On the morning of Jan. 3, Kurdish politicians Ayla Akat Ata and Ahmet Turk boarded a ferry bound for Imrali, a prison island on the Marmara Sea, about 40 miles south of Istanbul. Waiting for them inside the maximum-security jail was Turkey's public enemy No. 1: the leader of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan.
The unprecedented meeting has revived hopes that a negotiated solution to Turkey's bloody, protracted conflict with the PKK may be within reach. Other signs also point to a concerted mediation effort: Ata and Turk's visit was preceded by contacts between the PKK leader and Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's intelligence agency. Then on Jan. 8, the Turkish daily Radikal broke the news that Ocalan and Turkish officials had agreed to a road map that foresaw gradual PKK disarmament in exchange for allowing education in the Kurdish language, strengthened local administration in areas inhabited by Kurds, and a new, ethnically neutral definition of citizenship. According to the daily Yeni Safak, Ocalan also offered to call on the PKK's Syrian offshoot to suspend contacts with the regime in Damascus and join ranks with the anti-Assad rebels.
Turks and Kurds may be forgiven for not celebrating just yet. After 30 years and more than 40,000 casualties, the conflict has defied numerous attempts to silence the guns of war. A highly touted but badly mismanaged "Kurdish opening" launched by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government in 2009 ended up in tatters after a nationalist backlash. In 2011, a series of secret talks with rebel leaders, including Ocalan, collapsed amid renewed PKK attacks. In the meantime, a wave of arrests of thousands of Kurdish politicians, academics, journalists, and activists -- moderates and radicals alike -- has convinced many Kurds that the government has no interest in a negotiated solution.
The decision to place Ocalan at the heart of the new talks reflects not only the failure of previous policies but also something that few politicians in Turkey have hitherto dared to acknowledge -- that more than a decade into his life sentence, the PKK's veteran leader continues to hold the key to peace. A few years ago, publicly engaging with Ocalan, a man many Turks view as the devil incarnate, would have exposed the government to charges of treason. Today, in one judges by the lack of public outcry, it is simply seen as the option that has the best chance of working. Tellingly, even the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which seldom misses a chance to bash Erdogan, has given his government the benefit of the doubt.
There may simply be no way of sidestepping Ocalan. Since 1984, when he and the PKK first took up arms against the Turkish state, Ocalan has consolidated his status as the Kurds' national icon. Just as shrewd and charismatic as he is ruthless and dictatorial, Apo, as he is known, has never lost his grip on the Kurdish movement. To this day, even from his remote island prison, he remains capable of firing up and cooling passions at will. Three years ago, when Ocalan complained through his lawyers that he was feeling cramped in his new prison cell, protests erupted in Kurdish cities across the country. In November 2012, Ocalan once again proved he was a force to be reckoned with when he urged several hundred Kurdish prisoners, some of them close to death after 68 days without food, to suspend their hunger strike. All complied in the blink of an eye.
The hunger strike intervention was a game-changer, says Cengiz Candar, a veteran journalist and the author of a 2011 report on the PKK. By showing Ocalan's leverage with militant Kurds, he says, "it gave an opportunity to those in government who sought a negotiated solution and who wanted Ocalan to play a central role in this framework."