New Day for the Kurds: Will Ocalan’s Declaration Bring Peace With Turkey?

The imprisoned Kurdish leader asks his fighters to withdraw from Turkish territory. Will this be the end of the decades-long, bloody struggle?

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Demonstrators hold Kurdish flags and portraits of jailed Kurdistan Workers' Party leader Abdullah Ocalan during a gathering to celebrate Newroz on March 21, 2013, in the Turkish city of Diyarbakir

Newroz means “new day” in Kurdish, and traditionally it was a great celebration heralding the start of spring for the Kurdish people. Because of its centrality in that culture, the government of Turkey banned ethnic Kurds from celebrating it for decades — and so the beginning of spring was often marked by street battles and bloodshed, as Kurds used the holiday to protest for their rights and to assert their identity.

But this Newroz is different. On Thursday, tens of thousands of people decked out in the bright Kurdish colors of red, yellow and green, gathered in Diyarbakir, regional capital of southeast Turkey. Something indeed felt “new.”

The police did not intervene. There was no tear gas. People sang Kurdish songs and built the traditional Newroz bonfires. National TV channels broadcast the celebrations. To cap it all, Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed Kurdish rebel leader, called on the fighters of his Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) to withdraw from Turkey, signaling an end to a 30-year conflict that has cost some 40,000 lives and left a vast chunk of the country mired in poverty.

(MORE: Kurdish Rebel Leader Declares Cease-Fire)

“Let guns be silenced and politics dominate,” Ocalan said in a statement read out in Diyarbakir by a pro-Kurdish politician. The crowd cheered and waved banners carrying the imprisoned leader’s mustachioed portrait. “The stage has been reached where our armed forces should withdraw beyond the borders … It’s not the end. It’s the start of a new era.”

Ocalan’s message marks a new stage in negotiations with the Turkish state that began late December. PKK fighters are expected to withdraw to the mountains of north Iraq, where the group is based. That region is governed by an autonomous Kurdish government with good ties to Ankara — a major investor in its economy — that is keen to see the conflict end.

For his part, Turkey’s tough-talking Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has thrown his political weight behind the process. “If guns are put down, military operations will cease,” he said in response to Ocalan’s message. No road map has yet been announced for how disarmament or reintegration of the PKK into Turkish society might work. The comparable situation in Northern Ireland took years.

(MORE: Kurdish Rebels Fighting Turkey Release 8 Captives)

The process is also fraught with potential obstacles. Ocalan is counting on his PKK cadres, from whom he has been isolated for a decade, to toe his line. And in Ankara, Erdogan must contend with opposition from hard-liners on both left and right who accuse him of paving the way for greater Kurdish autonomy — at the expense of the Turkish state. On Tuesday, Erdogan’s AK Party offices were attacked by fringe left-wing militants in what the Prime Minister said was an attempt to “derail the process.”

But there is a sense of urgency and it isn’t just related to Turkey’s internal dynamics. The map of the Middle East is rapidly changing, and Turkey’s Kurds are buoyed by the emergence of an oil-rich and increasingly confident Kurdistan in north Iraq. In Syria, the Kurds are also emerging as an autonomous player. Though the Kurds are said to be the world’s largest stateless people, Kurdish leaders, including Ocalan, say they are no longer interested in a single Kurdish state but in a loose federation that spans various national borders.

And most Turks, wearied by decades of fighting, support the process. “The peace process that began in Diyarbakir today with Nevruz has the potential to become the most democratizing move in modern Turkish history,” wrote Asli Aydintasbas, a political commentator, in the mainstream Milliyet. That will indeed be the test: whether Turkey can support demilitarization with greater cultural and democratic freedom for its restive Kurds.