Were PKK killings an attempt to derail the peace process?
The killing of three Kurdish activists in an office building not far from the Gare du Nord in Paris has done more than anything in years to remind Europe that Turkey’s Kurdish problem is not confined to Turkey alone, but represents a threat to law and order in Europe itself.
All three women worked for or were closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which the EU has designated as a terrorist organisation, though up to now European capitals have largely preferred to ignore it.
Sakine Cansiz was something of a PKK legend. One of the original founders of the organisation, she was tortured in a Turkish jail prior to her release in 1991. She then joined the guerrillas in the mountains just as the PKK insurgency escalated, benefiting as it did from the power vacuum created by western intervention in northern Iraq following the first Gulf War.
The PKK’s Marxist-Leninist ideology encouraged women from traditional Kurdish society to take up weapons, many of them hiding out along the Turkish-Iraqi border. However, the Turkish press has reported that Cansiz was removed from the PKK’s front line after a disagreement following the execution of one of her colleagues. She is also believed to have complained about sexual harassment.
If any of this is true, it is possible that she was killed as a result of an internal PKK feud. Turkey’s Ambassador to Paris claims the women were locked in a room after they were killed – he seems to be suggesting the killer(s) had a key and that this was a PKK “inside job”.
Fidan Dogan and Leyla Soylemez died alongside Cansiz, all of them reportedly shot in the neck and chest. Friends say they called round to the Kurdish Information Centre after hearing nothing from the women for hours, only to find blood seeping out from under the door.
One PKK member has told me that Turkish “deep state” or “contra guerilla” intelligence operatives were responsible for the murders, in a deliberate attempt to scupper peace talks between the Turkish government and PKK, or at the very least to remind the PKK that its room for manoeuvre is limited and that it is being watched.
As an add on to this theory, it is possible that the Turks became so fed up with PKK activity in Europe that they decided to take the law into their own hands in France.
However, just as likely for now is the theory that the women were killed as part of an internal PKK split, between those like Cansiz who supported the peace process and those who did not.
“It might be a provocation to harm the process,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, “or an internal feud…..we don’t know yet.”
What I am sure about is that the timing of this attack was not arbitrary, and that it was linked to political developments in Turkey.
Turkey’s government has recently acknowledged that it is talking to the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who has been held in an island prison near Istanbul since 1999. Turkish media reported this week that the framework for a peace deal had been agreed.
There have been ceasefires before, and another could be close. The murder of three PKK members in Paris is unlikely to derail any peace process, though if enough PKK believe it was a state-sanctioned killing, such a process could be delayed.
These killings could also have the opposite effect, and encourage all sides to work harder towards a settlement, although the central PKK demand – autonomy – would need to be sufficiently watered down for the Turks to even consider accepting it.
What pressure is there on Turkey to do a deal? Apart from the 40, 000 or so dead in this conflict, Ankara cannot achieve its ambitions as a regional power and economic hub until it achieves peace at home.
Turkish democracy has much to offer the rest of the Muslim world, especially “Arab Spring” countries which might follow its example, but the PKK conflict leaves Turkey’s reputation seriously flawed.
Jonathan Rugman is the author of “Ataturk’s Children – Turkey and the Kurds”. Follow him on Twitter at: @jrug