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From Hardliner to Peacemaker: Will Erdogan End Turkey's Thirty Year War With the Kurds?

ISTANBUL—Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey, will undoubtedly be remembered for many things. In the ten years since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) first assumed control of the Turkish parliament, he has substantially improved the Turkish economy and established Turkey as a diplomatic leader in the Middle East; he has ushered Islam back into Turkish public life, downgraded the influence of the Turkish military, and imposed severe crackdowns on Turkish journalists. But as his third term as prime minister comes to a close, it seems that another, much less likely legacy could be within reach: Peacemaker with the Kurds. 

Turkey's war with the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) is the country's most stubborn problem, and Erdogan's defining challenge. For almost three decades, armed PKK guerillas, stationed at remote posts in the Qandil mountains on the border between Turkey and Iraq, have been fighting the Turkish Army, resulting in the deaths of 40,000 people on both sides and dividing the country on the so-called "Kurdish issue." 

During his time as prime minister, Erdogan has failed to make much progress in resolving the conflict, in spite of some genuine efforts. In fact, in recent years he has become more authoritarian, increasing military and political efforts against the Kurdish population. The government's vast court case against the KCK, the Kurdish group which the government considers the urban arm of the PKK, is a clear effort to silence dissent. Since 2009, thousands of Kurdish activists, lawyers, students, and politicians have been arrested for alleged connections to terrorism. As recently as November, when fighting was intensifying, Erdogan hardly seemed interested in peace. The prime minister responded to a 68-day hunger strike by Kurds in Turkish prisons by threatening to reinstate the death penalty. Speaking in fiery tones meant to court ultra-nationalistic voters, he announced that the Turkish Army was making progress in its campaign against PKK. 

But as Erdogan's time as prime minister heads to a close—and as he eyes 2014, when Turkey will hold its first direct presidential elections—he seems to have transformed himself yet again: The hardliner has become a peacemaker. In recent weeks, Erdogan has opened new talks between the AKP and the imprisoned founder of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. The negotiations, the first in years, signal a possible end to the seemingly intractable war. Not even the brutal murder of three Kurdish activists in Paris—a poignant reminder of the vast reach of activism and bloodshed surrounding Turkey's Kurdish issue—has derailed the talks, at least not yet.

The first sign that Erdogan might be willing to compromise came when Ocalan, although in solitary confinement, was allowed to respond to the hunger strike. The Kurdish leader called for an end to the strike on November 17th. Hakan Fidan, the government's intelligence chief, was then dispatched to Ocalan's island prison to initiate peace talks. 

It was a sudden shift for Erdogan, but not entirely surprising. It's not the first time that the politician has changed his attitude toward the Kurds. While campaigning in 2005, Erdogan successfully gained a substantial number of Kurdish votes by advertising himself as a reformer, although in office he vacillated between those promised reforms and oppressive policies which further alienated Kurds, who felt betrayed. "Erdogan routinely changes principles and goals," Murat Somer, a professor of politics at Koc University told me. "Basically he has a very well-developed political instinct." 

That fickleness made political progress more difficult, but it also had the unintended effect of changing Turkish public opinion by exposing the complexity of the Kurdish issue. In recent years, as the death toll on both sides of the war has ticked higher, the public discourse about Kurds in Turkey has fundamentally changed. Kurdish politicians have become more prominent in public life, and human rights concerns about the treatment of Kurds have been adopted by Turkish and Kurdish activists alike. "The Kurdish issue was taboo until the 1990s," said Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish journalist. "Even the word 'Kurd' was not commonly accepted. But in the new century there has been much discussion of Kurds in the public square—on TV, in newspapers. There is an awareness that this is not a matter of a few terrorists you can eradicate, that this is a matter of politics."

Now that the majority of Turks seem genuinely eager for the conflict to end Erdogan has decided to rally for peace. But there's no guarantee that Erdogan's initiation of talks will be successful, or that he will have the fortitude to see them through to their end. Indeed, negotiations between Kurds and the Turkish government have tended to follow a pattern: With their announcement comes an episode of violence, which drains whatever optimism exists, and fighting resumes.

The recent murders in Paris—the victims were two young activists and an older cofounder of the PKK who was once close to Ocalan—seemed a continuation of this unpromising history. Many observers predicted that nationalistic segments of the Turkish public would demand a tough response from the government, which would lead to a sudden end to the peace talks. But the public has remained in favor of the talks, and so far so has Erdogan. In the days following the murders, Erdogan loudly condemned the killings and vowed that the talks would continue.

Still, old habits die hard. Erdogan also criticized French President Francois Hollande for praising the murdered women for their political work. Hollande, he declared, "must explain immediately … why he is in communication with these terrorists." The label "terrorist"—which the military still uses to justify the mass arrests and marginalization of Kurds—felt like another declaration of war. 

But an eagerness for peace brings with it a certain amount of forgiveness. In response to Erdogan's slur against the murdered women, Selahattin Demirtas, the co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which opposes Erdogan and the AKP in parliament and has lost many of its members to prison, said only that Erdogan should be careful with his words.