Turkey Seeks End to Kurdish Separatist Struggle

After 36 years and more than 40,000 deaths, one of the world’s bloodiest and longest-running insurgencies—the separatist struggle of Turkey’s Kurds—could soon be over. Last week Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted that his government was finally negotiating with Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, imprisoned since 1999. Not long ago, such talks would have been political suicide. But Erdogan is riding high after a victory last month in which voters backed his party as it introduced a new constitution pushing the military out of politics. With the Army, traditionally the fiercest opponents of any deals with Kurdish terrorists, on the back foot, Erdogan is now freer to strike a grand bargain with the remains of the PKK.

More important, the militants know they’ve lost the battle for secession from Turkey both politically and militarily. PKK strongholds in north Iraq have been hammered by a series of air and commando raids since 2007. Inside Turkey, too, the organization is losing its grip. A longstanding taboo on speaking out against the PKK was broken last month by the mayor of Diyarbakir, the Kurdish region’s biggest city, who blasted the rebels for a raid on a local stone-cutting factory. Thousands also turned out for the funerals of two popular imams apparently murdered by the PKK, another first in a region where the rebels used to keep the local population in firm check by killing teachers and village elders and forcibly conscripting sons.

Any deal will have to involve amnesty for the remaining rebels—something that has roused the ire of nationalists and many military officers. But Erdogan has found support in surprising places. Former hardliner Cevat Önes¸ has said any deal “could, and should, include issuing an amnesty for the terrorists.”

Trickier for Erdogan will be how far to go with the Kurds’ demands for local autonomy. Still, for most Kurds the dream has changed: instead of independence, they now want merely to keep their language and traditions alive, while benefiting from Turkey’s newfound prosperity. Some Turks still worry that granting such unprecedented freedom to the Kurds will pose a threat to national unity. But others have come to see that ethnic diversity in their country is a small price to pay for ending decades of bloodshed.

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