Turkey Promises Peace Talks With Kurdish Militants, Despite Paris Killings

For years Turkish leaders vowed they would never negotiate with "terrorists" — their term for the militant PKK separatists who have been battling security forces for decades. So many Turks were startled to learn that the head of the intelligence service had been holding disarmament talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Faced with uncertainty in Kurdish northern Iraq and rising Kurdish strength in parts of Syria, Ankara seems motivated to respond to some of the demands from its own Kurdish population. And many Turks, weary of the violence that has claimed an estimated 40,000 lives, are rallying behind the effort. But the government's previous Kurdish initiative was sabotaged by violence and a nationalist backlash, and analysts hope Turkey's leaders have learned some lessons from that failure.

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The government of Turkey is vowing to push ahead with efforts to end its long-running conflict with Kurdish militants. That's despite the killings last week of three female Kurdish activists that were shot in Paris. The murders are seen as an effort to derail the peace talks before they gain traction.

As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Istanbul, Turkey, Turkey has pushed for peace before. But many wonder if the lessons from past failures have been absorbed.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: The battle between the Turkish army and the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, has killed an estimated 40,000 people, mostly PKK militants. To put that in perspective, that's more than 10 times the number of dead in the IRA fight against British forces.

The most recent period of bloody stalemate was capped with two surprises: Turks learned that the head of intelligence had met with PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in his island prison on the Sea of Marmara; and soon after, followed the execution-style killings in Paris that claimed the life of a PKK co-founder and two other activists.

As to who did it, there's no shortage of candidates. Ruling party official Huseyin Celik said internal PKK divisions may be the answer or perhaps the murders were carried out at the request of foreign powers, such as Syria or Iran.

HUSEYIN CELIK: (Through translator) Is there one PKK? I'm not sure of that. Within the PKK, there are groups that act as subcontractors to certain powers. What the goal is, we can't be sure, but there may be more attempts to sabotage the process, so we must all remain focused and vigilant.

KENYON: But the Kurdish population has its own theories, with many at this Istanbul rally blaming elements within the government that oppose Kurdish rights. Many Turks and Kurds are hearing strong echoes of the peace effort that failed a few years ago and the question is, what has the government learned from that failure? Starting in 2009, the Kurdish Initiative saw reforms pushed through parliament and some PKK militants were given amnesty and allowed back into Turkey from their bases in the mountains of northern Iraq.

At that point, says writer and columnist Mustafa Akyol, the politicians in the ruling AK party realized too late that Turkish public opinion had not been early well enough prepared to accept the hard reality of making peace with the enemy.

MUSTAFA AKYOL: But then, suddenly, there was so much reaction on the Turkish side to this forgiving of the terrorists. When AKP halted the process, then the PKK said this is just an illusion, they're fooling us. Then they began fighting. In the past two years, we had a vicious cycle of violence.

KENYON: There is reason to hope this peace effort will avoid past mistakes. The 2009 peace talks were held in secret in Oslo, but this time, there's more transparency. And Kurdish aspirations appear to be focused on greater rights and freedoms within a Turkish state, not full autonomy. Turkey's main opposition party is cautiously on board, leaving only the nationalist hard-liners to condemn the talks.

Selahattin Demirtas, head of the main Kurdish-aligned party in Turkey, said recently that a century of Kurdish grievances won't be resolved in this process, but perhaps Turks and Kurds can find a solution without blood, guns and violence.

SELAHATTIN DEMIRTAS: (Speaking foreign language)

KENYON: The only permanent, ethical and logical solution is through negotiations, he said, adding: if we can believe today that the government also shares this approach, we can only be glad about it. Analyst Mustafa Akyol says another new development is Turkey's warming relationship with Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq, such as Massoud Barzani. That's a connection Ankara may be eager to maintain, especially if neighboring Syria continues to fall apart, possibly leading to a de facto autonomous Kurdish region on another of Turkey's borders.

AKYOL: In Iraq, right now, the best ally Turkey has is Barzani, whereas the central government in Baghdad, which is very much in line with Iran, there are big disputes between Turkey and the central government of Iraq. But as Kurds are coming to the fore as a political reality in the Middle East, will Turkey befriend them and maybe turn them into an ally of Turkey or keep on fighting the Kurds?

KENYON: For now, at least, the answer to that question is clear. Turkish fighter jets reportedly struck PKK targets in northern Iraq overnight. In southeast Turkey, Kurds are planning for this week's funerals for the victims of the Paris murders and both sides are wondering how many more people will die as another peace effort lurches into gear. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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