Turkey's 'Kurdish initiative' may ease crisis


The PKK has renounced its aim of an independent Kurdish state and extended its unilateral ceasefire, writes TONY KINSELLA

IN 1970 Billy Hayes was a 23-year-old New York student when he was arrested for attempting to smuggle hashish out of Turkey. His experiences of Turkish prisons, including the one on Imrali Island from which he escaped in 1975, inspired his 1977 book Midnight Express, later filmed by Alan Parker.

Hayes returned to Istanbul in 2007 as a guest of the Turkish Institute for Police Studies to participate in a conference on Democracy and Global Security.

Reform-minded police officials thanked him for his contribution to improving prison conditions in their country, while Hayes apologised for what he saw as the film’s overly negative portrayal of Turkey.

Now in his old haunts on Imrali Island and in those of Ankara’s Çankaya district 900m (2,950ft) above the dry Anatolian plains radical ideas are being floated, paragraphs drafted, and orientations finessed which might see the beginning of the end of a centuries old bloody conflict.

Ideas and drafts are undoubtedly routine in the Turkish capital of almost five million people, but perhaps less common on Imrali where a thousand-strong garrison guards a single prisoner, the 61-year-old Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. Öcalan has effectively been in isolation since officers of the Turkish MIT security service snatched him off the streets of Nairobi in February 1999. Last week however, the justice ministry announced the transfer of nine other prisoners to Imrali.

Öcalan’s Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK) fought the Turkish authorities in pursuit of an independent state for the country’s 12 million Kurds in a conflict which claimed some 40,000 lives over a quarter of a century. This was the latest episode in a long litany of clashes between Kurdish organisations and the authorities in Ankara and their imperial forebears in Istanbul.

The PKK has renounced its aim of an independent Kurdish state and has recently extended its unilateral ceasefire. Öcalan has promised to issue a “road map” for peace by August 15th next and indications are that this will amount to what Hasip Kaplan of the legal Kurdish Democratic Society party termed “a solid solution”. These Kurdish statements would seem to be carefully choreographed with a steady stream of positive indications from Ankara. Prime minister Recep Erdogan last week confirmed that his government was working on a “Kurdish initiative”. President Abdullah Gul spoke last May of a “historic opportunity” to resolve the problem.

A process that was significantly reinforced when General Ilker Basbug, chief of the Turkish general staff, observed that resolving the Kurdish question was a test of Turkey’s modernisation and that a solution could not be found simply through the use of force.

Quite what arrangements Turkey and her Kurdish citizens come to, even the implications for Kurdish people in neighbouring states, or for the 1.2 million Kurdish diaspora in the EU, may well prove to be less instructive than the fact that an arrangement is being sought.

Our languages, cultures and histories all teem with references to and celebrations of “victory”. The awkward, if not downright dangerous, corollary is that victory for one party implies defeat for the other.

It is an approach we inherit from our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The hunters stalked their prey, killed it and returned victorious to the ravenous tribe. The farmer (or gardener) quickly comes to understand that outright victory over weeds or pests is impossible, and if attempted would consume so much time and energy that there would be none left for cultivation.

Yet when it comes to addressing our individual and collective conflicts we behave as if the preceding 12 millennia of settled existence had simply never happened. We strive for outright victory, often reluctantly accepting the compromise that is inevitable since confrontational conflict is unsustainable.

Members of a couple engaged in a heated row tend to escalate their arguments – until they reach the point where argumentative success is only possible at the price of destroying their couple.

A prolonged industrial dispute can lead to the demise of the business hitting both owners and employees. The owners lose profit, and the employees pay, with each disputed day. At some point the accumulated loss of earnings outstrips the benefits of any pay increase. Equally, lost profits may outstrip the costs of meeting the original pay demand.

The most stark example is offered by war – since all wars come to an end. Sadly most organisations deploy their best brains to winning conflicts when most of their human talent should focus, right from the very beginning, on finding ways of ending them.

Those about to engage in armed conflict need to undertake additional and more profound reflections. Do the advantages offered by the most optimistic “victory” scenario outweigh the human and material costs of the war? Unless the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, then the conflict is clearly not worth it.

In late 2001 armed intervention in an Afghanistan which had provided the base for the September 11th attacks was clearly justified. There was a brief window of opportunity when the international community could have both significantly reduced the threat from al-Qaeda, and assisted in the emergence of more equitable and thus more stable Afghanistan.

That opportunity was squandered because Messrs Bush and Blair decided that Afghanistan was of, at best, secondary importance compared to launching their unprovoked and unjustified aggression against Iraq.

Tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dead Iraqis and thousands of military casualties later, Iraq struggles to establish itself as a functioning state. Iran is strengthened as a regional power, while Afghanistan and areas of Pakistan teeter on the edge of chaos.

As Mr Blair contemplates his appearance before the UK Chilcot enquiry into the Iraq war, he could usefully look at Turkey’s demonstration of political maturity.