As Turkish Kurds Talk Peace, A Bloody Setback In Paris

 @JaceyFortin
on January 10 2013 1:51 PM
A portait of late PKK activist Sakine Cansiz is seen at the Kurdish cultural centre in Paris.
A portait of late PKK activist Sakine Cansiz is seen at the Kurdish cultural centre in Paris. Reuters

In the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning, officials in Paris found the bodies of three women shot in the head by an unknown assassin.

The women were Kurdish activists, and the site of their death was the Center for Kurdistan, which is situated on the busy Rue la Fayette. Though it occurred in France, the violent incident is likely rooted in another bloody conflict taking place about 2,500 miles away, in southeastern Turkey.

There, clashes between Kurdish fighters and Turkish government forces have killed hundreds of people in recent months. The Kurds, a people without an internationally recognized state of their own, have long sought greater recognition and autonomy -- in a struggle that goes back centuries.

But despite ongoing bloodshed, now is a time of new hope for Turkish Kurds.

Official talks between the government and a militant Kurdish leader are now underway, and the opportunity to build lasting peace is within reach. But the murders in Paris threaten to undermine recent progress, imperiling a long-awaited solution for what Turkey refers to as its "Kurdish problem."

“The fact that these talks are starting obviously makes [the assassinations] extremely political,” says Hugh Pope, the Turkey Project Director for the International Crisis Group.

“I hope that the two sides reassure each other publicly that this is not aimed at undermining the talks, because there’s a really good opportunity now to make this new round of talks work.”

Four Corners, One People

The Kurdish population has its roots in a mountainous area of land -- often referred to as Kurdistan -- that sprawls into eastern Syria, northern Iraq, western Iran and southeastern Turkey. Kurdish efforts to establish a single independent state have failed repeatedly, partly because of opposition from regional states and partly because the Kurdish people themselves are far from monolithic.

Kurds face different challenges in the four countries they inhabit. In Iran, Kurdish communities are kept under close watch by the regime. In Iraq, they operate with a high degree of autonomy. In Syria, the bloody uprising has drawn government forces away from the east and enabled Kurds to take more control over their own communities.

And in Turkey, Kurds are concentrated in the southeast, but they have also pursued greater integration into society. A pro-Kurd political party known as the Peace and Democracy Party has managed to win seats in the national parliament, and dialogue between Turks and Kurds has grown in recent years.

But another organization called the Kurdistan Workers Party, known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, has been the principal combatant of Turkish troops in the bloody battles of recent months. The PKK is a designated terrorist organization whose leader, Abdullah Ocalan, is imprisoned on Imrali Island, 50 miles from Istanbul on the Sea of Marmara.

Changing Times

The bloodshed in southeastern Turkey centers around PKK guerilla militants, but the violence has had the unfortunate side effect of turning public opinion against Kurds of all stripes.

“Over the last 15-month period, about 900 people have been killed in guerilla fighting, and at the same time the Turkish government has arrested thousands of mostly peaceful activists,” says Pope.

But despite the ongoing persecution and loss of life, there are clear signs of progress. In a development that would have been unimaginable years ago, Ankara intelligence officials have engaged in talks with Ocalan in recent weeks. The ultimate goal, say government officials, is to come to an agreement whereby PKK militants can disarm and moderate Kurdish Turks can gain better integration into society.

“This is a year of no elections in Turkey -- a very important opening,” says Pope. “There is a realization in Ankara that a military solution is not possible, and therefore there has been some work on fixing the Kurdish problem as well as the PKK problem. The main opposition party is backing the government on talks, and public opinion is positive. In short, there are several reasons why now is a time of great opportunity.”

Progress Imperiled?

The assassinations in Paris might dampen the nascent hope for peace in southeastern Turkey, especially since one of the victims -- as identified by officials from the Peace and Democracy Party -- was Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the PKK who was very close to Ocalan.

French President Francois Hollande condemned the murders.

"It's horrible,” he said, according to Le Monde. "The investigation [into the crime] has begun, and I think it is better to wait [before jumping to conclusions].”

Bulent Arinc, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, called the killings "deplorable."

"I condemn such an atrocity committed in the form of an extrajudicial execution,” he told the press, according to Le Monde.

As investigations unfold, there is plenty of speculation as to who might have perpetrated this bloody crime. Turkish nationalist extremists opposed to Kurdish integration might be to blame, and it is also quite possible that Kurds themselves -- perhaps even members of the PKK -- played a role.

“There have always been factions of the PKK that don’t want there to be a compromised peace settlement,” says Pope. It is therefore possible that a PKK supporter murdered the women in order to send a message that would discourage further peace talks between Ankara and Ocalan.

But in this time of unique opportunity, the violence may not be enough to derail progress.

While Ankara is unwilling to cede autonomy to militants on its land, there are plenty of moderate Kurds who seek a realistic compromise. Their demands include allowing the Kurdish language to be used in education institutions, implementing laws that could help put an end to discrimination, and changing electoral rules that have long barred Kurdish political parties from playing a bigger role in the national government.

Such compromises are on the table as the government pursues talks with Ocalan, and as dialogue continues between moderate Kurds and Ankara officials. Turkey’s Kurdish problem may still be far from resolution, but there is cause for hope -- as long as the tragedy in Paris does not become a roadblock on the path to peace.

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