As GIF, we use essential cookies for the provision of the Website and information society services. You may review the Cookie Privacy Notice for detailed information on the type of cookie used by GIF and purposes.

Food for Thought


Searching For A Settlement In Southeastern Turkey -

Sönmez Köksal, former Undersecretary of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, in conversation with Devrim Sevimay of Milliyet Newspaper.

Perhaps it sounds a bit crude, but they do say that it would take the courage of a giant to settle the Kurdish question.

And do you think the AKP has that much courage?
It certainly takes courage simply to face up to the issue and bring it to the point where it can be discussed. From that angle, the Prime Minister’s position seems to me to be very courageous, but for an undertaking of this sort, more is needed than just bravery: he has to strike a careful balance between his roles as statesman and politician. It is extremely important that the part of him which is a statesman comes to the fore on this matter, because this is a matter of great importance for the future of the Turkish Republic.

So if statesmanship is deficient, then such courage will evaporate immediately?
Exactly! If one responds to events by withdrawing into one’s shell and being a politician, then of course one cannot muster the necessary courage.

The point at which governments hesitate comes when they have to decide who they are going to negotiate with and how. Tony Blair once said regarding the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that he was ready to sit at the negotiating table with the devil himself, if it would put a stop to the violence. But as long as the Turkish opposition parties describe even holding talks with the Democratic Society Party (DPT) as being tantamount to bargaining with a terrorist organization, do you think that the AKP can engage in an initiative of that kind? Well, one need not put it as Mr. Blair did.

But talks can still go on, is that right?
In my view, if you want a settlement then you talk to everybody. If we want a settlement of this problem, then there are no limitations, you talk to everybody. But that does not mean that everything has to be done publicly. You could hold confidential talks. These may come to a deadlock; then efforts would be made to unblock the deadlock and so on. This is not the sort of problem to which you can reach a settlement just by pressing a button. It is an extremely complex problem and it calls for strong political will. As far as I can see, the necessary political will does exist in the Turkish state. So it’s really the PKK, who has to think through whether or not it wants a solution.

When you say that the PKK has to think the matter through, what precisely are you referring to?
For a start the PKK, DTP, and Öcalan should have learned what is impossible by now. There are some things that the Turkish state is just not prepared to do, even if it has to go on fighting as a result. So first of all, they have to restrict their demands to a realistic level. If what they still want are collective rights and a process of separation that is simply not realistic. Until this point is clear to them, the problem will drag on. It has already gone on for 25 years and it could go on for another 25. Sure, they should see that the Turkish state is searching for a solution, but they need to know, too, that the state will not agree to just any solution. That’s the heart of the matter. Can we be absolutely sure that the state will not accept these terms, or could we be looking at a case of “Just as it looked impossible ten years ago to arrive at this point, in another ten years the state will have reached a point which today is said to be impossible”. The first three Articles of the Constitution will not change. That’s for sure. If there are any demands on those lines, it will be quite impossible to reach a settlement. By now it should be plain what the state will do and what it will not.

Do you think that Abdullah Öcalan has grasped this?
Öcalan has his own priorities, but he should appreciate that any change in the current situation may only come about if the armed struggle and terrorist activities come to an end. All the military spokesmen are of the same opinion: the key to this whole matter is the moment at which they say, “I am laying down my weapons”. Once that moment arrives, in my opinion, everything can be discussed.

But how far can negotiations go?
We’ll have to see. It will be essential to monitor public opinion. The Turkish nation has a deep need for a period of convalescence in which it can recover from this syndrome, this trauma, and heal its wounds. This nation has to undergo such rehabilitation. On the other hand, there is also the problem of reassuring everyone that promises will be kept. Indeed, none of this will be easy.

So if we apply these ideas specifically to the events of the last five months, maybe we could sum things up as follows: there was a negotiating process under way, but in the final weeks of November it ran into difficulties. This was because Öcalan could not be sure of his own future and the hot-line was cut off. As someone who is very familiar with the way the state operates: do these ups and downs suggest something like that to you? It’s probable, as some sort of disruption obviously took place.

Do you think the state has been involved in the negotiations since the start of the process?
It’s possible but I really do not know. You would have to ask the officials in charge.

Did you ever have negotiations with Öcalan when you were head of Turkey’s intelligence services (MIT) between 1992 and 1998? No. Absolutely not. But at that time the situation was very violent and during my time in office, there was nothing to be discussed.

But if government policy had obliged you to hold talks, you would have done so?
Well of course, because then the talks would have been state policy, though these would not have been binding on the state. An Undersecretary doesn’t take decisions on such matters. His role would be to convey the discussions taking place to the political leadership, but he would not have the authority to shake hands on any agreement. You hold talks with whatever hostile countries there may be. Even at times when tensions between our countries were at their peak, I talked to the heads of the Greek and Armenian intelligence services. That’s the way these things are done all over the world.

Do you think that only the intelligence services can engage in talks or can the National Security Council do so, too?
I don’t think so, because you can’t have parallel sets of negotiations going on at the same time, they have to go through a single channel. If you create one channel alongside another, you give out the wrong signals.

If you take the view that there can be negotiations with anyone and perhaps even manage to put a stop to terrorism as a result, then aren’t the families of the boys who died over the last 25 years going to ask why their sons gave up their lives? That would be a very fair question and everyone should be prepared to answer it. But a tit-for-tat urge for vengeance could draw us into making serious errors. So if you are asking for my answer, my personal view is that you have to put feelings of patriotism before everything else. Our experiences have been deeply painful, but if a settlement can be achieved, then no life will have been sacrificed in vain.

But that does not take the pain away, does it?
Let’s recall the eighties and nineties. We were confronted by an acute danger of being divided, but as a result of our struggle the terrorist organization has slowly been led into considering the democratic processes. Of course that does not relieve the pain, but it does mean that every life we lost helped to produce peace. They have come a long way – from demands for total independence to federation and then from federation to democratic means. If we are finally able to reach a common understanding with them, that will be thanks to the struggle we put up against them. Otherwise, as I just said, Turkey will carry on fighting against them for another 25 years. The state will do it if it has to. But, as the uncle of one of our soldiers fallen at Reşadiye said, the time has come when no more families in this country should have to endure such sorrow.

You were Undersecretary of the National Intelligence Organization in 1993 when 33 soldiers were killed at Bingöl. Yes, I was.

Do you have any misgivings about this event?
No, no misgivings whatsoever. I agree with some retired commanders who recently spoke about it and said that there may have been negligence or even gaps in security, but attempts to advance unfounded scenarios against the Armed Forces are hard to understand.

Indeed, but it is interesting, isn’t it, that 33 soldiers were killed in 1993 just as a peace process was about to get under way. No one really knows of such a process. Was there really a peace process? Who was in charge of it? Honestly, I know nothing about it.

So you had no inkling of such a process?
There was a lull in terrorist activity, a passive period, but that was all. I have no idea what was behind it.

Well was it like today’s talks? Was there that kind of atmosphere?
Certainly not! It was nothing like today’s atmosphere. I had only been in my position for six or seven months, but the National Intelligence Organization had no information regarding such a peace initiative. I don’t even remember it being discussed in the National Security Council. Was the government thinking of a project of this sort? Well if it was, we did not know anything about it. That needs to be born in mind, when you try to analyze the events of 1993.

And has the Kurdish initiative fallen through?
It has not, but there have been some temporary setbacks. That’s only natural. It would be a colossal mistake to think that a conflict which has been going on for 25 years can be resolved in five months. I don’t want to compare it to Turkey’s EU accession process, but we must be patient.

What is the biggest mistake you have seen in the five months of the Kurdish initiative?

The biggest error I have observed is that it has been an on the job learning process. Unfortunately that seems to be a tradition in Turkey. We Turks have never had a tradition of working out in advance the details of steps that the state is about to take, as a more “technical state” would. It has become increasingly obvious that there were no preparations of this sort for the Kurdish initiative. Being unprepared, reactive policies were introduced. If a strategy is not established at the outset, then it is impossible to correct it later by changing tactics.

People have been calling this a ‘state project’ ever since it started. But do you think that it is right to call something a state project unless the main opposition parties and the Constitutional Court have a role in it?

What I understand by ‘the state’ is a project which has been discussed and endorsed by the civilian state institutions and Armed Forces through the National Security Council. That’s why the main opposition party, Republican Peoples Party (CHP), is invited to the NSC. For something like this to become a state project in a real sense, neither the ruling party nor the opposition should turn it into a political issue. Government and opposition should both regard it as an undertaking that would shape the future of the Turkish Republic.

Do you think the Armed Forces still support the initiative?
My guess is that they are still behind it because ever since Öcalan was captured, the Turkish Armed Forces standpoint has been, “We have completed our task, now it is up to the politicians to try to find a solution to the problem”. However, unfortunately, during the period from 1999 until the terrorist attacks resumed in 2004, no one took any initiative.

Is it possible that there might be a difference of opinion about this inside the Armed Forces? I doubt it. Fighting terrorism is not a pleasant task. There are various insinuations currently being directed at the Armed Forces, to which I don’t give any credence. From the outset, the Armed Forces have wanted all possible steps to be taken to put an end to this conflict, but at the same time they want to be sure that the solution is not one which will put Turkey’s national unity at risk. Indeed, we are all in agreement on that point.

If you had been in charge, what would have been your first move to facilitate the peace process?
Well, I would have done whatever I could. For a start, I would have changed the 10% threshold to enter the Parliament and also the Political Parties Law. I would avoid exhausting constitutional amendment procedures and take quick legislative steps that would further expose the unacceptable and unjustified nature of terror. In my opinion, the government needs to implement its plans as soon as possible and without further delay. The longer it hesitates and worries about rocking the approaching electoral boat, the more deadlocks will occur.

Do you foresee a risk of civil war?
I most definitely do not. Look how far we have come. Turkey has weathered many such storms. Yes, we have certainly become more sensitive on certain matters, but it would be quite wrong to talk as if civil war really was on our doorstep. It’s very dangerous even to talk about it so casually.

But would it not be just a little naïve to feel that there are strong bonds both of kinship and religion between Turks and Kurds and rely on that alone?
We should not underestimate these assets—feelings of this kind are still strong enough to hold us together; the social foundations are very strong. All the figures and statistics at hand demonstrate this clearly. Neither side, neither Turks nor Kurds, wants to separate itself from the other. The overwhelming majority is against that. Keeping this discussion permanently on the agenda helps no one. We should be wary of the potential manipulation through the systematic circulation of certain views. In Turkey, rather regrettably, people are quick to take sides.

We should be talking about a country with bright horizons for all its citizens.

Can we really be so hopeful?
Of course we can, why should we lose hope? Turkey is one of the three countries expected to develop fastest in 2010. What is the point in putting ourselves down? Such discourse only serves to banalize very serious matters.

Then you don’t agree with people who say that Turkey might be at risk of having to reintroduce martial-law in the future?
No. There isn’t the slightest indication of that. The greatest danger I can see up until now is giving undue emphasis to the ethnicity jargon. Of course Turks exist and Kurds exist and we quite accept all that, but it isn’t helpful to let that jargon become part of everyday discourse. Something the government and the state as a whole have to do is to keep emphasizing that the word “Turk” makes absolutely no ethnic reference. It’s essential to get that across. Emphasizing the demarcation leads to a socially unconstructive shift from citizenry-based identity to an ethnicity-based identity.

Might there not be a similar danger for western Turkey? Might people in western Turkey start saying that they are Turks and they want to break with the east?
That’s what happened in Italy. Northern Italy is economically advanced and some people there said that they had had enough of carrying the less prosperous areas on their backs. But I don’t think that is a risk for Turkey. Turkey’s territorial integrity is a given for its people. With that said, we would not turn down anyone who wanted to join us.

Of course, I had northern Iraq in mind as I said that, because in the past, it was always Turkey which gave shelter to Kurds when they were suffering oppression, whether they were from Iran or northern Iraq. We were never inclined to turn them away but always to accept them in. Circumstances are currently favorable for developing closer relations. Given that Iran is preoccupied with international opposition, Turkey should be trying to develop its relations with northern Iraq. Visa requirements might be lifted. Economic integration could be encouraged. Towns like Gaziantep, Diyarbakır, and Mardin could take part in plans to assist regional economic integration using the “cluster model”. Such freedom of movement created the economic dynamism that exists on the common border between France and Germany. People there work in a factory on one side of the border during the day and return each evening to their homes on the other side. That is the only way to establish a basis of mutual confidence. Unless you’ve got prosperity, you can’t have peace.

It is argued that things have come to such a point that the problem cannot be solved with economics alone and that, even if the Kurds are given some collective rights, as long as Öcalan stays in prison, the problem on the streets will not improve. What would your reply be to that? If the research done so far is correct – and a lot of very serious research has been carried out – then, first of all, there is no desire among the people of this region for separatism and breaking away from Turkey. The support for the PKK is insignificant. Obviously, a vote for the DTP is not a vote for the PKK. That in itself is a good enough reason to bring the electoral threshold below 10% at once. The more political options available, the more effectively our citizens of Kurdish origin will find political platforms to represent them.