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Five Things You Should Know About Ocalan's Turkey Cease-Fire

  • Charles Recknagel

An image of militant Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan provides the backdrop for pro-Kurdish activists lighting a Norouz fire in Istanbul on March 17.

An image of militant Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan provides the backdrop for pro-Kurdish activists lighting a Norouz fire in Istanbul on March 17.

The cease-fire call on March 21 by the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan, offers hope for peace in the group's decades-long war with Turkey.

Here are five things to know about his announcement:

Does Ocalan have sufficient control over PKK to guarantee the cease-fire?

Abdullah Ocalan, 64, has been in a high-security prison on an island near Istanbul since 1999. But he remains the father figure of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which he formed in 1978. He most recently demonstrated his continuing command over Kurdish nationalists when he ordered an end to a hunger strike by hundreds of Kurdish prisoners across Turkey last year. That move was soon followed by Turkish intelligence officials entering into direct talks with him earlier this year. Ocalan has set no time limit for his cease-fire but experts say it is not open-ended and is tied to expectations of being matched by Turkish readiness to meet at least some Kurdish nationalist demands.

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Ocalan has called for PKK fighters to withdraw from southern Turkey. What does that mean?

Fadi Hakura, a specialist on Turkey at the London-based Chatham House, says Ocalan has ordered PKK fighters to withdraw to their mountain holdouts in northern Iraq and that the Turkish military has agreed not to attack withdrawing PKK fighters. Additionally, the Turkish military has agreed to suspend cross-border air attacks on the PKK's bases. The cease-fire immobilizes the PKK fighters but does not end their ability to return to Turkey if it breaks down. The border is highly porous and the Turkish army has never been able to fully secure it.

What does Ocalan demand in return?

Ocalan did not attach a specific list of demands to his cease-fire call.

But Hakura says his demands are well-known from previous statements:

"Abdullah Ocalan has outlined three really main demands. One is a redefinition of Turkish identity in the constitution, away from an ethnic-based definition toward a much more neutral and all-encompassing definition; that's one demand. A second demand is to allow students to obtain their education in Kurdish. And the third, and this is probably the most difficult and challenging, is substantial devolution of power to local municipalities."

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Has Ankara agreed to negotiate with Kurdish nationalists over any of these demands?

A curious thing about Ocalan's cease-fire initiative is that Ankara has made no public commitment to negotiate in return. So, the trickiest part of making the cease-fire into a lasting peace remains ahead. However, since coming to power in 2002, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has taken a more liberal course than his predecessors on the Kurdish issue, including promoting reforms to allow more cultural and language rights to Kurds. That leaves open the possibility that he will now push to go further with granting rights to Turkey's Kurdish minority to end separatist sentiment.

Why is Erdogan seeking to make peace with the PKK now?

Hakura says that the timing may be tied to Erdogan's own political needs as he seeks, quite independently of the Kurdish question, to rally support in parliament for his bid to give Turkey a stronger presidential system of government:

"Prime Minister Erdogan wants to introduce a presidential system of government in Turkey, wants to transfer powers from the prime minister and parliament into an executive presidency modeled along the lines of France or Russia, and to do that he needs the support of one of the opposition parties in parliament in order to pass that constitutional amendment. And, therefore, one possibility is to strike a deal [for support] with the pro-Kurdish MPs in parliament that are affiliated with the PKK."

Whether Erdogan will do that and what concessions he might make to Kurdish nationalists in exchange for Ocalan's peace offer will be the dominant questions in Turkish politics for the months immediately ahead.