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Security Conflict Regional Stability

Murder in France, Fragile Opening in Turkey

Kurdistan Workers' Party soldiers
Kurdistan Workers’ Party soldiers. Photo: james_gordon_losangeles/flickr.

Who carried out the execution of three women prominent in the European branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Paris on January 9 and what was their intended message are unclear. The dead included Sakine Cansız, a long-time senior figure in the organization, Fidan Doğan, the Paris representative of the pro-PKK Kurdistan National Congress, and Leyla Söylemez, a younger Kurdish activist. Regional players and pundits are already speculating: the assassinations were carried out by Turkey’s “Deep State;” they are opening shots in a war within the PKK over leadership and policy; or it might be Syria, Iran, or some other regional actor with an axe to grind. The motives ascribed depend on who was the actor and how conspiratorially inclined the pundit is. The obvious context is the unprecedented opening toward one another carried out in recent weeks by the Turkish government and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. For one reason or another, the perpetrators wanted to derail or at least skew that discussion, and they may well succeed.

Öcalan and the authorities in Ankara have danced with one another for some time. As early as 2005, Turkish intelligence engaged in quiet conversations with him and other PKK leaders, especially in Europe, to see whether and how some modus vivendi could end the violence. These sometimes showed promise, and some positive steps were taken, but ultimately each effort ran aground. In December, the authorities allowed Öcalan’s brother Mehmet to travel to his prison on Imralı Island in the Sea of Marmara, where the PKK leader has been held since 1999. Mehmet Öcalan subsequently announced that his brother believes “a new Kurdish initiative [by Turkey] could take place” to which, “if deep powers do not intervene,” the imprisoned PKK leader “will contribute.” Öcalan subsequently defused an anti-government hunger strike being staged by imprisoned Kurds accused of terrorism. On December 28, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made public that Turkish intelligence had met with Öcalan directly days earlier–the first such public admission of high-level government conversations with the jailed PKK leader. In another unprecedented move, the government subsequently allowed two parliamentarians representing the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) to meet with Öcalan on Imralı and were reportedly told by the PKK leader that the era of armed struggle is over. These and other BDP figures traveled immediately after to northern Iraq and Europe to brief the PKK leadership abroad on Öcalan’s status and plans.