Turkey wants to end Kurd conflict

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Published Mar 5, 2012


ANKARA - Turkish Gendarmerie Colonel Ridvan Ozden was killed in 1995, his wife says, not by Kurdish militants, but by his own colleagues for opposing their “dirty war” and saying the solution to the Kurdish problem was not through “killing and being killed”.

Times have changed however. Turkey now acknowledges that alongside military offensives to crush the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), there can be a place for talks with related groups to find a peaceful way to end the 27-year conflict.

Secret talks between the Turkish intelligence service MIT and the PKK had already broken down by the time tapes of the meetings in Oslo were leaked last year; but while there is a chasm of mistrust, both sides appear willing to try again.

Asked by Reuters last week if talks with the PKK had been resumed, President Abdullah Gul stopped short of any confirmation, but commented:

“You see,if there are important problems in a country, to try to solve those problems either openly or in a closed environment, that is the duty of every state. And it is only natural that within this framework, initiatives have been realised and they are still being realised.”

Turkey has always viewed the PKK as a terrorism problem, but under Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party government there is now a recognition, hardly there in the 1990s, that there are other dimensions to the Kurdish issue, and other ways besides the military option of trying to solve it.

“Obviously I don't know who the PKK is,” Gul said in an interview. “Of course they might have civilian extensions.

“There might be those who are on the same line in political life. There are those who are legitimate, and there are those who fight against us in the mountains.”

Some 40 000 have been killed since the PKK began its armed campaign for a Kurdish state in 1984 under Abdullah Ocalan, now held on a prison island in the Sea of Marmara, near Istanbul.

The conflict, besides its human cost, has put a brake on economic development and added to tensions and instability in the southeast, which borders Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Erdogan says he is sticking by his “democratic opening” to grant greater cultural and linguistic rights to the nation's Kurds, some 20 percent of the population, but there has been little let-up in military operations even during the winter.

State prosecutors have also been busy arresting hundreds of suspected PKK sympathisers across the country, including many elected Kurdish politicians. Twenty-five of the 28 members of Kiziltepe local authority in southeast Turkey are now behind bars either on trial, or waiting for their cases to come to court, an official from their pro-Kurdish party said.

Investigators are also excavating a string of mass graves of Kurds believed killed by militant agents of the “deep state”, the fiercely nationalist and secularist establishment of the 1990s that also did its best to break the rising power of Erdogan, Gul and other politicians with Islamist roots.

The opening of Colonel Ozden's grave in an Istanbul Martyrs' Cemetery is part of the investigations.

A lawyer for the family said there was no trace of a bullet wound in the forehead as recorded as the cause of death in what authorities at the time said was a clash with the PKK.

Ozden had also exposed petrol and drugs smuggling operations within the gendarmerie.

“This won't finish here,” Zaman newspaper quoted Tomris Ozden as saying. “If not me, then my children and my grandchildren will take over this case. The truth will come out and those responsible will face judgment.”

The PKK for its part, also acknowledges there is no purely military solution to the conflict and that it cannot overcome the second biggest army in Nato with its guerrilla campaign in southeast Turkey, directed from the mountains of northern Iraq.

But it accuses the government of insincerity and of only negotiating in order to try to divide the militant group, classed as a terrorist organisation by both the US and the European Union, and gain the upper hand in the fighting.

The PKK says it has called eight unilateral ceasefires since the AK Party came to power in 2002, gestures of goodwill, it says, that have all been ignored. The year since the end of the last PKK ceasefire has seen some of the highest casualties on both sides.

The PKK says Turkey is also preventing lawyers visiting its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan since June, blocking dialogue with the group which is still very much directed from the top.

Talking to the PKK is no longer quite as unpalatable to public opinion as it was in the past, but militant attacks such as the one in October last year which killed 24 Turkish troops only serve to inflame the hatred most Turks feel for the group.

The recordings of the Oslo talks were almost certainly leaked in order to try to discredit Erdogan and the government, and analysts say there are still elements within the security apparatus deeply opposed to a negotiated end to the war.

“You appreciate this is an extremely sensitive situation, a situation of unacceptably high political risk,” said Hakan Fidan, then Erdogan's special envoy, in the recording from the Oslo talks. “The prime minister said several times he was serious and sincere on this point and ready to accept the political risk.”

Fidan was later promoted to head MIT.

Erdogan's government last month quickly passed a law to halt attempts by prosecutors to question him and other agents in the talks – an indication he still backs their behind-the-scenes work.

Those talks, hosted in Norway, a country noted for its peace-making efforts in Sudan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, also featured an English voice, hinting at a possible British role.

Made during 2010, it is clear from the recording it was the fifth such meeting, but it was not clear if it was the last and whether that line of contact has been closed for good.

But there are also other routes and parties with a clear interest in trying to bring the two sides together.

Foremost among these is Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which is keen to promote closer political and economic ties with Turkey, the main route for its oil and gas exports, but says it has faced 28 Turkish cross-border operations into its territory in pursuit of the PKK in the last 20 years.

While no natural friends of the PKK, Iraqi Kurdish forces are unable to dislodge the Turkish Kurd group from its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains which even Saddam Hussein failed to capture from Kurdish peshmerga fighters at the height of his power.

Any such move against fellow Kurds by the KRG would also be deeply unpopular with its own public.

Qandil is also too far from Turkey for its troops to attempt to storm without a full-scale invasion, but Turkish warplanes regularly bomb PKK bases there and civilians have been killed, a further cause of concern for Iraqi Kurdish authorities.

Iraqi Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani is to host a national conference in July where there be an attempt to find a way towards a peaceful end to Turkey's conflict with the PKK, Kurdish sources said on Friday.

But Iraqi Kurdish officials stressed that while Barzani had always said he was willing to help in the cause of peace, he was not mediating between Turkey and the PKK.

A delegation from Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) visited the Iraqi Kurdish capital Arbil two weeks ago and agreed a commission should be formed to prepare for the conference which is also to invite Kurds from Iran and Syria.

“While the Middle East and the world is being transformed. – Reuters

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