By Paul Napolitano Contributor April 1, 2013

Turkey should continue engaging with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan in order to resolve its Kurdish conflict.

The crisis in Syria has dominated media coverage and refocused international attention on the need for stability and security in the Middle East. Yet a more enduring case of humanitarian crisis has been forgotten in neighboring Turkey. The conflict between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has persisted for 28 years and has claimed over 40,000 lives. This persistent conflict has been neglected as U.S. and international interests in neighboring Syria, Iran, and Iraq have dominated headlines. The grievances of the Kurdish population in the Middle East cross national borders; a forceful effort to address the problems in Turkey – by far the most stable state in the region – will have positive effects for its less stable neighbors.

Abdullah Öcalan, the isolated PKK leader serving a life sentence since 1999, is the unlikely key to ending this conflict. Labeled a terrorist by the U.S., Turkish, and EU governments, Öcalan is still an influential figure amongst Turkey’s Kurds; a two-month hunger strike by nearly 700 Kurdish prisoners stopped immediately when Öcalan advised they cease.

Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has apparently come to understand Öcalan’s key role in the fragile peace process. Engaging in negotiations with Öcalan, secretly at first to avoid opposition criticism, the Turkish government is displaying a desire for peace. Öcalan has responded by agreeing to a framework for a PKK ceasefire contingent on a more inclusive definition of Turkish citizenship and the allowance of Kurdish language education. Revealing the key regional dynamics, he agreed to pressure the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds to distance themselves from the Assad regime.

The Kurdish conflict has plagued the Turkish state since its inception and currently threatens Turkey’s coveted entry into the European Union. Rampant discrimination of Kurds at all levels of government and society has stained Turkey’s modern and secular reputation.

Turkey needs to undertake fundamental constitutional and political reforms to fully address its Kurdish conflict; progress towards a ceasefire with the PKK will signal a commitment to Western democratic ideals. Consequently, a stabilization of relations between the Turkish Kurds and the Turkish government would positively influence the conflict dynamics in Syria and Iraqi; the Kurdish guerilla movements in those countries closely align themselves with actions of the PKK, and could be swayed toward peace by Öcalan. Peace with the PKK would win the favor of the Western community that Turkey has been so desperate to join and stabilize some parts of the world’s most troublesome region.

The problem? The process means engaging with an insurgent leader that has come to be reviled by ethnic Turks as the face of Kurdish violence against the Turkish population. The decision to negotiate with Öcalan is clearly fraught with political and cultural difficulties. The AKP could lose meaningful political support, as nationalist Turks favoring the constitutional definition of an ethnically homogenous Turkey defect to the opposition parties. Nevertheless, engagement is a key step in a much more intensive process of reform.

Outside intervention, especially from Iranian and Syrian Kurdish communities, may attempt to derail the peace talks with bursts of violence. A breakdown in negotiations could lead to resumption of outright military conflict, as when negotiations failed in 2011, resulting in a dramatic increase in violence last year.

In any event, the Turkish government has identified the key actor to pursue peace in the most unlikely place. The resolution of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey would positively affect the region and could provide much needed stability for weary Western powers. The United States and the EU must praise these renewed efforts for peace and support the process. There will be missteps and difficulties in the coming months, but renewed displays of international support will motivate the parties, especially the Turkish government, to maintain this effort. This is a rare and fleeting opportunity that cannot be wasted.

Paul Napolitano is enrolled at the MA in International Affairs degree program at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University. A native of New Orleans, LA, Paul holds a master’s degree in Comparative History from Brandeis University (2009). Before enrolling in the Elliott School, he spent two years working in the nonprofit sector as part of the effort to rebuild the New Orleans area after Hurricane Katrina.

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