Abdullah Öcalan, the founder and leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (the PKK) has been in solitary confinement for the last twenty years, sitting in a cell in the Turkish Imrali island prison in the Marmara Sea. His contact with the outside world has been extremely limited. It thus came as a surprise when on the May 2nd, Öcalan was allowed to meet with his legal defense for the first time since 2011.
After the meeting, his lawyers delivered a message from the exiled leader to his followers: stop the violence.
Öcalan’s writings form the ideological foundation of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, often referred to as “Rojava,” meaning Western Kurdistan, a name that reveals the Kurdish nationalist background of its leadership .
His writings and philosophy have inspired the structure of both the political wing of Rojava’s ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
In his letter, Öcalan also asked the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the umbrella of military forces affiliated with the Autonomous Administration to search for a solution that utilizes “soft power…not physical violence.”
The SDF coalition was formed in 2015, and though it includes a mix of different factions, including Arab ones, it is largely seen as dominated by the YPG. It successfully fought IS in Northeastern Syria, declaring victory over the terror group in March of 2019.
According to Öcalan, in order to establish democratic self-governance in Northeast Syria violence must be abandoned as a political tool. He added that “Turkish sensitivity should be taken into account” and that autonomous democratic governance must not compromise the territorial unity of Syria.
Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist organization. It also considers the PYD to be an extension of the PKK, the latter considered a terrorist organization by several countries including Turkey and the United States.
For its part, the PYD concurred with Öcalan’s message. The PYD said that his letter “contained valuable advice,” in an official statement published on May 8th.
“We confirm that at this historical stage all of the involved parties are focused on finding an effective, democratic, and peaceful solution that will lead to stability and a better way of live after the difficult years that Syria has had to endure,” the statement added.
While his supporters seemed to have welcomed Öcalan’s message and its intended détente with Ankara, analyst and writer Nawar al-Deen Omar has a different take. Omar sees Öcalan’s message as an indication that he “is no longer able to lead the PKK or any other Kurdish forces.”
“Öcalan is a prisoner who has been in solitary confinement,” Omar told Syria Direct. “This is something that we need to take into account when evaluating his recent statements.”
Omar, who is based in Qamishli, a city in Northeastern Syria near Kurdish-controlled territory, spoke with Syria Direct correspondent, Mohammed Abd al-Satar Ibrahim.
Ibrahim: While negotiations take place behind closed doors concerning the fate of Northeast Syria and Rojava, Öcalan’s legal defense team releases a letter encouraging a peace treaty with Turkey. Given that he has been prevented from meeting with his lawyers since 2011, what do you make of the letter and its timing?
Omar: “Öcalan’s statement is important and is essentially the same message he has been preaching since the beginning: a desire for peace, a rejection of violence and a solution to the Kurdish issue.
He does not just want a solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey but in all the countries where Kurds are present. He wants a solution that avoids war and maintains regional stability.
As for the timing, it is mainly connected to political developments in Turkey. The ruling Justice and Development Party suffered a huge blow in the recent presidential elections on March 31st due to their reckless policies and alliance with the extremist National Movement Party.
The timing is also tied to the United States’ refusal to allow the Turkish army to take part in establishing a safe zone in Northeastern Syria.
The Justice and Development party has begun to distance itself from the National Movement Party and move closer to the Kurds in order to not only improve its electability, but also to convince the United States that it does not want to go after the Kurds in Northeastern Syria.
If it is successful in the latter, then it has the potential to play a significant role in the safe zone.”
Ibrahim: Is there any connection between Öcalan’s message and the recent statements made by Mazlum Kobani (leader of the SDF) that there are ongoing, albeit indirect, negotiations with Turkey?
Omar: “Kobani’s statements point to greater efforts to create a sort of Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement, as well as to find a compromise regarding Turkish forces in the safe zone.
The SDF has been flexible and committed to dialogue since the beginning. It’s the Turkish government that has refused to negotiate with the SDF on the grounds that it considers the SDF a terrorist group.
Erdogan, however, has begun to understand that the United States would never permit an invasion of Northeastern Syria, and thus has become reluctantly open to the idea of finding a solution that includes the SDF.”
Ibrahim: How have statements issued by the leader of a group considered to be terrorists by Turkey affected Rojava politically?
Omar: “First of all, Öcalan is an influential figure in the region. However, he’s no longer capable of leading the PKK or any other Kurdish forces given that he is in prison. Anything that he says is merely a suggestion, it is not binding.
This kind of message is not a new development. He has given suggestions to Barazani and Talabani, and even to the Turkish government before.
Öcalan’s statements should not be taken as orders or instructions, but rather as the personal efforts of an important leader to achieve peace and banish the specter of war that is haunting the region.”
Ibrahim: What forms is the negotiation with Turkey taking, and do you have any idea what could be in the potential deal?
Omar: “Until today, the negotiations are technically unconfirmed. Mazlum Kobani, the commander of the SDF, has only announced his desire to begin negotiations with Turkey. He has not said that the negotiations have started or that Turkey is even willing to participate in them.
And as far as the PKK and Turkey are concerned, there are no upcoming negotiations. However, Öcalan’s recent visit with his lawyers after four years of complete isolation is encouraging. Perhaps this is a sign that Turkey is laying the groundwork for indirect negotiations with the PKK.
In the case that negotiations with the PKK occur, it’s my belief that Turkey will demand the surrender of the PKK before anything else. This would be in exchange for an end, or at least a reduction in severity of Öcalan’s solitary confinement.
However, the PKK is unlikely to give up its weapons until it sees a real solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey.
In general, the negotiations will take some time. I am personally not convinced that negotiations will lead to a real settlement, because the Justice and Development Party has yet to even acknowledge the existence of the Kurdish issue.
With that being said, the Kurds have nothing to lose by participating in negotiations, despite the widely-held belief that the government in Turkey is untrustworthy and uninterested in peace.”
Ibrahim: Is the emphasis Öcalan and Kobani place on heeding Turkey’s political sensitivities indicative of a coming détente, such as the ceasefire that occurred between the PKK and Turkey in 2013?
Omar: “It is important to understand that when Öcalan and Kobani talk about ‘respecting Turkey’s political sensitivities,’ they are not talking about surrendering. Rather they are acknowledging the important role that Turkey plays in the region and are emphasizing the importance of dealing with it in a pragmatic way.
The SDF, the PYD, the PKK and Kurds everywhere are committed to dialogue and peace. They do not have hostile intentions towards any country, including Turkey.
In contrast, Turkey is the aggressor. It provokes the Kurds and denies them their fundamental rights. This is behavior that the Kurds refuse to tolerate.
Thus, the statements that Öcalan and Kobani made are nothing new for the Kurds. Kurds have always wanted peace and dialogue and have always respected the regional role that Turkey plays.”
Ibrahim: America is the primary backer of the SDF and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, but still does not play as large of a role as Turkey does in the area. What do you think will be the United States’ role in any upcoming negotiations?
Omar: “When Mazlum Kobani talked about indirect negotiations with Turkey being facilitated by allies, he was likely talking about the United States or France, though he did not mention them by name.
It is my belief that the United States is encouraging negotiations between Turkey and the SDF and that it will have an important part in finding a solution acceptable to Turkey. However, it is unlikely that the United States will put pressure on Ankara to go to the negotiation table any time soon.
It’s possible that the United States wants to see a rapprochement between the SDF and Turkey, but whether Turkey wants such a thing remains a mystery. We’ll see soon.
It is in everyone’s interest for Turkey and the Kurds to reach a deal. But the chauvinist and racist mindset of the Turks is certainly an obstacle to any future resolution between the two.”