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February 05, 2013, Tuesday

A cautious race against time

So far, so good. The meetings and the “search” on the fragile ground of the “peace process” move forward with cautious steps.

The first threshold has been passed: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not met a barrage of protests since he declared that he gave directives for Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) to lead direct talks with Abdullah Öcalan to resolve the issue of the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Talks with the pollsters all suggest that between 55-60 percent of the public now supports the initiative.

Is there a road map? It would be fair to say, at this stage, that a rough map has already been made. Fidan and Öcalan, having agreed on the timetable, continue working.

Some wonder why there has been a delay for the second delegation from the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) meeting with the jailed leader on İmralı Island. The reason, if you read between the lines of what Erdoğan said and talk to appropriate sources, is simple: Öcalan is not yet ready to write a declaration which will include a date for a unilateral ceasefire.

This may have to do with the issue of trust. When he activates the entire machinery of pulling the PKK units (some 2,000 rebels) back from Turkish soil to Iraqi Kurdistan, he needs to be assured that Erdoğan and his government mean serious business. At the end of the day, that means that they will have to explore amnesty for the PKK “command” and for Öcalan. From Öcalan's vantage point, the first concrete step will have to do with the so-called Fourth Judiciary Reform Package.

Erdoğan relies on a two-part operational structure when leading the process. On the dialogue side, Fidan is given power and responsibility. On the reform side, Sadullah Ergin, the hugely respected minister of justice, is busy preparing the reform package, which is due to be heard in Parliament on Monday. Among other things, it defines “links with a terrorist organization” more clearly, which will be important to the next stages of the negotiations. It may take some days to pass it, however, with the support of the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the sheer weight of likely objections from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and with a cynical and shy Republican Peoples' Party (CHP) abstaining at best. But passage of the reform package may ease a lot of tension (we have yet to see its full content), and lead to the release of a large number of detainees from the Kurdistan Communities' Union (KCK) and some journalist-activist Kurdish suspects. The more releases, the less anxiety there will be, both at home and abroad.

It would be naive to see the expected declaration of a ceasefire and whatever else from Öcalan as separate from the approval of the package. If all goes well, we may look forward to a busy upcoming week or two. Öcalan will then have a new team of visitors, who will be given a letter and instructions for further action. When that comes, we can be certain that the train is rolling on the right track, but with the risks still intact.

From then on, it will depend on Erdoğan exerting full control over the security forces so that they do not launch an armed manhunt for all those PKK units that will move to Iraq. This phase will take months. The ceasefire and pull out phase is not expected to be finalized until June. If completed successfully, the summer will then be spent dissolving the civilian refugee camps in Iraq where PKK sympathizers live. We are talking about several thousand people.

As these two phases move toward a resolution, both the “command in Kandil” and the Iraqi Kurdish leaders, Massoud and Nechirvan Barzani will have to be involved. The final phase, involving amnesty coupled with disarmament, will begin in the early autumn. It will be the most delicate part. Some PKK units will surely bury their arsenals in Turkish soil before they leave, others will have to be handed over to a third party, which in all likelihood will be the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, since it will require a lot of trust. The potential for the success of this phase is presumed to be built on good coordination between Öcalan, the MİT, Kandil leadership and the Barzanis.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Head of Public Security Mehmet Ulvi Saranis is very soon to meet Jonathan Powell, who was the political advisor to UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and is an expert on the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) disarmament process. It is a good sign. But it all depends on what Erdoğan and Öcalan will do. Excitement is high.

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