A precious chance to end Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds
A precious chance to end Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia

A precious chance to end Turkey’s conflict with the Kurds

Turkey’s nine-year-old peace process between the Turkish government and the insurgents of the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK) is growing ever more fragile. Amid mounting violence in the country’s southeast, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is hardening his rhetoric against the PKK. At the same time, Ankara is showing enough ambivalence towards the jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), which is fighting the PKK’s Syrian Kurdish sister organisation, to convince the Kurds that the two are co-operating against them.

The PKK seems split between the steadying hand of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and frustrated militants in the field, whom Turkey blames for a series of murders of police and off-duty soldiers. And the PKK’s sister organisation in Syria shows enough ambivalence towards the Damascus regime to make Ankara think the two are conspiring against it as well.

This vicious circle must end. The conflict can still be solved. Since 2005, the Turkish government has pursued reforms allowing Kurdish-language education and television. Mr Erdogan has helped reshape Turkish public opinion to be more accepting of Kurdish identity. Mr Ocalan, once known among Turks as a “baby killer”, has had his reputation at least partly rehabilitated. Ankara and the PKK have begun talks and stopped shooting each other (mostly) since a March 2013 ceasefire.

Turkey needs to see this process through. That is the surest way of preventing ethnic and sectarian violence from spilling over its border with Syria. It would hand Mr Erdogan an accomplishment that eluded his predecessors.

Both sides privately concede that they cannot defeat each other militarily. They have strong leaders who can negotiate, agree and implement any deal. The PKK insists its secular ideology makes it the natural partner for Turkey’s generally secular political system.

The two need to bring the peace process, which includes sporadic talks but lacks agreed end goals, to a satisfactory conclusion. Turkey will never be able to secure its borders or be safe outsiders using the Kurds against it until its PKK and Kurdish problems are settled. And whatever credit the PKK may have gained in its fight with Isis in Kobani and its efforts to save the Yezidi Kurds of Sinjar, it is still designated as an international terrorist organisation – and will be until Turkey says otherwise.

Since Ankara’s main objective appears to be winning the next election, and the PKK’s is to build parallel state structures in Kurdish-speaking areas, both sides seem to think that the peace process can wait and are playing for time. This has to stop. They need to reach a compromise. The outlines of a deal are clear – a Turkey in which Turks and Kurds of all political persuasions can live alongside each other with full rights and free political participation.

Mr Erdogan should further strengthen the political position of Turkey’s Kurds, including dropping the share of the national vote needed for a party to enter parliament, thus allowing the legal Kurdish movement to take part in elections normally. He should also allow the PKK leader, representatives of PKK fighters, and the Kurdish diaspora to form a joint negotiating team on disarmament and reintegration.

The PKK should renounce all violence. It must recognise that it is not the Kurds’ sole representative. It also needs to clarify whether it is aiming for integration into the Turkish political system – an outcome now broadly accepted by the Turkish majority – or if it is aiming for federal autonomy or independence. Ending the conflict will require transitional arrangements, such as a conditional amnesty, a process for disposing of PKK weapons inside Turkey and a truth commission. Little of this has been publicly discussed so far. But too much has been achieved to give up now.

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.