Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1169, (24 - 30 October 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Going underground

A prison break in Southeast Anatolia put back into focus this week faltering peace talks between Ankara and Kurdish pro-autonomy groups, writes Sayed Abdel-Maguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Within a day, Turkish security agencies succeeded in catching Kurdish political detainees who had succeeded in escaping from Bingöl Prison in Southeast Anatolia on 26 September. The prison break had occasioned great excitement and no small degree of wit, as the so-called “Kurdish separatists” had tunnelled their way out of the prison in a manner that reminded Turkish moviegoers of the 1963 film, The Great Escape, starring Steve McQueen.

Turks may have had reason to feel proud of the feat of their security services and the ability of their state to enforce the law and capture outlaws. However, such sentiments would have been dampened by a renewed sense of frustration with regard to the Kurdish question as a whole. It was no coincidence that leaders of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the Qandil Mountains in northern Iraq escalated the rhetoric of threat and intimidation as the peace process threatens to return to zero in the nearly four decade long Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Indeed, to add substance to their words, the PKK leadership in northern Iraq suspended the withdrawal of their fighters from Anatolia on the grounds that Ankara has failed to follow through on reforms it had pledged it would undertake.

Such developments underscore the intractability of the Kurdish crisis, which appears on the verge of a new flare-up. While it is true that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, who has been serving out a life sentence in the high security prison on Imrali Island in the Marmara, has urged his supporters to exercise restraint and refrain from escalation, his recent communication Tuesday conveyed a significant message to authorities in Ankara. Serious steps had to be taken in the peace process that had been set into motion in March following a marathon of secret meetings in some European capitals. “I still hold out hopes for the current peace process, but there have to be meaningful negotiations that lead to results,” Ocalan said, adding: “I have submitted my proposals to the Justice and Development Party (JDP) government, both orally and in written form. I am now awaiting a response.”

The implication of the message was that the Kurdish opposition has rejected the bundle of “democratic measures” that had been announced by the Recep Tayyip Erdogan government 30 September. This included points pertaining to Kurdish cultural and social rights which, according to Kurdish dailies, were too vaguely worded and did not meet the minimum aspirations of Turkey’s 20 million Kurdish citizens who seek semi-autonomous rule, a new electoral system that would ensure them broader participation in legislative assemblies and municipal councils, and Kurdish language instruction in both public and private schools.

However, a more significant point was raised by a more adamant Kurdish faction. The government had not consulted the Kurds with regards to the measures that it had described as “reformist”. Accordingly, the Peace and Democracy Party, the PKK’s political wing, accused the government of deception and procrastination.

It seems that Ocalan may have to wait longer than he had expected for an official response from the government in view of current circumstances. For one, large segments of Turkish public opinion are uneasy with the way that the government has handled the Kurdish question. This applies in particular to the ultra-nationalists who reject out of hand the principle of negotiating with those they describe as “terrorist murderers of women and children”. Therefore, the ruling JDP, which depends heavily on municipal elections that are scheduled for March, is reluctant to offer the Kurds anything that might upset voters at a time when it is suffering a marked decline in popularity. If “breaking promises” — if only temporarily — is what it takes to secure sufficient support in the polls, then so be it, JDP thinking goes.

Regionally, the Syrian crisis remains as acute as ever and its persistence offers daily proof of the failure of Ankara’s diplomacy, which has dragged Turkey into a quagmire from which it will not be able to extricate itself soon.

Meanwhile, its policy towards Iraq has fared no better. In spite of its support for President of Iraqi Kurdistan Masoud Barzani, as a means to undermine the central authorities in Baghdad, Ankara was disturbed by Barzani’s recent remarks regarding the Kurdish dream, which rekindled Turkish alarm over the spectre of a renewed Kurdish secessionist drive, threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity.

With regards to its relationship with the West, ruling elites in Ankara feel let down by the refusal of Europe, and the US in particular, to take a tough stance against the Bashar Al-Assad regime. Indeed, Ankara is looking on in horror as Al-Assad recuperates his strength and appears capable of clinging to power for quite some time longer.

The breakdown in the Kurdish peace process comes at a price as well, especially now that military skirmishes have reared their head once again. Three weeks ago, five gunmen abducted the son of one of the village guards on the outskirts of Gençler Evi, which is located in Kernak Province. The kidnappers’ condition for the release of the son was the father’s resignation as village guard. More ominously, Kurdish separatist fighters attacked a road construction contractor’s office on the outskirts of Kadiköy, a village in Bingöl Province, and kidnapped the foreman.

More recently, on 4 October, a security unit in Diyarbakir defused a bomb that was meant to target a gendarmerie station on the road connecting this southeastern city with Bingöl. Another bomb exploded, damaging several vehicles that had been passing in the vicinity at the time. While such incidents pale compared to the violence in previous phases of the conflict, worse may yet come, and last months if not years.

Further and prolonged deterioration in the Kurdish question would have a destructive impact on both domestic and regional parties, which is why the JDP government is determined to handle the question through peaceful means. Ultimately, it will have to make concessions. But can it summon the resolve to do so?

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