vote for him; I dare say a significant majority, and even the MHP [Nationalist Movement Party] will bleed many of its followers to the AKP [ruling Justice and Development Party]. In the end, some though not all MHP voters are closer to the AKP than say CHPers [Republican People’s Party] on the economy, conservative concerns, the headscarf issue, etc. With the war with the PKK diminishing as a concern and a considerable reduction in casualties and funerals, these MHP voters will prefer Erdoğan to any leader the CHP will be able to put forward. Herein lies the other aspect of this opening. Erdoğan, having realized that he is not going to get the changes he wants in the constitution regarding the presidential elections, wants to win with a very significant majority that will enable him to run the country from Çankaya, the presidential palace. It is nevertheless a risk, a gamble.

‘Provided they get what they want within Turkey, Kurdish independence will not become an issue’

What role do you think the regional developments — especially in regards to developments in Syria’s Kurdish region — have played in PM Erdoğan’s decision to restart a dialogue process with İmralı?

Some, but not much. Syrian Kurds do not present a military challenge and the topography of the area is not conducive to cross-border operations. Northern Iraq remains the most suitable place. But were the Syrian Kurds to achieve a degree of autonomy, the pressure on Turkey would certainly double after the Iraqi example. It would have made the question of autonomy a far more legitimate issue to raise. If in Iraq and Syria, why not in Turkey?

You indicated in a recent article of yours that the 1916 Sykes-Picot Anglo-French-drawn regional boundaries are at stake. Do you anticipate a Kurdish autonomous region in the area, especially if the Bashar al-Assad regime falls?

What I really had in mind was the border between Iraq and Syria. The unforeseen events in Syria are driving the Sunnis of both countries closer. A Sunni victory in Syria will embolden Iraqi Sunnis, who are chafing under [Nouri] al-Maliki’s government. An autonomous Kurdish zone in Syria is actually quite difficult and could only be accomplished in parts because there is no territorial contiguity between the two parts of Syrian Kurdistan.

The Turkish media quoted several sources saying that Öcalan does not want an independent Kurdish state. Isn’t this a dream for every Kurd, especially at this time in history when boundaries might be redrawn?

Many, many Kurds dream of independence. People are also instinctively realistic; in the end they want better education for their kids, better health care and an end to a conflict that has done immeasurable damage to them. Even in the Basque country, despite the persistence of the independence sentiment, Basques have remained within Spain and I would venture to say the same will be true for Catalonia. Moreover, Kurds are all over Turkey, in İstanbul and Mersin and Adana and Balıkesir. Diyarbakir Kurds are as attached to İstanbul as any İstanbulite. Provided they get what they want within Turkey, independence will not become an issue.

‘Barzani likely to be most influential voice among Syrian Kurds’

You’ve also indicated that the emergence of a Syrian Kurdish enclave puts pressure on KRG President Massoud Barzani, who has developed a “careful and harmonious relationship with Ankara.” What obstacles do you see in front of this relationship? The PYD’s [Democratic Union Party] nationalism is more pan-Kurdish, more in line with the PKK’s, whereas Barzani’s is more cautious and more focused on northern Iraq. Hence the PYD’s success comes at the expense of Barzani. Still, I think this is only temporary. Syria is undergoing terrible destruction and when the guns fall silent, Syrian Kurds will have only one reliable address and that is Iraqi Kurdistan and Barzani. Hence, I think that with time and patience, Barzani will succeed in emerging as the single most influential voice among Syrian Kurds. This is also especially true if the Turkey-PKK negotiations get more traction.

In a recent interview, Turkey’s Ambassador to Washington Namık Tan said that Washington was discouraging Ankara from investing in northern Iraq by suggesting that Turkey’s involvement in northern Iraq “helps divide Iraq.” Have you heard a similar view or argument by US officials in Washington with regard to Turkey’s acceleration of new projects with Iraqi Kurds?

It is funny how the pendulum has swung so much. Whereas the Americans were upset that Turkey was doing enough with or for Iraqi Kurds, now they are upset at too much. Still, I would not exaggerate American displeasure. The US is alarmed by the process of sectarianization in the region and how it affects Iraq in particular. Hence, it sees that Maliki is under terrible pressure from both the Syrian uprising and the KRG-Baghdad disputes. It does not want Maliki to rely more heavily on Iran if that is the choice he has. So I think what the US is probably telling Ankara is not to engage in any activity that gives the KRG any sense of confidence regarding independence from Iraq. But here, too, events — events that the US has no control over — will very much drive what happens next in Iraq.

If the PKK and Turkish intelligence talks happen to be in Arbil, as reported, what shall we read from that?

Well it is closer to Kandil for one if messages have to be passed on, etc. Second, it gives a stake to Iraqi Kurds and Barzani in particular. If they achieve success in Arbil, then Barzani will also claim credit for facilitating it and it will be a powerful message to Syrian Kurds. Other than that, there is a way in which maybe Turkey did not want to go to Europe once again and choosing a regional location made more sense.

Do you think Ankara-Arbil relations are going to be sustainable if Turkey does not solve its Kurdish problem?

In the long run, no