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Turkey: Analysis From Washington -- No End To The Kurdish Struggle

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 4 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Abdullah Ocalan's call for an end to the Kurdish armed campaign against the Turkish government is unlikely to end the Kurdish struggle there. Instead, it may have just the opposite effect.

Not only are Kurds in Turkey likely to redouble their efforts on behalf of their arrested leader, but Ocalan's suggestion that his followers should withdraw their forces to Kurdish areas in Syria, Iraq, and Iran could spark more violence in those countries as well.

Ocalan, the founder and leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) party, issued his appeal from a Turkish jail cell where he is awaiting execution. He was convicted on June 29 of terrorism for his role in the PKK's 15-year-long campaign against the Turkish authorities, a campaign that has already claimed more than 30,000 lives.

Addressing his followers, Ocalan said "I call upon the PKK to end the armed struggle and withdraw their forces [to territory] outside the borders [of Turkey] for the sake of peace as of 1 September 1999," adding that he believed such actions could lead to "a new stage of dialogue and conciliation."

During his trial, Ocalan had offered to make such an appeal if his life was spared, but the Turkish authorities ignored his suggestion and found him guilty anyway. Now, facing execution, he has issued such a statement, but it appears unlikely by itself to sway his followers or the Turkish government.

On the one hand, Ocalan and his PKK have found it far easier to mobilize Kurds to act than to rein them in. In a pattern typical of ethnic movements around the world, he and his team simply have not had that kind of control over their broader followers and are unlikely to have it now.

Indeed, only a few hours before Ocalan released his statement, a PKK group attacked a bus and killed six people in Turkey's Diyabbakir province. And even if the PKK leadership attempts to implement Ocalan's appeal, they are likely to find that many Kurds will not listen to them and will continue to fight.

Moreover, at least some in the PKK itself are likely to step up their attacks to protest the fact that Ankara has arrested and sentenced their leader to death.

And on the other hand, some of Ocalan's fighters will listen to what he has said and will move out of Turkey. That may make it easier for Turkish forces to move against remaining PKK strongholds there, but it also virtually guarantees that the other countries with significant Kurdish populations may see an upsurge of violence.

By issuing this appeal, Ocalan is once again challenging the Turkish government, although perhaps for the last time. He is certainly hoping to generate international and especially European pressure on Ankara for the commutation of his sentence.

European institutions universally oppose the death penalty, and European governments can be expected to demand that Turkey let him live.

At the same time, by issuing a statement that seeks to cast him as a peacemaker, Ocalan is also clearly hoping to bring added international pressure on the Turkish authorities to make concessions to the political movement he has lead for so long and to the people he has claimed to represent.

Ocalan's calculations about the international community are almost certainly correct. But given the suffering he and the PKK have inflicted on Turkey, that may not matter with regard to his personal fate.

Regardless of that outcome, the PKK itself and many Kurds as well are likely to continue to fight for autonomy or even independence, and that may be the true legacy of Ocalan, not his appeal this week.

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