After decades of regarding the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist organization, Turkey is finally ready to accept that its jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan is the key to disarming the rebels. While this is a step in the right direction, Ankara should go the extra mile and recognize the PKK leader as the main — if not only — interlocutor for a permanent and peaceful settlement of its Kurdish issue.
If it continues to try and seek a negotiator other than Ocalan, Turkey would be repeating a mistake made by Israel, which tried to look everywhere for an interlocutor apart from the late Yasser Arafat. The complex Arab-Israeli conflict remains an open wound largely because of Israel’s refusal to deal with Arafat.
Today, Turkey’s Kurdish interlocutor for peace is Ocalan. While leaders from other parts of Kurdistan can be helpful, they cannot play the same role as he for the Kurds of Turkey.
Negotiating disarmament may be easy and achievable, but what happens after the last PKK guerrilla lays down its arms? Will the Kurds of Turkey be getting what they fought and sacrificed for all these years? The nearly three decades of armed struggle, will it be regarded as part of the struggle for equality in Turkey, or will it be seen as the dark days of terrorism and bloodshed? And will the PKK martyrs be regarded as martyrs of the Turkish state?
It is questions like these that make just disarming the PKK meaningless.
Instead of seeking disarmament alone through Ocalan, Turkey can chart a roadmap for peace and stability inside Turkey with the PKK leader. It needs to capitalize on Ocalan’s power and influence over the PKK, on the Kurdish political scene in Turkey and on parts of Syria and Iran, using these toward a greater achievement than just disarming the rebels.
But to do that, Turkey needs to deal with a free negotiator, not an imprisoned “terrorist” or “traitor,” as Ankara describes Ocalan.
All roads in Turkey’s Kurdistan lead to the PKK, and through it to Ocalan. This reality is what Turkey should realize, and translate into a process for peace and stability inside Turkey and the region.