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Critical week for Kurdish peace process

Mahir Zeynalov

Published: Updated:

While Turkey holds its breath awaiting progress in the Kurdish peace process aimed at ending the decades-old conflict, it is facing a major obstacle this week that could seriously damage the entire initiative that has survived through thick and thin so far.

In a week-long convention with the participation of 162 delegates, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) reshuffled its top leadership as part of the peace process, but observers are deeply skeptical about the intentions of the PKK. The delegates established a six-member general council and created a co-chair system that will lead the council. The council will serve as the main advisory body and provide assistance to jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Öcalan.

Öcalan was elected as the chairman of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK), an umbrella organization that also includes the PKK, and its former head, Murat Karayılan, was appointed to lead the military wing of the organization, People’s Defense Forces (HPG).

At the convention, reportedly held in PKK-stronghold Qandil Mountain in northern Iraq near the Iranian border, Bese Hozat and Cemil Bayik were elected as two co-chairs of the council. The changes in the PKK leadership come while the peace process seems to be stalled as the government insists that the PKK must do more to move forward.

The government must ‘take a step’

The peace process seems to be stalled as the government insists that the PKK must do more to move forward.

Mahir Zeynalov

The ‘settlement process’, as the Turkish government prefers to call it, began in October last year with secret talks between Öcalan and the intelligence agency. The first stage of the process was kick-started when members of the PKK began to withdraw from Turkish territories into Iraq in early May.

The PKK and pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which has nearly 30 seats at the Turkish Parliament, are insisting that it is the government’s turn to make a move. In rallies organized by the BDP, Kurds marched in several cities in southeastern Turkey on Sunday and the party is planning more demonstrations this week. The organizers named the rallies “Take a step,” in a reference to what they believe to be Ankara’s lack of action.

In his first major response to these demands, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last month that the first stage of the peace process includes the withdrawal of the PKK militants from Turkey, and that fewer than 20 percent of the PKK members left Turkey. The BDP, however, claims that more than 80 percent of the PKK militants left the country and that the government should take steps to improve the rights and freedoms of Kurds as a confidence-building measure to make serious progress. Erdogan’s statement illustrated the challenges the process is facing amid reports that the PKK is even considering to strengthen its militia forces, with former PKK head Karayılan at the helm.

The latest reports released by Ankara indicate that the PKK has stepped up recruitment and more than 2,000 new militants have joined the organization in the past four months.

In an interview with the news agency ANF, affiliated with the PKK, Karayılan issued an ultimatum to the government, demanding the government address the concerns of Kurds or risk disruption in the process. He also asked for a secretary and an assistant for Öcalan.

“If the [Justice and Development Party] AKP government doesn't make a move, the process will get blocked over the period ahead,” Karayılan said in the interview.

A ‘sensitive and vulnerable’ process

The fate of the peace process hinges on the government’s next steps. Any negative development will derail the process and end Turkey’s most important peace project.

Mahir Zeynalov

Karayilan reiterated that this week is significant for progress towards peace and it is worth quoting him at length: “Prisons are filled with Kurdish politicians. This is putting a strain on the process. Everyone should understand well that the week ahead is very important. If the attitude of the Turkish government continues in this line, the process will be blocked. It isn't completely blocked at the moment, but it is getting there. We are waiting to see steps in a short period of time that will convince us, and if these steps are not taken and the process is blocked, the responsibility will be on them.”

The spokesman for the ruling party, Huseyin Celik, said that everyone involved has important responsibilities to avoid harming what he called a “sensitive and vulnerable” process.

Although the prime minister sharpened his rhetoric in the past month to rebuke protesters in anti-government demonstrations across Turkey, he avoided making tough statements regarding the PKK in six large rallies he organized in Turkish cities and in his frequent speeches.

With the PKK issuing threats to disrupt the initiative and taking steps to bolster its militia forces, the fate of the peace process hinges on the government’s next steps. Any negative development will derail the process and end Turkey’s most important peace project.

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Mahir Zeynalov is an Istanbul-based journalist with English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.