Sunday, March 31, 2013

PKK Rebels Offer a Ceasefire

Turkey may see lasting peace after almost three decades of fighting with the announcement of a ceasefire by the rebel group PKK. This, if successful, will end a three decade old armed conflict which has claimed at least fifty thousand lives.

Kurdish people inhabit an area straddling four countries in West Asia; Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. There are small minorities in some other adjacent countries and some countries in Western Europe. The current world Kurdish population is said to be close to 38 million. In Turkey and Iraq, they are roughly one fifth of the population.

Kurdish separatist movements have been active in both Iraq and Turkey for a long time. The PKK, founded in 1970s, initiated an armed struggle against the Turkish government in 1984. Initially a Marxist outfit, it moved to a more moderate platform with the passage of time. The PKK insurgency was mainly rural based, active in South Eastern Turkey, where a Kurdish majority resides. In 1991, the PKK received an additional advantage when a Kurdish Autonomous Region was established in Iraq. Thereafter the PKK could use bases inside Iraq to launch attacks and fall back. On several occasions, the Turkish military forces have launched attacks at PKK rebels in Northern Iraq.

Several months after its leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in Kenya in February 1999, the PKK announced a ceasefire. Ocalan was given the death sentence which was later commuted to life imprisonment. The ceasefire was broken in 2004 amid continuing clashes between the rebels and the government.

The current ceasefire was announced by the imprisoned leader Abdulla Ocalan and was read out by Kurdish Members of Parliament at a rally in Diyarbakir, South Eastern Turkey. The announcement came in time for the Kurdish New Year (Newroz). While the announcement of a ceasefire was widely anticipated, Ocalan’s call for a total withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey was a surprise to many. The acting leader of the PKK, Murat Karayilan, has expressed his agreement with Ocalan’s announcement. This shows a strong willingness of the PKK forces to abide by the ceasefire.

However, there still are questions raised about the announcement. There is no roadmap announced for the withdrawal of PKK forces. While some analysts speculate that the withdrawal will take place without any pre conditions, others disagree. The Turkish government has been cautious about the ceasefire declaration. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated that while the ceasefire decision is a positive development, the essential thing is to transform the decision into practice.

There are several factors which may help the ceasefire to be successful. Ocalan has been in negotiation with the government agents for a few years. He has been serious about a comprehensive peace process for a long time. The Erdogan government needs the support of the Kurdish parliamentarians to pass constitutional reforms. This opens the way for the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the main Kurdish party in Turkey, to be in a strong bargaining position. A 2/3 majority is needed for constitutional reforms and the ruling AK Party has only 327 out of 550 seats in parliament. The support of the 35 BDP members (elected as independents) will give the necessary majority.

Another major concern of the Turkish government is the possible spillover effects from the unstable situation in Syria. A sizeable Kurdish minority lives in Syria and Popular Resistance Groups (YPG), an armed group trained by PKK, has taken control of many towns inhabited by Kurds.

Neither the PKK nor the Turkish government can expect total victory in this conflict. Therefore, it is advantageous to both sides to reach a workable agreement to resolve the issue. While Ocalan’s declaration is a step forward, it will need a great deal of negotiations and bargaining. Hopefully this new ceasefire would bring lasting peace to the Kurdish regions in Turkey.