The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations
The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations
Commentary / Europe & Central Asia 6 minutes

The PKK Conflict in the Context of EU-Turkey Relations

On top of major challenges, including the spillover from the war in Syria, Islamic State terrorism and increasingly heavy-handed governance, Turkey's conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) also reignited last year. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2017 annual early-warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to increase efforts toward two related objectives: improving relations with Ankara and finding a political end to the PKK conflict.

This commentary is part of our annual early-warning report Watch List 2017.

The relationship between EU and Turkey is in flux, while Turkey – amid shifting strategic fault lines in the region – faces multiple challenges: Islamic State (IS) attacks, the pressures of hosting three million Syrian refugees, a deteriorating economy, and domestic upheaval exacerbated by the failed coup attempt and increasing social and political polarisation, all feature alongside a dramatic intensification of conflict between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Reflective of deep-seated animosities, the increasingly febrile domestic scene, and spillover from fighting in Syria, the renewed PKK conflict has killed some 2,500 and displaced up to 300,000 since July 2015. Bringing the violence under control and back on the path of a sustainable settlement will be crucial to restoring stability. In this fraught environment, the EU – whose relations with Ankara have suffered amid mutual feelings of disappointment and betrayal – has options to refine and better coordinate its strategy toward Turkey, with a view both to helping calm the conflict in the south east, and halting strategic drift in relations.

A Worsening Conflict

Alongside fatalities and displacement, intense fighting between the security forces and the PKK between December 2015 and June 2016 led to the destruction of some towns and districts in Turkey’s south east. In the last few months, PKK militants have increased improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in big cities around the country. Fighting in the south east, which subsided with the onset of winter, is expected to pick up in the spring.

Ankara’s crackdown against the Kurdish political movement has intensified. Twelve MPs from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) including the party’s co-chairs, more than 60 elected co-mayors and thousands of party members and supporters are under arrest for broadly-defined charges of support to or membership of a terrorist organisation or making terrorist propaganda. More than 150 journalists have been arrested on the basis of the anti-terror law, some for alleged links with the PKK.

In northern Syria, Ankara’s Euphrates Shield military operation aims, among other goals, to block gains by PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), in particular PKK/YPG ambitions of creating a contiguous corridor of Kurdish territory along the Turkey-Syria border. Ankara has threatened to push into YPG-held Manbij, which would lead to armed confrontation between the Turkish military and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

All these dynamics have severely reduced the chances of a return to peace talks between the government and the PKK – even as this remains the only way to a lasting solution. In the short term, the focus needs to be on preventing further escalation of violence, de-escalation in the south east, and laying the groundwork for a new political process.

An Approach for the EU to Mitigate the Conflict

Against this backdrop, growing anti-Western rhetoric and mounting mistrust between Turkey and the EU are narrowing avenues for cooperation, including for the EU to play a meaningful role in helping Turkey find a sustainable path out of the PKK conflict. Yet these twin imperatives – improving relations and an end to the conflict – form part of a mutually reinforcing loop, one unlikely without the other. At the same time, in the context of the Syria crisis the EU urgently needs to better integrate its Syria, Turkey and Russia policies. In this context the EU, in addition to supporting a political solution to the PKK conflict, should focus on measures aimed at dialling down tensions between it and Ankara. This means delivering on its commitments, for example on visa liberalisation, as soon as feasible, while maintaining a principled stance on international human rights norms.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict.

EU institutions and member states should continue to support civil initiatives in favour of a political solution to the PKK conflict. European support for local media and civil society platforms conducting independent/impartial reporting on the Kurdish issue is also important if these organisations are to be able to continue to function.

Human rights violations and the stifling of freedom of expression on Kurdish demands such as for decentralisation and mother tongue education must inevitably be addressed in any lasting peaceful settlement. However, European support for such reforms is often decried by the Turkish political leadership and nationalist circles as support to the PKK. These criticisms, alongside seeking to balance out other strategic interests with Ankara (such as on refugee/migration issues, counter-terrorism, investment and trade), have rendered EU member states increasingly reluctant to raise such issues. However, recent legal measures taken by the Turkish government following the Council of Europe Venice Commission’s opinion on emergency decree laws, which calls for stronger human rights protections, shows there are ways to positively influence human rights through existing international mechanisms to which Ankara is a party.

Overcoming the Impasse on Anti-terror Laws

Now that accession talks have stalled, visa liberalisation is the most enticing prospect Brussels has to offer to help re-energise the relationship. However, it hinges primarily on Turkey amending its anti-terror legislation. The EU sees this as a key element in finding a long-term solution to the Kurdish issue, but would also like to see the reform of legislation which is draconian and also qualifies more Turkish citizens to receive asylum in EU states – Germany alone received over 5,000 applications from Turks in 2016, four fifths of them of Kurdish origin. Ankara has claimed the legislation is a proportionate response to the threat faced. Despite the publicly reported standoff, Turkey is, according to officials, considering adjustments to current anti-terror laws in line with EU requirements in the spring. Once the EU’s conditions are met, Brussels should move to grant visa liberalisation quickly.

EU institutions and capitals need to better explain that the expected reforms to anti-terror laws will not hamper legitimate measures to restore public order and combat terrorism, but are meant to help Turkey abide by its own commitments on fundamental rights and freedoms. To address the widespread agitation within Turkey over perceived European interference in domestic anti-terror legislation, they need to make it clear to the Turkish public how it is that the anti-terror laws in their current form allow Turkish citizens to qualify as ­asylum-seekers in Europe.

EU member states should also communicate more explicitly their position on the PKK – which the EU lists as a terror organisation –both to the Turkish public and to Ankara. This will help overcome a widespread perception in Turkey that EU states harbour PKK activists and permit financial flows to the organisation. EU states should publicise measures they currently take against the PKK but about which the Turkish public remain largely unaware – for example Germany’s current investigation of around 4,000 names allegedly linked to the PKK for a range of alleged offences, and the UK’s effective curbing of funding channels to the PKK through its UK-based affiliates.

Making the Refugee Deal Work

Ensuring the March 2016 refugee deal remains in place and functions well will also be vital to stabilising relations, complemented by strengthening recognition of the refugee burden Turkey is bearing in large part in Europe’s stead. As controversial as the refugee deal is, its unravelling would be a disaster. As well as damaging EU-Turkey relations and undermining the EU’s internal cohesion, it would – most importantly – create additional insecurity for the refugee community. While the flow of EU funding for Syrian refugees has reduced negative rhetoric coming out of Ankara, the perception that EU countries prioritise stemming the flow of refugees from Turkey has undoubtedly given Ankara a sense of leverage over European counterparts.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system.

EU member states need to continue to support refugee integration in Turkey’s labour market and education system, also focusing on social cohesion by supporting NGOs working at the local/community level to foster social dialogue and defuse tensions between host and refugee communities. This should be in addition to the ongoing imperative to offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk through resettlement as a clear demonstration of a greater commitment to equitable burden-sharing.

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