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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Europe > Turkey-Cyprus > Turkey > Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process

Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process

Europe Report N°234 6 Nov 2014


The peace process to end the 30-year-old insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkey’s government is at a turning point. It will either collapse as the sides squander years of work, or it will accelerate as they commit to real convergences. Both act as if they can still play for time – the government to win one more election, the PKK to further build up quasi-state structures in the country’s predominantly-Kurdish south east. But despite a worrying upsurge in hostilities, they currently face few insuperable obstacles at home and have two strong leaders who can still see the process through. Without first achieving peace, they cannot cooperate in fighting their common enemy, the jihadi threat, particularly from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Increasing ceasefire violations, urban unrest and Islamist extremism spilling over into Turkey from regional conflicts underline the cost of delays. Both sides must put aside external pretexts and domestic inertia to compromise on the chief problem, the Turkey-PKK conflict inside Turkey.

Importantly, the two sides, having realised that neither can beat the other outright, say they want to end the armed conflict. The government has now matched the PKK’s ceasefire with a serious legal framework that makes real progress possible. But both sides still exchange harsh rhetoric, which they must end to build up trust. They must do more to define common end goals and show real public commitment to what will be difficult compromises. The current peace process also needs a more comprehensive agenda, a more urgent timeframe, better social engagement, mutually agreed ground rules and monitoring criteria. It is evolving as sides respond to changing practical considerations, making the process less a long-term strategy than a series of ad hoc initiatives.

Although they have not publicly outlined this in detail, full negotiations will mean Turkey and the PKK eventually have to agree on a conditional amnesty, laws to smooth transitional justice and a truth commission. For Turkey, this will require more openness to offering redress for the state’s past wrongdoings and reparations for victims, as well as a readiness to accept scenarios in which – if and when peace is irrevocably established – PKK figures can join legal Kurdish parties in Turkey and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan might one day be freed. For the PKK, it means accepting responsibility for its own abuses, ending and denouncing all violence and illegal activities, declaring an end goal of full disarmament of its elements within Turkey’s borders, giving up all attempts to create parallel formations in the south east, and demonstrating readiness to include Turkey’s different Kurdish factions, particularly those that do not agree with the PKK, as stakeholders in the process.

Even in the absence of clear commitments or matching end goals, the process itself has proved to be useful for the entire country and should not be jeopardised to score short-term political points with hardline Turkish and Kurdish constituencies. Most importantly, despite several breaches, the PKK’s unilateral ceasefire since March 2013 has largely held, drastically reducing casualties and contributing to building confidence. Neither side wants to see the process collapse. The government did not have to deal with soldiers’ funerals during this year’s municipal and presidential elections, and needs the relative calm to continue at least until parliamentary polls in mid-2015. Meanwhile, the PKK has been able to build up its strength in south-eastern towns and acquire unprecedented international and domestic legitimacy.

The involvement of PKK-affiliated groups in defending Kurds in Syria and Iraq against jihadis makes full PKK disarmament and demobilisation only realistic within Turkey’s borders. Moreover, if Turkey and the PKK roll out successful confidence-building measures, the presence of pro-PKK groups along its Syrian border could actually help Turkey against jihadi or other hostile advances and expand its zone of influence in its neighbourhood. Conversely, if Turkey wants to strengthen its domestic position against a future risk of regional states aiding and abetting armed PKK elements operating on its territory, it has an interest in reaching an agreement with its Kurdish-speaking population as soon as possible. Both Turkish officials and Kurdish politicians privately say they prefer each other to the Islamic State. But it is impossible to imagine cooperation outside Turkey – to reinforce Kurdish areas of Syria or Iraq, for instance – while the two sides are basically at war at home.

As spillover from Middle East conflicts open up dangerous old ethnic, sectarian and political fault lines in Turkey, the government and the PKK must seek a common end goal that goes beyond a mere maintenance of a peace process. The government must create the legal and political conditions, process and context that will build confidence. But the PKK also needs to convince Turkish, Kurdish and international opinion that it can be a democratic actor, ready to disarm and transform into a political group. If it desires peace, the Kurdish national movement in Turkey cannot continue to be both an armed opposition force and a candidate for governmental responsibility, and must be clear on what kind of decentralisation it seeks. This deal will need compromise from both sides. Only in this way can Turkey shift a longstanding burden of civil conflict off the back of its armed forces, its economy, democratisation efforts and the security of its borders. Likewise, an end of the insurgency is the only way the PKK will be able to come home to represent its Kurdish constituency inside Turkey’s legal political system, and achieve its stated goal of democratic rights for all in the country.


To the government of Turkey:

1.  Root out the causes of armed conflict and build trust in the political system by:

a) rewording the anti-terror law and relevant articles of the Penal Code to ensure penalties are given only for incitement to violence, kidnappings, killings and other violent acts, and completing a review of existing terrorism convictions to end the jailing of non-violent activists;

b) lowering the 10 per cent national electoral threshold to at most 5 per cent to ensure equitable representation in parliament;

c) rewording the constitution to remove any sense of ethnic-based discrimination;

d) continuing work to ensure full mother-language education in Kurdish languages where it is in demand; and

e) announcing plans for more decentralisation, while making sure that Kurdish municipalities are not discriminated against and have the same access to finance and assets as all others.

2.  Explain to the Turkish public that a peace deal will be the start of a difficult, multi-year implementation, and that at this stage disarmament can only cover PKK insurgents within Turkey.

3.  Allow a united negotiating team to consolidate the talks with jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK in Iraq and diaspora exiles.

4.  Refrain from public statements aggravating Turkey’s Kurds, such as equating the PKK with jihadis or threatening a return to heavy-handed security measures.

To the Kurdish national movement in Turkey, including the PKK:

5.  Maintain the ceasefire, end and denounce all violent acts by elements associated with it and make clear that disarmament within Turkey is a desired goal of the movement.

6.  Prepare Kurdish opinion and PKK structures for a peace that will mean joining peaceful Turkish politics, including a clear split in name and organisation with any operations in Iraq, Syria, Iran or elsewhere.

7.  Clarify whether the movement seeks decentralisation, federal autonomy or independence. If a future inside Turkey is the goal, end the creation of illegal parallel structures that undermine the central government.

8.  Drop provocative and unrealistic demands for setting up a professional guerrilla “self-defence force” in Kurdish-speaking areas.

To the Turkish government and the Kurdish national movement:

9.  Agree on the parameters of a truth commission of independent experts that will listen to the victims of the conflict and send a public report to the Turkish parliament.

10.  Prepare a special law to provide due judicial process for past crimes in the conflict, with the same accountability and criteria for both sides; to grant amnesty to combatants with no link to serious crimes; to determine crimes to be excluded from the twenty-year statute of limitations; to improve reparations to victims; to strengthen witness protection; and to regulate the eventual return to normal life of PKK leaders, ultimately including Abdullah Öcalan.

11.  Establish clear and viable verification and control systems for any steps agreed.

12.  Avoid setting preconditions, such as demanding total withdrawals of insurgents or an end to government construction of security outposts, that are difficult to monitor and evaluate independently at the moment.

13.  Agree jointly on a coherent, clear communications policy about the peace talks to inform the Turkish and Kurdish publics about progress.

14.  Continue to encourage the participation of civil society in the process, notably by revitalising the successful countrywide “Wise Persons” delegation used in 2013.

15.  Consider the participation of a third state or international body to act as guarantors of the process on the truth commission, supervising disarmament, or in local policing mechanisms.

To the international community:

16.  Offer support and advice both to the Turkish government and to civil or private sector initiatives working on any peace deal, particularly in designing a truth commission, a transitional justice mechanism, a process of decommissioning and disarmament and creating local opportunities for demobilised combatants, including to cover their and their families’ basic needs.

Istanbul/Brussels, 6 August 2014
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Turkey and the Kurds

Turkey and the Kurds: Saving the Peace Process

7 November 2014: In this video, Hugh Pope, Crisis Group's Europe and Central Asia Deputy Program Director, discusses the peace process between Turkey and the PKK, and points out the most important reform tracks outlined in Crisis Group’s latest report, Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process.