Turkey's intelligence services have held talks with jailed Kurdish PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Direct negotiations may lead to a solution to the Kurdish conflict and could end decades of fighting.
Abdullah Ocalan is back in the political limelight. Almost 14 years after his arrest and imprisonment in February 1999, the founder and head of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has assumed the role he has always coveted: that of a key figure in the search for a peaceful solution to a Kurdish conflict that has raged since 1984 and claimed more than 40,000 lives. Last month, senior officials of Turkey's MIT intelligence service visited Ocalan in prison on the island of Imrali near Istanbul and discussed disarming his outlawed movement.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his government want to work out a scheme with Ocalan that would allow Kurdish rebels to lay down their weapons. News reports have leaked that PKK leaders in northern Iraq's Qandil mountains would not be brought to trial but would instead be given the opportunity to seek exile elsewhere. Regular PKK fighters would be reintegrated into society.
It is a favorable moment to start negotiations: low temperatures and winter weather have forced both sides to put the fighting on hold. The likelihood of talks being sabotaged by fresh skirmishes is smaller than during other seasons. Recently, Ocalan successfully urged Kurdish prisoners to give up a hunger strike - once again proving to the PKK and the Turkish leadership how influential he still is.
Timing is important for yet another reason: Turkey faces a string of local, parliamentary and presidential elections over the next two years. "Erdogan is intent on making this work because of the upcoming elections," says Istanbul political scientist Sahin Alpay. The population is tired of the conflict - a peaceful solution, Alpay says, would be a big bonus for the government.
Besir Atalay, Turkey's deputy Prime Minister and coordinator of Kurdish policies in the cabinet, says the talks are aimed at a final renunciation of violence by the PKK. In an effort to give the negotiation process more credibility, authorities last week allowed a group of Kurdish politicians to visit Ocalan on Imrali island for the first time. Erdogan has said talks between the MIT and Ocalan will continue and indicated the possibility of talks with additional members of the PKK leadership.
Previous negotiations between Ankara and the PKK were discontinued in 2011 after Kurdish rebels killed 13 Turkish soldiers in an attack in southeastern Anatolia. The Turkish government accused the PKK then of sabotaging the negotiation process.
PKK remains wary
The PKK is hesitant. Senior PKK commander Murat Karayilan has called for the state to make even more of an effort to prove its desire for peace, including an upgrade in prison conditions for Ocalan and a formal recognition of Kurdish identity in Turkey's constitution.
Some observers in Turkey fear Karayilan's fighters might interrupt the negotiation process because they feel left out. So far, all mediation efforts since fighting broke out in 1984 have failed. The most recent round of talks may have had an auspicious beginning - but that by no means guarantees success.