WASHINGTON DC – US experts and academics have welcomed the historic peace talks between Turkey and its separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), but remain generally skeptical about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s true intentions.
“The question is whether Erdogan is willing to grant Turkey's Kurds the rights they demand,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and prominent expert on the Middle East and Turkey.
“I suspect his end goal is a ceasefire, not justice, in which case the truce will not last,” Rubin said.
From his prison cell on Turkey’s Imrali island, PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan last month called on his fighters to give up their three-decade armed struggle for an ethnic homeland in the country’s southeast, which has claimed 40,000 lives nationwide.
Ocalan, 65, said in his March 21 message on the Kurdish New Year that the PKK was beginning a new phase of struggle, which would be fought in the political arena.
Kirmanj Gundi, of the Tennessee State University, dismissed criticism by some that Ocalan had sold out to the Turks.
“It was not ‘capitulation’ as some have claimed. His message directs Turkish actions to a new beginning, the beginning with no guns leading the way, the beginning that would be premised on ‘civil disobedience,’” he said.
Denise Natali, of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, expressed even greater skepticism about Erdogan's goals, emphasizing the ideological differences between his Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) that has mediated the Ankara-PKK talks.
“I do not believe that Erdogan -- who is essentially an Islamist and critical of the BDP's secular- nationalist agenda -- will recognize Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, which is highly secular and ethnic," Natali told Rudaw.
She believes that Erdogan will not address the concerns at the core of the Kurdish issue.
“Erdogan will likely only go so far before the process stagnates and no real issues are addressed, particularly the Kurds’ key claims of democratic autonomy,” she said.
Christian Sinclair, deputy director of the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, said that Ocalan’s proposed peace plan was bold and timely. But he still retains skepticism about the way forward.
“It is only natural after years of struggle and dashed hopes that many Kurds are wary and anxious of what comes next,” Sinclair said.
He added that, as prime minister and head of a party, Erdogan puts his political agenda before anything else.
We expect US foreign policy to reflect the rapid changes in Turkey and within the region, and reconsider their decision to list the PKK as a terrorist group, as the PKK is now a partner in peace negotiations
“Remember, Erdogan is first and foremost a politician. So whatever comes next will be carefully planned to forward his own political agenda,” he said.
Despite his support for Ocalan’s peace initiative, Gundi justified similar pessimism about the future.
“Everyone has a legitimate right to be skeptical about Turkish intention. Our people in the north of Kurdistan have almost a century of experience, brought on them by policies of denial and oppression.”
Gundi says, it is time the Turkish government ended its decades-long conflict.
“The Turks have come a long way and cannot abandon the peace process. Therefore, they should take advantage of this historic opportunity and end this unnecessary conflict," he said.
Rubin said that Erdogan’s decision about the peace talks also could be linked to Turkey’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, which will be decided in September.
“I wonder whether Erdogan is more interested in impressing the Olympic Committee, which was visiting Turkey at the same time?” Rubin wondered. “I would not be surprised if, after that decision is final, Erdogan decides he's not that interested in peace talks after all.”
But Sinclair thinks that Erdogan faces serious obstacles ahead.
“The biggest challenge is going to be, dealing with the mainstream Turkish population, who for years has been force fed a nationalist ideology that paints all Kurds as terrorists,” he said.
He fears that if Erdogan moves too quickly or offers too many concessions, there may be a backlash, as in 2009 with the Habur Gate incident, when PKK fighters returning to Turkey following a call by Ocalan received months-long prison terms for previous offenses.
Gundi says that, as a gesture of goodwill, Erdogan's government should release all Kurdish political prisoners and suspend laws that have long suppressed Kurdish identity.
“Erdogan's government should start preparing the ground for changing the racist Turkish constitution into a constitution in which equality, human rights and democratic principles are recognized and respected,” Gundi said.
Following its support for Turkey’s peace talks, many now wonder whether Washington would consider removing the PKK from its list of terrorist organizations.
Kurdish National Congress (KNC) President, Luqman Barwari says, “We expect US foreign policy to reflect the rapid changes in Turkey and within the region, and reconsider their decision to list the PKK as a terrorist group, as the PKK is now a partner in peace negotiations.”
Barwari added that the KNC has reached out to the US State Department, and sent letters to the US president about the Kurdish situation in Turkey.
Rubin indicated that such a decision would depend on the strength of the Kurdish lobby, reminding that the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group, lobbied for years before winning their battle to get off the list.
Gundi agreed that the best way the US government can back the peace process is by removing the PKK’s terrorist designation.
“I believe it should happen sooner rather than later, because without removing the PKK from the list of terrorist organizations the peace process would not achieve its goals and objectives,” he said.