A call for peace announced by the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan on March 21 reverberated throughout the Middle East. The promised rapprochement between Kurdish rebels and the Turkish government may have set into motion what could be a game-changer in the Middle East. Syria, Iraq and Iran have significant Kurdish minorities concentrated in regions contiguous to one another. The nations have been targets of Kurdish irredentism and, at times, used the Kurdish card to Turkey's detriment when mutual relations, as is the case today with Syria and Iran, have been tense.
An accord with the leading rebel group Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK, when combined with Ankara's cozy relationship with the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq will provide Ankara greater leverage with its neighbors to the south and east as well as remove a major blot on Turkey's democratic record.
PKK supreme leader Ocalan's statement on the Kurdish New Year, calling for an immediate end to PKK hostilities against the Turkish state and withdrawal of PKK fighters from Turkey to the Kandil Mountains by August was the result of painstaking negotiation underway at least since October.
By and large the Kurdish population has welcomed Ocalan's announcement of a ceasefire, visible in the celebratory atmosphere in Diyarbakir, the unofficial Kurdish capital of Turkey, on New Year's.
Ocalan's statement appealed to several camps in Turkey: By explicitly abandoning the idea of a separate Kurdish state, Ocalan sought to set at rest the misgivings of Turkey's ultranationalist and Kemalist segments. By harking back to the ideal of Turkish-Kurdish unity during their "1000-year-long coexistence in Anatolia under the flag of Islam based on brotherhood and solidarity," Ocalan appealed to the Ottomanist sentiments of the ruling Justice and Development Party's (AKP) observant Muslim base.
The ball is now in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an's court. ErdoÄ?an is arguably the most popular leader in Turkey since the legendary Ataturk. If any Turkish leader can sell a deal, which realistically must be based on a quasi-federal structure of the Turkish state while delinking Turkish identity from its current narrow ethnic definition, he can do it. Ending the Kurdish insurgency and putting an end to terrorism, would assure ErdoÄ?an's place as a great statesman in Turkish history.
By committing himself to implementing the deal with Ocalan, he will ensure support of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, BDP, for a new constitution that would guarantee minority rights and redefine Turkish national identity, but at the same time establish a presidential style of government that he favors. AKP and BDP together have enough votes to pass a draft, even if the other two major parties in Parliament -Republican People's Party, CHP, and Nationalist Action Party, MHP - oppose it. Such a draft when put to vote in a referendum will almost certainly pass, given the popular base of AKP in the country and the support of Turkey's Kurds who form about one-fifth of the population.
More is at stake for Turkey on successful implementation of this agreement than a prime minister's reputation. First, by incorporating the Kurdish minority into the body polity, Turkey would end discriminatory treatment of the Kurds by denial of their ethnic distinctiveness - all the more essential when Turkey is undergoing democratic consolidation.
Second, Turkey has faced increasing tensions with neighbors to the east and south - Syria, Iraq and Iran - especially since the outbreak of the Arab uprisings in early 2011.
While the Kurds in Syria and Iran continue to be restive and chafe under oppressive control of authoritarian governments, those in Iraq have carved out an autonomous region for themselves in the Kurdish north, thanks to the US 2003 invasion. Even so relations between Erbil, capital of the autonomous region, and Baghdad remain tense because of the acrimony over disputed regions, especially oil-rich Kirkuk, and distribution of oil income.