The so called ‘peace process’ Turkey / Kurds: An ill-managed process (TURKISH REVIEW)


2. 1- 2014 – Talks between Turkey, in the form of the ruling AK Party, and the PKK seemed to reach a conclusion in early 2013. A withdrawal of PKK forces was received with approval by the ruling party and resulted in a de facto cease-fire. However, diverging expectations and an ill-managed process of talks have strained relations. What future is there for a peace process? 

In March last year, the prospects for a political process leading toward an enduring solTurkey & Kurdsution of the Kurdish issue in Turkey seemed bright. Though no one expected miracles in this grinding problem, boiling down to (a lack of) democracy and citizenship rights and discharging itself in armed struggle, the idea took hold that the parties in this conflict, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish state, with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) as its main actor, were willing to find a settlement. Against the background of a Kurdish issue smoldering for nearly a century and igniting with almost 30 years of asymmetric warfare, the parties to the conflict could not be other than deeply suspicious of each other: The PKK made it clear that they were not taking steps toward a settlement based in their confidence in the AK Party government, while the AK Party likewise expressed distrust for the deeds and real intentions of the PKK.

In the months following what was regarded as a peace process, we have witnessed a political war of position, bringing Turkey to the fringe of a new round of violence. This article looks at what went wrong and attempts to unpack the peace process, mainly through discussion of the PKK decision taken on Sept. 9, 2013, to halt the withdrawal of its guerrillas from Turkey. The announcement of cessation, or freezing, of the withdrawal did not necessarily imply a return to combat, nor an end to the process of finding a non-military solution, yet it is a useful lens through which to examine the expectations and objectives of the parties involved. The question facing us is a rather simple one: What went wrong? In an exploration of answers to this question, we should take at least two issues into consideration: ill-managed expectations and diverging objectives associated with the withdrawal, and an ill-managed process. But before discussing these, a brief look is needed at the statement in which the PKK announced its withdrawal and the initial responses it provoked.

Statement and responses

Last September the PKK announced in a written statement that while a truce would be maintained, the withdrawal of guerrillas had been halted. This movement of fighters to outside the international borders of Turkey and into the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq was part of a peace process initiated by the PKK and approved by the AK Party in Turkey. The actual withdrawal of PKK guerrillas had begun on May 8, following a call by imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan a few weeks earlier. In a statement relayed by representatives of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) at a rally organized on the occasion of Newroz (the Kurdish New Year) on March 23, Öcalan said to his supporters, “We have now arrived at the stage of withdrawing our armed forces outside the borders.”1 His call, he emphasized, was not to be seen as an end, but as a new beginning in which the guns would be silenced and ideas speak instead. Öcalan’s call appeared to be welcomed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who said, “Frankly, I see it as a positive move, it is a positive invitation, it is a positive call,” adding immediately that, “it is also important to see these moves in practice.”2 While the PKK withdrew its fighters in small groups, the Turkish army watched closely but did not intervene, as a result of which Turkey has seen no funerals among the military or the guerrillas for months, a hopeful sign in a conflict reckoned to have a death toll of over 40,000.

The PKK thought that the withdrawal would be followed by reforms, paving the way for an integration of the PKK in a new political system. More concrete: Release of the thousands of Kurdish activists and representatives, arrested in the so-called Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) operations, was expected, in addition to the cancelation of the Counterterrorism Law, the announcement of an amnesty and a lowering of the election threshold (currently preventing parties winning less than 10 percent of the vote nationwide from entering Parliament). But none of these expectations were met. In the statement in which the step to halt the withdrawal was announced, the PKK (through the KCK) expressed dissatisfaction with the follow-up of the decision to withdraw its fighters: “Considering the irresponsible attitude of the government, [we] decided to halt the withdrawal of those guerrilla forces still within the borders of Turkey.” The PKK statement expressed disappointment with the way Erdoğan had handled the peace process:

Constructing new military posts, building new dams and HEPs are enough to show ill-will in the approach of the government. The government is preparing itself for war, not for peace. […] The basic factor resulting in stopping the withdrawal is that the government [has] made no move to convince the guerrilla forces not to pull back.3 

Trust and reciprocity seem to be key issues here. Commenting on the KCK statement, BDP Co-Chairman Gülten Kışanak noted that negotiations had been under way since January, but that they did not “see any efforts from the government to resume the process,” observing also that “for the past couple of months” they had “warned the government” but “didn’t get any positive response.” She continued:

[W]e proposed to form a committee that would independently observe the process. However, we received no response. We have brought up the issue of concrete steps several times: new democratic reforms, removal of obstacles against freedom of the press and of expression, removal of the Anti-Terror Act. We need to change the electoral quotas and law on political parties. Not only did the government take no steps regarding these issues, its discourse portrayed an opposite attitude. It is easy to undo the suspension of withdrawal.4 

Negotiations and political reform, in her view, were key to resuming the withdrawal and getting the peace process on track. Responding, Prime Minister Erdoğan made no efforts to rebuild trust in the process. According to the prime minister, the PKK had not kept its promises and its withdrawal had actually comprised little more than a token effort. He argued that the PKK had had only pulled back some 20 percent of its fighters, and, moreover, most of these were “women, sick people and children.” Erdoğan contextualized the decision of the PKK in the framework of the coming local elections (slated for March 2014), and the publication of election polls, which allegedly showed his AK Party as on course for a majority of the vote in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey, with the BDP, now the biggest party in the region, running second, and likely to see significant losses at the coming ballot.5 

A few days later, on Sept. 12, 2013, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Ali Şahin evaluated the PKK statement as a bluff, adding, “No matter who has a gun in his hands, he violates the laws of this country,”6  for which reason “we did not negotiate with them in the past, do not negotiate with them today and will not negotiate with them in the future.” Moreover, Şahin suggested that the decision of the PKK would have no political impact. “Talking about the democratic reforms, we would take these steps anyway, as the AK Party, as the party in power.” The implication, manifestly, was that no political reform proposed by the AK Party could be the result of talks with the PKK, effectively locating the organization outside of the political landscape of Turkey. This was echoed in the words of AK Party Spokesman Hüseyin Çelik: “If the PKK wants, let them take up arms, if they want let them return to killing people, if they want, let them massacre. […] [W]hatever they do, when it comes to the issue of giving our citizens their cultural rights, we have never seen the PKK as a representative of the people.”7 

In a statement on Sept. 30, 2013, Erdoğan announced the long-awaited “democratization package.” The package included the lifting of a ban on headscarves in public institutions, the return of a monastery to the Assyrian church, allowing for education in Kurdish at private schools, a lifting of a ban on the letters Q, W and X (part of the Kurdish, but not Turkish, alphabet), and allowing villages to be returned to their Kurdish names. Though the AK Party continues to present itself as the party of reform, the proposed “democratization package” announced by Erdoğan was met with considerable disappointment. Among other shortcomings, for example, it made no direct reference to the Kurds or the souring Kurdish issue, did not offer much needed, more extensive language reforms (the AK Party had already allowed for limited teaching in Kurdish at private schools in 2002), and did not touch on the matter of changes to the Turkish Penal Code (TCK), which might pave the way for a release of the thousands of Kurdish activists and executives currently in prison. Then-BDP deputy Ertuğrul Kürkçü observed pithily that the package was just the “same old same old.”8

Ill-managed and diverging expectations

The status and number of fighters withdrawn is an important point of disagreement between the PKK and the AK Party government. The PKK said it halted a withdrawal that according to Erdoğan never fully started. Although a few days after the call, a first group of 13 guerrilla fighters did cross the international border from Turkey, obviously this was a major logistical exercise that would require time. Many of the fighters would have to walk hundreds of kilometers, moving cautiously and only at night.9 Turkey’s Human Rights Association (İHD) representative Şevket Akdemir stated “We are anticipating that the withdrawal will last three to four months.”10 

Meanwhile, the military and intelligence agencies monitored the withdrawal closely, through drone technology among others. According to the intelligence information gathered, the PKK had not withdrawn from six provinces, namely, Tunceli, Hakkari, Şırnak, Diyarbakır, Bingöl and Muş. Still, the same intelligence sources said that about 65 groups or units had crossed the border between May and August, with each group comprising about 14-16 fighters, totaling some 1,000 people — a considerable number.11  The intelligence reports seem to suggest that the withdrawal is yet incomplete, therefore, but has been taken seriously.

The issue, however, is not only — or even primarily — the speed and numerical dimensions of the withdrawal, but also — or rather — the expectations attached to it. For the government, or the AK Party, the withdrawal should go together with disarmament of the PKK. On several occasions Erdoğan has made it clear he believes the laying down of arms is not enough: “Silencing the arms is not a solution, arms should be laid down. If the arms are kept in the hands of terrorists, then this is not a solution.” He has underlined, furthermore, and on several occasions, that he would not offer a general amnesty and suggested, even, that PKK members should be exiled to a country other than Turkey or Iraq. The Kurds, however, reject this position, and have a very different agenda. As BDP deputy İdris Baluken explained:

Those people who have been fighting for 30 years in the mountains — at the cost of their lives — are not fighting in order to live abroad in comfort. Their return to political and social life should be guaranteed […] Those people were not born abroad and they are not fighting due to problems in foreign countries. They want this country’s problems to be solved. A real solution would be reached if their return to their own country was assured.12 

Essentially, the AK Party and PKK have a very different problem analysis. Erdoğan, the AK Party, or, for that matter, the Turkish state as a whole, sees the problem as one of “terrorism” and “weapons,” while the PKK, or the Kurdish movement, does not consider the armed struggle itself to be the problem, but rather views it as an expression of the problem; the manifestation of deeper concerns, of the underlying causes. According to Zubeyir Aydar, a former MP and senior leader within the PKK, “The problem did not arise from weapons, but from the Kurdish issue,” from which it follows that, “This issue must be solved,” meaning “The Kurds should get civil rights, their right to their language, they should be able to choose their own representatives.”13  In other words, for the Kurds the problem is political, an issue of rights, whereas for the state the problem is security, an issue of territorial control.

Baluken argues that the return of PKK members to political and social life should be guaranteed. Meanwhile Erdoğan wants withdrawal and disarmament, which need not be accompanied by political reform — in the political domain, everything is optional — and certainly does not assume the integration of the PKK in a new and democratic Turkey. Thus the preference for asylum for the PKK cadres in third countries. This is a long way from the political stance of the Kurds, who have signaled they perceive the withdrawal as an intermediate step toward integration of the PKK into a reformed political sphere in Turkey, and who therefore call for amnesty and political reforms that would facilitate such a return.

This takes us to the root of the problem and the radically divergent expectations and solutions of the two sides. The cancellation of the Counterterrorism Law, release of political prisoners, lowering of the electoral threshold, and decentralization of power (to local government, giving more possibilities for self-administration) are all high on the agenda of the Kurds. None of these demands was addressed by the government in its recent proposal. The concessions granted in the latest reform package do little more than provide de jure state sanction for de facto practices.

Another important issue is the right to education in one’s mother tongue. Erdoğan repeatedly rejected this demand: “No, there will not be. If you open the way for full education in the mother tongue, then you will be damaging the official language.”14 The promise in the package for private schools to be allowed to use languages other than Turkish hardly meets the civil rights expectations of those who think the state should provide mother tongue education to its Kurmanji and Zazaki speaking minorities in the context of wider language freedoms in the public sphere (such as private TV stations). In the commission established to prepare a new constitution for Turkey, the AK Party, Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) all voted against the right to education in one’s mother tongue and re-affirmed that education should be in Turkish — a bitter letdown for the Kurds.

The position of Erdoğan and the AK Party has been evaluated as “old arguments, old approaches, old narratives.” BDP Co-Chairman Kışanak has suggested a creative solution. If Erdoğan is not able to solve the issue of education in the mother tongue at the national level because of a nationalist opposition on the issue, then let him leave the matter to local administrations: “If there is demand for such education in that region, let’s meet the demand. If not, forget about it. Simple as that.”15 

According to Kışanak, the package will not help end the conflict between the PKK and the state. On the contrary, her view is that the government’s move is quite cynical: “It is not a democratization package; it is an election package.”16

Other issues in the peace process too turned out to problematic. Weeks before the announcement to halt the withdrawal, a KCK statement on the ongoing peace process released in the second half of August urged concrete action from the Turkish government, hinting at the possibility of halting the withdrawal:

The withdrawal of [our] armed forces was a manifestation of willingness. The Kurdish Liberation Movement has paved the way for the Turkish state to take steps forward. Instead of [the government] appreciating this and taking a series of steps forward, we observe no progress. On the contrary, we observe that the Turkish government is constructing new patrol stations and dams and hiring new village guards.17 

In his response to this complaint, which clearly signaled potential difficulties, Erdoğan simply denied there was such a thing as the construction of “new” patrol stations. The decision to construct these stations, the prime minister argued, had been taken several years before, so the construction taking place now was merely the implementation of a decision dating back several years. Indeed, that was the case. After the 2008 PKK attack on a patrol station in Hakkari, in which 15 Turkish soldiers were killed, Erdoğan had ordered the construction of high-security patrol stations, of which 102 were finalized in 2012, 143 (newly) under construction and the construction of 36 patrol stations in the phase of being tendered. This program was not halted nor any explanation given for why it was not being suspended (or at least slowed), nor suggestion offered that such a move had even been considered.

Regarding the village guard issue, there was a similar problem of style and substance in the prime minister’s approach, but here characterized by a confidence-reducing ambiguity. Though Erdoğan had announced that no new village guards would be contracted if the armed struggle with the PKK were to come to an end, he left a backdoor open by saying that, instead of village guards, the paramilitary might work as security personnel or contracted soldiers — giving the impression of a merely technical end to the village guard system.

In sum, the suspension of the PKK withdrawal appears to be an expression of an ill-managed process, based on diverging expectations about what it is in fact about. The government expected the PKK to withdraw its fighters at a higher pace, while the PKK was waiting for the government to meet some of its demands, if not with concrete measures, then at least by announcing a roadmap to political reforms. The PKK twins the withdrawal of its fighters to a political return, while the AK Party seems to consider the withdrawal as the beginning of a liquidation of the PKK.

An ill-managed process

The AK Party government has had contacts with the PKK for several years, with talks taking place in various settings and contexts. The current round of negotiations between “the PKK” and “the state” are, in fact, indirect communications between state officials and Öcalan, with representatives in Turkey (BDP) and the organization (PKK) being maneuvered in a satellite position of interlocutor. As compared to previous rounds of talks, the so-called “İmralı Process” (so named for the island on which Öcalan is imprisoned) narrowed down the circle of engagement from that of the “Oslo Consultation.” The latter refers to a prolonged series of face-to-face contacts between representatives of the PKK and the state over the 2007-11 period, in which high-ranking representatives from both sides participated: from the PKK, Mustafa Karasu (member of the KCK executive council), Sabri Ok (KCK), Zübeyir Aydar (president of the PKK-affiliated organization Kongra-Gel) and Adem Uzun of the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK), while from the Turkish side there was Hakan Fidan (then undersecretary for the Turkish Intelligence Organization, MİT) and Afet Güneş (deputy undersecretary for MİT). Parallel to these talks, the PKK had an exchange of views with Öcalan, mainly by means of written documents, while MİT, in close relationship with the prime minister, had regular face-to-face contacts with the PKK leader.

The restricted structure of the more recent dialogue is evident in the PKK statement in which the cessation of the withdrawal was announced. Focusing entirely on Öcalan, it ran thus:

[H]e is not given the chances and possibilities to lead the process to a successful end. While a one hundred year-old problem is being dealt with, imposing solitary confinement on a main [actor] on one side of the problem and not making room for him to work on the solution to issues is clear proof that the government is not sincere about settling the problem. While the Prime Minister and his government are free to hold many sessions and share opinions with many circles every day, [our] leader is only permitted to have one two hour-long meeting in a month; this fact clearly shows that the process is not developing and not being developed on the right course.18

The termination of the Oslo Consultation and start of the İmralı Process effectively came down to a sidelining of the PKK in direct negotiations. The issue is not one of whether the state should be in negotiation with either the PKK or Öcalan, but how to make it possible for both to establish their representation and operate in negotiations. As Aydar stated a few months ago:

If we are partner in the negotiations/interlocutor, we want to determine our own delegation. Let us be clear: Abdullah Öcalan represents us and talks in our name. But he is only one person. He should have the right to select his own delegation […] On the one had we have a state, with thousands of civil servants, advisors, archives and documents, and on the other side one person to who they say: let’s solve this problem. OK, let’s solve the problem, but he needs people to assist him, he needs advisors. […] Now he cannot talk to anyone. That is not a way to have healthy negotiations. And if we are sincere in our intentions, it should not be that difficult to create the right conditions.19 


Obviously there is no universal template to apply to conflict resolution, but the “right conditions” for any successful peace process surely involve not having one party determining who their consultation partner is to be. In this case, state agents have first spoken to Öcalan through the PKK and then to the PKK through Öcalan, using the BDP. But a solution needs “to be negotiated with its addressees.”20 

A genuine attempt at a peace process requires a foundation on a certain level of mutual respect and recognition, which assumes two parties able to choose their own delegations, which have a freedom of operation. For the solution-oriented approach required for a proper settlement, the views of the other need to be taken into account.

At the moment, however, what are sometimes referred to as negotiations tend to be more like political reconnaissance missions, in which the state, through its intelligence agencies, explores and monitors the political positions of the PKK and their imprisoned leader, without taking a position themselves. This is reflected in the results: not so much a failure to develop a negotiated and mutually agreed upon roadmap toward a political solution as a failure even to embark on such a process of mutual territory mapping.

Moving forward, what seems important for the success of negotiations is an enlargement of the circle of engagement and a commitment to a political solution. On the one hand, the AK Party should send skilled negotiators who have a full mandate (rather than secret service agents of uncertain independence), and on the other, Öcalan should be given the opportunity to create his negotiating team. Both parties need to have equal opportunity and scope to shape the process. A mutually trusted independent mediator or facilitator probably ought to be sought.

If something along these lines can emerge, genuine negotiations can replace the political reconnaissance missions we have been witnessing thus far, in which the state sounds out the political positions of the PKK and unilaterally determines the next step, with no transparency. On the basis of a genuine negotiation, a political solution to the Kurdish issue is possible. Such a negotiation process can contribute not only to management of expectations, but also to the development of a common understanding for a political solution. This, however, demands that the AK Party government renounces the public position in which it talks, but does not negotiate, with the PKK. Given the coming local, general and presidential elections, and the nationalist opposition to a political settlement, both inside and outside the ruling party, this seems rather unlikely. Unfortunately, given the explosive mix of a reluctant government, a faltering peace process and an impatient Kurdish population, prospects for a negotiated solution in the short term remain rather bleak.


1.“Full Text of Öcalan’s Newroz Statement,”, March 22, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013, .

2.“PM Erdoğan: ‘A Positive Move’,” Bianet, March 22, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013, .

3. “KCK releases new statement on peace process,” Peace in Kurdistan, Sept. 9, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

4. Nilay Vardar, “Gültan Kışanak: ‘Suspension of Withdrawal Can Be Resolved Easily’,” Bianet, Sept. 9, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

5. “Erdoğan: Reform paketi çalışmalarımız devam ediyor,” Nûçe Haber, Sept. 10, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

6. “Mehmet Ali Şahin: Bu blöfü yutmayız,” Hürriyet, Sept. 12, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

7. “Hüseyin Çelik: Vatandaşlarımızı PKK’nın merhametine bırakma niyetimiz yok,” Zaman, Sept. 24, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

8. Yavuz Baydar, “Erdogan’s Democracy Package Gets Cool Reception,” Al Monitor: Turkey Pulse, Sept. 30, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

9. Previously, in 1999, when the PKK withdrew its fighters following a call from Öcalan, the Turkish army took the opportunity to attack, killing hundreds of the retreating guerrillas.

10. Ekin Karaca, “Human Rights Association Of Turkey: ‘Withdrawal Resumes, People Optimistic’,” Bianet, May 10, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

11. The same report also estimated the number of people joining the organization in 2013 at about 1,200.

12.“CHP warm, BDP cool to PM’s words on PKK members’ exile,” Hürriyet Daily News, Nov. 24, 2012, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

13. Personal communication, March 5, 2013

14. “Erdoğan’dan Gündemle Ilgili Bomba Açiklamalar,” Aktif Haber, Aug.17, 2013, accessed Dec. 2, 2013,

15. Yavuz Baydar, “Erdogan’s ‘Now Or Never’ Moment in Turkish-Kurdish Peace Process,” Al Monitor: Turkey Pulse, Aug. 30, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013, 

16. Baydar, “Erdogan’s Democracy Package Gets Cool Reception.”

17. “KCK: Government Must Take A Step Forward,” Bianet, Aug. 23, 2013, accessed Nov. 26, 2013,

18. “KCK releases new statement on peace process,” Peace in Kurdistan.

19. Personal communication, March 5, 2013

20. Ibid.