Turkey-PKK peace process 'at turning point'

Turkish tanks manoeuvre near the Syrian border town of Kobane where Kurds are fighting Islamic State (11 Oct) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Turkish tanks manoeuvre near the Syrian border town of Kobane where Kurds are fighting Islamic State

The conflict unfolding on the Turkish border in the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane has pushed the peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to its limit.

The Turkish government's unwillingness to help the poorly equipped Kurds in their last-ditch fight against Islamic State (IS) militants triggered Kurdish protests across Turkey which resulted in dozens of deaths in early October.

Violence has surged, with Turkish fighter jets bombing PKK positions and Turkish soldiers being killed by unknown assailants in Diyarbakir and Hakkari in the south-east.

And yet, both the ruling AK Party and the PKK, in interviews with the BBC, have underlined a strong political will for the peace process to continue.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Kurdish demonstrations last month turned deadly in cities across Turkey, including Diyarbakir

The Kobane crisis has emphasised a split in the short-term aims of the Turkish government and the Kurdish movement as a whole.

For the Kurds, Kobane showed that the government's perception of the PKK-related Kurds as the main threat rather than Islamic State had not changed, especially at the start of the siege.

The violent demonstrations proved to the government in Ankara that the PKK could easily resort to violence and mobilise large numbers of people around it. Turkey, along with a number of Western countries, regards the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

Meanwhile, PKK-linked youth groups inside Turkey continue to challenge the state's authority by setting up roadblocks and attempting to control rural areas and urban neighbourhoods.

Rebel group commander Cemil Bayik responded to the BBC's questions from his base in the Qandil mountains in Iraq, accusing Turkey of building more military bases in the two years of ceasefire than during the war.

"We don't believe that Turkey has abandoned its policy of attempting to eradicate the Kurdish movement. They can attack us at any moment," he says.

"So we are at a turning point. It is either peace or war. There is no middle way here."

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Turkish Kurds celebrated when Turkey allowed peshmerga fighters to travel from Iraq to Kobane
Image copyright EPA
Image caption But Turkey accuses the PKK of seeking to take advantage of the turmoil in the Middle East

A leading Turkish official, however, believes PKK leaders are seeking to take advantage of recent events by trying to impose in Turkey the model of self-ruled towns that its sister party is setting up across the border in Kobane.

"[The PKK] thinks that it can find some opportunities in the current turmoil in the Middle East with the crumbling of the old status quo," says Yasin Aktay, vice-chairman of the ruling AK Party.

As IS jihadist fighters captured vast tracts of land in Iraq and Syria, the battle-hardened fighters of the PKK and their Syrian Kurdish allies, the YPG, proved to be an effective fighting force and a potential partner in the fight against IS.

The US began direct contacts with Kurdish forces defending Kobane.

Now PKK commander Cemil Bayik believes the US and European Union can play a positive role in the peace process between the PKK and Turkey.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption President Erdogan (R) plays a key role in negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan

"At the moment there is no intermediary. The PKK always maintained that other countries or institutions should be involved in the peace process as well. So it is time to invite mediators," he says.

However, the AK Party's vice-chairman is unconvinced. Previous efforts resulted in the mediators "hindering the process rather than helping it succeed", Yasin Aktay says.

In the absence of mediation, the peace talks are dominated, on the PKK side, by its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, and Turkish intelligence officials on the other, representing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Unable to communicate directly with the PKK, Ocalan's messages are relayed from the island prison where he is serving a sentence on the isolated island of Imrali by Kurdish MPs to the Qandil mountains, where Cemil Bayik and his fellow commanders lead the armed and the political movement.

The peace process is far from being transparent, and survives in the absence of concrete steps mainly because of the political support that both Mr Erdogan and the PKK leader command.

Mr Erdogan enjoys broad support from Turkish nationalists whereas Ocalan maintains influence over his armed movement and Kurds as a whole, despite being kept in solitary confinement for much of the past 15 years.

For all the positive noises that the peace process should continue, there are dire warnings from both the state and the PKK.

Mr Aktay says Turkish forces will in the coming weeks and months become "more active in preventing a de facto PKK power grab in several towns and neighbourhoods".

And rebel commander Cemil Bayik says without progress from the government in Ankara, the armed struggle will go on.

"The Turkish state thinks that we cannot fight on two fronts. But if necessary the Kurds will fight against the Islamic State and the Turkish army."

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