Jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan today called for a cease-fire and withdrawal of his forces from Turkey, signaling a possible end to a three-decade-long conflict that has cost 40,000 lives.
In a statement penned in his prison cell and read out by pro-Kurdish legislators to a jubilant crowd of hundreds of thousands of Kurds in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Mr. Ocalan said it was a time "for politics to prevail, not arms."
"We have reached the stage where our armed elements need to retreat beyond the border," he said in a widely anticipated statement that came after months of informal peace talks with Turkish officials.
The expected withdrawal to its bases in northern Iraq by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the rebel group founded by Ocalan, may now pave the way for formal negotiations that would eventually disarm the group – deemed a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the European Union – in return for broader rights for the country's long-oppressed Kurdish minority.
Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking during a visit to the Netherlands, cautiously welcomed the announcement.
"I see [the call] as a positive development, but it's implementation that is important," he said, according to the Associated Press. "We need to see to what extent [the rebels] respond to it."
'Opening their eyes'
Ocalan, who founded the PKK in 1978, has been held in virtual isolation since his capture in 1999. For most of the past 14 years, only prison workers and a handful of relatives and lawyers have seen him. He nonetheless retains an almost mesmeric hold over many of Turkey’s 15 million Kurds.
In Diyarbakir, the Kurdish-majority city in the country’s southeast that lies at the heart of the conflict, crowds gathered from early in the morning to await his speech, which fell on Nowruz, the Persian new year festival that is celebrated by Kurds.
"The Kurdish people and nation have opened their eyes, thanks to Mr. Ocalan. We trust him, we know him, and we believe in him,” says Mehmet Adar, a shopkeeper among those listening to the speech.
The Kurds, who number around 30 million in the Middle East, live in a territory divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. In Turkey, the staunchly nationalist authorities tried for decades to assimilate them, banning the Kurdish language itself between 1980 and 1991. Seeking Kurdish independence, the Marxist-inspired PKK launched its insurgency in the southeast in 1984, with bombing campaigns and armed attacks against Turkish military and administrative targets triggering a war that has now left an estimated 40,000 people dead – mainly Kurds.
In a counterinsurgency launched in the early 1990s, the Turkish Army burned around 3,500 villages in an effort to starve the rebels of their support within the rural Kurdish population. In the process, they forced a million Kurds to flee the region. Meanwhile government-backed death squads roamed the southeast, targeting Kurdish activists, politicians, and suspected PKK sympathizers.
Many of those listening to Ocalan's speech in Diyakbakir still have haunting memories those times.
Aladdin Orak, a farmer, remembers the day Turkish soldiers arrested his cousin, suspected of offering aid to the rebels. "He put his hands up, they shot both his hands, and then took him away. We never saw him again," he recalls.
In the past 10 years the PKK has narrowed its goal to limited self-government and cultural and language rights. Hopes of reaching these have been bolstered by the self-rule granted to Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, as well as the de facto autonomy gained by Syria’s Kurds in recent months as the Assad regime weakens.
In Turkey, meanwhile, the government has eased restrictions: In 2009 it opened a Kurdish language TV channel, and last year it allowed elective Kurdish lessons in schools.
“It's not like before," says Mr. Adar. “The government has to do something because in the region the Kurdish people have changed. They have opened their eyes and they know what they want. They can't deny our rights anymore."
The PKK has called cease-fires before, but the Turkish government has never reciprocated, and never before has Ankara publicly engaged with Ocalan. Both sides came to the negotiating table after 18 months of violence – some of the bloodiest since Ocalan's capture.
“For the first time it appears that the government is trying to do some sort of negotiation,” says Aliza Marcus, a Washington-based author of "Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence."
“It’s historic for sure because Erdogan has made himself a partner in the talks,” she says.
Prime Minister Erdogan is taking a political gamble by engaging with a man who is as reviled by Turks as he is revered by Kurds. Many Turks regard Ocalan as their own Osama bin Laden: the instigator and continuing inspiration behind an insurrection that has cost the country an estimated $450 billion.
Erdogan may be seeking peace in order to bolster his own political ambitions. He is currently seeking Kurdish support in order to redraw Turkey’s constitution, enhancing the currently ceremonial presidency, a job he is widely believed to aspire to himself. While other opposition groups remain firmly opposed to this, Kurdish leaders recently indicated they are open to the idea of a more powerful presidency.
The obstacles to a settlement remain formidable however. In return for disarmament, the PKK and its political affiliate, the Peace and Democracy Party, are seeking education in their Kurdish mother tongue and limited self-government.
More controversially, they are also seeking the release of Ocalan himself, a move that some warn could bring about the collapse of Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party government. Jailed for treason, he was originally sentenced to death, a punishment commuted to lifetime imprisonment after Turkey abolished capital punishment in 2004. As PKK founder, he created a cult of personality around himself and led the organization with an iron fist. The Turkish media has long referred to him as a "baby killer."
“if Öcalan is released from prison during its term in power, the AK Party's votes will drop from 50 percent to 5 percent,” wrote political columnist Huseyin Gulerce, in the Today’s Zaman newspaper.
Room for doubt
However, some observers doubt whether, after 14 years in prison, Ocalan is still able to lead the organization he founded into a peace deal that Kurdish hardliners may oppose.
Equally, they fear that in negotiating whilst a prisoner himself, he may lack the leverage to secure a deal that satisfies Kurdish demands.
“How far will Ocalan reflect what people really need to settle this?” asks Marcus. “The government has done everything it can to isolate him.”
Last month, Erdogan made a public vow that he will "drink hemlock" if it will bring peace, giving the impression he will go to extreme lengths to make it happen. In doing so, he has raised hopes among Kurds in a way that could prove dangerous if they go unfulfilled.
Adar, the farmer, says he is beginning to trust the government. "They have to make peace," he says. "Every time the Kurds stood up, they smashed our hands. If they don't make peace now, they will drown in Kurdish blood, and then another government will come, and they will have to make peace."