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The Turkish prime minister is losing control of his country’s Kurdish problem, even as rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan sits in prison

Aliza Marcus
October 21, 2010
Kurdish Turks hold a poster of jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan during a celebration of the Kurdish New Year in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 21, 2009.(Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)
Kurdish Turks hold a poster of jailed rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan during a celebration of the Kurdish New Year in the southeastern Turkish city of Diyarbakir, March 21, 2009.(Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images)

In 1999, Turkey struck what seemed to be a fatal blow in its 15-year war against Kurdish separatists when Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the PKK rebel group fighting for self-rule in Turkey, was captured by Turkish commandos in Kenya. It was the final stop in his increasingly desperate search for refuge after he was kicked out of Syria, his home for almost two decades, in October 1998. PKK rebels had lost ground inside Turkey under relentless military assault, making the group a less effective proxy in Syria’s disputes with its neighbors, and Hafez Assad, then Syria’s president, had finally tired of Ocalan. When Turkish troops massed on the Syrian border in the summer of 1998, threatening an assault if the PKK leader was not ejected, Assad had little reason to put up a fight.

Ocalan could have gone to the mountains of northern Iraq, where his rebels had extensive makeshift camps. It was the route chosen by many Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish leaders before him. Ocalan refused. Instead, he began a flight across the globe in search of a country that would grant him refuge. When he exhausted his limited options—Russia would not let him stay; and Ocalan refused to stay in Italy when he learned he would have to serve time in jail—he turned to Greece, which reluctantly gave him temporary shelter in its embassy in Kenya. As Ocalan frantically phoned PKK militants in Europe, demanding they find a country to take him, Turkish authorities located him and planned for his capture.

Ocalan walked out of the Greek compound in Nairobi on February 15, 1999. He had been told that a car would take him to the airport for a flight to the Netherlands. When the plane doors shut, he was handcuffed, restrained, blindfolded, gagged, and probably sedated. In video clips played over and over again on Turkish television, a disheveled and dazed Ocalan, his hands still tied, squints painfully as the blindfold is removed. He promises his captors that he will do what he can to help. “I love my homeland,” said Ocalan. “If I can be of service, I will.”

While Turks celebrated the downfall—and subsequent trial—of a man dubbed “baby killer,” “devil,” and, occasionally, a tool of the Armenians, Kurds struggled to reconcile the video with their vision of Ocalan as a Kurdish hero. The excuses were quick to come: He was drugged, it was a negotiating tactic, the video was faked. But even the most stalwart PKK militants and civilian supporters began to lose trust. Some Kurdish fighters were disenchanted by Ocalan’s apology in court to the families of the about 5,000 Turkish soldiers killed in the war. Others were disgusted by his demand that all PKK rebels in Turkey withdraw to northern Iraq and suspend fighting. And many felt betrayed by Ocalan’s decision to abandon the PKK’s goal of Kurdish self-rule and suspend its guerrilla war.

Within a few months of his arrest, the PKK was in tatters. Ocalan claimed he was negotiating a deal. It seemed more like capitulation. Thousands of rebels and supporters abandoned the group rather than agree to Ocalan’s continued leadership. Turks simply ignored him. In a flash, all was forgotten—the fighting, the approximately 40,000 deaths, and most critically, the demand for Kurdish self-rule that drove the Kurds to take up weapons in the first place.

But instead of using the hard-won peace to implement serious reforms to win over Kurds and co-opt the remains of the PKK, the Turkish government prevaricated. In the years immediately following Ocalan’s capture in 1999, Turkey’s disinterest in anything but the most superficial changes—such as creating a state-run Kurdish-language television station—drove Kurds back to the rebels. PKK military commanders rebuilt their forces in northern Iraq while directing some would-be recruits to work on the ground organizing inside Turkey.

Meanwhile, Ocalan, serving a life sentence in an isolated jail on Turkey’s Imrali island, struggled to maintain leverage over Turkey and the PKK. It was not easy. Ocalan’s regular visitors were (and are now) limited to his lawyers and siblings, and his access to news of the world has been limited to censored Turkish newspaper and radio reports. Despite the isolation, Ocalan relayed orders to the PKK via his lawyers, who passed on the statements for publication in the Kurdish media. He simultaneously tried to assure Turkey that he did not want to cut the country in half. Turks and Kurds could work together for some vaguely defined Democratic Confederation that, Ocalan insisted, would be good for Turks as well. The conciliatory approach was dismissed by Turks and criticized by Kurds. In 2004, frustrated by Turkey’s inaction and his increasing irrelevance to Turkey and to Kurdish nationalists, and spurred by gains made by the Iraqi Kurds after the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, Ocalan approved a renewal of the guerrilla war.

That war is now teetering out of control. The rebels killed more than two dozen soldiers in clashes shortly after dropping a 14-month unilateral ceasefire on June 1. After 10 guerrillas were killed on July 1 in a clash in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast, PKK supporters marched with banners warning of revenge attacks. In Ocalan’s hometown region Sanliurfa, demonstrators openly taunted the security forces with signs saying, “We are going to join the rebels.” Ocalan insists that the only way to end the war is with a negotiated settlement. “By killing you can’t get rid of the PKK,” he said over the summer in a statement delivered by his lawyers.


The PKK began this period of ceasefires in April 2009, when the rebel leadership, based in the Kandil Mountains in northern Iraq, said the guerrillas would hold off attacks to give Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan the political space to tackle the Kurdish problem. Seven months later, 34 PKK members and supporters crossed into Turkey from northern Iraq as part of a PKK “peace caravan” to show the rebels’ willingness to negotiate. Their arrival was secretly coordinated with the Turkish government, which hoped to show that PKK fighters could lay down their weapons and safely return home. But pictures of supporters waving PKK flags and shouting “Biji PKK,” or “long live the PKK”—and the unwillingness of the PKK militants to admit any wrongdoing—shocked Erdogan. The prime minister wanted rebels to return to Turkey; he did not expect them to return as committed Kurdish nationalists proud of their PKK past. The government cracked down. On June 17, 2010, a Turkish court indicted members of the group for aiding the PKK and ordered six held in prison pending the outcome of the trial. One month later, on July 19, most of the remaining members of the group crossed back into northern Iraq.

In 2005, Erdogan had surprised Kurds by going to Diyarbakir, the de facto capital of the Kurdish southeast, and announced that Turkey needed to accept the mistakes it had made in the past. “The Kurdish problem is everyone’s problem. It is my problem too,” he said. When his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a second term in 2007, Erdogan announced a “Democratic Initiative” to reform the military-era constitution and address Kurdish demands. But the draft constitutional changes presented to parliament in March 2010 did not include changes related to Kurdish rights. The Turkish government may be ignoring the Kurds politically, but it is escalating its military threats. After PKK rebels infiltrating from northern Iraq struck an army outpost in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast in mid-June, killing 11 soldiers in a five-hour firefight, Erdogan posed grimly with Turkey’s military commanders at the Turkish-Iraqi border. The rebels would “drown in their own blood,” Erdogan promised, even as he insisted the democratization process would go on.

Erdogan has not abandoned his plans to liberalize Turkey. He just no longer wants to include Kurds. Last July, he began meeting with opposition party leaders to build a consensus on fighting the PKK. He left out the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, which has 20 deputies in parliament. Erdogan explained this was because the party had not “distanced itself from terrorism.” He was likely referring to a letter asking the government to investigate claims that bodies of PKK rebels had been mutilated.


The Kurds might have done better to send the letter from Gaza. Erdogan is concerned about the Palestinians in Gaza and has demanded that Israel recognize Hamas as the legitimate representative of the Palestinians. He also threatened to cut relations with Israel unless it agreed to an international investigation of the killing of nine Turks by Israeli soldiers who raided the Mavi Marmara, which was trying to break the blockade of Gaza. Alleged abuses against Kurds, apparently, do not merit the same consideration.

Erdogan’s turnaround has alienated Turkey’s Kurds, who make up about 20 percent of the country’s 75 million people. The Peace and Democracy Party boycotted parliament votes in April on the constitutional draft changes and called on Kurds to do the same when it came to a public referendum on September 12. Kurds heeded the call, with turnout below 10 percent in some areas of the southeast. The party now says it will prepare its own package of constitutional amendments. This time, it may be Turks who feel left out. The goal, the party says, is autonomy for the Kurds.

While Erdogan is turning his focus from democratic reforms to a military solution, the PKK has turned its focus away from insurgency and toward institution building. The PKK holds sway over Kurdish cultural organizations, publications, and civil advocacy groups. PKK supporters dominate the Peace and Democracy Party, which over the past decade has more than doubled the number of municipalities it governs to 99. Kurdish mayors in the southeast span the gamut from those who give grudging respect to the PKK (without which they would never be able to win over voters) to those who openly refer to Ocalan as their leader.

Erdogan likes to compliment himself for opening a 24-hour Kurdish-language television station, but Kurds had been watching PKK television for at least a decade before Erdogan approved the new channel. He points to the new Kurdish-language department in a university in the southeastern city of Mardin as a sign of democratic development. Kurds are not taking notice. They are too busy practicing governing themselves. Kurdish mayors not only repair potholes, they also visit the families of PKK rebels killed in clashes and rename streets after Kurdish nationalist heroes. They see what Ankara gives them: schools where students cannot speak or learn Kurdish; security forces who harass the local population. And they know what they do not have: democratic freedoms. In December 2009, the constitutional court shut down the Kurdish Democratic Society Party for allegedly helping the PKK. (It reopened as the Peace and Democracy Party.) Thirty-seven senior executives of the party, including two parliamentarians, were banned from politics for five years. On October 18, Turkish prosecutors in Diyarbakir opened the trial of 152 political party executives and members, including eight sitting mayors, charged with working for the PKK. It seems Turkey is having trouble differentiating between peaceful dissent and armed violence.


Erdogan’s Islamist roots, his own run-ins with the Turkish nationalist establishment (he was imprisoned in 1998 for publicly reciting a poem that seemed to celebrate Islamic militancy), and his campaign promises to liberalize the country initially gave Kurds hope that he would do more. After all, the reasoning went, Erdogan was himself at odds with the ultra-secular, anti-Kurdish, Turkish nationalist principles that had guided governments since the country’s founding in 1923.

Erdogan has worked hard to push the military out of politics. He has implemented economic liberalization plans. He has presided over legal changes to help hurry Turkey’s bid to join the European Union. But he has proven less decisive when it comes to meeting Kurdish demands. The problem is not that the PKK is staunchly secular. The problem is that the PKK is a Kurdish nationalist group. Acceding to its wishes not only undermines Turkey’s founding principles, but it is tantamount to acknowledging that Islam does not have all the answers. This may be too much for Erdogan to accept.

Turkey has been duped by its own successes. Eleven years ago, when Ocalan stood trial for treason, the Turkish government assumed that the PKK would collapse without its charismatic and dictatorial leader. But Ocalan had created a system that was able to function as if he were present even when he is not. Day-to-day leadership passed to a small cadre of loyal senior commanders who had been with Ocalan since he began organizing the PKK in the mid-1970s. These commanders have held the PKK together by keeping Ocalan as the leader—even if only symbolically—to maintain discipline and avoid the splits that destroyed the effectiveness of other Kurdish and leftist groups. It did not matter that Ocalan could no longer weigh in on the daily details of military targets and political plans. In many ways, it was even better not to have him so closely involved. After all, Ocalan used to boast about never having shot a gun, yet he insisted that he understood the needs of guerrilla warfare better than anyone. He was nervous about rivals and uninterested in allowing any real democratic processes. Experienced commanders would suddenly find themselves stripped of their weapons and put under guard, Ocalan’s way of asserting his control. PKK fighters insisted the PKK was the perfect democracy, when in fact it was a capricious dictatorship. With Ocalan in prison, PKK commanders were able to focus on the strategy, instead of Ocalan’s ego.

Erdogan insists he will not be derailed from his plan to liberalize Turkey, even as democratic space for Kurds is narrowing. With that approach, the Turkish prime minister is likely to have as much success bringing peace to his own country as he has had bringing it to Gaza.

Aliza Marcus, a writer and Kurdish expert based in Washington, is the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.

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Aliza Marcus, a writer and Kurdish expert based in Washington, is the author of Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence.

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