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A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks
A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Riot police fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators during a protest against the curfew in Sur district, in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey, on 14 December 2015. REUTERS/Sertac Kayar
Briefing 77 / Europe & Central Asia

A Sisyphean Task? Resuming Turkey-PKK Peace Talks

New clashes between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have deepened the country’s social cleavages, killed hundreds, and helped the Islamic State. Neither side can win militarily. To end the conflict, Turkey needs more than just a new ceasefire: a clearly defined peace process and, in parallel, a reform agenda addressing Kurdish rights.

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I. Overview

Locked in their deadliest violence in two decades, the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) should urgently resume peace talks. The return to a military-based approach to the conflict and domestic political polarisation, fuelled by a spillover of the Syrian conflict, have dismantled the achievements of peace talks undertaken during the 2.5-year ceasefire which collapsed in July 2015. Bloody urban battles in the south east have since then given the conflict a new, unpredictable momentum. The failure to secure peace has cost more than 550 lives – up to 150 of them civilian, including that of the well-known human rights lawyer and Diyarbakır bar association head Tahir Elçi on 28 November. Turkey faces a critical choice: to advance its military strategy against the PKK in a fight that is bound to be protracted and inconclusive, or to resume peace talks. Whichever course it chooses, however, a comprehensive solution to the Kurdish issue will necessitate addressing long­standing Kurdish rights demands.

With a new government in place after the 1 November election, now is the time to reverse the spiral of mistrust between Ankara and the disparate Kurdish movement, represented, at times interchangeably and without clear mandates, by the legal Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), now in the parliament, as well as the outlawed PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

The resumption of violence between the Turkish state and the PKK benefits the violently extremist Islamic State (IS). In Syria, Ankara worries that the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the PKK’s Syrian offshoot, will transform its gains against IS into a contiguous land corridor along Turkey’s southern border. This perceived threat has at times overshadowed Ankara’s focus on the fight against IS. Since May, four alleged-IS attacks targeting pro-Kurdish activists in Turkey – including the country’s deadliest ever bombing, on a peace rally in Ankara – have strengthened the perception among Kurds that the state does not protect them. The debate on these incidents underscores the need for Ankara to widen its domestic crackdown against IS. It also reflects deepening social cleavages not only between Turkish and Kurdish communities, but also along other sectarian and cultural fault lines. If left unbridged, these may undermine Turkey’s fragile social cohesion.

The new government has declared that it will not restart talks with Öcalan. Its strategy is instead centred on fighting the PKK, particularly until its recently empowered urban structures are eradicated, while pursuing a unilateral, vaguely defined, reform agenda pertaining to Kurdish rights that minimises engagement with the Kurdish movement and its main legal political actor, the HDP. An approach that marginalises the HDP and its reform-minded constituency with an interest in resolving the Kurdish issue by legal means risks further channelling Kurdish nationalism into armed struggle.

After three decades of fitful deadly conflict, both sides understand a military confrontation will not secure victory but believe themselves in a strengthened position to maximise gains. They are focused on weakening the other as much as possible, while waiting for the Syria quagmire to settle before considering a return to a ceasefire and peace talks. Under pressure from the spillover of the protracted Syrian conflict, as well as the IS threat, they should urgently end violence in the country’s population centres and agree on ceasefire conditions.

Free from electoral pressures for four years, the new government needs to formulate a concrete reform agenda to address Kurdish rights demands – including decentralisation and mother-tongue education – that can be advanced within legal structures, political parties and parliament. To restore trust, it must also ensure the effective investigation of past and present human rights abuses and prevent recurrence. The PKK and Kurdish local authorities should cease making declarations of autonomy that only alarm Turkish public opinion and harden Turkish politicians.

Talks with the PKK should resume in parallel, with a view to obtaining the withdrawal of its fighters from Turkey and agreement on mechanisms for amnesty and reintegration of those who, without arms, would like to stay or return. Öcalan has underlined the need for a more structured format for the peace talks that would also bring in other PKK figures and the HDP, as well as a monitoring mechanism. To achieve a mutually agreed roadmap and timeline, the government needs to clarify its position on institutionalising the process so that the cyclical effort to resolve the conflict does not resemble the mythical endless attempt of Sisyphus to roll a boulder to the top of the hill.

Turkey’s allies in the West, who remain primarily focused on the Syrian crisis and its regional security and refugee consequences, should not dismiss the risks posed by a swiftly deteriorating conflict in Turkey. In their own interests, they should encourage Ankara to reassess its approach to the Kurdish issue.

Their November summit, which was primarily geared to the migration crisis, committed Turkey and the European Union (EU) to re-energise their relationship and enhance political and financial engagement. It created momentum to follow through on difficult deliverables, including reducing the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe, progress toward visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals wishing to enter the EU and opening of new chapters in the negotiations for Turkey’s EU accession. At the same time, the flare up in the PKK-Turkey conflict has complicated the U.S.-led coalition’s fight against IS, especially because Turkey refuses to collaborate with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military wing of the PYD. Ankara-PKK peace talks could create parameters for a more constructive relationship between Ankara and the PYD, enhancing the international anti-IS efforts.

Istanbul/Brussels, 17 December 2015

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.