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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
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”
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

Muhamed (L), a Syrian refugee boy, and his older brother Mustafa (R) work at a small textile factory in Istanbul, Turkey, on 24 June 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul’s “District of Victimhood”

Sultangazi is home to a mix of religious and ethnic groups – as well as 50,000 Syrian refugees. The district received the refugees warmly. But resentment is rising, as public services suffer and opposition forces suspect the ruling party of using refugees to exacerbate social divisions.

Sultangazi is an inner-city district of Istanbul located on the European side of the Bosphorus, home to more than a half-million Turkish citizens and 50,000 Syrians. What’s happening there reflects nationwide patterns of refugee integration and assimilation – but also growing impatience among the native population.

The district is a microcosm of Turkish society in terms of faith, ethnicity and political persuasion. Pious Sunni conservatives live next door to left-leaning Alevis; Turkish ultra-nationalists rub shoulders with Kurdish movement sympathisers. There are no formal records of religious affiliation, but locals estimate that 30-40 per cent of Sultangazi’s residents are Alevi and the rest Sunni. Alevis, Turkey’s second-largest faith community, profess a variant of Shia Islam (as do the Alawites of Syria, from whom the Alevis are distinct in historical evolution, culture and religious practice). Around half the population are Kurds – of whom slightly over half are social conservatives who vote for the Sunni Islamist formation ruling Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). The rest largely support the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

The Syrians who have settled in Sultangazi are mostly Sunni Arabs from rural areas around Aleppo. In addition to the 40,000 who are registered refugees, an estimated 10,000 Syrians are unregistered. There are also approximately 8,000 migrants of other nationalities, mainly Afghans, Pakistanis and Azerbaijanis.

Integrating Syrian Refugees in Istanbul's "District of Victimhood"

Crisis Group’s Turkey Project Director Nigar Goksel talks about identity politics and growing frictions in the job market between Syrian refugees and host communities in the refugee-dense neighbourhoods of Turkey’s major western cities. CRISISGROUP
The Syrians’ socio-economic impact [in Turkey] is becoming increasingly manifest.

In conversations with Crisis Group, residents referred to their quarter as “a district of victimhood” because it brings together so many different people – citizens and non-citizens – who have had to leave their hometowns behind for political or economic reasons. There has been a particularly large influx of Syrians over the past two years, as the Assad regime recaptured parts of northern Syria that had been held by rebels, and as more Syrians moved from border provinces to western cities in search of job opportunities. Sultangazi today ranks among the top five of Istanbul’s 39 districts in the number of Syrians hosted; they now comprise over 8 per cent of its total population.

Many Syrians received a warm welcome in Turkey. But, as their numbers grow in districts such as Sultangazi, some fear that the new arrivals will redraw the demographic map to the detriment of long-time residents. Secularists and leftists, in particular, see the Syrians as pawns in a move by the AK Party government to dilute the concentration – and perhaps, down the road, the electoral strength – of minority constituencies. Such perceptions deepen existing social and political divides (covered in a November 2016 Crisis Group report).

The Syrians’ socio-economic impact is also becoming increasingly manifest. Public services such as health and education, already strained by the district’s rapid expansion, have been further overstretched by the refugee influx. Locals complain about long lines at hospitals, crowded classrooms, skyrocketing rents, packed busses and piled-up trash. The sense that the Syrian influx has worsened the quality of life is sowing resentment among hosts, irrespective of political affiliation. Compassion and solidarity are curdling into hostility.

Crisis Group Turkey Project Director Nigar Göksel talking to a Turkish restaurant owner about the impact of unregistered Syrian businesses in Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

As underlined by Crisis Group’s 29 January report, Turkey’s Syrian Refugees: Defusing Metropolitan Tensions, the risk of violent clashes between hosts and refugees is higher in places where the stress on public services overlaps with labour market competition and identity-related demographic concerns. Sultangazi is such a place.

The Gazi Hot Spot

The tract of land now known as Sultangazi has witnessed waves of migration, starting in the mid-1970s when people came from across Anatolia. In the 1990s, a large number of Kurds arrived after being forcibly displaced from villages in the south east at the peak of the army’s fighting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Since 2004 or so, the district has also attracted refugees and migrant workers from countries to Turkey’s east. With plenty of affordable housing and low-skilled job opportunities in textile workshops, Sultangazi has continued to boom, absorbing around 100,000 Turkish citizens in the past decade.

On aggregate, voting patterns in the quarter reflect strong support for the AK Party government, albeit with staunch opposition in certain neighbourhoods. In the November 2015 general elections, the AK Party received 163,000 votes (60.6 per cent), while the main centre-left, secular opposition force, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), garnered 60,000 and the left-leaning, pro-Kurdish HDP got 40,000. Over 60 per cent of voters said “yes” to the April 2017 plebiscite asking citizens to approve measures that greatly strengthened the powers of the president. The Istanbul average “yes” vote was 48.6 per cent. Despite this higher overall support, some neighbourhoods firmly rejected the referendum (see map below for a detailed breakdown).

One of them was Gazi, where a majority of residents are left-wing Alevis, either Kurdish or Turkish in ethnicity. A full 78.9 per cent of its voters said “no” to the stronger presidency. Similarly, the AK Party won only 19 per cent of the neighbourhood’s vote in the November 2015 parliamentary elections, while the CHP received 54 per cent and the HDP 23.8 per cent.

A map that shows the 2017 Constitutional Referendum results in the districts of Sultangazi, Istanbul. CRISISGROUP/MIke Shand

Gazi is legendary in Turkey for antipathy to the state. Left-wing and/or Alevi youth there clashed frequently with the nationalist police in the 1990s. On 12 March 1995, the unrest culminated in what is commonly referred to as “the Gazi incidents”. Unknown gunmen in a stolen taxi riddled five teahouses with bullets, killing one person and wounding numerous others. Residents saw the police response as markedly slow; riots broke out and spread to other neighbourhoods, continuing for about a week. The police reaction to the rioters was swift and harsh, with officers shooting into crowds, killing fifteen people. Many believe the incident was instigated by the “deep state” – ultra-nationalists and their allies in the security forces – to discourage the growth of Alevi and Kurdish dissent in big cities.

Anger spiralled into confrontations with police again during the Gezi Park protests in May-June 2013. Some 2-3,000 neighbourhood residents took to the streets for around one week in anti-government protests. Tensions also rose in Gazi on the night of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, when pro-AK Party crowds reportedly marched into the neighbourhood chanting “Allahu Ekber” (God is great). Pro-government demonstrators had been summoned into the streets across Istanbul by state-employed imams using the loudspeakers of mosques. Rumours spread that the demonstrators were planning to attack Alevis, and residents gathered in front of the local cemevi (Alevi house of worship). Police dispersed the pro-AK Party crowd before it reached the area.

Many leftists took this series of events as validation of their view that, under AK Party rule, the invocation of Sunni Muslim solidarity is “party politics”, geared toward mobilising the right-wing, conservative-leaning majority of the electorate. They point to statements they perceive as sectarian by AK Party leaders to back up this interpretation.

Blame Game

Across the Sultangazi district, representatives of the Alevi community and the Kurdish movement view the Syrian refugees’ presence largely through the prism of their own accumulated grievances against the state.

The risk of violent attacks on refugees may increase amid the building anger among Kurdish movement sympathisers at the crackdown on the HDP underway since early 2016. Thousands of the HDP’s members and nine of its 53 MPs – including party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş – were arrested and remain in prison. Another 30 MPs were detained and/or arrested and released since November. “We have no rights. There is police impunity for any action against the Kurdish youth here”, a Kurdish movement figure in Sultangazi told Crisis Group. “This is all building up a frustration [that] can be channelled against the Syrians, many of whom announce Erdoğan as their saviour”.

Alevis also feel worn down by longstanding state discrimination. “We still do not have equal citizenship”, said one representative. “We have so many complaints about our situation that it is hard for us to talk about Syrians …. In a place like the Gazi neighbourhood that locals say is over 50 per cent Alevi, there is a threat perception from the past anyway, and now they think Syrians will be settled here to reduce the Alevis to a minority”.

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries [in Sultangazi], leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

The government and its supporters accuse Alevi organisations of being sectarian when they reach out to the minority of Syrian refugees who are Kurds or Alawites. A Kurdish movement representative claimed that the authorities warned Syrian Kurds not to establish relations with Kurdish organisations in Turkey: “Syrian Kurds who came to Sultangazi were told they would be provided all health and education services if they abide by this rule. So, out of fear of being sent back to Syria by Turkish authorities, they have stayed low-profile about their Kurdish identity”.

Kurdish and Alevi oppositionists insist they are not concerned solely with their co-ethnics and/or co-religionists. One Alevi representative said: “At first, we tried to provide support to all the Syrians who came here, regardless of sect or ethnicity. However, when the numbers soared, and since we get no resources from the state, we had to cut down. Since we observed the Syrian Alawites were not so comfortable going to the centres of the Sunni Muslim charities, we concentrated our efforts on them”.

Arabic signs on a shop offer for sale sporting clothes, wedding dresses, pyjamas and lingerie, Sultangazi district, September 2017. CRISISGROUP

People at the Gazi cemevi told Crisis Group they held the potential to help break down sectarian stereotypes, but they lacked the resources: “We provided Turkish language courses for Syrian children and women, and 30 per cent of those who attended were Sunni. It overcame prejudice, but then we didn’t have enough funds to continue”.

Another employee of a mainstream NGO who has been working with Syrians for a few years said that, just as the authorities try to impose an artificial homogeneity of identity and thought on Turkish citizens, they want Syrians to be homogeneous, too. “The government thinks that Syrians in Turkey who have any thoughts beyond support for the Free Syrian Army [a Sunni rebel group fighting alongside the Turkish military in northern Syria] should be invisible”, the NGO worker said.

Widening Local Divides

The Syrian refugee crisis has thus widened the gap between the government’s backers and its critics. The authorities, along with Sunni Muslim charities, blame the negative attitude of hardline Alevi and Kurdish organisations. A local state official who also works for a large Islamist charity, suggested: “Considering they [the Kurds] have also experienced displacement, one would expect them to be more compassionate. However, perhaps because they see the refugees’ presence as being against their interests, I observe that the Kurds speak out less compassionately about the refugees”.

Sign in Arabic on a tree advertises that the Abu Salah Supermarket in Sultangazi district can supply money transfers in all currencies, accommodation for male youths, espresso coffee and all kinds of Syrian goods, September 2017. CRISISGROUP.

Meanwhile, Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin in Sultangazi told Crisis Group they find it unjust that public institutions employ translators for Arabic-speaking Syrians. “There are signs in both Turkish and Arabic in rooms in some hospitals, whereas the Kurdish language has never been tolerated, let alone catered to in such a way”. They point out that many Syrian Kurdish refugees are not fluent in Arabic; hence, translation of signs into Kurdish would merely be an extension of the refugee integration policy. The authorities are trying as well to accommodate Syrian parents’ desire for Arabic language courses in schools, even as the Kurds’ decades-old demands for Kurdish-language education remain unaddressed. Liberal intellectuals privately advocate reforms that would enable service provision in languages other than Turkish in places where demand exists. But open discussion of such options cannot occur at the peak of Turkish nationalist fervour in the country today.

Divergent Perceptions

Distrust runs deep between the authorities and their adversaries, leading to competing narratives of violent incidents involving refugees.

One such incident took place in the İsmetpaşa neighbourhood of Sultangazi on 15 May 2017. A young Kurdish man was killed in a fight with an Afghan, supposedly over who could sit where in a park. Local authorities told Crisis Group that sinister outside agitators, probably members of the outlawed Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C), were planning to use this incident as an opportunity to organise an anti-government protest at the scene of the murder, by claiming the state does not protect its Kurdish citizens. The authorities say they reached out to residents to dissuade them from joining, and that police evacuated 500-600 Afghans and Pakistanis to protect them from reprisal.

The Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition.

Reflecting a common view among authorities, a deputy mayor in Sultangazi said the far-left elements living in Sultangazi systematically try to sabotage the state’s effectiveness and to rally opposition: “It is no coincidence that there were protests every day in the Gazi neighbourhood before the coup attempt, and then it stopped suddenly afterward. There was an effort to mobilise people for further destabilisation”.

Kurdish/Alevi community representatives, on the other hand, claim the authorities systematically try to provoke Kurdish opposition, in order to create excuses for crackdowns. A local HDP representative said: “This is part of the systematic effort to stir up unrest. Police bully our young men daily. The swarms of Turkish flags in our streets and the playing of janissary [Ottoman soldier] anthems are all meant to provoke our youth. There is police impunity. A young boy was killed by police the other day; they said he disobeyed a stop warning. Who knows? It can’t be proven one way or another”. They also argue that the government is trying to create circumstances that will lead ordinary residents who support opposition parties to move out of Sultangazi, which is becoming lucrative real estate, thanks to its increasingly central location as mega-projects like the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus proceed.

Coming to Terms with Pluralism

At present, the Syrian refugee presence is exacerbating social problems in Turkey and driving a wedge deeper and deeper between the state and the political opposition. But the Syrian influx also has the potential to trigger constructive debates about how to address the demands of the country’s diverse communities, be they tied together by mother tongue, ethnicity or sect.

As long as certain groups feel marginalised by the ruling party, they will be embittered by the integration of Syrians, and social cohesion will be harder to come by. As such, what works in one setting may well backfire in another. In the conservative border province of Şanlıurfa, for example, no one objects to appeals for unity with Syrian refugees on religious grounds. But districts with heterogeneous demographics, such as Sultangazi, need to be approached with more sensitivity to the perception that the government is promoting Sunni solidarity at the expense of minorities.

Tzu Chi, an international Buddhist aid organisation headquartered in Taiwan, has helped fill the gap in aid and service provision to Syrians in Sultangazi, September 2017. Tzu Chi NGO

Government efforts to meet the needs of host communities and Syrians will be more effective and better perceived if the state also reaches out to constituencies who sympathise with opposition parties. Inviting the representatives of NGOs and political parties that are not aligned with the government to refugee-related coordination meetings at the district level in itself would send a message of inclusivity. It would also serve to generate creative ideas about how to bridge divides in localities that are politically divided.

Opposition parties also have a role to play: they need to be careful not to spread misinformation or exploit the growing angst about Syrians among their constituents. Instead, they should work constructively to bridge the divide. Local actors of all political persuasions need to open channels of dialogue, share information and pool capacities to address local grievances and stop trouble before it starts.


Project Director, Turkey
Analyst, Turkey