PKK Fighters Begin To Withdraw From Turkey

In a landmark step, militant fighters from the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party, are beginning to withdraw from Turkey back to northern Iraq. The withdrawal will take months and the peace process will likely collapse unless Ankara enacts significant changes recognizing Kurdish rights within Turkey. But for now, people are allowing themselves to hope that this time it might work.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn to a conflict now, that has been simmering for three decades. Turkish forces have spent years battling militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK as it's known. Today, thousands of PKK fighters begin a withdrawal to northern Iraq and this could lead to the group's eventual disarmament. Despite entrenched animosity, both Turks and Kurds seem, so far, to be pushing ahead with a peace process.

For Istanbul, here's NPR's Peter Kenyon.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Turks are not allowing their hopes to rise too high just yet. An earlier effort was right about at this stage a few years ago when it unraveled. And hard-line nationalists still believe that victory, not compromise, is the only answer.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: But while the demonstrations against the peace process continue, the broad mass of Turks and Kurds appears more ready than ever for peace. A new opinion survey, commissioned by the ruling AK Party, shows strong support for laying down weapons and granting Kurds civil and political rights.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, burned by the failure of the last peace effort, has his reputation on the line again after approving talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan late last year. He sent groups of officials out to the provinces to prepare the public for negotiations with the PKK - a group Turkey, the U.S. and EU still list as a terrorist organization.

Analyst Hugh Pope, with the International Crisis Group, says Turkey finds itself on new ground with its largely Kurdish neighbors in northern Iraq and northern Syria. And thus, Turkey's approach to its own Kurdish population is becoming untenable.

HUGH POPE: We have Turkey becoming the big brother of the Iraqi Kurds, and increasingly becoming the effective power in northern Syria; both of which areas have large amounts of Kurds. Turkey has to have a defensible Kurdish policy.

KENYON: But if Erdogan wants to see the PKK move from withdrawal to actual disarmament, first he will have to display the kind of political skills in Ankara that have frequently eluded him in the past. Crucial and controversial reforms including preventing extended detentions without charges must be shepherded through a reluctant parliament.

Columnist Asli Aydintasbas, with the Milliyet newspaper, says beyond that, the government must then prepare Turks for a political discourse that includes the long-hated PKK.

ASLI AYDINTASBAS: What the Turkish government has to deliver is not only significant reform in terms of freedom of speech and political activity, but they have to make space for PKK in the political arena. The deal is, lay down arms and I will let you take part in politics. At this point, we have not yet seen the government talk about that aspect of the deal.

KENYON: Analyst Hugh Pope agrees that it's a problem that the government won't say clearly what it's going to do on reforms. But so far, fear of a backlash is keeping the reform push quiet.

POPE: Our discussions with officials in Ankara give me the impression that everybody knows what has to be done, and it's just a question of when people will dare to do it.

KENYON: Far from praising the peace process, Erdogan has taken to offering critical remarks. Yesterday, he said making big announcements about the start of the PKK withdrawal isn't nearly as important as the end goal - disarmament. PKK commanders say the fighters won't lay down their weapons until their leader Ocalan is released from prison.

But in the meantime, Turks have begun to notice the quiet - the absence of PKK attacks, as what's come to be known as the Fighting Season begins. They've also noticed that their sons aren't being killed chasing PKK fighters. Whether that awareness turns into an active push for peace may be one of the biggest questions facing Turkey this year.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul.

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