NEW YORK – Turkey is engaged in a historic opportunity for peace with its own Kurds and those beyond its borders, and a sign of the emerging relationship are Ankara’s growing ties with Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, according to experts at a conference in New York.
Eminent speakers, commenting in panel discussions at Columbia University’s Organization for the Advancement of Studies of Inner Eurasian Societies (OASIES), praised talks between Ankara and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose first fruits are an ongoing withdrawal of fighters from Turkey.
“If Ankara can successfully solve this problem, it will not only build a partnership with some 17 million Kurds in Turkey, but also with five million in Iraq and two million Kurds in Syria too,” noted the University of Kentucky’s Professor Robert Olson, who has written several well-known books about the Kurds.
Professor Abbas Vali, a distinguished Kurdish scholar from Iran, added that the PKK has a very significant place in Kurdish history, not only as a political party but also as a social movement.
“It is a significant accomplishment that the PKK was able to bring the Turkish government to the negotiation table. With this process, the ‘military solution’ option of Ankara also collapsed,” he told the audience.
If Ankara can successfully solve this problem, it will not only build a partnership with some 17 million Kurds in Turkey, but also with five million in Iraq and two million Kurds in Syria too,
Vali said that the goal that the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, wants today is not new as some claim. “I met with Ocalan in Rome in 1995 for five hours, and even then he was determined to end armed struggle and continue his struggle in the democratic field,” he said.
In a separate discussion, Professor Mehmet Gurses of the Florida Atlantic University was less overwhelmed by Turkish achievements, noting that Ankara has yet to address demands for greater rights from its restive Kurdish minority.
He praised the PKK as the most modern and effective among all political and social Kurdish movements, adding it had helped millions of Kurds in Turkey regain their identity.
“Due primarily to their distribution in four key countries in the region, Kurds can serve as a key to democratize Iraq and Syria, check and balance religious fundamentalism, and lay the groundwork for a secular and democratic co-existence between all groups” Gurses asserted.
He appealed to the US government to support the peace process with concrete steps, such as removing the PKK from its list of terrorist organizations.
“Considering the power of the Kurdish nationalist movement in the region, support for a political solution for the conflict in Turkey is also in the interest of the United States,” Gurses noted.
“The failure of the peace process is likely to result in some serious outcomes, none of which would serve the US national interest,” he warned, saying consequences could include further chaos in Syria, which in turn could strengthen radical Islamists.
David L. Phillips, a program director at Columbia and former senior adviser to the US Department of State, noted that Ankara and Turkey’s Kurds are both exhausted by years of armed conflict, making the situation ripe for resolution. An estimated 40,000 people have died in the three-decade conflict between the PKK and Ankara.
“Turkey’s Kurds have abandoned demands for an independent homeland, in lieu of expanded political and cultural rights, as well as economic opportunity,” Philips said, expressing hope that the Kurds would gain some of their rights before elections next year.
Considering the power of the Kurdish nationalist movement in the region, support for a political solution for the conflict in Turkey is also in the interest of the United States,
He said that if these rights are delayed the Kurds face the danger of leaving the process empty-handed, because the government now making peace with the Kurds may no longer be in power.
Philips said that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should show its sincerity to the Kurds with immediate changes, allowing greater freedom of expression, abolishing articles of the anti-terror and penal laws and improving human rights.
Philips also talked about his upcoming to trip to the Kurdistan Region, and praised the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for its constructive role in bringing the peace process to life.
”It is ironic to see that Turkey, who once was the main opponent of the KRG, has a very strong economic and commercial relation with the Iraqi Kurds,” Philips said, adding that the success of the process will further strengthen Ankara’s ties with all Kurds, including the KRG.
Hasip Kaplan, an MP from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) which mediated the talks between Ankara and Ocalan’s prison cell, said that the peace process is embraced by all Kurds, not only Turkey’s Kurdish population.
“In the peace process, we rely on our people and our own power. No need to be pessimistic or emotional. We, as Kurds, will act together and achieve our goals,” Kaplan vowed.
He said that a Kurdish National Conference would be held in Erbil this fall to determine a national policy for all Kurds, and draw a future road map.
The lawmaker emphasized the need for a new Turkish constitution by the end of this year, adding that for guns to be silenced for good, opportunities for democratic politics and Kurdish rights should be created and recognized.
Kaplan also stressed it was time for the US to take the PKK off its terror list, and revise names of senior PKK commanders, such as Murat Karayilan, Riza Altun and Zubeyir Aydar from its list of drug traffickers.