The failure of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to find a peaceful end to their 27-year-old conflict could lead to an uprising by Kurdish youths fed up with both sides, similar to the Arab Spring, the brother of the PKK’s jailed leader said.
The festering war in Turkey’s southeast has killed about 40,000 people, displaced many more and tarnished the image of Turkey as it seeks to present itself as a champion of democracy and stability in the Middle East, and join the European Union.
Since Turkey captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999, the PKK has declared repeated unilateral ceasefires, but all have been ignored by Ankara which, along with the United States and the EU, classifies the PKK as a terrorist organization.
Meanwhile Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has granted some cultural and language rights to the country’s Kurds, who make up as much as 20 percent of the population, to try to stem support for the insurgency and end the almost daily clashes.
In Turkey’s parliamentary election in June last year, both Erdogan’s AK Party and the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) won strong support in the mainly Kurdish southeast.
“The AKP government under the leadership of Erdogan created hope in Kurdish circles,” Osman Ocalan, Abdullah Ocalan’s younger brother, told Reuters in the small town of Koy Sanjaq in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.
“Kurds supported Erdogan’s party thinking it would bring a peaceful solution ... The people also gave serious support to the party backed by the PKK, that is the BDP. The message of the people was ‘solve the problem’,” said Ocalan, who left the PKK in 2004, dissatisfied with its undemocratic nature.
“Neither the PKK nor the AKP government read this message correctly,” he said in an interview late on Tuesday. “The AKP misused the support of the people to suppress the guerrilla movement and the PKK thought the people back them so they could continue the violence.”
“Both sides are abusing the support of the people,” he said.
Between them, the state and the PKK have eliminated almost all the moderate Kurdish political voices in Turkey, leaving a huge gulf to be bridge if there is ever going to be peace.
Leaks to the media in September last year of recordings of secret peace talks hosted in Norway between Turkish intelligence agents and PKK leaders appear to have signalled the end of behind-the-scenes efforts to end the conflict.
Instead the fighting has reignited. The PKK killed 24 Turkish soldiers in an attack in October, and the army went on to kill 49 PKK militants in a large operation.
“Now the people have understood that both sides have failed this test,” said Ocalan, sitting below a brightly colored picture of his smiling elder brother, currently jailed in Turkey, emerging from clouds, arms outstretched toward a child dressed in traditional Kurdish clothes.
“What will be the stance of the Kurdish people? Kurds will increasingly behave more independently of the PKK ... But that doesn’t mean they will support the governing party,” he said.
While large demonstrations in Turkey’s southeast last year heralded talk of a Kurdish Spring in the wake of uprisings in the Arab world, widespread protests fizzled out.
Ocalan said that was partly because the PKK feared being sidelined by a genuinely popular protest movement.
But incidents such as a Turkish air strike last month that killed 35 civilian smugglers on the border with Iraq could still enflame the streets. While acknowledging the bombing was a mistake, no Turkish leader has yet apologised.
“Just as the people of the Middle East rose up and overthrew dictatorial regimes, the Kurds of course will not leave this oppression unanswered,” he said.
“The Kurdish people will begin an uprising just like in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Whether that will that happen in six months or in a year it is impossible to say.”