Interviewee: Steven A.Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies / Author: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR

25.3.2013 – Marking the Kurdish New Year, Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), called for a truce between his rebels and the Turkish government. His written remarks, which were read aloud to thousands of cheering Kurds, are the culmination of months of negotiations between Ankara and the insurgent group. CFR’s Steven A. Cook says this is “a major development” that bodes well for the attempt to bring nearly thirty years of bloodshed to an end. He says that a lasting peace will depend on the PKK’s disarming and the implementation of a new Turkish constitution that provides Kurds with greater autonomy.

How significant is Ocalan’s call for peace?

It’s certainly a major development. There have been cease-fires before, of course, but overall, the fact that Ocalan is calling for his fighters to leave Turkey and the PKK is releasing Turkish hostages that they’ve held for years are positive signs.

And there’s a multi-step process in place in which the PKK would disarm and its fighters would be integrated into Turkish society–all of this is extraordinarily promising and offers hope that the violence will finally be ended. This conflict has been going on since 1984 and has killed anywhere between thirty thousand and forty thousand people.

What is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan offering the Kurds in return for this cease-fire?

Ocalan’s statement is the result of negotiations that have gone on between the Erdogan government and the PKK leader for quite some time. This is a peace process that began last October, and I think the Turkish government is looking to respond in kind. First, they have announced that if there are no attacks against Turkey, then the Turkish military will not pursue the PKK any longer.

There is also an expectation on the part of the Kurds that, with a new Turkish constitution emerging, they will have greater cultural rights and that there will be a devolution of power from the central state to the provinces. This would allow Kurds to have not an independent state, but certainly more control over their own lives and their own affairs. So this is a first step in what Turks often refer to as the “solution to the Kurdish problem.” Nobody has quite known exactly what this means until now.

What’s the status of the new constitution?

It’s still being drafted and is the subject of some controversy–it will be controversial within Kurdish nationalist groups without a doubt. A major obstacle to the constitution is the question of the presidency. It’s an open secret that Prime Minister Erdogan wants to empower the presidency in ways that will keep him the center of the political arena in that office. He’s been prime minister for three terms, and his party would like this new constitution to allow him to continue to play the role he’s been playing over the last decade. But now we have this question about constitutional and judicial changes that would give Kurds more cultural rights, which is obviously very important, but it’s going to be quite controversial.

The Kurds are spread across the Middle East, and they’ve been very active in Syria in fighting the Assad government. How does this factor into this cease-fire?

One impetus to the truce movement on the Turkish front is the concern that if Ankara doesn’t resolve its own Kurdish issue, Syria’s Kurds may go their own way if Syria truly does disintegrate. Of course, this would have a dynamic effect on Turkey’s rather large Kurdish population–they are about 18 percent of about eighty million people.

So if you can resolve the Kurdish issue and the Kurds can be integrated better in Turkey, the belief is that the threat of Kurds wanting their own autonomy and, in the extreme, their own independent state will go away.

The Kurds in Iraq have now all but set up an independent state. How does the Turkish government view this?

It’s interesting. Turkey has evolved from the country that was most likely to invade Iraq over Kurdish nationalism in northern Iraq to one that has decided that it will bind this Kurdish autonomous zone/state to Turkey through a tremendous amount of national investment in northern Iraq. Indeed, it has been a very shrewd move on the part of the Turks, making essentially the Kurdisstan regional government–as it’s known–somewhat dependent upon Turkish financial support.

The other country that has a sizeable Kurdish population is Iran. What does Tehran think of this?

Certainly the Turks and Iranians have quietly cooperated from time to time in going after the PKK and the PJAK, which is the Iranian Kurdish version of the PKK. If this cease-fire is durable, this obviously will bring an end to this quiet cooperation. What kind of dynamic effect this might have on the Kurds in Iran is anybody’s guess.

The United States and the EU consider the PKK a terrorist organization. Is that likely to change?

Not in the short run. They would certainly need for this cease-fire to be durable over a longer period of time. For that to happen, there would have to be clear indications that Kurdish fighters have withdrawn from Turkey and disarmed.

At this point, you’d expect that Ocalan, who has a life sentence, might be released from prison. Is there any talk of that?

I haven’t heard any talk about it yet.

Talk a bit about U.S. relations with Turkey. They’ve been strained over Turkey’s problems with Israel, right?

More of the strain has come over what the Turks regard as American inaction in Syria. There’s a belief that the Syrian conflict has already spun out of control. It has spilled into Turkey and undermined Turkish security. And of course, the Turks are hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. Gaziantep, a city not too far from the Syrian border, has become the home base of thousands of Syrian business people who have fled the fighting and essentially set up shop. So there’s tremendous fear that the chaos in Syria will affect Turkey given their long border. And the Turks have wanted the United States to take a more proactive approach to the civil war in Syria, but Washington has obviously wanted to remain out.

What did you think of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s phone call apology to Erdogan for Israel’s deadly raid on a Turkish ship in 2010? Apparently this was brokered by the White House.

I was a bit surprised by Netanyahu’s apology. It didn’t seem that either the Israelis or the Turks were prepared to improve relations. After all, just a few weeks ago, Erdogan called Zionism “a crime against humanity.” All that said, reconciliation between Turkey and Israel is a good thing for both countries and the United States. I would not expect a return to the tight strategic alignment of the past, but the return of relations at the ambassadorial level and a return to normal ties is probably good enough. There are some early expectations that Turkey and Israel will cooperate on Syria and Iran. I’m not sure that will happen so quickly after all the mistrust between the two countries.

Has the U.S. been cooperating with Turkey much on aid?

The United States has done some in terms of aid to the refugees, and of course NATO has deployed Patriot missile batteries in southern Turkey to help defend against Syrian hostile action. But this has really been a setback in a relationship that the Obama administration and the Erdogan government worked very hard to reestablish.

Coming back to the announcement by Ocalan, what should we look for to see whether this withdrawal takes place?

Although the PKK is withdrawing, as its leader has asked, there doesn’t seem to be an indication that they are disarming. They want to make sure that the constitutional changes and changes to the judiciary that will pave the way for more Kurdish autonomy and cultural rights are effectively implemented. Otherwise, they retain at least the option of going back to war. So the thing to look for is one, those constitutional changes–how they are done and implemented, and two, if the PKK then actually lays down its arms.