A New Cycle Begins in Turkey-PKK Conflict
A New Cycle Begins in Turkey-PKK Conflict
People march with flags and banners of the pictures of victims who were killed in Monday’s bomb attack in Suruc, during a funeral ceremony in Istanbul, Turkey, 22 July 2015. REUTERS/Murad Sezer
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 7 minutes

A New Cycle Begins in Turkey-PKK Conflict

Earlier this year, the stars seemed aligned at last to end three decades of conflict between the Turkish state and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has killed at least 30,000 people. A two-year-old ceasefire was holding, building on ten years of gradual reforms toward full rights to Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking communities. Talks with the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan, had progressed, and he was being allowed occasional meetings for coordination with political representatives of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

On 28 February, a ten-point peace plan (called the Dolmabahce agreement) was announced by the government and the HDP (reportedly with PKK backing). Parliamentary elections in June gave the HDP 13.1 per cent of the vote, empowering, it appeared, a legitimate, moderate interlocutor for the Kurdish peace process.

Geopolitics also seemed opportune: the PKK (with its “Syrian offshoot”, PYD) and the Turkish state arguably needed each other to contain the Islamic State (IS) threat. A peace process breakthrough was also more important than ever for Washington; though the U.S. considers the PKK a terrorist organisation, the anti-IS coalition needs to cooperate tactically with PKK-linked Syrian Kurds while also needing Ankara’s agreement to use military assets in Turkey such as the Incirlik Air Base for anti-IS airstrikes.

But the peace process has crashed, with potentially grave consequences for Turkey’s political stability and its ability to resist more violent overspill from the fighting just over the border in Syria.

July saw the collapse of the ceasefire, as eighteen Turkish police and soldiers were killed in PKK-linked attacks. From 24 July until the end of the month, the Turkish military conducted eight waves of airstrikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq and within Turkey – killing, according to Turkish military sources, around 250 PKK militants. Inside Turkey, police arrested more than 800 alleged PKK associates.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reversed a decade of openings, resorting to measures reminiscent of the military-dominated 1990s, when Kurdish nationalists were routinely jailed. On 28 July, he called for HDP leaders to be stripped of parliamentary immunity; two days later, criminal probes were initiated against them for “inciting violence and carrying out terrorist propaganda”.

The Kurdish national movement has charged Ankara with at least indirect responsibility for months of IS attacks against its supporters in Turkey – most recently the death of 32 young people in the border town of Suruç. Not coincidentally, fourteen of the eighteen Turkish security officers killed by the PKK’s armed wing in July died after that incident.

This is a familiar lose-lose dynamic. Neither the Turkish state nor PKK can win by military means.

This is a familiar lose-lose dynamic. What Crisis Group emphasised in 2014  still holds: neither the Turkish state nor PKK can win by military means. For both, the price of their war is potentially higher than ever.

For the PKK, renewed conflict comes at a time when Kurdish regions in Syria are surrounded by hostile or rival forces, and Turkey’s relative strategic value for Washington has risen.

For Turkey, it is a time of increasing domestic polarisation, geopolitical rivalries and confrontation on multiple fronts. Concern about possible jihadi attacks on critical infrastructure and populous sites has risen since the 23 July announcement that military bases in Turkey will be used to carve out what Washington calls an “IS-free zone” in Arab majority areas of northern Syria that is to be held by Sunni Arab and Turkmen rebels. Turkey’s preference is for a “safe zone”, where Syrian refugees would be protected from the Assad regime, but the agreement does address two of its security concerns: to clear IS from Turkey’s border strip, and contain Syrian Kurds’ territorial expansion.

Debates about why Ankara is cracking down on the PKK at a dangerous time focus largely on domestic politics. The parliamentary election campaign pitted the HDP and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) against each other nationally. Erdogan joined AKP’s campaign, violating traditional presidential neutrality and taking a very hard line on the peace process, seemingly to attract nationalist votes.

HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtas centred his party’s campaign around curtailing Erdogan’s ambition to expand his power via constitutional changes that would transition the system from parliamentary to presidential. Demirtas succeeded, winning tactical votes from Turkish liberals and disillusioned conservative Kurds. Mainly due to the HDP success, AKP lost its twelve-year parliamentary majority. Though the president’s hopes to change the constitution have dimmed, he has kept the prospect alive by attributing current political instability to the parliamentary system.

As coalition talks drag on, early elections are a distinct possibility. In their run-up, escalating violence in the south east would give his foes opportunity to discredit Demirtas among constituencies fed up with conflict, Turkish and Kurdish alike. Already, mainstream television, heavily influenced by the government, is dominated by funeral scenes of Turkish victims and assessments of Demirtas’s “impotence” in containing PKK violence. AKP can regain a parliamentary majority if the HDP misses the electoral threshold (10 per cent) or a few percentage points of the nationalist vote migrate to AKP from the Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

Most Kurds tell pollsters they prefer to live in a united Turkey.

The show of force against PKK also cannot be isolated from the establishment’s growing fear of losing a big swathe of the country to an independent Kurdish state. Kurds, about 10-15 per cent of the population, are a majority in a dozen south-eastern provinces, where the Kurdish national movement is strongest. Most Kurds live elsewhere, however, and generally tell pollsters they prefer to live in a united Turkey.

There are age-old Turkish concerns that the Kurdish movement will seek to advance an independent state by creating contiguous, Kurdish-dominated territory from north-east Iran, across the north of Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean. These concerns are further fuelled by empowerment of the PKK-linked militia – the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – that dominates Kurdish areas of northern Syria. Cooperating closely with the U.S., it has been gaining ground against IS and drawing recruits from among Kurdish militants in Turkey, while building ties and legitimacy in Western capitals.

The YPG’s October 2014 fight with IS over the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani brought to the fore Turkish Kurds’ solidarity with and mobilisation for ethnic kin across the border. When Turkey kept PKK fighters out of Syria, street protests erupted across the country, leaving over 40 dead. Though Ankara eventually allowed Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga through its territory to assist the YPG, concern for pan-Kurdish separatist demands and resentment of international pressure to assist PKK affiliates remains high. Tension spiked again in June. When Syrian Kurdish fighters drove IS from Tel Abyad, a strategic northern border town, Turkey and Syrian rebel groups it supports accused them of ethnically cleansing Turkmen and Arabs. Ankara’s grievance is compounded by Syrian Kurd reluctance to join the anti-Assad front.

Why the PKK derailed the ceasefire by attacking Turkish security forces is harder to decipher, because of the organisation’s secretive chain of command, and murky distinctions between the numerous and overlapping entities of the Kurdish national movement. (Crisis Group’s 2012 report Turkey: the PKK and a Kurdish Settlement, gives a detailed explanation of PKK leadership, ever-changing subsidiaries and wings).

Demirtas attributes the collapse of the peace process and ceasefire to three turning points: Erdogan’s repudiation in March of the Dolmabahce agreement; government reluctance to pass legislation enabling safe withdrawal for armed PKK militants from Turkey; and Ankara’s construction of transport routes and security outposts in preparation for future fighting.

These exacerbated the trust deficit of the Kurdish national movement which believes Ankara’s ruling political elite may renege on any compromises once the PKK disarms or withdraws. Distrust was solidified by the president’s frequent emphasis that Ankara had already done enough to meet Kurdish demands, and more would have to depend on the will of the society at large. Demirtas said President Erdogan was intent on ending the peace process once he “saw from the public opinion polls that the process was not going to bring him the votes he needed to establish a presidential system”.

Demirtas has been calling for the PKK to lay down arms since mid-July, while underlining that Öcalan would have to say this for it to happen. However, the government has not allowed HDP delegations to visit Öcalan in prison since April. This has weakened Öcalan’s power over the organisation. As renewed violence shifts the PKK’s centre of gravity toward hardliners, Demirtas has more trouble maintaining support for peaceful compromise from both Kurdish and non-Kurdish constituencies.

While each peace effort has broken some taboos, each failure has deepened distrust

As Crisis Group has often underlined, bouts of unrestrained violence in the 1980s, the mid-1990s and, most recently, 2011-2013 have shown that neither side can defeat the other. And while each peace effort has broken some taboos, each failure has deepened distrust.

Peace will only come if the government and Kurdish national movement sincerely push on two tracks, one dealing with the PKK rebellion, the other with solving the problem of Kurdish rights in Turkey. The former requires a commitment to structured, monitored negotiations, including on such issues as amnesty, an independent truth commission and a transitional justice mechanism to deal with past abuses by both sides. On rights, there needs to be a more pluralistic approach to governance and democratic advances that addresses the demands of Kurdish and Turkish constituencies alike in a transparent manner and with participation of all legitimate parties.

Yet, Turkey’s politics are in disarray, with ethnic, sectarian and political polarisation rising and the country facing complex national security challenges. With a government yet to be formed, the legitimacy and accountability of any political decision is problematic. Moreover, parliament is dysfunctional, due to the MHP-HDP standoff. Taking its nationalist agenda to an extreme, the MHP categorically rejects any cooperation with HDP, even on a motion to establish a parliamentary commission to investigate the reasons behind the escalation of terrorist attacks.

According to an open-source casualty toll maintained by Crisis Group, over 900 died  in the last ceasefire breakdown (summer 2011-March 2013), including 304 members of the security forces, 530 PKK insurgents and 91 civilians. This began after the 2011 elections and the failure of peace negotiations, with dynamics similar to those in play today. The outlines of a reasonable peace deal have not changed much in the meantime, but the price of new and more general violence could prove much higher.

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