Something quite extraordinary — perhaps even historic — is afoot in Turkey. The country’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is engaged in a colossal roll of the political dice, an act of statesmanship, ambition, and hubris largely without parallel on the current world stage. At one and the same time, Erdogan appears set on a course that could result not only in redefining the very nature of the modern Turkish nation-state, but in a radical revision of the Turkish Republic’s core national security tenets as well. How the gambit plays out could have momentous implications for the future of Turkey, for sure, but also for the broader Middle East region and even the United States.
At the center of Erdogan’s play is an effort to resolve Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” — the chronic, often bloody conflict that has torn at the fabric of the Turkish state since its founding 90 years ago. On one side: the highly exclusive Kemalist conception of Turkish citizenship that all but denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity (no Kurds here, only “mountain Turks”) and effectively banned Kurdish language, history, and culture from the nation’s public life. On the other: a fiercely proud and distinct people, the Kurds, whose decades-long struggle for recognition and self-determination has — not surprisingly — regularly found expression in demands for independent nationhood, an ever-present separatist dagger pointed at the heart of Turkey’s territorial integrity and unity. Since 1984, this clash of competing nationalisms has manifested itself most virulently in the brutal war waged against the Turkish state by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Leninist organization that both the United States and the European Union have officially designated as a terrorist group.
Now, in a bold and risky effort to cut through this Gordian knot, Erdogan has launched a new peace process in which his main partner is none other than Abdullah Ocalan, the infamous PKK leader who has been imprisoned on the Turkish island of Imrali since 1999. Revered by many (though by no means all) Kurds, Ocalan is reviled by the majority of ethnic Turks, condemned as a murderous enemy of the republic, a master terrorist whose hands are covered in the blood of innocents.
After months of secret negotiations with Erdogan’s intelligence chief, Ocalan issued a dramatic cease-fire declaration from his jail cell on March 21, the Kurdish new year. The statement was presented publicly in Diyarbakir, a Kurdish-majority city in southeastern Turkey, where it was read out by Kurdish parliamentarians to a massive crowd waving Kurdish flags and portraits of the PKK leader. According to Ocalan, “A new era is beginning; arms are silencing; politics are gaining momentum. It is time for our [PKK] armed entities to withdraw [from Turkey].” Ocalan condemned as “an inhuman invention” past efforts to form states “on a single ethnicity and nation.”