There seems now to be a real possibility of an agreement between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that would end the fierce struggle that dates at the least from the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
The issue has been quite straightforward from the beginning. In the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a group of Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) seized power and established a secular republic, whose boundaries included essentially the areas known as Anatolia and Thrace. Like most nationalists newly-arrived in power, this group was Jacobin in its ideology. It had established a republic of the Turks and basically only for the Turks.
The ethnic struggles with the Armenians are well known and of course subject to endless debate about what in fact happened. Today, most analysts worldwide accept the Armenian version of this history as more correct and consider that there was in effect an ethnic cleansing.
Kurdish-speaking populations are to be found today in four different states – Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Kurdish nationalists have long sought to achieve some kind of Kurdish state combining the groups in all four countries. Thus far, this attempt has not been successful and Kurdish nationalists in all four countries have reoriented their objectives to meaningful autonomy within each of the four states.
In the case of Turkey, the Kurdish speakers are concentrated in the southeastern corner of the Turkish state. In 1976, the banner of Kurdish nationalism was assumed by the PKK, which presented itself as a Marxist-Leninist movement ready to engage in insurrection against a Turkish government that was unwilling to accord any political, cultural, or linguistic rights to Kurdish speakers. Indeed, the Turkish government refused to recognize the very existence of Kurds, calling them Mountain Turks. An ongoing military struggle between the Turkish government and the PKK ensued.
In 1999, the leader of the PKK, Abdallah Ocalan, was captured by the Turkish government with the assistance of the CIA. He was tried for treason and terrorism and condemned to death. The sentence was then commuted to life imprisonment in total isolation in an island prison. Meanwhile, Ocalan’s worldview was evolving, and he ceased to believe that Marxism-Leninism should be the organizing ideology of the PKK. At the same time, various PKK groups continued the armed struggle.
In 2002, an Islamist political party, now called the AKP, came to power in Turkey, ousting the secular nationalists that had long dominated the parliament, and upsetting military leaders who were committed to strict secularism. The leader of the AKP, Recep Erdogan, has managed to win three successive elections and the AKP now seems securely in political control of the state.
To widespread surprise, in 2012 Erdogan began negotiations, which were initially secret, with the PKK and therefore with Ocalan. Both sides have been debating what might be an acceptable resolution of the conflict and the long-standing differences over Kurdish rights and autonomy. What seems to have impelled this attempt at a political settlement is the sense that both sides had begun to have that neither is capable of winning the military struggle outright. Like other civil wars, an element of exhaustion began to play a role leading rival forces to consider some kind of compromise.
Compromises are always painful and there are always militants on each side who find them unacceptable. The standard questions are what each side is actually getting in the prospective accord and the degree to which they can get the support of their political base.
In order to move forward, Turkey must adopt a new constitution. The AKP is anxious to expand considerably the power of the president, to which other parties are opposed. The PKK is anxious to include in such a new constitution various clauses that would recognize the Kurds as a people with rights equal to those of the Turks. The PKK wants some language in the constitution that would recognize the Kurds as a co-founding people of modern Turkey.
One difficult issue to resolve in detail is the cessation of hostilities. The Turkish government and the PKK have agreed to the withdrawal of PKK armed forces to the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq. This withdrawal has already begun. But there has been no disarmament, and the PKK units do not intend to disarm until more concrete progress is made. Whether Ocalan will be permitted to have his custody remitted to his own home in Turkey is one matter that is in discussion and seems likely.
The urgency for the PKK and the major achievement would be the recognition of Kurdish rights, although the term, autonomy, may not be included. The urgency for the AKP is that, in order to get the 75% in the Turkish parliament needed to adopt a new constitution, they may need the votes of Kurdish members of parliament.
So, amidst much caution and continuing mutual suspicion, the two sides are moving significantly closer to a deal. With some difficulty, Ocalan will probably be able to bring his base in line with the prospective arrangements. He remains a Kurdish hero. If the deal goes through, the Kurds will have achieved linguistic and cultural rights. It remains to be seen how much the economic situation of the ordinary Kurds will improve.