Glint of a Mideast peace as Turkey-Kurd pact plays out

A peace deal to end a long, violent Middle East conflict between Turkey and its minority Kurds began Wednesday when PKK rebels began a retreat into Iraq under a cease-fire. Now Turkey must deliver its part of the bargain. Both sides recognize a new reality in the region.

Firat News Agency/AP Photo
Rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, have started to move out of Turkey to northern Iraq, a key stage in the peace process with the Turkish government.

 Small triumphs for peace in the Middle East are always worth noting, especially ones driven by idealism. On Wednesday a 39-year violent conflict between Turkey and its minority Kurds saw a welcome turn of events. About 2,000 Kurdish guerrillas began a withdrawal from Turkey as the first step in implementing a historic peace agreement.

The pact still has a difficult path ahead but both the rebels, or PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), and Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have strong incentives to keep the peace process on track. 

The PKK sees the Arab Spring as having created a regional acceptance for freedom and rights, including for non-Arab peoples like Turkey’s 14 million Kurds. And a more-secure Turkey seeks higher standards for itself on human rights to enable it to be a global leader and perhaps join the European Union.

The pact was struck in recent months between Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s spy chief, and Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK founder who has been in an island prison since 1999. Its exact details remain secret, but the PKK has declared a cease-fire. It has dropped demands for a separate Kurdish homeland and appears willing to accept autonomy within Turkey.

But more to the point, both Mr. Ocalan and Turkish leaders may have realized that ethnic identity isn’t always the best basis for governance in the global advance of democracy and its reliance on the dignity of the individual.

In a written statement read to Kurds in March, Ocalan said that Turkey is changing and that it is “time for the guns to fall silent and for ideas to speak.” Killings by both sides in this conflict have left 40,000 people dead and not much to show for it. But as the world has changed around them, both the PKK and the Turks see a need for reconciliation.

Mr. Erdogan still has much to deliver as the rebels take the initial step of withdrawing to a valley across the border in the Kurdish area of Iraq. Many political prisoners must be released. The Constitution must be changed to allow autonomy in Kurdish areas. And references to Turkish citizenship and a ban on teaching the Kurdish language also would go.

Turkey’s ardent nationalists could gum up the works. But they, too, have incentives to comply. The Kurds in Iraq are a virtual state within a state and the Kurds in Syria may soon be able to command an area of their own. The long-held dream of an independent state for the Kurds – a group left out when the Middle East map was redrawn nearly a century ago – is not an impossibility.

Erdogan, however, has told the Turks that the peace deal and the start of the PKK withdrawal is closing the door on a “dark era.” “Turkey is changing its ill fortune,” he said.

If all goes well, perhaps by the end of the year the pact will be well along. Turkey will have rid itself of a major blight on its reputation. And the Middle East will have a rare model for peace, defined by a mutual recognition of how societies should be run more on principles than bloodlines.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.