In June 2012, the first-ever Sri Lankan ambassador to Turkey, Bharathi Davina Wijeratne, who had been Turkey’s honorary consul general in Sri Lanka for 12 years, gave a warning during an interview with Today’s Zaman: “While Sri Lankan leaders were trying to bring the terrorist organization to the negotiating table, they [terrorists] used this period as an opportunity to get ready to commit their violence.”
Drawing a comparison between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the Tamil Tigers, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both militant groups that are listed as terrorist organizations by most of the international community, Wijeratne emphasized that the only way to deal with terrorists is to use a language they understand. In fact, that is what the Sri Lankan government did after they were misled into believing that the terrorist group was interested in a political settlement.
When the Sri Lankan ambassador was issuing her stern warning during the interview, there were rumors circulating around the Turkish capital that the government, having failed to complete the first round of a Kurdish initiative in 2009, was contemplating, for the second time, solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey. It turned out that the government had been secretly talking to the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan, to resume what was described as a “settlement process” five months later. The government thought it could play the Öcalan card to force the terrorist group to withdraw its militants from Turkey, which would have been followed by disarmament and hopefully the disbanding of the armed group. In exchange, the convicted PKK leader’s prison conditions may have been eased, possibly leading to house arrest while PKK militants received general amnesty. Public expectations were quite high and the government received widespread support from Turks and Kurds who were fed up with the almost three-decade-long conflict.
Yet, judging from a series of threatening remarks bluntly issued by PKK leaders in recent weeks, the settlement process is in all likelihood on its last gasp and is about to be killed soon. That should not be a surprise at all considering that the vicious terrorist network has never been interested in laying down its arms nor does it have any desire to gain more democratic rights for Kurdish citizens in Turkey. As an organization, the PKK simply wants to maintain its lucrative, multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise run on racketeering, drug smuggling, human trafficking, extortion and illegal tax levying. It saw the democratization of Kurdish politics as a major threat to its survival because it had to give up all of these criminal activities while allowing the diversification of Kurdish politics. The PKK is cognizant of the fact that it amassed its power based on blood and guns that were used on Kurds as much as on Turks. It also opposes the economic development of the region by attacking contractors to thwart infrastructure developments in terms of building highways, airports or irrigation projects. As for megalomaniac Öcalan, he is only interested in his own well-being rather than the PKK’s or Kurds’.
The timing could have not been better for the PKK. It used the settlement process to escape from the tight squeeze it was in after targeted government operations against the network in 2011, helped by domestic and international intelligence. Their attacking power had been diminished significantly as the army and police special forces had conducted joint operations on the hideouts and bases of the PKK in the remote mountains even during harsh winter conditions. Kurds in general had started trusting government forces to eliminate this major threat. An intelligence report detailing the PKK leaders’ recent speeches to its members in Şırnak’s Meydana Kolya Plateau confirms this assessment as well. They said the settlement process had helped the PKK to recover and replenish its manpower while giving its Syrian wing the opportunity to make inroads amid the power vacuum there. Unfortunately, the Sri Lankan ambassador’s predictions came true.
The government did not have a comprehensive plan when it launched the process publicly in December 2012. The perception is that it was simply relying on the influence that Öcalan had on the organization in particular and the popularity he enjoys on the general Kurdish public. Both turned out to be quite an exaggeration. Every time something bad happened, the government hastily arranged a group of Kurdish politicians from the civilian wing of the PKK and rushed them over to Öcalan to give the process more balance. It did not work. Öcalan’s call on PKK militants to withdraw from Turkish soil to northern Iraq on March 21 was not fully implemented even though the PKK announced on May 8 that it had begun to withdraw its forces from Turkey. Only 20 percent of armed PKK militants have withdrawn from Turkish soil, according to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In fact, intelligence estimates believe the 20 percent figure to be quite optimistic, stating that the real number is actually below 10 percent.
Instead, the PKK has recruited more people to its ranks and has moved armed members from the mountains to villages, town and city centers, blending them in with the civilian population. The PKK is now preparing for a possible civil war to force the government to acquiesce to its one and only demand: leaving the Southeast to PKK rule.
There have been a lot of mistakes on the part of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). First, it linked the democratization steps to the settlement process although it publicly denied any association. What the government should have done was to embark on its outreach programs for better social, economic, political and cultural rights for Kurds independent of the settlement process. Most of these demands could have been repackaged within larger democratization package that everybody in this country — Turks, Kurds and others — wants and frankly deserves. That would have prevented the resentment among Turks and other ethnic groups in Turkey and helped the government to garner popular support for the government initiatives.
Secondly, the way the process was handled presented its own problems. It was led by the prime minister and a handful of people around him, with the details of the talks kept a secret, giving rise to all sorts of speculation although some were pretty far-fetched. The process lacked a comprehensive and broad consultation with all the stakeholders in society. The AK Party deputies, the opposition and the general public were asked to support the process without any questions. Even though the process hinged on the influence of a convicted felon in the PKK, the risks were disregarded. What was the government’s fallback position in case things went south? Nobody knew. This boosted the impression that the governing party was hunting for Kurdish votes and was simply trying to make it to the election campaign period without any major incidents or body bags.
The government also downplayed the significance of the opposition in undermining the process and failed to bring them onboard when it proposed the formation of a joint commission in Parliament to monitor the settlement process. The nationalists easily exploited the process by accusing the AK Party of appeasing terrorists and dividing the country while the main opposition center-left party continued with its usual obstructionist postures to derail the process and bill the failure to the ruling party.
Above all, the most significant failure on the part of the government was ensuring and insuring the safety of the Kurdish population in the Southeast against the vicious terrorist threat during the process. Security forces were held back in the face of attacks, extortion, threats and even killings by the PKK for the sake of keeping the process alive. This resulted in a feeling of frustration among Kurds that they were left at the mercy of the venomous PKK and had no one to turn to for their safety and wellbeing. Reports from the field indicated that Kurdish families were asked to send one son or daughter to join the fighting force of the PKK and pay illegal taxes to support the terrorist organization. Otherwise, Kurds were threatened with facing the wrath of the PKK, which means death in most cases. It is ironic but Kurds, who are by and large conservative and religious people, were abandoned to this godless and Marxist-Leninist terrorist organization.
Now the PKK threat has grown significantly. The terrorist organization is reportedly preparing to encourage street protests and violence on a major scale to widen the rift between Turks and Kurds. As Turkey faces increased regional challenges from Syria to Iran, the PKK is positioning itself to make a golden strike. The AK Party government should have seen this coming. In 2009, the government sought to disarm and dismantle the PKK in exchange for democratization steps. This time, it tried to harmonize both at an incremental pace. Neither has worked because the PKK has no interest in giving up its arms and knows that violence is the only tool it has at its disposal to get what it wants.
The Turkish government should disassociate these two from each other by aggressively adopting democratic measures without any negotiations while cracking down on the armed PKK factions to the very last cell. Taking away any excuse the PKK exploits to wage its bloody campaign in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south should be the main priority.