The military leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Murat Karayilan, announced Thursday that Kurdish rebels will begin their withdrawal to northern Iraq in early May. The retreat comes on the heels of a rebel ceasefire declared last month, following a call by imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan to stop fighting and leave Turkey. If the retreat occurs without incident — Turkish forces reportedly attacked Kurdish rebels during past withdrawals in 1999 and 2004 — it could herald the PPK’s disarmament and greater autonomy for Kurds living in Turkey. But while the withdrawal is already being lauded as the “beginning of the end” of a bloody three-decade-old insurgency by many observers, the reality is more complicated.
Why? The assumption that Ocalan’s control over the PPK is absolute is a dangerous one. Yes, he successfully prompted rebels to lay down their arms in April, and has wielded broad influence over the insurgency throughout his 14-year incarceration. But that control is not infallible. In the past several years, minority PKK factions have repeatedly (and violently) disrupted peace talks between Ankara and Ocalan. And in the weeks following the March ceasefire, similar resistance emerged, notably from militants in southern Turkey. Internal rivalries could also come into play as the possibility of a détente with Istanbul becomes more tangible. Whereas Karayilan is generally in sync with Ocalan’s directives, three other senior leaders, Cemil Bayik and Duran Kalkan (Turkish Kurds) and Fehman Huseyin (a Syrian Kurd), are less likely to toe the jailed leader’s line. Particularly Kalkan, who has close ties with Iran.
Which brings up another possible hiccup. In the years since Ocalan was a free man, the regional landscape has changed a great deal, as has the PKK movement. Today the group is much more politicized and tied more narrowly to the various nations it operates within, which complicates any effort to implement a lasting peace with a far-flung Kurdish movement operating across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and now Syria. Militants in the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD) — who are largely fighting for their own autonomy, independently of opposition groups thus far hostile to their cause — have proved particularly recalcitrant to Ocalan’s authority.
The Syrian conflict is in play here as well. Iran’s pro-Assad leadership has reportedly backed PKK terrorist attacks in retaliation for Turkey’s support of the Syrian opposition. If a Turkey-PKK peace deal is reached, look for Tehran to intensify its efforts and reach out to movement hardliners. An opposition victory, however, would temper radical elements in the PYD, and render them more amenable to negotiations with Istanbul, adding more weight to the argument that the end of the Assad regime is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
Before any of this can play out, however, the militants still have to make it across the Iraqi border. Which — given that past withdrawals ended in gunfire — is easier said than done.