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Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process
Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
Optics, Then Disappointment: Trump Can’t Deliver Much to Putin
Report 234 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process

The peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is threatened by ceasefire violations and spillover from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Both sides must set aside pretexts and inertia and seize the opportunity of having powerful leaders able to implement a deal whose outlines are clearer than ever.

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Executive Summary

The peace process to end the 30-year-old insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkey’s government is at a turning point. It will either collapse as the sides squander years of work, or it will accelerate as they commit to real convergences. Both act as if they can still play for time – the government to win one more election, the PKK to further build up quasi-state structures in the country’s predominantly-Kurdish south east. But despite a worrying upsurge in hostilities, they currently face few insuperable obstacles at home and have two strong leaders who can still see the process through. Without first achieving peace, they cannot cooperate in fighting their common enemy, the jihadi threat, particularly from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Increasing ceasefire violations, urban unrest and Islamist extremism spilling over into Turkey from regional conflicts underline the cost of delays. Both sides must put aside external pretexts and domestic inertia to compromise on the chief problem, the Turkey-PKK conflict inside Turkey.

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Importantly, the two sides, having realised that neither can beat the other outright, say they want to end the armed conflict. The government has now matched the PKK’s ceasefire with a serious legal framework that makes real progress possible. But both sides still exchange harsh rhetoric, which they must end to build up trust. They must do more to define common end goals and show real public commitment to what will be difficult compromises. The current peace process also needs a more comprehensive agenda, a more urgent timeframe, better social engagement, mutually agreed ground rules and monitoring criteria. It is evolving as sides respond to changing practical considerations, making the process less a long-term strategy than a series of ad hoc initiatives.

Although they have not publicly outlined this in detail, full negotiations will mean Turkey and the PKK eventually have to agree on a conditional amnesty, laws to smooth transitional justice and a truth commission. For Turkey, this will require more openness to offering redress for the state’s past wrongdoings and reparations for victims, as well as a readiness to accept scenarios in which – if and when peace is irrevocably established – PKK figures can join legal Kurdish parties in Turkey and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan might one day be freed. For the PKK, it means accepting responsibility for its own abuses, ending and denouncing all violence and illegal activities, declaring an end goal of full disarmament of its elements within Turkey’s borders, giving up all attempts to create parallel formations in the south east, and demonstrating readiness to include Turkey’s different Kurdish factions, particularly those that do not agree with the PKK, as stakeholders in the process.

Even in the absence of clear commitments or matching end goals, the process itself has proved to be useful for the entire country and should not be jeopardised to score short-term political points with hardline Turkish and Kurdish constituencies. Most importantly, despite several breaches, the PKK’s unilateral ceasefire since March 2013 has largely held, drastically reducing casualties and contributing to building confidence. Neither side wants to see the process collapse. The government did not have to deal with soldiers’ funerals during this year’s municipal and presidential elections, and needs the relative calm to continue at least until parliamentary polls in mid-2015. Meanwhile, the PKK has been able to build up its strength in south-eastern towns and acquire unprecedented international and domestic legitimacy.

The involvement of PKK-affiliated groups in defending Kurds in Syria and Iraq against jihadis makes full PKK disarmament and demobilisation only realistic within Turkey’s borders. Moreover, if Turkey and the PKK roll out successful confidence-building measures, the presence of pro-PKK groups along its Syrian border could actually help Turkey against jihadi or other hostile advances and expand its zone of influence in its neighbourhood. Conversely, if Turkey wants to strengthen its domestic position against a future risk of regional states aiding and abetting armed PKK elements operating on its territory, it has an interest in reaching an agreement with its Kurdish-speaking population as soon as possible. Both Turkish officials and Kurdish politicians privately say they prefer each other to the Islamic State. But it is impossible to imagine cooperation outside Turkey – to reinforce Kurdish areas of Syria or Iraq, for instance – while the two sides are basically at war at home.

As spillover from Middle East conflicts open up dangerous old ethnic, sectarian and political fault lines in Turkey, the government and the PKK must seek a common end goal that goes beyond a mere maintenance of a peace process. The government must create the legal and political conditions, process and context that will build confidence. But the PKK also needs to convince Turkish, Kurdish and international opinion that it can be a democratic actor, ready to disarm and transform into a political group. If it desires peace, the Kurdish national movement in Turkey cannot continue to be both an armed opposition force and a candidate for governmental responsibility, and must be clear on what kind of decentralisation it seeks. This deal will need compromise from both sides. Only in this way can Turkey shift a longstanding burden of civil conflict off the back of its armed forces, its economy, democratisation efforts and the security of its borders. Likewise, an end of the insurgency is the only way the PKK will be able to come home to represent its Kurdish constituency inside Turkey’s legal political system, and achieve its stated goal of democratic rights for all in the country.

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.