Over the weekend, Kurdish rebels from Turkey operating out of the mountains of northern Iraq made conciliatory gesture with the release of eight Turkish soldiers they were holding [“Kurdish Guerrillas Release 8 Turks,” by Amit R. Paley, Washington Post, 5 November 2007].
“Kurdish guerrillas based in northern Iraq on Sunday freed eight Turkish soldiers captured during a cross-border ambush last month. The guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, had been under international pressure to release the soldiers before President Bush’s scheduled meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday in Washington.”
This is good news for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which has been pleading for a negotiated settlement of the crisis amid military threats from Turkey.
“Turkey has massed an estimated 100,000 troops on the border, and some observers had feared that the country would invade northern Iraq if the soldiers were not freed. Turkish officials have faced intense domestic pressure to launch a military offensive to stop the PKK, which Turkey, the United States and other countries have designated a terrorist group.”
The conciliatory gesture by the PKK was a bit of a surprise. Terrorist groups rarely succumb to public pressure. In this case, however, PKK leadership may have given in because it relieves some political pressure on the KRG (who by most accounts have been good hosts). Regardless of the reasons, a PKK spokesman admits the gesture is an olive branch.
“A PKK spokesman, Abdul Rahman al-Chaderchi, said the group released the soldiers in Iraq about 7 a.m. in order ‘to stop deepening the war, violence and bloodshed, and also to make a step toward peace.’ He said the PKK was also motivated by humanitarian reasons and a desire to respond to ‘demands from the different sides like the European Union, Kurdish regional government, Iraq’s government and the U.S. government.’ The PKK, whose stated goal is to create an independent Kurdish state out of parts of Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, sparked an international crisis when it ambushed the Turkish soldiers, killing 12 and capturing the eight released on Sunday.”
Exactly what “a step toward peace” means is unclear. As long as the PKK harbors separatist goals, it will remain at odds with politicians in Ankara. The PKK may dream of a larger Kurdistan, but KRG leaders probably have different feelings. They have successfully carved out an autonomous region that is quickly becoming an economic oasis. It was not easy for rival Kurd factions to come to an accommodation that permitted the current government arrangement. Adding more rivals for power into the mix could plunge the region into internecine warfare, not to mention the fact that Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey (as well as most of the rest of the world) are against the formation of a greater Kurdistan. The U.S. response didn’t indicate that anyone was reaching out for the offered olive branch.
“The United States has been caught in the middle of the standoff, condemning the attacks on Turkey, one of the closest U.S. allies in the Muslim world, but also warning Turkey against attacks in Iraq, which could further destabilize an already violence-ridden country. The U.S. military continued to play the middleman Sunday, receiving the soldiers from Iraqi officials and then transferring them to Turkish custody, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. ‘We applaud the efforts of the Government of Iraq to secure the release of the hostages,’ McCormack said in a statement. ‘We urge continued, deepened and immediate cooperation between Iraq and Turkey in combating the PKK, which is a common enemy of Turkey, Iraq and the United States.'”
Identifying the PKK as a “common enemy” might not be the most helpful language after the PKK’s conciliatory gesture. KRG leaders have repeatedly stated that the only solution to the situation is political. Any such political solution will require the PKK to be a partner in the process. A next good step for the PKK would be to renounce its avowed goal of an independent Kurdistan so that it could begin the process of establishing an autonomous (or federated) Turkish Kurdistan. A peaceful and prosperous Kurdish area in Turkey would benefit both greater Turkey as well as local Kurds. The way forward remains perilous and the path to peace is long. Nevertheless, each step that moves the region in the right direction is a good step.