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Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory
Assessing the Fatalities in Turkey’s PKK Conflict
Assessing the Fatalities in Turkey’s PKK Conflict

Erdoğan’s Pyrrhic Victory

Originally published in Politico Europe

The Turkish leader’s instincts saved him from a coup, but his authoritarian instincts will again threaten his legitimacy.

Paradoxes have always abounded in the relationship between the Turkish military and the country’s politicians. Turkey’s armed forces — or factions within them — have justified their repeated interventions in politics with claims that they are saving the state from corrupt, populist politicians. The political class, for its part, frustrated as its leaders turn rotten, blames its degradation on over-dominant army interventions that keep wrecking the country’s democratic progress.

The recent attempted coup in Turkey was no exception. On Friday night, an email from a Turkish Armed Forces address said, in effect, that the military was breaking the law in order to restore the rule of law. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called on the Turkish people to take to the street in defense of the democracy he has done so much to undermine with attacks on the media and assaults on constitutional checks and balances.

And indeed, the people rushed to secure key points for the government. While some social media postings showed anti-government passers-by cheering on the tanks, a broad social and political alignment emerged against the attempted coup, including rare unison among all the country’s main political parties and media voices. More than 160 people were killed and 1,440 injured in clashes between soldiers sent out to seize power and the pro-government police force and loyalist army factions.

17 July 2016
Either Erdogan utilizes this incident to redesign institutions in Ankara to his own benefit...or he takes the opportunity with the solidarity that was extended to him by the opposition and different segments of society to reciprocate by investing more genuinely in rule of law and legitimate forms of dissent. The New York Times

Nigar Göksel

Project Director, Turkey

In the end, Erdoğan and his supporters won the day, quickly reconsolidating control. And perhaps this is unsurprising. Election after election — scrupulously democratic in form, but dominated by authoritarian political party leaders in practice — have shown that about half the electorate still supports the president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But nobody in Turkey has won in the long-term. The damage to the army — more important than ever, given the turmoil in Turkey’s neighborhood — will be severe. Internationally, Turkey’s already battered reputation has slipped down several more notches.

There are no specific links between the attempted coup and Turkey’s deepening secularist-Islamist divide. The government alleges that it is the work of a rival Islamist group loyal to Pennsylvania-based Fethullah Gülen.

But stark divisions remain nonetheless. The half of the country that does not support Erdoğan remains deeply unsettled by his party’s increasingly overt Islamism and his creeping takeover of all arms of the state and economy. The country’s unsolved Kurdish problem is feeding a harsh insurgency, and regional problems abound.

What happens next is anybody’s guess. Some commentators were remarkably prescient, drawing attention to unrest in the army well before this weekend’s events. The Turkish armed forces, after all, have been the backbone of the modern Turkish Republic since 1923, as well as the many Turkic states that preceded it during the past millennium. They have famously intervened in politics with full-blooded coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980-83; a bloodless post-modern show of force that ousted a government in 1997; and an abortive attempt by press release to block the election of Erdoğan’s predecessor Abdullah Gül in 2007.

Other commentators, who had previously dismissed chances of a coup, pointed to Erdoğan’s popular base, arguing that no conscript-based army could afford to try to move against it. For now, they seem to have been proved right by scenes of soldiers stripping off their uniforms or surrendering their tanks without a fight. One tank operator told a Turkish television station that he and his fellow soldiers had no prior notice of their mission.

It would be wonderful if the failure to seize power breaks Turkey’s cycle of lurching from coup to autocrat and back to coup again, with bouts of chaotic coalition governments in-between. Liberals and urban youth long for the day when overweening politicians and generals give way to a Turkey that gives primacy to rule of law, respect for legal contract and individual human rights.

The current Turkish context, unfortunately, is not propitious — perhaps one reason that the faction that launched the coup thought it had a chance of success. The gravity of the situation is even recognized by Erdoğan, who has an acute sense for political survival. In recent weeks, he made several changes to begin reversing Turkey’s catastrophic foreign policy mistakes of the past five years. Since 2011, all four pillars of the country’s national security — relations with the Middle East, Russia, the U.S. and the EU — have suffered grave damage.

Erdoğan opened Turkey’s doors to the Middle East, betting big on his Muslim neighbors. Instead, Turkey suffered severe blowback as 2.7 million Syrian refugees arrived and the rest of the region started exporting its conflicts to its territory, including six big attacks apparently by the Islamic State over the past year.

Arguments over Syria have crippled relations with Russia, Turkey’s biggest natural gas supplier and a major trading partner. This is only beginning to change after Turkey’s expression of contrition for shooting down a Russian warplane on its Syrian border in November, and Russia’s recent decision to lift its trade and tourism bans.

Turkey’s key relationship with its NATO ally, the U.S., has been similarly damaged by arguments over Syria. The U.S. backs a Syrian Kurdish faction that Turkey, with some justification, considers as part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). “Some parts of the Pentagon think they’re actually at war with Turkey,” one U.S. official said privately.

Finally, the recent deal with the EU over refugees, still in progress, has not really reversed Turkey’s loss of momentum since the early 2000s on progressing towards EU norms and solving the problem of divided Cyprus. Though, certainly, hostility from populist EU leaders and the Greek Cypriot rejection of a Cyprus deal played a role in this slowdown.

In one of the country’s gravest challenges, however, there is no sign of change: the mismanagement of the conflict with the PKK after the peace process collapsed nearly a year ago. According to International Crisis Group research, at least 1,700 people have been killed since then, mostly in the Kurdish-populated southeast, one of the bloodiest periods in a 32-year insurgency. After a decade in which a prosperous new era seemed possible, 350,000 Kurds have been displaced and huge swathes of Kurdish towns laid waste.

The paradoxes never end in Turkey: it was actually the Turkish armed forces that in the late 1990s did much behind the scenes to steer Turkey towards the EU candidacy in 1999 and made it easy for Erdoğan’s AKP to make so much progress after its election victory in 2002. And it was that same armed forces’ leadership that found itself in jail for years shortly afterwards, facing treason charges — with Erdoğan brandishing this flagrant injustice as a righting of the military-civilian balance in line with EU norms.

As this weekend’s events play out, the president may once again prove that he is an extraordinary political operator. But even if he uses the attempted coup to continue pushing a change to an executive presidential system, his rule will become even more brittle.

His legitimacy as ruler of all of Turkey is diminished with each drop in Turkey’s cruising altitude. The support he has from the pro-Islamic street is in, large part, because the constituency it represents believes that there is nobody that can take his place or protect their new-won status and interests.

Any visitor to the 1,150-room palace Erdoğan’s built for his ascension to the presidency in 2014 will be still struck by the fact that many of its large rooms and long gilded corridors are empty. For the first time in years, parliamentary parties united on Saturday to condemn the coup attempt — including Kurdish nationalists. As Erdoğan seeks to uncover those behind the attempted coup, he would be wise to build on this outstretched hand, and abide by the rule of law. The lonelier he gets, the harder it will be for him to keep winning. 

This article first appeared in Politico Europe.

Contributors

Director of Communications & Outreach
Hugh_Pope
Project Director, Turkey
nigargoksel
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar greets soldiers of 'Operation Claw' within Eid al-Fitr in Hakkari, Turkey on 4 June 2019. ANADOLU AGENCY/Arif Akdogan

Assessing the Fatalities in Turkey’s PKK Conflict

Turkey’s ruling party sees recent battlefield and electoral gains as vindicating its hardline policies toward the PKK. But these same policies fuel the Kurdish grievances that keep the fighting going. Ankara would thus be wise to consider exploring ways of winding down the destructive conflict.

Since July 2015, the conflict between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – which Ankara, Brussels and Washington designate a terrorist organisation – has taken more than 4,600 lives in Turkey and northern Iraq. But if the conflict is long-running, open-source data on fatalities collected by Crisis Group and presented in a unique visual conflict explainer show that battlefield dynamics are changing.

For one thing, fighting has moved out of the cities. Over the last two years, neither the PKK nor its affiliate the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks has carried out attacks in metropolitan areas. Fatalities – Crisis Group could confirm an average of 40 per month in 2019 – have been concentrated in the rural areas of Turkey’s Kurdish-majority south east. Over the past year, the death rate among PKK militants, and particularly in northern Iraq, has risen. Ankara’s stepped-up operations, involving curfews, drone strikes and more state security forces, have killed higher numbers of seasoned PKK figures in 2019 than in any of the previous three years of escalation. Killing more PKK militants, however, is not translating into victory for Ankara as the PKK draws on fighters from outside Turkey and capitalises on pent up anti-state resentment among some Kurds.

Ankara’s stepped-up operations, [...] have killed higher numbers of seasoned PKK figures in 2019 than in any of the previous three years of escalation.

Quantitative analysis of fatality and election data since 2014 shows that in the last four years, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and its alliance partner, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), mostly consolidated electoral support in conflict-ridden south-eastern districts, while the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) largely maintained support in the Kurdish movement’s traditional urban strongholds despite an immense state crackdown. While to Ankara it might seem like hardline policies are paying off, on the battlefield and at the ballot box, those same policies continue to fuel the grievances and anger of a segment of Turkey’s Kurds that sustain the conflict with the PKK.

Reliable polls show that support for the AK Party and MHP has fallen below the critical 50 per cent mark, mostly because the ruling party has lost nearly half of its conservative Kurdish backers. It is unclear whether the political leadership in Ankara will be able to make up for lost conservative Kurdish support by garnering more votes from Turkish nationalists moving forward.

At a time when Turkey faces a serious economic downturn and sanctions from its Western allies, the leadership in Ankara [...] might consider exploring avenues of accommodation.

At a time when Turkey faces a serious economic downturn and sanctions from its Western allies, the leadership in Ankara – as the centenary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey nears – might consider exploring avenues of accommodation with a now considerably weakened PKK and seek to pave the way to resolving a conflict that, for over 35 years, has taken a great toll on civilians, drained Turkey’s resources and continues to curb its strategic potential.

PKK cemetery in Qandil, northern Iraq CRISISGROUP/Hugh Pope

Conflict Fatalities

From July 2018 to July 2019, 3.36 PKK militants were killed for each state security force member.

Crisis Group’s data shows that 4,686 individuals have been killed since July 2015. Of those individuals, more than half are PKK militants (2,758), 22.4 per cent of whom are female. Around a quarter (1,215) consist of State Security Force members (including soldiers, police and village guards). There have been 490 civilians confirmed dead (the remaining 223 are “individuals of unknown affiliation”, a category Crisis Group uses for those killed in urban centres – almost all between December 2015 and June 2016 – about whom it is not known if they are civilians or PKK militants).

Ankara’s tactics in the last three years – imposing curfews in rural areas to clear out PKK members, calling in drone strikes, deploying soldiers in high numbers, killing experienced militants and stifling recruitment – appear to have significantly narrowed the PKK’s space for manoeuvre in the rural south east.

The militant-to-state security force member fatality ratio provides some indication of the Turkish campaign’s impact. Since fighting shifted back into rural areas in July 2016 (after a deadly urban phase between December 2015 and June 2016), the Turkish military has been on the offensive. In the first year, 1.65 PKK militants were killed for each soldier, police officer or village guard; this figure rose to 2.22 in the second year and then to 3.22 in the third. In the last year, from July 2018 to July 2019, 3.36 PKK militants were killed for each state security force member.

While the impact in Turkey itself of Ankara’s military incursion into north east Syria [...] remains unclear, it could fuel the PKK’s insurgency against Turkey.

Three reasons likely explain the PKK’s higher fatality rate over the last year. First, the PKK is having a harder time sheltering among and securing supplies from core supporters in south-eastern villages, who are usually intimidated by Turkish forces’ curfews and security cordons. Secondly, drones and other new military technology have helped Ankara clear militants from mountain strongholds. Thirdly, U.S. pressure on the PKK to rein in attacks in Turkey has meant that it remains largely in a defensive posture. On the U.S.’s part this pressure was mostly an effort to avert further Turkish backlash against Washington’s partnership in Syria with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)/People’s Protection Units (YPG), closely affiliated with the PKK. While the impact in Turkey itself of Ankara’s military incursion into north east Syria against the SDF/YPG that began on 9 October remains unclear, it could fuel the PKK’s insurgency against Turkey.

Turkey’s Offensive in Northern Iraq

The last year of escalation saw the highest number of fatalities from Turkish air and land operations against the PKK in northern Iraq since July 2015. Crisis Group could confirm 101 fatalities linked to such operations in that area in 2019, of whom 90 were PKK militants and 11 were Turkish soldiers. According to open-source data collected between May and September 2019, the Turkish army has conducted at least 76 cross-border air operations, most of them targeting PKK hideouts and ammunition depots in and around the Qandil mountains where the PKK’s “headquarters” are located as well as in Hakurk, in the north west of Qandil toward the Turkey border (see map below).

CRISISGROUP

With the stated goal of “ending the PKK”, the Turkish military launched air and ground offensives against the militants in northern Iraq (dubbed Operation Claw) on 27 May 2019. In a first since 2008, Turkish ground forces penetrated around 20km deep into Iraqi territory to clear out militants, cut off logistical routes and destroy ammunition depots. The Turkish military also created new security outposts. As of 4 October, Crisis Group could confirm the deaths of 57 PKK militants and nine Turkish soldiers in northern Iraq since Operation Claw began.

Security analysts cite three main objectives for Turkey’s scaled-up cross-border operation in northern Iraq: to disrupt PKK mobilisation in the Hakurk region, which is tactically important as a logistical channel for the PKK insurgency in Turkey and also hosts PKK training camps; to create a buffer zone along the Turkey-Iraq border that could eventually afford the Turkish army access to PKK headquarters in Qandil; and to reduce PKK dominance in Sinjar, the north-eastern Iraqi region that the insurgency uses as a transit route between Iraq and Syria. Warmer relations among Ankara, Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil have facilitated intelligence sharing that aids the cross-border offensive.

Changing Profile of PKK Fatalities

An important component of Ankara’s campaign in the last year has been the targeting of seasoned PKK operatives. The exact number killed is disputed. The Turkish interior minister, Süleyman Soylu, said on 7 August that the army had “neutralised” (which could mean killed or captured) 87 “high-ranking” PKK militants in the first seven months of 2019. Turkish media outlets reported the deaths of twenty in the same period. The PKK has so far only confirmed ten of these militants dead, nine in Turkey and one in northern Iraq.

The pool of recruits the PKK can draw on in its insurgency against Turkey goes beyond Turkey’s borders.

The showdown in northern Iraq and more Turkish military pressure targeting the PKK’s upper echelons were likely the triggers for an attack on 17 July that killed a Turkish diplomat. That day, an unidentified gunman opened fire in a restaurant in the Deream area in Erbil, killing Osman Köse, who worked at the consulate, and an Iraqi national. The PKK denied direct involvement, but in an interview on 24 July, senior PKK figure Bahoz Erdal praised the attack saying “well done to whoever carried out this activity”. He also claimed that Köse was no regular diplomat but an intelligence officer in charge of Turkey’s anti-PKK campaign in northern Iraq. Turkish media reported on 20 July that Kurdistan Regional Government security officials had caught the suspected assassin, Mazlum Dağ. The targeting of upper echelons of the PKK and retaliatory assassinations like the one that appears to have taken place in Erbil could further escalate violence.

Besides the higher-ranking PKK militant fatalities, Crisis Group data on PKK militants killed in Turkey and northern Iraq between July 2018 and July 2019 (a total of 361) shows that around 8.5 per cent (31) were from western Iran, around twice the number in the same period of the previous year. The majority were born in Mariwan, Serdesht, Urmia or Khoy (see map above). This data suggests that the PKK is compensating for the manpower shortage in its insurgency against Turkey by bringing in more cadres from Iran. It also means that the pool of recruits the PKK can draw on in its insurgency against Turkey goes beyond Turkey’s borders. In fact, as of 4 October 2019, 9 per cent of all PKK militants killed since July 2015 were from either western Iran (4.7 per cent), northern Syria (3 per cent) or northern Iraq (1.3 per cent).

Hometowns Map: Click on fatality locations (red dots) to view hometowns (province-to-province) of state security force members and PKK militants. This tool is included in our unique tracker of the death toll in the PKK conflict.

Fatalities type:

All

Date

Fatalities per Province

Fatalities per Location

Legend

The Conflict and Votes in Turkey’s South East

Kurdish support for the ruling AK Party is dropping, especially among city dwellers in western Turkey.

The fatalities data, together with data from recent Turkish elections, also reveals a link between voting patterns and levels of violence.

As demonstrated by the 31 March local elections and the 23 June rerun in Istanbul, Kurdish support for the ruling AK Party is dropping, especially among city dwellers in western Turkey. In fact, according to a nationwide poll conducted in June by the Center for American Progress and Metropoll Strategic and Social Research Center, only around 24 per cent of self-identified Kurds said they supported the AK Party, while this figure stood at over 45 per cent before 2015.

The trend in conflict-ridden Kurdish-majority south-eastern districts paints a nuanced picture. Data from three general elections and two local elections since 2014 suggests that the more intense the conflict was in a given district, the more support the AK Party and MHP (or their combined alliance) received in that district. In both general and local polls, the MHP gained most in south-eastern districts with fatalities. In districts with fatalities, the AK Party itself maintained its percentage of votes in general polls and was able to increase its share of votes in local polls. In contrast, its vote share diminished in places where no clashes had occurred in both general and local elections.

The AK Party lost a small percentage of vote share in conflict-affected districts but a larger one in comparable districts without conflict.

The experience of the pro-Kurdish HDP, thousands of whose members are in prison for alleged links to the PKK, was for the most part the opposite. In general elections, high fatality rates coincided with weakened electoral support, while in areas outside the southeast that did not experience violence, the party largely maintained its share of votes. In local elections in the conflict-affected southeast it maintained support in urban centres but significantly lost out in rural areas.

Analysis of general election results found that the MHP increased its vote share (2.66 percentage points per district on average) in conflict-ridden districts but lost votes in socially, demographically and economically comparable districts with no conflict. The AK Party lost a small percentage of vote share in conflict-affected districts but a larger one in comparable districts without conflict. In contrast, the pro-Kurdish HDP lost support to the tune of 2.78 percentage points per conflict-affected district but tended to retain it in other comparable districts. The graphs below depict the change in vote shares for the AK Party, MHP and the HDP across three general elections.

Graph 1: AK Party Vote Share across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

 Graph 2: MHP Vote Share across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Graph 3: HDP Vote Share across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Analysis of local election results shows that across Turkey’s districts with no fatalities, the combined AK Party-MHP vote share dropped by 9.44 percentage points in the 2019 local elections as compared to 2014. But in the same period the alliance increased its vote share by 0.63 percentage points in predominantly Kurdish-speaking districts where deaths occurred (see Graph 4). No firm conclusion could be made regarding changes in the HDP vote in the 2019 local elections because, particularly in western metropoles where it has a large support base, the party chose not to run, so as to boost the votes of other opposition candidates. But a comparison of net vote share changes in south-eastern districts between 2014 and 2019 local polls shows that the HDP lost more votes in rural south-eastern districts (mostly to the benefit of the AK Party) while largely retaining its vote share in urban areas.

Graph 4: Average AK Party + MHP Vote Share in Two Local Elections

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Note: The figures are based on AK Party and MHP votes in municipal and provincial council elections in metropolitan and non-metropolitan provinces, respectively.

Further analysis of 2014 and 2019 local elections suggests a picture similar to national polls: the presence of conflict in a district correlates with an increase in the AK Party and MHP’s combined vote share by an average of 5.35 percentage points. The AK Party’s stand-alone vote share between those two local elections increased along with the conflict’s intensity in a given district. The presence of conflict correlated strongly with an increase in the MHP’s stand-alone vote share (an average increase of 4.73 percentage points), and a decrease in the HDP’s vote share (-1.52 percentage points). While outmigration of HDP-supporting Kurds might partly explain the latter drop, our analysis found that controlling for that factor demonstrated that it alone could not account for the decrease.

The MHP’s vote share in high-fatality districts could have been boosted by the high numbers of state appointees and security personnel deployed to those areas (usually together with their families), as these people are traditionally aligned with nationalist parties. Controlling for this factor, however, revealed that the positive effect of conflict on the MHP vote is so strong that the deployment of state appointees alone cannot account for the increase. Based on our analysis, it was not possible to draw firm conclusions about which voters switched to the MHP or to the AK Party as the conflict raged.

Lower turnout in conflict-affected districts in national polls could hint at less willingness on the part of Kurdish movement sympathisers to participate in formal politics.

Political parties are aware of these dynamics, and each interprets the results in its own fashion. In public statements, AK Party and MHP representatives say their improved performance in these districts proves the success of their policies. The HDP attributes its loss to these same state policies, which involve large-scale intimidation of HDP supporters.

To understand how fatalities may influence voting behaviour, one must also look at those who do not vote. Crisis Group’s analysis suggests that across three general elections turnout was 1.4 percentage points lower in districts with fatalities than in districts with no fatalities. Lower turnout in conflict-affected districts in national polls could hint at less willingness on the part of Kurdish movement sympathisers to participate in formal politics. Indeed, Crisis Group’s field research in 2017 and 2018 suggested that, among some segments of the population, an uptick in conflict-related grievances, along with their sense they lacked representation, led to alienation from formal political channels. The appointment of state trustees replacing elected mayors in three Kurdish-majority metropolitan municipalities (Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin) on 19 August 2019 may have added to such tendencies.

Graph 5: Turnout across Three General Elections (%)

Data sources: Supreme Election Council of Turkey (YSK) & International Crisis Group, PKK Conflict Fatality Database

Together, these findings suggest that even though the AK Party is losing support among mostly conservative Kurds living in metropolitan areas nationwide, in the past four years there has been virtually no electoral slippage for the ruling party and its alliance partner in violence-ridden Kurdish-majority south-eastern districts: indeed, their vote shares may even have risen. On the other hand, the pro-Kurdish HDP’s support has dropped off in rural south-eastern localities that are suffering conflict.

The nationalist rallying effect of the conflict that benefited the ruling party will likely not hold indefinitely.

None of this means that Ankara’s hardline tactics are working. The government has read its battlefield advantage against the PKK and the south-eastern electoral shifts as vindication of its hardline policies. But while numbers of those killed in fighting can show basic conflict dynamics, they are far from the whole story, particularly when the PKK can draw on militants from further afield. Importantly, the figures reveal nothing about the depth of the grievances among many of Turkey’s Kurds that keep the conflict alive.

The nationalist rallying effect of the conflict that benefited the ruling party will likely not hold indefinitely. At a time when Turkey is grappling with a myriad of security and economic challenges and its relations with the West are in decline, it would be wise for the political leadership in Ankara not to box itself in to the nationalist corner but to keep policy options open, including a potential shift away from its hardline course on the Kurdish front.