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Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process
Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Report 234 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and the PKK: Saving the Peace Process

The peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is threatened by ceasefire violations and spillover from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Both sides must set aside pretexts and inertia and seize the opportunity of having powerful leaders able to implement a deal whose outlines are clearer than ever.

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Executive Summary

The peace process to end the 30-year-old insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) against Turkey’s government is at a turning point. It will either collapse as the sides squander years of work, or it will accelerate as they commit to real convergences. Both act as if they can still play for time – the government to win one more election, the PKK to further build up quasi-state structures in the country’s predominantly-Kurdish south east. But despite a worrying upsurge in hostilities, they currently face few insuperable obstacles at home and have two strong leaders who can still see the process through. Without first achieving peace, they cannot cooperate in fighting their common enemy, the jihadi threat, particularly from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Increasing ceasefire violations, urban unrest and Islamist extremism spilling over into Turkey from regional conflicts underline the cost of delays. Both sides must put aside external pretexts and domestic inertia to compromise on the chief problem, the Turkey-PKK conflict inside Turkey.

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Importantly, the two sides, having realised that neither can beat the other outright, say they want to end the armed conflict. The government has now matched the PKK’s ceasefire with a serious legal framework that makes real progress possible. But both sides still exchange harsh rhetoric, which they must end to build up trust. They must do more to define common end goals and show real public commitment to what will be difficult compromises. The current peace process also needs a more comprehensive agenda, a more urgent timeframe, better social engagement, mutually agreed ground rules and monitoring criteria. It is evolving as sides respond to changing practical considerations, making the process less a long-term strategy than a series of ad hoc initiatives.

Although they have not publicly outlined this in detail, full negotiations will mean Turkey and the PKK eventually have to agree on a conditional amnesty, laws to smooth transitional justice and a truth commission. For Turkey, this will require more openness to offering redress for the state’s past wrongdoings and reparations for victims, as well as a readiness to accept scenarios in which – if and when peace is irrevocably established – PKK figures can join legal Kurdish parties in Turkey and jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan might one day be freed. For the PKK, it means accepting responsibility for its own abuses, ending and denouncing all violence and illegal activities, declaring an end goal of full disarmament of its elements within Turkey’s borders, giving up all attempts to create parallel formations in the south east, and demonstrating readiness to include Turkey’s different Kurdish factions, particularly those that do not agree with the PKK, as stakeholders in the process.

Even in the absence of clear commitments or matching end goals, the process itself has proved to be useful for the entire country and should not be jeopardised to score short-term political points with hardline Turkish and Kurdish constituencies. Most importantly, despite several breaches, the PKK’s unilateral ceasefire since March 2013 has largely held, drastically reducing casualties and contributing to building confidence. Neither side wants to see the process collapse. The government did not have to deal with soldiers’ funerals during this year’s municipal and presidential elections, and needs the relative calm to continue at least until parliamentary polls in mid-2015. Meanwhile, the PKK has been able to build up its strength in south-eastern towns and acquire unprecedented international and domestic legitimacy.

The involvement of PKK-affiliated groups in defending Kurds in Syria and Iraq against jihadis makes full PKK disarmament and demobilisation only realistic within Turkey’s borders. Moreover, if Turkey and the PKK roll out successful confidence-building measures, the presence of pro-PKK groups along its Syrian border could actually help Turkey against jihadi or other hostile advances and expand its zone of influence in its neighbourhood. Conversely, if Turkey wants to strengthen its domestic position against a future risk of regional states aiding and abetting armed PKK elements operating on its territory, it has an interest in reaching an agreement with its Kurdish-speaking population as soon as possible. Both Turkish officials and Kurdish politicians privately say they prefer each other to the Islamic State. But it is impossible to imagine cooperation outside Turkey – to reinforce Kurdish areas of Syria or Iraq, for instance – while the two sides are basically at war at home.

As spillover from Middle East conflicts open up dangerous old ethnic, sectarian and political fault lines in Turkey, the government and the PKK must seek a common end goal that goes beyond a mere maintenance of a peace process. The government must create the legal and political conditions, process and context that will build confidence. But the PKK also needs to convince Turkish, Kurdish and international opinion that it can be a democratic actor, ready to disarm and transform into a political group. If it desires peace, the Kurdish national movement in Turkey cannot continue to be both an armed opposition force and a candidate for governmental responsibility, and must be clear on what kind of decentralisation it seeks. This deal will need compromise from both sides. Only in this way can Turkey shift a longstanding burden of civil conflict off the back of its armed forces, its economy, democratisation efforts and the security of its borders. Likewise, an end of the insurgency is the only way the PKK will be able to come home to represent its Kurdish constituency inside Turkey’s legal political system, and achieve its stated goal of democratic rights for all in the country.

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.