Another option is still possible in Syria

If you are one of those who sees Turkey as part of the problem, I will tell you one thing: Turkey is also the most essential element of the solution. It was only six years ago that Turkey was negotiating a peace deal with the Kurdish movement. Peace seemed possible. I argue that it still is.

The ceasefire (in the words of the U.S.) or the pause (in the words of Turkey) in the Syrian operation will not deliver an end to the imbroglio. Neither scandalous letters nor preposterous Orientalist comments from the US president will yield a viable peace deal in Syria. Constantly bashing Turkey or lamenting in anguish about how everything plays into the hands of Putin will only consolidate the diverse forces behind the crisis.  

If you are one of those who sees Turkey as part of the problem, I will tell you one thing: Turkey is also the most essential element of the solution. It was only six years ago that Turkey was negotiating a peace deal with the Kurdish movement. Peace seemed possible. I argue that it still is.

When the zealous machinery of war—any war—starts operating, the sounds it makes feeds into the primitive feelings of human nature and makes any thick-centered ideology thicker. The machinery, indeed, is designed in such a way to turn the already-fallible human memory into mush. I see one of the critical tasks of journalists as setting the record straight and leaving an avenue of facts for historians to dig up fifty years on. This is what I will attempt today, hoping—at least briefly—to interrupt the sound of the war machinery and inject a droplet of life into the mush.  Let’s get going then: we have numerous signposts to follow.

Winter 2013

The then-Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan announced during a TV interview that Turkish intelligence (MIT) had started a dialogue with Abdullah Öcalan, who, after his capture in 1999, had been imprisoned for life on Imrali, an island in the Sea of Marmara. The public learned of the peace process through Erdogan’s words. Two days after this announcement, Erdogan vowed to “drink poison hemlock” if necessary to pursue the peace process, implying he was ready to go ahead regardless of the political cost. There was no backlash from the public or the parliament, except the leader of the nationalist party MHP (National Action Party). The CHP (Republican People’s Party), the main opposition, saluted the attempt by the AKP to solve the Kurdish conflict. A poll conducted in the spring of 2013 revealed that 81% of respondents opined that a solution to the Kurdish conflict would work for the good of everyone. Another survey disclosed by Erdogan showed that 64% supported a peace process.

A blow to peace by Gülenists

Eleven days after Erdogan declared a peace process, news from Paris rocked the Kurdish movement. Three female PKK members—Sakine Cansız, Fidan Doğan, and Leyla Sönmez—were killed. This was no small incident. Cansız was one of Öcalan’s close associates and part of the PKK founding team. The murder could have derailed the peace process before it started; however, it did not. This was because the hitman, Ömer Güney, was arrested by the French poliçe. The investigation papers leaked to Le Monde in 2015 revealed that Güney was working for Turkey's intelligence agency. But which MIT? The Paris prosecutor remarked that the members of the Gülen movement within MIT might be responsible for the attack. Knowledge about the Gülen movement’s deeds is very limited in the Western world thanks to its lobbying apparatuses. However, for us, the journalists of Turkey who followed the high-profile legal cases like Ergenekon, KCK, and Sledgehammer, and adequately analyzed the findings of the botched coup of 2016, murdering three female PKK members is very much within the capability and character of the Gülen movement. Why the Gülen movement wanted to derail the Kurdish peace process is a long story that might be the subject of another article. For the purposes of this piece, I will leave it at this: MIT gave the Kurdish movement enough proof that the murder was undertaken by an “uncontrolled group,” which the PKK referred to at the time as “Green Gladio.” According to PKK leaders, Green Gladio was composed of Gülen movement members who “had built a parallel state.” This was why the peace process continued despite this initial blow.

Spring 2013

Öcalan wrote a letter that was read out by Kurdish politicians to the millions gathered at the Newroz square in Diyarbakır and broadcasted live throughout the country. In the letter, Öcalan announced that “a new era is beginning: an era where politics gain prominence over weapons” and that they “have arrived at the stage where we should withdraw our armed forces outside the borders.” Following the Newroz letter, the PKK proceeded with its withdrawal without a formal agreement, a timeline, or a monitoring body, and they saw it as a significant concession. The withdrawal process failed to be completed after the Gezi protests that erupted and swept the country in June 2013. The peace process faltered but continued anyway until the Syrian spillover.

Syria and the Kurdish peace process

Now we arrive at the crux of the story. In July 2012, Syrian Kurds led by PYD/YPG managed to contain an autonomous area within northern Syria. The PYD/YPG, from the beginning, claimed that it has a different structure than the PKK and that they are not the PKK. The problem with this claim is that the PKK and the PYD/YPG are not only ideologically linked, but organically linked as well. More than 10,000 people from Syria had joined the ranks of the PKK over the years. Around 5,000 of the PKK casualties were Syrians.

Moreover, the PKK had spent 20 years training in Syrian camps. High-ranking PKK leaders take part in almost all executive processes of the PYD/YPG – now called the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces). All in all, by the time autonomous Kurdish cantons were being set up in northern Syria, the PKK leadership’s main priority had become Syria rather than Turkey. Therefore, with a commonsensical, rational choice approach, Turkey should have accelerated the peace negotiations with the PKK and recognized the democratic rights of Turkey’s Kurds so that the 100-year-old Kurdish issue could be resolved before it became entangled with the spillover from the Syrian war. No, Turkey chose another option instead: finding any way at all to prevent an autonomous Kurdish entity in Syria. This, in turn, affected the peace process negatively and caused a furor among Syrian Kurds. A vicious cycle was set into motion.

Faltering peace

Immediately after the PYD managed to wrest control of the Syrian town Til Abyad from the hands of ISIS, the pro-government media in Turkey embarked on a propaganda campaign of equating PYD with ISIS. They made the claim that the PYD is “as dangerous as ISIS.” However, ironically, the PYD’s leader Salih Müslim was a regular in Ankara in the first two years of the peace process. However, the meetings with Müslim did not translate into anything meaningful because Ankara believed that the PYD was collaborating with Assad—a belief that has proven to be unfounded until today. Besides, the PYD had not guaranteed Ankara that there would not be an autonomous Kurdish entity at the Turkish border, which would, in Ankara’s thinking, possibly pave the way for an autonomous Kurdish region within the Turkish state—a fear ingrained in the foundational codes of the Turkish republic.

Collapsing peace

In February 2015, an unexpected episode occurred in the peace process. The foreign minister Ahmet Davuoğlu had replaced Erdoğan as prime minister after Erdoğan became the president. Davutoğlu seemed determined initially to further the peace process. While the bitterness on the part of both the Turkish state and the Kurdish movement was at its peak, a historic meeting took place in Dolmabahçe Palace. It was the first time representatives from the HDP and the AKP appeared together on live TV and read out a joint declaration regarding the peace process. The gist of the announcement was that an international monitoring committee would be formed to track the negotiation and disarmament process (which may take years), and then the PKK would hold a congress to declare that it would lay down arms. However, things did not go as planned. Sharp turns from Erdoğan followed the Dolmabahçe meeting. He said that he did not have prior knowledge of such a declaration nor had he approved the meeting or any of its contents. With this turn, the resolution of disarmament was de facto suspended. What followed was a rollercoaster ride of events with nauseating bends and curves. In the June 2015 general elections, the Kurdish party HDP gained an unprecedented vote share of 13%, blowing past the required 10% electoral threshold and practically ending the AKP’s 12-year one-party rule in parliament. However, due to Erdoğan’s extraordinary efforts, the coalition talks between the AKP and the main opposition party CHP failed. Just when a rerun of the general election was scheduled, the peace process officially collapsed, ending a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire. From then on, the shackles of Turkey’s constitutional and social norms were thrown off. In the meantime, the PKK waged urban warfare in southeast Turkey, which was dubbed trench warfare (hendek savaşı), putting thousands of Kurdish civilians at risk.

The miscalculation of the PKK

The peace process had collapsed for three main reasons: First, the Turkish government’s fear of a Rojava – i.e., an autonomous Kurdish region being forcibly inserted into Turkish territory. Second, Erdoğan’s ambition to hold an executive presidency (the peace process did not have the vote-maximizing effect he anticipated as it instead consolidated Kurdish votes behind the HDP), and last but not least, the PKK’s miscalculation and return to its gruesome methods. The PKK misinterpreted the HDP election victory in June 2015 as support for the PKK. No, it wasn’t. HDP’s unprecedented success at the ballot box meant support for the peace process and for the ceasefire. Not for the PKK. In a similar vein, the PKK anticipated that the international legitimacy and backing it had received in Syria for fighting ISIS would continue for its urban warfare in Turkey. It did not. Many Kurdish politicians tried to dissuade the PKK but to no avail. In one of the last interviews before he was imprisoned, Selahattin Demirtaş—the former co-chair of the HDP and the most influential Kurdish politician in Turkey—told me about his resentment towards urban warfare, which took many lives: “After the June 7 elections, when we had created a wide-open window for politics to enter the field, I do not understand why they [the PKK] continued with violence. I know it is hard for them to disarm when there are threats like ISIS in the Middle East, but they should not have used violence against Turkey.”

The key ‘Eshme collaboration’

Within the Syrian quagmire, no party is without sin. The US, starting with the Obama administration, should not have armed the YPG and pushed Turkey towards Russia. Erdoğan should not have called off the Kurdish peace process. Turkey should not have backed the Free Syrian Army the way it did. The PKK should not have waged war in the cities of Turkey. The EU’s sole agenda should not have been to keep the Syrian refugees out of Europe. The transactional deals regarding human lives were utterly disgraceful. Yes, yes, we all know these. But what now? From the vantage point of today, there seems to be no way out but overlapping wars with proxies. What needed to be done roughly five years ago, I argue, is still the only viable solution. Turkey and the Kurdish movement, with all its layers, should sit across from one another at the table and resume the peace process. As seen above, it was possible. It still is possible.

One last reminder to all parties: At midnight, in February 2015, 600 Turkish troops with nine tanks and 57 armored vehicles crossed into Syria, to Manbij, to save the tomb of Suleyman Shah (the grandfather of the Ottoman Empire's founder) from destruction. It was ISIS who had threatened to destroy the grave and there were 38 Turkish soldiers guarding it. Turkish troops entered the area from Kobane, evacuated the 38 soldiers, and transferred the tomb to Eshme, a town north of Kobane. It was a joint operation against ISIS in which the YPG escorted the Turkish tanks to Eshme. No one was hurt. In my view, what happened that night epitomized the most viable solution to this crisis. Western powers should stop crying wolf and attempt to work towards that aim – that is, a peace process redux.

**Unless otherwise noted, translations from Turkish and Arabic are the author’s.