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  March 25, 2013

Jailed Kurdish Leader Calls for End to Armed Struggle Against Turkey

Baris Karaagac: If deal proceeds it will strengthen Turkey's regional role and give civil rights to Kurds
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Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.


PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay.

In the Middle East, momentous developments in the political landscape, all focused on Turkey. On March 21, Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdish independence struggle who is still in a Turkish jail, wrote a letter that was read to over 1 million Kurds calling for an end to the three-decades-long armed struggle and the beginning of a peaceful struggle within what he hoped, I guess, will be a new constitution in Turkey and a new political struggle and process.

The next day, March 22, with President Obama sitting next to him, Prime Minister Netanyahu phones Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, and apologized for the killing of Turkish citizens on the flotilla that was bound to try to break the siege of Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan accepted the apology with three conditions. And we'll talk about those conditions in a few minutes.

Now joining us to discuss the significance of these events is Baris Karaagac. He's a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He's also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crisis and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism. And he joins us now from Toronto. Thanks very much for joining us, Baris.


JAY: So we're going to talk about both of these events. And I don't know if the timing is coincidental or not, but one day after the other, this must have been big news in Turkey. But let's start off chronologically with the letter from the leader of the Kurdish struggle essentially calling for an end to armed struggle.

KARAAGAC: On Thursday last week, which marks the beginning of the new year for millions of people around the Middle East, but also in different parts of the world, from the Balkans to some parts of Central Asia, about 1.5 million Kurds gathered in the largest predominantly Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey.

And the importance of this day is that Ocalan had promised or declared that he was going to declare the beginning of a new era, not only for the Kurdish people and the Kurdish struggle, but also for Turkey and the Middle East as a whole. So in this speech that was delivered by two members of the Kurdish party that is represented in the Turkish parliament, the BDP, Peace and Democracy Party, he declared the end of an era characterized by armed struggle--but, of course, not exclusively armed struggle--and the beginning of a new era in which the struggle will be taken to the political, peaceful arenas.

And the importance is that this also represents an important change in the AKP government's as well as the Turkish state's stance towards the Kurdish movement, because this did not take place without the consent, without the knowledge of the Turkish state in general and the AKP government in particular. The representatives of a Turkish state had been in touch and negotiating with Ocalan for some time now. This dates back to the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, but it did not introduce any positive outcome.

This time there seems to be some consensus. And given the recent history of the AKP's stance towards--the AKP policies towards the Kurdish resistance and struggle, which had been quite repressive, this came maybe to some people, especially foreign observers, as a surprise, because now in Turkish jails we have tens of Kurdish journalists and we have thousands of Kurdish politicians who are incarcerated.

So the question is that why did the Turkish state decide to change or make such a, you know, seemingly important shift in its policy towards the Kurds? So this is a very, very important question that we need to pose right now.

In most analyses, commentators and scholars have focused on Erdogan's bid for presidency in a new presidential system. So they have been arguing that Erdogan needs to make a constitutional change, actually introduce a quite different constitution, replacing the one that was drafted under military rule back in 1982, and he wants to change the regime within Turkey into a presidential one. But this won't be the same as what we see in the U.S. And many people have been critical of this, you know, conception of a presidential system that was introduced by Erdogan, and they argued that actually it will be quite undemocratic, possibly potentially authoritarian tendencies, with the president controlling both the presidency and the parliament.

So, many people have focused on this issue, arguing that Erdogan doesn't have the necessary numbers right now in parliament to take this new constitution to a referendum. He needs 330 members of the parliament. So he used this, you know, rapprochement or, you know, change in Kurdish policy in the negotiations as a negotiation tool.

And last month, when the meetings started with Ocalan on the one side and members of the BDP, the Kurdish party, on the other, and also with the participation of a member of the Turkish intelligence, there was a leak of the minutes of one of those meetings. And in those meetings, in those minutes, Ocalan actually clearly says that the Kurdish movement should consider negotiating with Erdogan and maybe agreeing, consenting to his presidency in a new presidential system in return for a number of cultural and political rights, changing the status of millions of Kurds within Turkey. So this seems to be one important factor.

JAY: Is the Turkish state actually offering the Kurds anything to prompt any of this? I assume one of the reasons they had an armed struggle in the first place is 'cause the political process wasn't working for them and they weren't winning concessions. This little bit seems [incompr.] unilateral. You know, the Kurds are going to give up their struggle. But what's the Turkish state giving in return? And two, how has this been received by the Kurds, given that their leader is in jail right now? Would he have made the same decision if he wasn't?

KARAAGAC: One thing that characterizes the ongoing process is the number of--so many unknowns. We don't know actually what the Erdogan government promised that it would do.

But what is expected by the Kurds and by many people in Turkey is that there will be a number of legal as well as constitutional changes. So if these constitutional and legal changes are made, then the Kurdish movement is planning to retreat. The armed wing of the Kurdish movement, the PKK, is planning to withdraw its troops from--its guerrillas from within Turkish territory. And there are between 1,500 and 2,000 of them in different parts, particularly in eastern and southeastern Turkey.

But as the head of the--you know, the acting leader of the PKK, Karayilan, made it very, very clearly: until these changes will be done, will be achieved, the guerrillas will not withdraw. So he's quite optimistic about the potential of establishing, you know, peace, a peaceful process to address the Kurdish issue. He's making it very clear: until these steps are taken by the Turkish government and the state, there won't be an end to armed struggle. At least, they will not stop it. But there is a ceasefire right now. [incompr.]

JAY: The Kurds in Iraq, there's bases there. In fact, the Turks have actually intervened in Iraq, attacking Kurdish bases there. Is there any suggestion anything will change about the bases that are in Iraq?

KARAAGAC: Based on what they've said and based on what we've heard so far, there's nothing. We cannot say anything about it. Maybe in the, you know, weeks and months to come we'll hear something, but we don't know yet.

But what the Kurds want right now is first of all a new definition of citizenship, secondly the recognition of the diversity of Turkish or the peoples in Turkey, because Turkey has historically been a very diverse, heterogeneous, you know, population. For example, in 1913, about 20--more than 20 percent of the population was Christian. Then the Christians were--you know, they had to migrate, left. We know what happened in 1915. This number dropped. But even within the Muslim population we see a huge diversity. We have people from the Caucasus, from the Balkans, from the Middle East, Arabs, Circassians, Kurds, Arabs--sorry, Turks, Laz, etc.

JAY: If this deal really goes ahead and there is a deal and there are concessions and all the rest, what's the importance of that to Turkey? And what does that mean for the region?

KARAAGAC: Well, the 30-year-old war will come to an end. We can only speculate about the outcomes, but first of all, Erdogan will be hailed as the great leader who ended this war. And secondly, Turkey will be stopping or preventing the emergence of an independent Kurdistan, you know, new nation state within the region. And this has been a state policy since the beginning of the republic. So this is a huge--you know, this can be seen as an important victory for the Turkish state.

JAY: How might it affect Turkey's attitude to what's going on in Syria?

KARAAGAC: In Syria? Well, in Syria, in the northern part of Syria, Turks--the Kurds have been--to a great extent they've become autonomous. So if--and the party or the movement that controls that part of Syria, the Kurdish regions, is closely linked, organically linked to the PKK. So if Turkey starts, you know, a new process and has better, more cordial relations, amicable relations with the PKK and the, you know, overall Kurdish movement within Turkey, as well as in northern Iraq, this will of course increase its influence over northern Syria. That is clear.

So, secondly, of course this will also increase its influence and make the relations even closer with the administration in northern Iraq. Turkey is--70 percent of Turkey's trade relations, trade with Iraq, takes place within northern Iraq, right? So these are all the important gains for Turkey. I mean, overall, Turkey will be increasing its influence beyond its borders, right?

But I would like to talk about another important reason as to why the Turkish state might have decided to make this move regarding its Kurdish policy, and that is the stalemate when it comes to the war between the Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish state. So despite this, its 30-year history and 40,000 people dead, neither side is close to victory. The Turkish state knows that it will be impossible, almost impossible to defeat the, you know, Kurdish guerrillas. And the Kurdish guerrillas cannot defeat the Turkish state either.

But at the same time, Turkey is a little bit worried now, because before, when it came to the Kurdish insurgency, Turks used to cooperate with different states. They used to cooperate with Iran, they used to cooperate with Syria, and to some extent they used to cooperate with Iraq. Now they cannot cooperate with either Syria or [incompr.] or with Iran. So this is again a strategic move on the part of the Turkish state.

JAY: Turkey is a member of NATO. So I guess anything that strengthens Turkey's position in the region--and essentially an American ally--I guess it gives them another card to play.

KARAAGAC: [inaud.] absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.

JAY: In the next segment of the interview, we're going to talk about the phone call. Prime Minister Netanyahu calls the prime minister of Turkey, and they make a deal of sorts. So join us for a continuation of our interview on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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