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Letter from the PKK leader: Real peace or buying time?

Ceylan Ozbudak

Published: Updated:

Norooz, an ancient annual Persian celebration of a new spring, is marked across central Asia. The Norooz message sent by imprisoned PKK terrorist leader Öcalan, in which he called for a ceasefire, has been received with amazement by the world. But the reaction here in Turkey was more subdued. Why? And why were the Turks expecting such an announcement? Why does Öcalan appear as though he abandoned his decades-old ideology? How is Turkey winning the fight against terror when terrorist groups are becoming ever stronger in an uncertain Middle East?

The PKK has had many quiet times in the past and it is much too early to tell whether these baby steps will bear the fruit of lasting peace.

Ceylan Ozbudak

Turkey has suffered 35 years of bloodshed since Abdullah Öcalan founded the PKK in 1978. Turkish reaction to this latest move may be compared to what the people in Mexico might feel if the Zeta drug cartel boss issued a call to lay down arms after years of narco-terrorism. Yes, we are glad to see this day. Yes, we hope for better things, but we want to see the proof in the pudding. It is too early to celebrate.

The end of the PKK?

For starters, it would be naive to assume that the PKK’s decision to withdraw from Turkey really means the end of the PKK. In line with Lenin’s famous 1904 treatise “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” communist organizations sometimes withdraw in order to hit back more powerfully at a later time and we are not convinced to expect anything different here, especially from the PKK. Moreover, the organization’s declaration to end armed conflict does not mean it is ceasing to exist.

The PKK has had many quiet times in the past and it is much too early to tell whether these baby steps will bear the fruit of lasting peace. Therefore, the important question is not “What are Öcalan’s terms?” but “What has motivated him to abandon violence at least for now? Has he abandoned the Marxist ideology on which he founded the PKK? Or has he laid aside its methods only for now, taking “two steps back” in order to gather international support; to erode the solidarity of the Turkish nation, or even worse; to gather strength to strike in greater force later should negotiations fail?” Much more, it would be sheer folly to entertain any thought that the PKK’s decision to withdraw portends that it might cease to exist depending on the outcome of these negotiations.

That is not to deny the opportunity, which this moment presents. But the most important question is: “What has Turkey done to bring about this moment? Extremist groups are becoming stronger in Libya, Syria, Mali, Pakistan, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East. What has Turkey been doing right? What has Turkey been doing to defeat terrorism within its borders?” The answers to these last questions if they could be discerned, would be like a second evangel to the world.

As I mentioned last week, if any government ever had cause to hunt down militants via airstrike, it would be our own: Since 1978, when Öcalan first launched his war on the Turkish state, his PKK has cost 60,000 lives. The PKK has kidnapped hundreds of Turkish civilians and launched attacks at Turkish military bases. The PKK has fomented anarchy in all its forms in order to terrify, destabilize, and fracture the Turkish nation, and to build an autonomous, communist Kurdistan in the southeast part of our homeland.

Answering insurrection with force

Turkish police stations, which have come under attack during these operations, have had to answer insurrection with force. Nevertheless, in the face of all this disorder, death, and grief, as I mention in my article last week on the subject of drones, Turkey has stood up for the rights and safety of the people of the region. Not the model of the kind we see in America’s drone attacks that disregards the safety of local people has ever been applied in the fight against terror on Turkish territory. Instead, Turkey maintained a policy of respect for the rights and safety of local people, even in the hottest zones of PKK operation: Even after Öcalan was condemned to death in 1999, after a trial conducted in conformity with Turkish law, his life was spared after the death penalty was abolished.

Why has Turkey behaved this way? Because in addition to sanctifying innocent human lives, we understand the mindset behind terrorism. The answer was easily predictable in the foundation of the PKK itself: Remember that inasmuch as it is a Marxist force, the PKK has espoused Marxism and guerrilla methods from its earliest days. Vo Nguyen Giap summarized: “If you cannot secure food, materiel and moral support from the people in the region where you are fighting then you can only wage guerrilla warfare for 6 months at most. It is moral defeat, not hunger, that kills guerrilla warfare.” What is the driving principle behind every guerilla insurgency on earth? Support from the indigenous people. Just as guerilla movements feed off the widespread discontent of aggrieved peoples, and channels popular discontent to support violent uprisings, that same sword cuts the other way: If the narrative of oppression and discontent is compromised within the population, the insurgency dies for lack of oxygen. At the root of Marxist ideology, there has to be a fascist approach for the guerrilla organization to shelter the people of the region against. An authority that seeks to win people over with affection and compassion, rather than persecuting them has caused the weakening of the Marxist PKK.


This is not an ethnic conflict. Turkey, like America or even Russia, is an ethnically mixed nation, which has been home to Georgians, Circassians, Arabs, Europeans and Kurds, all maintaining their own traditions within a single Turkish national identity. The Kurds are very much a part of that national identity, in which we are one nation under God, and that our natural relationship to each other is peace. And this is precisely what is happening in Turkey: All across Turkish lands, ancient bonds of affection and compassion prevail.

What has been happening in Turkey all this while that Öcalan has been ensconced alone on İmralı island in the Sea of Marmara? Answer: There has been counter-insurgent campaign, not of bombs and blood, but of ideas. Yes: All this while, civil society organizations have blanketed the Anatolian landscape with millions of films, pamphlets, and books. These organizations and others like them have sent books by the millions to every local hamlet, to challenge the communist-materialist philosophies, which is the driving force of PKK. There has also been a counter-insurgent invasion of soldiers, armed, not with Kalashnikovs, but with films, books, pamphlets, and knowledge. In fact, over 6000 conferences have taken place in Turkish provinces. These are some of the untold factors, which are making the difference in Turkey today alongside decisive leadership from Ankara.

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Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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