Print version

GTE Question of the Month, November 2014


Has Kobane put an end to the Kurdish peace process?

Piotr Zalewski

As of early November, Turkey’s peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is alive, though limping badly. The fallout from the ongoing siege of Kobane by fighters of the Islamic State (ISIS) has turned into a public relations disaster for Ankara, both at home and abroad. This is a situation largely of Turkey’s own making. Turkey, though it was never expected to intervene directly in Kobane, failed to do the bare minimum to assuage public opinion among its own Kurds. No less a figure than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan drew parallels between ISIS and the Kurdish militia defending the city, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey repeatedly refused calls to allow weapons and PYD forces from other parts of Syria into Kobane. It opposed the American airdrop of weapons into the city. It was only in mid-October that the Turks, presumably strong-armed by Washington, okayed a deployment of 150 peshmerga troops from northern Iraq into the city. This came as too little too late – too little to make a difference in Kobane and too late to contain the explosion of Kurdish anger in Turkey. Exasperated with their government’s dithering and callous rhetoric, Kurds in a number of Turkish cities took to the streets in the first week of October. The clashes that followed left at least 40 dead.
Among Turkey’s Kurds, speculation that Ankara has been using ISIS as a proxy against their brethren in Syria, though backed by scant evidence, had already been widespread before the battle for Kobane. After Kobane, it is an article of faith, which further poisons the political climate.

Turkey is not the only side to have mismanaged the process. Of the 40 or so people who perished in the October protests, many died at the hands of PKK sympathizers. Kurdish politicians egged on the protesters, accusing a whole range of Turkish Islamist groups of sympathizing with ISIS. The PKK or one of its offshoots is also said to be responsible for the killing of four off-duty Turkish soldiers at the end of the month. The violence has already prompted the government to suspend contacts with the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader. It has also rekindled anxiety that Öcalan and the mainstream Kurdish political movement may be losing control over the increasingly radicalized youth of the southeast.

For the time being, the “solution process” seems to have survived, just barely, the battle of Kobane and the early October violence. It may be of some consolation that for both sides peace is simply too big a prize be sacrificed so easily to the political winds of the day.

(Piotr Zalewski is an Istanbul-based freelance writer for Time, Foreign Policy, and the Financial Times, among others)

Nathalie Tocci

The Islamic State’s attack on Kobane, resisted by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the PKK-affiliated Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), has put Turkey’s Kurdish peace process on a knife’s edge. To be fair, the Turkish government is stuck between a rock and hard place. Were it to act decisively in support of the Syrian Kurds, it would risk strengthening the PKK, reducing the likelihood of the latter’s disarmament in the context of the peace process. However, by sitting idly on the side-lines, the Turkish government has angered its own Kurdish population and triggered an unprecedented wave of domestic violence in the country. After much dithering Turkey stepped forward, opening its territory for the transit of arms and Peshmerga fighters into Syria. Whether its move will be both materially and symbolically sufficient to save the Kurdish peace process remains to be seen.

(Nathalie Tocci is Deputy Director, Istituto Affari Internazionali, and Special Advisor to the EU High Representative)

Bilgin Ayata

In the medium and long run, Kobane might be remembered as the historical turning point during which the PKK has managed to wipe off its terrorist image and gained international momentum for its fight against ISIS. Despite the current uproar in Ankara, this will pave the way also at the domestic level to change the official stance towards the PKK and thus make eventually negotiations easier for the government. Kobane is transforming the PKK into an internationally recognized actor in the region which makes it for Turkey even more vital to keep the Peace Process going.

Even though the Turkish government and the PKK are currently flexing their muscles which is visible in the explosion of violence during the month of October, the underlying tension between the two is neither new nor unexpected. Ever since the Kurds have set up autonomous enclaves in Syria in mid-2012, the Turkish government is nervous about the increasing Kurdish power along its southeastern borders. The Peace Process itself is a strategic response by the Turkish government to this Kurdish empowerment and aspiration for self-rule. Despite having the second largest army within the NATO, Turkey's attempt to solve the Kurdish conflict by military means has failed blatantly in the past three decades. By losing Syria and Iraq as allies to fight the PKK, the Turkish government was in dire need to develop a domestic strategy to contain the strengthening PKK. Thus, the Peace Process is Ankara's reluctant domestic answer to a regional problem which explains why it has not taken any credible and sustainable steps so far.

The PKK has been threatening to leave the Peace Process long before Kobane, given the halfhearted course of the process. Since the early 1990s, the PKK has implemented several unilateral ceasefires to make political negotiations possible, it even laid down arms after Öcalan's arrest in 1999 until 2004. Ironically, it was exactly during that time (in 2002) when the EU added the PKK into its list of terrorist organizations. For the PKK, the Peace Process entails the reintegration and rehabilitation of its members into the legal and political realm. Even though Kobane conveyed the image of Kurds as fearless armed fighters to the world, it is normalization and a life in peace and dignity they want the most after decades of armed struggle and suppression. This is why the PKK too will remain in the Peace Process as long it contains a viable prospect for a political solution. With the cards being reshuffled in the Middle East, the options for Kurds are multiplying while Turkish foreign policy is increasingly pushed into the corner. Thus, despite the violence in October and the current fragility of the situation, the events unfolding in Kobane carry the potential to be midwife for a more credible Peace Process by forcing Ankara to turn rhetoric into action as the stakes are getting higher for Turkey. What is urgently needed is an international third party mediation – a prerequisite of any conflict resolution process – to transform this process from phantom to peace.

(Bilgin Ayata is Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Center for Transnational Relations, Foreign and Security Policy, Free University of Berlin)

Dimitar Bechev

Kobane has certainly put relations between the governing AKP and nationalist Kurds to the most serious test since the inception of the so-called solution process but they will not derail the latter. Both Erdoğan and the Kurdish leadership in Turkey, the imprisoned founder of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan and the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), know that it is in their interest to stick together. AKP is the Kurds' only reliable partner in the quest for political status and empowerment within Turkey. It is highly unlikely that the so-called 55% coalition with CHP and especially MHP is anything more than a rhetorical device. For the AKP and Erdoğan personally the Kurdish peace process is important for both pragmatic and symbolic reasons. Firstly, a clear linkage has been established between the switch to a presidential system and constitutional change to enshrine Kurdish rights. Secondly, the commitment to settling the festering conflict in Turkey's southeast provinces is about the only remaining piece of Erdoğan's democratic narrative to the outside world as well as to opinion-makers inside the country berating the authoritarian turn since the 2011 elections.

Being in the same boat does not mean there is trust between the two parties. The domestic repercussions of Kobane showed that both AKP and the Kurds harbor deep suspicions about the other's underlying motivations and goals. Each side has tried to instrumentalize the situation to put pressure on the other. But such tactics have backfired: neither the protests in south-eastern provinces in early October nor skirmishes with PKK units have changed Ankara’s non-interventionist stance on Kobane. Equally, despite its effort, Turkey is unlikely to bring PYD, PKK's Syria branch, into the anti-Assad coalition. The arrival of peshmerga forces from Northern Iraq into Kobane, with Turkey's help, provides a way out of the tense situation. Now it is incumbent on HDP and the government to re-start the process.

(Dimitar Bechev is a visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE))