Turkey’s military had skirmishes with independence-minded Turkish Kurds in 2011, 2012 and earlier this year, exacerbating difficulties for Turkey as Syria appears to be splintering into ethnic and religious militias. Syrian Kurds, living primarily along the Turkish-Syrian border, presented the possibility of joining forces with Turkish Kurds. However, earlier this month, Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), called for the members of his group to lay down their arms in a ceasefire. Ocalan wrote in a public letter, “I want to solve the issue of guns with haste and without a single life being lost.” The PKK and the Turkish government both agreed to the ceasefire, which they hope could eventually lead to a long-term peace agreement.
The ceasefire should see PKK fighters withdrawing out of Turkey into bases in predominantly Kurdish Northern Iraq. However, no timetable was given for the pullout and it remains unclear whether any PKK disarmament would include affiliated pro-Kurdish groups in Iran and Syria. Nevertheless, Murat Karayilan, the group’s leader in Northern Iraq said his group would “implement Ocalan’s plan in a decisive manner.”
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds, gathered in the city of Diyarbakir to celebrate Newroz, cheered and waved banners bearing the image of Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK on March 21. (Photo: Reuters
Most Western countries label the PKK a terrorist organization, with Turkey having refused to negotiate with its members in the past. Inspired by Marxist-Leninist ideas, the group was formed in the late 1970s to fight for an independent Kurdish state. Conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government peaked in the 1990s, with more than 40,000 people killed in the fighting. In 1999, Turkish officials arrested Ocalan, striking a major blow to the insurgency. He was sentenced to death in a Turkish court, but the sentence was commuted when Turkey abolished the death penalty.
Late last year, as fighting in Syria escalated, Ankara announced it had begun negotiating with Ocalan to persuade the PKK to disarm. The new peace effort seems to be bearing fruit with rebels having freed eight Turkish soldiers and civil servants captured in Northern Iraq in early March as well. The PKK announced it will continue to press for more autonomy, greater political rights, and easing of pressure on pro-Kurdish activists.
Turkey continues to worry about greater Kurdish nationalism on it borders with Iraq and Syria, creating a more unified front for Kurdish autonomy or even independence. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees detente with the most radical Kurdish organization helping Turkey cement regional power and furthering his own ambitions for regional prominence. It allows Turkey as well to focus on Syria with less concern for an insurgency inside its own territory.