ISTANBUL/SURUC Turkey (Reuters) - As southeast Turkey’s Kurds rioted last week in fury at Ankara’s refusal to rescue the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani from advancing Islamists, it was to Abdullah Ocalan that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu turned for help.
Sitting in jail on the windswept island where he has spent the last 15 years, Ocalan wields more power as a peacemaker than he ever did as the guerrilla commander leading a Kurdish insurgency in which 40,000 people have died.
But as the Syrian conflict unleashes forces in Turkey that neither side can fully control, time may be running out for Ankara to make peace with the Kurds.
“The peace process is already shaky without Kobani. Kobani is further rocking its foundations. If Kobani falls, it might be difficult to sustain,” said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli from the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office.
For now, both sides remain committed.
From his prison cell, the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) urged pro-Kurdish politicians to try to avert further bloodshed and keep on track the peace process that he launched with Ankara two years ago.
They duly met ministers and issued appeals that calmed the violence. On Thursday, Besir Atalay, deputy head of the ruling AK Party, reaffirmed the government’s commitment to the peace process, saying a “road map” was being circulated and promising more steps in the coming days. Ocalan’s word still counts for plenty among the followers who fondly call him “Apo”.
“Apo is our everything; he is the reason why the whole world knows about Kurds,” said taxi driver Muslum Bilgic, 36, smoking at a tea house in the Turkish town of Suruc, 10 km (six miles) north of Kobani. “I don’t have a picture of my father at home, but I have a picture of Ocalan.”
This weekend, a pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) delegation will meet PKK commanders in the Qandil mountains of northern Iraq before talks with Ocalan on Imrali on Oct. 21.
The fact that “Apo” still commands the loyalty of the PKK also gives the government good reason to value a figure once routinely labeled “baby killer” in Turkish newspapers.
After his capture in Kenya in 1999, Turks were most familiar with images of him dazed, blindfolded and handcuffed, flanked by the balaclava-wearing commandos who flew him back to Turkey.
But now, a man who was only saved from the gallows by a change in the law appears in Turkish media as a benign cardigan-wearing grandfather figure, grey-haired, moustachioed and smiling in photos taken in jail and released by the government.
Pro-government circles in Turkey have gone so far as to portray last week’s unrest over Kobani, in which dozens were killed, as part of a plot to undermine the peacemaking role of a skilled negotiator.
“One goal of this spiral of terror and violence was to end the peace process, leaving Abdullah Ocalan to rot eternally in prison and effectively eliminating him from political life,” Rasim Ozan Kutahyali wrote in a column in the newspaper Sabah.
One prominent pro-government journalist this week even appeared to float the idea of Ocalan being moved from Imrali, saying Turkey should “consider his position”.
In declaring a ceasefire in March last year and ordering his fighters to withdraw to their bases in the mountains of northern Iraq, Ocalan may have sensed that peace was his best hope of ever being freed. Yet President Tayyip Erdogan also has a hefty stake in the process.
Ocalan’s PKK has stopped demanding the full secession it once fought for, but Erdogan has had to face down considerable nationalist hostility even to push through cultural and linguistic reforms that fall far short of the limited autonomy that many Kurds now seek.
Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc likened the peace process to “holding fire in your palm”.
“We have put our whole bodies into this tough business,” he said. “Like drinking poison, maybe like losing power.”
The payoff, if it comes, would be the “peace dividend” of growth in a region frozen out of investment by three decades of conflict, just as Turkey is finding economic impetus hard to come by.
But the war in Syria has made the poison on both sides much more potent.
Many in Ankara have argued that alienating the Kurds in the short term by refusing to send Turkish forces across the Syrian border to help their ethnic kin is a price worth paying to avoid being sucked into Syria’s complex war.
Moreover, the YPG, the heavily outgunned Syrian Kurdish militia that has been defending Kobani against the fighters of Islamic State, has close ties to the PKK. To many in the Turkish government, this makes it impossible even to allow weapons from elsewhere in Syria to reach the YPG via Turkish territory.
A government comment saying it viewed the YPG in the same light as Islamic State, whose massacres and beheadings have driven 200,000 Syrian Kurds to flee into Turkey, was guaranteed to inflame tempers among Turkey’s Kurds.
At the same time, many in the PKK sense that Western sympathy for the plight of Syria’s Kurds might also raise the international profile of the PKK and strengthen their own hand against Ankara.
Ocalan’s appeal for calm failed to convince some militants, who attacked and killed police officers in Bingol province, while PKK rebels also clashed with Turkish troops on the Iraqi border. The government reportedly retaliated with the first substantial air strikes since peace talks began.
Ocalan’s Kurdish critics say the withdrawal of PKK fighters since he declared a ceasefire has yielded few if any concrete concessions, or even serious negotiations, from the government.
“The historical role that Ocalan has played still gives him a high degree of influence, but this is fraying at the edges,” said Sinan Ulgen, head of the Centre for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies in Istanbul.
Young radicalized factions within the PKK may also be growing resentful of the influence still wielded by an ageing man who has been behind bars for more than a decade.
Cemil Bayik, the top PKK figure in its headquarters-in-exile in Iraq’s Qandil mountains, made clear in uncompromising language this week that he held Erdogan’s AK Party responsible for Kobani and the unrest in southeast Turkey.
“We have warned Turkey. If they continue on this path, then the guerrillas will relaunch our defensive war to protect our people,” he told German television, adding that some Kurdish fighters withdrawn from Turkey last year had now returned.
It may be questionable whether the PKK would risk opening another front and alienating Western powers by reviving its conflict with Turkey now, but the focus is very much on Kobani.
Intense bombing by U.S.-led coalition warplanes appeared this week to have halted the Islamists’ advance, a glimmer of good news for the town’s Kurdish defenders.
But without more arms and ammunition to help the Kurds on the ground, the town’s fate remains precarious, and with it that of the peace process.
“If Kobani falls, there will be a civil war in Turkey,” said Bilgic, the Kurdish taxi driver.
“If Kobani falls, Apo won’t be able to control the streets. The word for peace comes from Ocalan, but the act of war is carried out by Qandil.”
Additional reporting by Jonny Hogg and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Kevin Liffey