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A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks
A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
Riot police fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against the curfew in Sur district, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, on 14 December 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
Briefing 77 / Europe & Central Asia

A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks

New clashes between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have deepened the country’s social cleavages, killed hundreds, and helped the Islamic State. Neither side can win militarily. To end the conflict, Turkey needs more than just a new ceasefire: a clearly defined peace process and, in parallel, a reform agenda addressing Kurdish rights.

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I. Overview

Locked in their deadliest violence in two decades, the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) should urgently resume peace talks. The return to a military-based approach to the conflict and domestic political polarisation, fuelled by a spillover of the Syrian conflict, have dismantled the achievements of peace talks undertaken during the 2.5-year ceasefire which collapsed in July 2015. Bloody urban battles in the south east have since then given the conflict a new, unpredictable momentum. The failure to secure peace has cost more than 550 lives – up to 150 of them civilian, including that of the well-known human rights lawyer and Diyarbakır bar association head Tahir Elçi on 28 November. Turkey faces a critical choice: to advance its military strategy against the PKK in a fight that is bound to be protracted and inconclusive, or to resume peace talks. Whichever course it chooses, however, a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish issue will necessitate addressing long­standing Kurdish rights demands.

With a new government in place after the 1 November election, now is the time to reverse the spiral of mistrust between Ankara and the disparate Kurdish movement, represented, at times interchangeably and without clear mandates, by the legal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), now in the parliament, as well as the outlawed PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

The resumption of violence between the Turkish state and the PKK benefits the violently extremist Islamic State (IS). In Syria, Ankara worries that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, will transform its gains against IS into a contiguous land corridor along Turkey’s southern border. This perceived threat has at times overshadowed Ankara’s focus on the fight against IS. Since May, four alleged-IS attacks targeting pro-Kurdish activists in Turkey – including the country’s deadliest ever bombing, on a peace rally in Ankara – have strengthened the perception among Kurds that the state does not protect them. The debate on these incidents underscores the need for Ankara to widen its domestic crackdown against IS. It also reflects deepening social cleavages not only between Turkish and Kurdish communities, but also along other sectarian and cultural fault lines. If left unbridged, these may undermine Turkey’s fragile social cohesion.

The new government has declared that it will not restart talks with Öcalan. Its strategy is instead centred on fighting the PKK, particularly until its recently empowered urban structures are eradicated, while pursuing a unilateral, vaguely defined, reform agenda pertaining to Kurdish rights that minimises engagement with the Kurdish movement and its main legal political actor, the HDP. An approach that marginalises the HDP and its reform-minded constituency with an interest in resolving the Kurdish issue by legal means risks further channelling Kurdish nationalism into armed struggle.

After three decades of fitful deadly conflict, both sides understand a military confrontation will not secure victory but believe themselves in a strengthened position to maximise gains. They are focused on weakening the other as much as possible, while waiting for the Syria quagmire to settle before considering a return to a ceasefire and peace talks. Under pressure from the spillover of the protracted Syrian conflict, as well as the IS threat, they should urgently end violence in the country’s population centres and agree on ceasefire conditions.

Free from electoral pressures for four years, the new government needs to formulate a concrete reform agenda to address Kurdish rights demands – including decentralisation and mother-tongue education – that can be advanced within legal structures, political parties and parliament. To restore trust, it must also ensure the effective investigation of past and present human rights abuses and prevent recurrence. The PKK and Kurdish local authorities should cease making declarations of autonomy that only alarm Turkish public opinion and harden Turkish politicians.

Talks with the PKK should resume in parallel, with a view to obtaining the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey and agreement on mechanisms for amnesty and reintegration of those who, without arms, would like to stay or return. Öcalan has underlined the need for a more structured format for the peace talks that would also bring in other PKK figures and the HDP, as well as a monitoring mechanism. To achieve a mutually agreed roadmap and timeline, the government needs to clarify its position on institutionalising the process so that the cyclical effort to resolve the conflict does not resemble the mythical endless attempt of Sisyphus to roll a boulder to the top of the hill.

Turkey’s allies in the West, who remain primarily focused on the Syrian crisis and its regional security and refugee consequences, should not dismiss the risks posed by a swiftly deteriorating conflict in Turkey. In their own interests, they should encourage Ankara to reassess its approach to the Kurdish issue.

Their November summit, which was primarily geared to the migration crisis, committed Turkey and the European Union (EU) to re-energise their relationship and enhance political and financial engagement. It created momentum to follow through on difficult deliverables, including reducing the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, progress toward visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals wishing to enter the EU and opening of new chapters in the negotiations for Turkey’s EU accession. At the same time, the flare up in the PKK-Turkey conflict has complicated the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against IS, especially because Turkey refuses to collaborate with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD. Ankara-PKK peace talks could create parameters for a more constructive relationship between Ankara and the PYD, enhancing the international anti-IS efforts.

Istanbul/Brussels, 17 December 2015

Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin

Originally published in Russia File

The chummy joint news conference of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki seemed to suggest that the Russian president had scored a major victory over his U.S. counterpart in their one-on-one meeting on July 17. Indeed, the optics could go a long way toward fulfilling Putin’s purposes: he badly wants the Kremlin to be seen as the White House’s equal on the world stage.

But in the summit’s aftermath it appears that Trump’s coziness with Putin could actually undermine Russia’s prospects of realizing substantive gains from the summit.

The Russians had modest expectations, seeing the summit as primarily an opportunity to display Putin as an equal to the U.S. president, but it also presented at least a slim chance to open up much-needed channels of bilateral dialogue on everything from Syria to the sanctions imposed on Russia after its annexation of Crimea and incursion into Ukraine in 2014. Both the confrontation between Russia and the West following the annexation of Crimea and the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections have narrowed these channels, to say the least: the two sides are communicating, but with mistrust compounded by confusion over U.S. diplomatic positions.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, does talk often with his Russian opposite number, General Valery Gerasimov, particularly about deconfliction in Syria. But a rider in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act prohibits “bilateral military-to-military cooperation” with Russia as a result of its actions in Ukraine in 2014. Although the prohibition can be waived by the U.S. secretary of defense, there has been little contact between the two countries’ ministers or legislators.

Immediately after the summit, Moscow seemed to hope things were looking up. The Defense Ministry issued a statement saying it was “ready to intensify contacts with American colleagues at the level of the General Staffs and through other available channels of communication to discuss the extension of the START treaty, the interaction in Syria and other topical issues of military security.” Russian state-run news reports on the Helsinki meeting cited “agreements” ostensibly reached between Putin and Trump. Such “agreements” could be a useful first step in widening the bilateral dialogue. But because there appears to have been very little internal preparation and goal setting on the U.S. side, and very little internal communication afterward about what happened at Helsinki, U.S. officials struggled in the days following the summit to understand what had been agreed to, much less how to implement any agreements that might have been reached.

There is an expression in Russian—medvezhya usluga, “a bear’s service”—describing a gesture that appears well-meaning but ultimately does more harm than good.

The combination of suspicion about Trump’s motives and confusion about his actions is such that some in Congress have made unprecedented calls to question Trump’s translator about what transpired in the closed-door meeting with Putin. Amid the hubbub, U.S. defense secretary James Mattis hinted at the possibility of meeting with his counterpart, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu, but made no commitment to do so.

The hesitancy should not be surprising. With his widely panned performance in Helsinki, Trump has made rapprochement with Russia more toxic than usual among the American political class. The backlash has yet to include concrete consequences, but for the time being, few U.S. politicians other than the president are embracing closer ties with Russia. At the Pentagon, there is bewilderment at Trump’s seeming embrace of a country named in the National Security Strategy as a “revisionist power” out to “shape a world antithetical” to U.S. interests and stated values. And while public discussion of new sanctions legislation flared only briefly after the Helsinki visit, the closer Trump draws to Moscow, the more Congress may feel tempted to send Moscow a disapproving signal by taking matters into its own hands.

In Moscow, this state of affairs causes considerable frustration. On the one hand, many policymakers echo Trump’s remarks that his Washington detractors are out to undermine what should be welcome attempts at warmer bilateral relations. But if it really was Trump’s intention to strengthen ties with Russia, then he “fared badly,” one policy adviser here remarked. “It’s not that there was a lot of desire to increase contact in the U.S. establishment to begin with. Trump—and Putin only played along—made this only worse.” On the other hand, these same policymakers often say that Russia would benefit from closer contact not just at the presidential level but at the congressional and ministerial levels as well. Ahead of the summit, in fact, observers touted the Moscow visit of a delegation of Republican senators as exactly what is needed.

But even from the Russian perspective, there is a disconnect between these objectives. If the aim is to rebuild institutional links between Moscow and Washington, then the appearance that has been created—that Putin has expertly manipulated Trump—may in the medium term do the Kremlin a disservice. Putin’s proposal to hold a joint referendum on the conflict in eastern Ukraine may have been intended as a test of Trump’s flexibility, but now that it has been made public, Kremlin advisers recognize there is little chance the issue will be discussed further.

There is an expression in Russian—medvezhya usluga, “a bear’s service”—describing a gesture that appears well-meaning but ultimately does more harm than good. Putin should hope that Trump has not done him that sort of favor with his overtures, making him look good momentarily but sabotaging the substantive dialogue Russia is after.