“Will Erdogan negotiate with APO and will Öcalan condemn PKK” ? – Turkey’s Erdogan may be shifting policy toward Kurds

By Bakr Sodqi – Al Hayat Newspaper – This article originally published in Arabic at alhayat.com, translated by al-monitor.com (13.10.2012)

After 14 months of isolation, the Turkish authorities allowed Mehmet Ocalan to visit his brother Abdullah Ocalan, who was being held in solitary confinement on the Island of Imrali located near Istanbul. During a talk-show appearance on the eve of the general conference of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the Kurdish leader will be moved out of solitary confinement.

The two leaders gave surprising statements that constitute the beginning of the next phase in Turkey and the region. While Erdogan expressed the government’s willingness to negotiate with Ocalan to halt violence, Ocalan was quoted as saying that he will deploy all efforts to end the Kurdish and Turkish bloodshed. The leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) condemned the attacks launched by PKK fighters in recent months and described them as “irresponsible.”

Recent months witnessed significant attacks conducted by the PKK, where many Turkish soldiers and officers were killed. The government and the opposition have beaten the war drums, causing a very tense situation in the country. This is following a period of hope that was created by the talks between the PKK and the Turkish government in Oslo between 2008 and 2011.Erdogan’s government shifted to a very repressive policy towards the Kurdish political movement in the recent period. Turkish security forces arrested Kurdish parliament members, journalists, businessmen and activists for supporting the PKK. More than 8,000 people were detained in this arrest campaign.

While the military announced a plan to “cleanse” regions in southeastern Anatolia of PKK militants, Erdogan surprised the local and international public by expressing his willingness to negotiate with the PKK leader. Ocalan responded in an even more positive way one week before Erdogan appeared on TV, on the occasion of his brother Mehmet’s visit to the prison.

It is safe to assume that the two parties had reached an agreement, so that Ocalan’s statement would be reported after the Turkish prime minister’s remarks were broadcast. This means that the negotiations that Erdogan said he is willing to open had already begun.

What does that mean?

Did Erdogan go to sleep one night, wake up from a dream about peace and decide that it was time to shift away from war to peaceful solutions? Did Ocalan decide — after 14 months of isolation — to abandon violence in favor of peaceful negotiations?

I guess that this new shift in opinions cannot be explained solely by internal factors, despite the fact that Erdogan has little time to go until the presidential elections, scheduled for 2014. He is hoping to win these elections to culminate his political career. This complex situation, which Turkey entered as a result of its internal and foreign policies, does not fulfill Erdogan’s ambitions. Erdogan abruptly turned from being an ally of the Syrian regime to its primary opponent. His government is siding with the political and military wings of the Syrian opposition and has provided shelter to those fleeing from death in Syrian cities and towns. It also set up on its territory a joint command center with the opponents of the Damascus regime, as well as a liaison office with the US administration regarding the developments in Syria.

The Damascus regime responded to Turkish policy by playing the Kurdish card. The Syrian regime withdrew from areas adjacent to the Turkish border, which have a Kurdish majority. This move benefited fighters from the Democratic Union Party, which is the Syrian branch of the PKK. The Syrian regime also encouraged the latter to escalate its military campaign against the Turkish army. It also downed a Turkish reconnaissance aircraft, as a clear message from Russia to Ankara, vowing for more action in response to Turkey’s support for the Syrian opposition.

Therefore, Erdogan found himself in trouble, after the Turkish opposition escalated its actions because of his interference in the Syrian crisis. This opposition includes disharmonious parties that are all opposed to a joint adversary. It consists of the Republican People’s Party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), the Alawites, the Kurds, the PKK and the Marxist leftist parties.

If Erdogan wants to continue to oppose the Syrian regime and support the opposition, he will face very difficult internal challenges. Most notably, there will be an escalation in violence between the Turkish army and the PKK, which would nearly resemble the prevailing violence in Syria. Are Erdogan’s internal political calculations aimed at ending his political career on the presidential seat, or has his alliance with the US inspired him to remove himself from the Kurdish problem and focus his attention on the Syrian revolution, whose fruits are ready to be reaped?

On the other hand, how will Ocalan’s sharp shift from war to negotiations affect the Syrian branch of his party’s policies in the Kurdish regions, regarding the Syrian revolution and regime? No one will be shocked if this party moves its weapons from one shoulder to the next and cuts its ties with the Syrian regime, in favor of complete cooperation with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The political platform is ready for this shift, under the Hawler agreement, which is sponsored by Massoud Barzani, between the Syrian branch of the party and the Kurdish National Council in Syria. Didn’t a Syrian MiG fighter jet bomb a residential building in Aleppo’s Sheikh Maksoud neighborhood, killing more than 30 Kurds? Didn’t the Kurdistan party militants respond to this attack by forcing the intelligence agents out of their posts in the Kurdish town of Afrin in the Aleppo governorate and seizing the premises that they used to protect? Didn’t a Syrian warplane bomb a passenger minibus traveling from Aleppo to Afrin, after the Turkish artillery fired in response to Syrian shelling the Turkish border-town Agca, killing three Kurdish passengers and injuring others?

These may be the early indicators of a shift that the regime expects the Kurdistan party to make in the next phase.