Too Good to Be True

The offer of a ceasefire made by Abdullah Öcalan, the incarcerated head of the banned Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), has been welcomed by the Turkish government. But how can there be real peace when the conflicts of the past are glossed over instead of being openly discussed and addressed? A commentary by Ömer Erzeren

By Ömer Erzeren

The beginning of spring is celebrated in Mesopotamia on 21 March with fire and dance, just as it is in the Kurdish regions of Turkey. This year, the Nowruz festival also marks a political and historic turning point in the history of the Kurdish conflict, which has cost the lives of more than 40,000 people.

Peace has never been within such close reach as it is now in the spring of 2013. In a letter, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish guerrilla movement, the PKK, declared that the guns should fall silent and that armed combatants should withdraw from Turkey: "This is the hour for politics, and not for weapons," he said.

More than a million Kurds rejoiced as two members of parliament from the Kurdish BDP party read out his statement in Diyarbakir. Öcalan's letter also included a balanced, statesmanlike appraisal of the highs and lows of Turkish-Kurdish coexistence: the era of the prophets, the Ottoman Empire, the First World War and the early years of the Turkish Republic.

Secret negotiations

But anyone who assumes that the 63-year-old, who has been detained on the prison island of Imrali for the last 14 years, signed a declaration of capitulation, is sorely mistaken. The ceasefire is much more the result of secret negotiations that Öcalan has been conducting with the Turkish state since the end of last year, and which have generated high hopes among both Turks and Kurds.

A "negotiating partner" of the Turkish government: for decades, Abdullah Öcalan was the incarnation of evil in Turkey and public enemy number one; now he would appear to be a heavyweight political figure who is capable of negotiating peace with the Turkish government from his prison cell


The majority of society is tired of the killing. These days, the mothers of both soldiers and PKK fighters killed in the protracted conflict are coming together to share their grief. "The beautiful dream of peace" has even left Turkish media commentators speechless. For decades, Öcalan was the incarnation of evil, the "child murderer", the "top terrorist".

Now he is a heavyweight political figure whose message is being rated as "positive" by the Turkish prime minister? Today we see a rally involving a million Kurds organised by the PKK in collegial cooperation with the Turkish police, broadcast live on television and casting Öcalan as Kurdish national hero and peacemaker, extending his hand to the Turkish people. Just a year ago, the two sides were still shooting at each other.

Unusual consensus

The dream of peace is too good to be true, but it is worth remembering that two powerful figures are behind the plan.

On the one side, we have the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has governed Turkey for over a decade and has managed to drive the formerly powerful military out of political life. Today, former general chiefs of staff who once toppled governments are in custody.

As far as the Kurdish question is concerned, he has also set a good deal in motion. Official denial of Kurdish ethnicity ceased, and the policy of assimilation was brought to an end. But although legitimised through elections and formally under parliamentary control, Erdogan has an autocratic and authoritarian style of government. He has made no secret of the fact that he favours a presidential system, and it is his hope that a final resolution of the Kurdish conflict and a new constitution, which is scheduled to be adopted during this legislative period, will pave the way to introducing such a system.

Revered as a demi-god

On the other side, we have Öcalan, a man who is revered by many Kurds as a demi-god, but who does not tolerate the slightest dissent within the PKK and leads the organisation in Stalinist fashion. Following the publication of his letter, the PKK immediately announced its intention to follow the instructions of the "leader of the people".

Everyone wants peace. But when it comes to the road map for attaining it, there is nothing but journalistic speculation. It is a clandestine deal between Erdogan and Öcalan. Significantly, the only man who knows all the details is the head of the Turkish intelligence service, Hakan Fidan, who was responsible for the shuttle diplomacy between Öcalan and Erdogan.

A peace that is in the interest of both sides: according to Ömer Erzeren, both the Turkish prime minister and the leader of the Turkish Kurds stand to gain personally from the negotiated ceasefire in terms of political standing and legacy


Both power politicians know that there is also significant political capital to be gained from attaining peace. A compromise with the Kurds would keep Erdogan securely in power – and not just for the foreseeable future – and Turkey would greatly consolidate its position as a regional power.

The Iraqi Kurds, who have for the most part broken away from Baghdad, are already part of the booming Turkish capitalist economy. Oil and gas is flowing into Turkey; billion-dollar investments and a steady stream of exports are flowing out of Turkey. A Turkish-Kurdish compromise agreement would also have a huge impact on the Kurds in Syria.

Erdogan could go down in history with a significance comparable to that of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. Öcalan would not only be the man whose armed battle gave the oppressed Kurdish people a voice, but also the one who forged a peace that gives the Kurds equality with the Turks.

At what price peace?

However, the lack of transparency in the peace process could come back to haunt those involved. How can it be that thousands of functionaries of the legal Kurdish BDP party, which has members in the Turkish parliament, are in detention on suspicion of being PKK sympathisers, while Öcalan – albeit in absentia – addresses a million people in Diyarbakir? How can it be that in the middle of the peace process, a Turkish parliamentary committee appointed to investigate the bombardment of Kurdish civilians by the Turkish air force in December 2011, concealed the circumstances of the incident instead of explaining them? Neither of these facts are being raised in public.

The bloody conflict is not being properly reappraised, and prospects of the establishment of a truth commission à la South Africa still very distant. How can there be peace when the past is not being critically and publicly reappraised? But as we have learned from Byzantine-Ottoman history: elaborate intrigues don't always end badly; on occasion, the outcome can be good.

Ömer Erzeren

© 2013

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/