Turkey’s surprise move to allow Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to meet with his lawyers after an eight-year hiatus is spurring speculation of a shift in Ankara’s hard-line policy following the 2015 collapse in peace talks with the rebel group.
A nationwide hunger strike calling for an end to Ocalan’s isolation spurred Turkish authorities to allow his lawyers a visit at Imrali Island prison where the 70-year-old Kurdish leader is being held.
“The lawyers were informed they could meet Ocalan on the day of the announcement of a death fast [hunger strike leading to death], which involves at least 2 or 3,000, which has put the government in a difficult position,” said Ertugrul Kurkcu, honorary president of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
In a statement, Ocalan called on his supporters not to engage in activities that could harm them. What drew the most attention, however, was the rebel leader’s call to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that “Turkish sensitivity should be taken into consideration.”
Turkey on the border
Turkish forces are currently amassed on the Syrian border facing off against the SDF. Ankara accuses the People Protection Units (YPG), which makes up a large part of the SDF, of being a terrorist organization linked to the PKK. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
“I think he is showing the YPG the limits they should remain within in the Syrian context and not bother the Turkish government,” said Kurkcu. “He [Ocalan] seeks to finalize the situation without any losses of Syrian Kurdish population because Turkey is looking for an opportunity to intervene.”
Washington has been lobbying hard to prevent a Turkish intervention because the YPG is a crucial ally in its war against Islamic State. U.S. Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, visited Ankara earlier this month for high-level talks to broker a solution.
“We know James Jeffrey, the former U.S. ambassador to Ankara, is already the go-between to find the middle ground between the Ankara regime and the Kurdish political movement, be it in Turkey or Syria,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar.
“So, the Ocalan lawyers’ visit could be a proposal by him, because Ocalan is considered the symbolic leader of the YPG. We know from the Kurdish authorities in Syria that James Jeffrey was active to establish an indirect dialogue between Ankara and [YPG leader] Mazlum Kobane,” Aktar added.
Former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen, who founded Turkey’s consul in the Iraqi Kurdistan regional capital, Irbil, said the significance of Ocalan’s statement should not be overestimated.
“Will it change anything on the ground? I am not sure, because on the ground, even the relationship between Qandil [PKK Iraqi headquarters] and the YPG commanders is quite opaque, not clear, let alone Ocalan’s influence,” he said.
Selcen added, “What is the most interesting point is whether now there is some sort of coordination between the United States, the SDF, Ankara and Ocalan, and even perhaps between Qandil. That we shall see in the coming months.”
Reports of tentative communications between Ankara and the SDF, coupled with Ocalan’s lawyers’ meeting, is spurring speculation of a possible resumption of broader PKK peace talks.
Turkish government members previously engaged in peace talks with Ocalan, which were accompanied by a PKK cease-fire and a partial withdrawal from Turkey.
The process collapsed in 2015 amid mutual recrimination. The resulting fighting claimed thousands of lives and the destruction of numerous town and city centers across Turkey’s predominately Kurdish region.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is ruling out a return to peace talks.
“There is no question of such a thing as the peace process,” he said Monday.
Erdogan’s AKP is in a coalition with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is ardently opposed to any peace talks.
“It’s [the AKP-MHP coalition] a problem, but it is also an opportunity,” Selcen said. “It might mean Erdogan can change his coalition. It might mean he can opt for a new partner.”
Turkish media have been awash with reports of growing tensions between the AKP and MHP, which have been exacerbated by the political defeat in most of Turkey’s main cities, including Istanbul, during the local elections in March.
Kurkcu played down hopes of new peace talks.
“The present line of the PKK is devoted to changing the interlocutor, changing the negotiating partner, which they believe cannot be the AKP,” he said. “The credit the AKP had five to six or seven years ago has vanished in tyranny. The AKP doesn’t have the promise for any positive change in Turkey. It only offers dictatorship.”
Kurkcu confirmed that the HDP would again back Ekrem Imamoglu of the opposition CHP, who won the Istanbul mayoral election in March but is re-runningafter the AKP succeeded in having the vote annulled over claims of voting irregularities.