The highly disturbing murder of three Kurdish women activists in Paris -- among them one of the co-founders of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- is casting a long shadow over newly launched talks between the Turkish government and the militant organization.
The Wednesday killing of the three women, which took place inside the Paris office of a Kurdish institute, was described by the French Minister of Interior as “without doubt an execution.” Along with Sakine Cansiz, the PKK co-founder, the victims included Fidan Dogan, a leading Kurdish figure in Europe and Leyla Soylemez, a young Kurdish activist.
The murders occurred in the midst of a critical time for the Kurdish issue. The new year started off with the announcement that the Turkish government and Abduallah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, have restarted talks aimed at resolving the decades-old Kurdish problem (a previous effort at talks was stymied after a strong backlash in Turkey). In recent days, several Turkish papers have reported on a possible "roadmap" being worked out between Ankara and Ocalan, which, among other things, includes numerous political reforms and the release of Kurdish prisoners on the Turkish side in return for the PKK disarming.
Previous efforts to solve the Kurdish issue have been derailed by provocative acts by both Turkish and Kurdish nationalists and there is some suspicion that the murders in Paris fit into this pattern. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking during a trip to Senegal, said the killings could be the work of groups "opposed" to the new peace talks. A top PKK leader in Europe, meanwhile, suggested the murders were the work of nationalists in the Turkish "Deep State" who are opposed to making any concessions to Ocalan and the Kurds.
Whatever the truth is, the Paris murders make clear that moving forward will not be easy -- or, unfortunately, bloodless -- for either Turkey or the PKK, with both being forced to confront their own powerful rejectionist fronts. The PKK itself is torn between moderate and militant wings (for more, take a look at this previous post) and it's likely the killings of the three activists in Paris is linked to internal Kurdish politics, rather than being the work of Turkish elements. And as Dogu Ergil, a Turkish political scientist who has written extensively about the Kurdish issue, points out in Today's Zaman, while Ocalan may still be the most powerful actor in Kurdish politics, making him the obvious starting point for negotiations, other players have strengthened their positions while the PKK leader has been in jail and will have their own demands which must be heard and dealt with.
On the Turkish side, the fact that Ankara felt comfortable to make public the fact that negotiations with the reviled Ocalan are taking place could be an indication that the Erdogan government -- which has previously been timid about spending the political capital necessary to really move forward on the Kurdish issue -- finally feels it has the public and political backing to take decisive steps on the issue. Also writing in Today's Zaman, analyst Yavuz Baydar points out that this time around Erdogan's initiative to negotiate with Ocalan benefits from the support of the opposition Republican Peoples' Party (CHP), the national security apparatus and from leading figures in the Kurdish movement in Turkey, as well as from a much improved relationship with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, who will have to play a key role in any effort to disarm the PKK, which has its main base in his territory. Also significant, Baydar correctly says, is the support given to the new negotiations by influential scholar Fethullah Gulen, whose movement had previously been less than enthusiastic about the Turkish government speaking to Ocalan.
For now, should the negotiations continue, Turkey and the Kurds are only at the beginning of what will be a long and arduous road. Sadly, the triple murder in Paris is likely only the first of several other violent acts that could come in the way of this new peace effort.