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Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Turkey and a Region in Crisis
Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux
Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux
Speech / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey and a Region in Crisis

The journey from the best to the worst of days in recent Turkish geopolitics was partly determined by a deteriorating diplomatic context. Our Director of Communications & Outreach Hugh Pope looks back on two decades of change in a keynote speech for the Dutch Peace Research Foundation’s annual prizes for best new MA theses on peace.

The best day of news I remember as a foreign correspondent in Turkey was seventeen years ago, in December 1999.

Turkey was at the end of a miserable decade, having suffered a upsurge of its domestic insurgency, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, a restive military and weak coalition governments. The country was staring into the abyss. Then the Turkish establishment decided to pull its act together. Amid many other steps that showed officials were getting a grip, by mid-1998 they had persuaded the International Monetary Fund to give them one more chance after more than a dozen failed programs to fix government finances. And this time it worked, a light helping the country out of the tunnel.

Looking back now, the outside environment was also extraordinarily benign. The shock of the mid-1990s Balkan Wars had made European leaders realise that they would get as much from a Turkey becoming closer to Europe as Turkey would. The U.S., seeing Turkey as a resilient, indispensable ally bordering numerous trouble spots, played a strong, quiet role behind the scenes in bringing Turkey back into the international fold. The Middle East was quiet (ahead of the second Palestinian intifada in Israel in 2000 and the 11 September 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on the U.S.). Similarly, to the north, Russia was busy adapting itself to the post-Soviet period and Turkey was charging into new markets there.

All this peaked on the 11 December 1999, when the French president lent his plane so that the European Union (EU) chief external representative Javier Solana and the enlargement commissioner Günther Verheugen could fly to Ankara to invite Turkey to become a candidate to join the EU. The talks were difficult. The Cyprus question was clearly still going to be very hard to solve. Turkey suspected it was being sold second-class status. Still, in the end, it accepted. Some senior members of the Turkish Cabinet, it was said, felt that this was at last Turkey’s chance to join in the prosperity and stability that Europe represented.

The result was the extraordinary scene plastered over the front pages of Turkish newspapers, Turkish politicians side by side with their European counterparts, all beaming with pleasure. It was as if Turkey had at long last got an official invitation to the grand ball in Brussels.

This triggered an extraordinary outburst of reforming energy. Turkey repealed the death penalty. Spruced-up corridors in some ministries in Ankara epitomised the new zeal for change. Within a few years, routine torture had ended. Political stability returned. As Turkey’s reality improved, and then its image, the country experienced a flood of foreign investment and growth. As much to the surprise of many in the EU as in Turkey, five years later, European leaders declared that Turkey could begin accession negotiations.

But, almost immediately, the relationship between Turkey and the EU began to run into trouble.

What Went Right?

It may be that the whole framework was hypocritical from the beginning, just another version of a cynical game in which Turkey pretended to join the EU and the EU pretended to accept it.

Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends.

But even if there was an element of truth to this, it was only part of the picture. The more important question was the direction in which Turkey was travelling, even accelerating. The mere existence of the process was good for both sides, even if the end state was not clear. Over time, it changed Turkey, and it could have changed the nature of the game. It may be true that 1999 Turkey could never have joined the EU as it was in 1999; but it was always going to take decades for Turkey to be at the same economic level as the European average to make it a plausible full member of the club. By that time both sides would likely have changed even more, and a new generation of politicians would strike the right deal according to the conditions of the day.

Another part of the picture is the fact that Turkey is always somewhat at the mercy of international trends. It is on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, and the crosshairs of the interests of Russia and the U.S.. What went right in Turkey in the early 2000s, I would argue, is partly a by-product of the international system performing as it should.

  • The EU was ambitious, united, visibly successful, attractive and believed in itself.
  • The U.S. was acting as a multilateral security anchor behind the scenes.
  • The UN was well on its way to crafting a settlement that could reunite Cyprus, which it delivered in 2004 (when the Greek Cypriots alone rejected it).
  • Russia was by and large becoming part of the same international system.
  • The international financial system and its rules were credible, as were the belief in the rewards for joining it.
  • After the U.S. helped Turkey capture Abdullah Öcalan the chief of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the PKK declared a long-lasting ceasefire.
  • For all its faults, Turkey had a relatively open, pluralist political culture.

Losing Cruising Altitude

Fast forward to the worst day in Turkey’s recent history: 15 July 2016. On that night, a rogue army faction tried to seize power and came close to capturing President Erdoğan. He managed to rally public support to face down the coup, but 250 people were killed, parliament got bombed and the aftershocks continue to be very damaging. If you were flying a plane, it would be the moment when all the dials suddenly be give off noisy alarm signals. There’s every reason to hope that Turkey will fly on – it has a resilient, functioning state with old traditions – but there is no reason for complacency. For a moment, the government teetered on the brink of civil war. The list of problems now is sobering and long.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s.
  • A reversal of the benign 1999 situation in all four of Turkey’s main foreign policy areas: the EU accession process on life support; the U.S. military openly cooperating with Syrian Kurds whom Turkey views as a terrorist enemy; a horrible year with Russia after Turkey ill-advisedly shot down a Russian military plane; and disorder on Turkey’s Middle Eastern borders ever since the ill-judged U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
  • Cyprus is still stuck. The Greek Cypriots revealed their hand when they alone rejected the 2004 peace plan, and little since then has made a bicommunal, bizonal federation look more likely.
  • Domestically, there are unresolved tensions in the security forces, as evidenced by the 15 July coup attempt and subsequent purges.
  • The economy is in grave difficulty as Turkey tries to go it alone, investors grow wary, the Turkish lira erodes, the government tries all kinds of unorthodox methods to keep interest rates down.
  • Power is increasingly centralised around one person. Since the 15 July coup attempt, the government has removed more than 100,000 people from their jobs, freedom of expression is under threat, and many Turkish intellectuals are moving into exile.
  • The army has pushed the PKK back against the mountains on the Turkish-Iraqi border, but at a terrible price. Fighting has killed more than 2,300 people in the past seventeen months. Many leading Kurdish nationalist politicians have been thrown in jail or have chosen exile. Whole districts of cities in the south east of the country lie in ruins and a new generation of urban Kurds is being radicalised in new ways.
  • Turkey was already becoming isolated. Elected by 151 votes to the Western Europe non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2008, a massive success, its campaign to repeat that in 2014 completely failed. It lost to Austria and New Zealand, which had barely even campaigned.
  • Turkey’s leaders are calling for the reimposition of the death penalty and there are increasing reports of torture becoming official practice once again.
  • The European Parliament is calling for a suspension of the EU accession process.
  • War is spilling over from Syria in multiple ways: three million refugees; IS suicide bombings; and the aggravation of domestic ethnic and sectarian tensions.

Turkey’s clock now seems to be set back to some time in the mid-1990s. What makes it worse is that under the pressure of immediate crises, policymakers are overstretched by the immediate symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism. They find it hard to focus on long-term solutions like development and conflict prevention.

Were each of these setbacks inevitable? Is Turkey just stuck on the crossroads of geography and history, doomed to take collateral damage when next-door countries stumble into wars? Or could more far-sighted policies toward and by Turkey have solved at least some of these problems?

Preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. There will always be chances to nudge the needle back to more collaborative methods. We have seen intense international engagement deliver the Iranian nuclear deal; progress toward peace in Colombia; and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015.

There is no one miracle cure. But if politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex ‘framework diplomacy’ with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

At Crisis Group, we see five broad rules for governments to keep in mind, which are as applicable to Turkey and its partners as to any other set of relationships.

1 – Know what is happening on the ground

There are obvious red flags of trouble ahead, but it is useful to lay some of them out:

  • Insurgencies;
  • Leaders losing legitimacy or desperate to hold on to power;
  • Restless police and military forces;
  • Regional or ethnic divisions;
  • Economic strains in the broader public;
  • Neighbouring countries that inflame situations by intervening, sometimes posing as peacekeepers.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, all these red flags are currently up. It’s definitely not a time to assume that all may go well. It is a signal for Turkey’s friends that action must be taken to help – and guard against those who would use these weaknesses to trip up Ankara.

Turkey is in no doubt in the grave situation it is in, but a lack of critical reporting in the country means that often politicians take refuge in blaming outsiders for the country’s woes. Clean, comprehensive sources of information are essential building blocks of policy. The EU Progress Report may be dull to outsiders, but its publication is a real event in Turkey, precisely because its impartial point of view is valuable. The same goes for other factual investigations, like the U.S. State Department’s Human Rights Reports, Human Rights Watch’s reports and those of Amnesty International. At Crisis Group, we see it as a critical part of our mandate to issue factual reports based on our longstanding engagement with all sides to Turkey’s conflicts, and translate them into Turkish so everyone has the same reliable data on which to base their judgments.

2 – Maintain relationships with all parties

Engagement is very important. We saw this clearly in Nigeria in 2015, when it seemed that Goodluck Jonathan would cling on to power whatever the outcome of the presidential election that year. A new election-time bloodbath seemed to be looming. We were part of a campaign that in the end included advocacy by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and many others who intervened to persuade whoever lost the election to accept the result. It worked.

In Syria, there were many reasons why the world turned sour on Assad. But a lack of contact underestimated his readiness to stick it out, as well as the depth of Syria’s support from Iran and Russia.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe.

For outsiders looking at Turkey, engagement is especially important. The U.S., for instance, has usually one very narrow interest at a time and tends to treat Turkey as a one-stop shop. It is also vulnerable due to critical Turkish perceptions of its Middle East policies. However, it has shown some inspiration, for instance when President Obama called Erdoğan to offer condolences when his mother died. The EU in general has failed to see that its broad array of often lesser interests are in themselves an important reason to be engaged not just with Turkish leaders but a broad range of Turkish actors. They have also not appreciated just how much a disunited approach weakens Europe’s cause in Turkey, and a united, consistent and fair EU policy gets Turkey’s attention and respect. This lack of engagement is one reason why the EU was so wrong-footed when it suddenly had a major interest in refugees transiting Turkey.

In Turkey’s case, failures to manage relationships with all parties have been particularly damaging in the Middle East and Europe. Turkish leaders, like politicians everywhere, have tended to make all external engagements a subset of domestic politics. This has been damaging to relations with the EU, and a lack of balance in its relationships with leaders in Syria and Egypt has had enormous costs. For instance, a real effort by Turkey to reach out to Greek Cypriots could have made all the difference in persuading them to agree to the 2004 deal on reunifying Cyprus.

3 – Build frameworks to channel international diplomacy

With the decline of Western influence, power increasingly lies with multiple countries. But a lot of mechanisms, like the UN Security Council, have lost credibility in recent years. Superpowers are no longer so powerful, and mid-ranking states are now strong enough to step into their place. It is increasingly important to bring major players together through international institutions and frameworks as early as possible in a crisis situation to look for diplomatic ways out.

An obvious recent success for ‘framework diplomacy’ is the nuclear deal with Iran, which brought together Iran with the U.S. and five other major powers to negotiate a solution to the standoff. The group included Russia and China, which worked on the agreement with the U.S. despite other ongoing differences on Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Syria, on the other hand, had been a failure of framework diplomacy. For the early years of the war, the U.S. and Europeans tried to sort out the conflict through the UN Security Council. But they excluded Iran from negotiations until last year and Russia deliberately dragged out the diplomatic process to help Assad. This is now changing, but too late to save many lives lost in this collapse into chaos.

For the outside world, better multilateralism is a good way to work with Turkey. Turkey is never happier than when it has a walk-on role as a middle-size power – being the venue for some of the Iran nuclear talks, hosting the G20, ticking the boxes as part of an EU process while it worked. It is at these times that the country feels it has something to win from cooperation, and that its partners’ messages will be listened to. Naturally, Turkey feels more engaged in forums in which it is treated as an equal partner – NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, and so on. Turkey may not be able to win any single battle for its Western partners, but having Turkey on the Western side is a force multiplier that helps in innumerable small ways, often unseen.

The 2014 failure to get elected to a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council should have been a wake-up call for Turkey. It should recognise that reinforcing its links to multilateral institutions has demonstrably done much good in the past. Working alone will always leave it vulnerable to much stronger states.

4 – Strategic planning and communication

This is the area where most preventive diplomacy is going wrong. There is less and less time for strategic planning, and politicians and diplomats react on the fly. Militaries are at their best when they do NOT have to be used. But to pull off that trick, their deterrent value must be credible and correctly communicated.

Leaders and diplomats need to think through the potential ramifications of their statements, and gauge possible reactions by all parties. They should be mindful of the signals they are sending, and take care not to box themselves in down the track.

A message sent on the spur of the moment – like President Obama's demand that Assad should go in 2011 – can make peacemaking much harder later on.

A better example would be when the Netherlands, Germany and the U.S. all backed up NATO-member Turkey’s worries about Syria with Patriot batteries on the border. Unfortunately, other aspects of the relationship were under pressure at the same time, and local frictions marred their deployment. Moreover, Turkey and the West completely underestimated the forces at work in Syria. But it did buy time and underlined to Turkish public opinion that the NATO relationship was meaningful.

In an example of real miscommunication, both the EU and U.S. completely underestimated how they should have reacted to the coup attempt – by giving immediate support to the democratically elected Erdogan, whatever they thought of him.

5 – Creating pathways to peace

Some conflicts are international, some are domestic, and many overlap. In a lot of cases, the essential pathway to peace is to carve out some sort of power-sharing agreement between leaders. A failure to do so is what can fuel the tensions that lead to war.

Good examples are from Kenya in 2008, when Kofi Annan mediated a power-sharing deal after contested elections, and Afghanistan in 2014, when the U.S. got Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to work together.

Our Middle Eastern colleagues often say that in their contacts, officials are only looking for information that will help them win the battle of the day, not long-term peace. This is because political economies, and the elites that dominate them, can become shaped by conflict and even dependent on them.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints. We see deals on Libya’s energy wealth as vital to ensuring long-term peace there. Likewise, in the South China Sea, ASEAN and China need to come up with a common plan for sharing fishing and other resources too.

In Turkey, it is clear that Turkey’s decision to start building the Ataturk Dam on the Euphrates river in 1984 was one reason that pushed Syria to help start the PKK’s insurgency that same year.

Agreements on resource sharing – not just power sharing – are also important steps to resolving international flashpoints.

Governments may not be ready to embark on pathways to peace for political reasons, yet their officials begin to realise that a change will have to be made. This is where Crisis Group’s reporting on Turkey has sought to create those pathways in advance, ready for the moment when the politicians and other conflict actors might be ready to take them.

For instance, we have put great emphasis on breaking down the resolution of the Kurdish rights problem in Turkey’s Kurdish-speaking south east and the PKK insurgency into stages: first, separating the question of Kurdish rights (which should be granted as a matter of course) from the insurgency (which any government would fight); second, how to reasonably define those rights through a legitimate political process under the roof of parliament in Ankara; and third, eventually, what a disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration process might look like, including the question of transitional justice. Our contacts with both sides say they know there is no military victory, so we know that, bleak as the current all-out conflict now is, there must be a return to talks one day.

Another example is the Cyprus problem. After five major rounds of peace talks, we came to the conclusion that the UN parameters of a bizonal, bicommunal federation were out of date and unlikely to be the basis of a sustainable peace deal. So we fleshed out what a partition plan might look like. A sixth round is now in progress – which some see as very hopeful – but if it doesn’t work, an alternative pathway to peace is there for the taking.

Attack helicopters patrol over the area on the Iraqi border of Derecik district of Turkey's Hakkari on February 14, 2022. Ozkan Bilgin / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict: A Regional Battleground in Flux

Turkey is increasingly relying on airpower in its fight against the PKK. New parties have been drawn into the conflict as it spreads to new theatres in Iraq and Syria, which, for now at least, complicates potential efforts to settle things down.

Early February brought a fresh demonstration of the new air-war tactics that Turkey is increasingly using in its fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – its enemy in some four decades of conflict. Turkey, like the U.S. and European Union (EU), designates the PKK a terrorist group. On 2 February, some 60 Turkish fighter jets carried out a coordinated attack on training camps, shelters and ammunition storage facilities used by the PKK and its affiliates in northern Iraq and Syria. Since mid-2019, Turkey has increasingly relied on airpower, including drones, to hit PKK bases in the rugged mountains of northern Iraq, allowing it to kill higher-level PKK cadres. According to data collected by Crisis Group, the Turkey-PKK conflict has claimed more than 5,850 lives since a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire broke down in July 2015, inaugurating one of its deadliest chapters.

The spread of fighting to new battlegrounds has drawn in an increasingly complex web of actors. In northern Iraq, Turkey has partnered with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – the largest and most powerful political party in Iraqi Kurdistan and its Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – to obtain information about PKK movements as well as to secure areas it has cleared of PKK militants. The PKK, meanwhile, is forging deeper alliances with Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitary groups (also known as Hashd al-Shaabi) at odds with Ankara and is exercising increasing decision-making authority within the ranks of its affiliates in Syria, primarily the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey sees as an extension of the PKK. The expansion of the battlefield, use of new tactics and involvement of new actors make it harder to identify avenues for tamping down the conflict. Still, steps to contain escalation between the YPG on one side, and Turkish forces and Turkey-backed rebels in northern Syria on the other could help reduce the risk of more violence. So, too, in Iraq, could progress on the Sinjar agreement, an accord signed between the Iraqi government and the KRG in October 2020 that lays out steps related to governance and security in Iraq’s Sinjar district and may address some of Turkey’s concerns about the presence of the PKK there, though for now resistance from the PKK and groups aligned with it to the deal’s implementation remains a challenge.

Figure 1. Map of Northern Iraq

Sources: Borders and roads, Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX); border crossings from HDX and Crisis Group interviews; Turkish military posts from an official Turkish Directorate of Communications map reproduced by Rudaw Media Network; mountainous regions, USGS GMTED2010.

Figure 2

ACLED tracks a wide variety of political events, including protests, armed clashes, looting and non-violent transfer of territory. For purposes of this analysis, “violent incidents” are defined as those in the following ACLED sub-event types: “air/drone strike”, “armed clash”, “grenade”, “remote explosive/landmine/IED”, “shelling/artillery/missile attack”, “suicide bomb” and “attack”.

Turkey’s New Tactics

Turkey’s conflict with the PKK has progressed through several phases since hostilities resumed in 2015 (see Figure 2). The bloodiest fighting took place between 2015 and 2017 in Turkey’s majority-Kurdish south east, as Turkish forces sought to drive the group out of its strongholds over the course of roughly two years of urban warfare concentrated in a few districts of provinces such as Diyarbakır, Şırnak, Hakkari and Mardin (see Figure 3). By 2017, the fighting had moved to rural areas of the south east. As the Turkish military pushed militants out of Turkey, the battleground shifted to northern Iraq, where it was centred largely in areas governed by the KRG. Since July 2015, roughly one in six deaths in the conflict have occurred in Iraq, the majority of them PKK militants. With the KRG’s acquiescence, Turkey now has 2,000-3,000 troops stationed at around 40 outposts in northern Iraq, some as far as 40km from the border, Turkish security analysts estimate. This deployment comes on top of the estimated 8,000-10,000 Turkish troops garrisoned in three pockets of northern Syria: one in Afrin, a second between Azaz and Jarablus in the north west, and a third between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ain in the north east.

The conflict’s operational tempo reached a new peak in 2021, with more violent incidents than in any comparable period since the ceasefire broke down – including airstrikes, firefights, roadside bombings and rocket attacks – according to open-source data gathered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). ACLED recorded a monthly average of 209 such incidents in Turkey and northern Iraq in 2021, exceeding the pace of violent incidents seen during the urban phase of the conflict between 2015 and 2017. Most of these incidents were Turkish airstrikes, with almost 1,200 in northern Iraq in 2021 alone. The higher incident rate is accompanied by a lower level of fatalities than in the conflict’s early years, when combat was concentrated in densely populated areas. Hostilities claimed an average of 40 people per month in 2021, most of them PKK militants, compared to 150 per month in 2016, according to Crisis Group’s data (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

The deployment of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones since 2017 has proven a game changer for Ankara, providing both armed overwatch for Turkish forces and enabling the targeted killing of higher-ranking PKK figures in hard-to-reach terrain in Turkey’s south east and northern Iraq. The PKK has long found refuge in the steep cliffs and jagged peaks of the Zagros mountain range stretching from the Iraq-Iran border to the Turkey-Iraq frontier. PKK training camps dot the region, including in the Qandil mountains of Iraq, where the group’s headquarters are located. Before it fielded the Bayraktars, Turkey had been using unarmed surveillance drones purchased from the U.S. and Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Besides lacking strike capability, these drones were costly and had a more limited range than the Bayraktars, as well as less powerful cameras and transmission systems. Turkish officials also reportedly feared that because those drones were more easily detectable by countries with radar instruments in range – like Israel, the U.S. and potentially even Iran – their activities could more easily be monitored.

The use of more advanced and versatile drone technology has enabled Turkish forces, including ground units, to penetrate deeper into Iraqi territory and go after higher-ranking militants. Drone technologies offer more protection for forces on the ground and can increase their confidence and morale. Turkish troops have also been cooperating more closely with the KDP to gather better intelligence on militant movements and hideouts, and Turkish media are reporting the participation of Turkish intelligence agencies in anti-PKK operations in the area. Moreover, according to Crisis Group data, Turkey is killing an increasing proportion of militants whom the PKK itself classifies as commanders or regards as playing substantial battlefield roles as a share of total fatalities (see Figure 4). Crisis Groups categorises this group of militants as “seasoned”. In 2021, more than one third of the confirmed 312 PKK fighters killed were such seasoned militants. The ratio of killed PKK militants to killed state security force members has also risen more than fourfold in Turkey’s favour since July 2015.

Figure 4

Crisis Group has recorded 74 non-combatant deaths in violent incidents in northern Iraq since July 2015, based on local reports and open-source information, more than half of them after mid-2019 when Turkey intensified its air campaign. News reports from the ground also suggest that a few thousand villagers in the Amedi district, as well as hundreds more in the Duhok district, lost their homes and moved to villages or cities farther south. Civilians in the area complain of both heavy Turkish bombardment and PKK militants’ pressure on locals to provide shelter from air raids.

Turkish officials publicly deny any civilian casualties from airstrikes. They say the use of drones, by allowing for more precise targeting, has significantly minimised the risk of collateral damage. Amid the dominant nationalist discourse in Turkey, criticism of armed drone use is deemed unpatriotic. The technology’s seeming effectiveness in weakening the PKK in the last few years and its export to other battlefields – such as Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Libya and Ethiopia – have unleashed what some analysts call “techno-nationalism”, ie, a pride in technology as a source of strength abroad that helps the government rally nationalist supporters at home.

The Turkey-KDP Partnership

In northern Iraq, the Kurdistan Democratic Party has emerged as Turkey’s main local partner in its fight with the PKK. Turkish relations with the party hit a low point in 2017 when Ankara opposed the KDP’s failed referendum on independence for Iraq’s Kurdistan region. But their joint opposition to the PKK’s presence in the area and growing trade ties have helped patch things up. The KDP has allowed Ankara to set up military bases and expand its anti-PKK intelligence and other operations in the territory the KRG administers. Critically, it also offers Turkey its own battlefield intelligence as the KDP and its armed forces know the terrain and have a good grasp of the PKK’s tactics. At times, KDP-aligned security forces also step in to establish control of areas in northern and north-eastern KRG-controlled Iraq from which Turkish operations have driven PKK militants.

The KDP’s military cooperation with Ankara is underpinned by growing economic interdependence.

The KDP’s military cooperation with Ankara is underpinned by growing economic interdependence. In 2020, despite COVID-19 restrictions, trade between Iraq and Turkey reached nearly $20 billion, double what it was in 2019. Around 70 per cent of that commerce was with the KRG, in whose territory approximately 1,500 Turkish companies operate. Turkish construction firms have invested at large scale in infrastructure and transport projects, including highways and railways. Turkey is also an important transit country for KRG oil and gas. Around 450,000 barrels of oil per day were pumped in 2020 through two pipelines with terminals in Ceyhan, a port in southern Turkey. These economic ties give Turkey more leverage over the KDP.

But the KDP’s alliance with Ankara has also made it a target of PKK attacks. Tensions rose particularly quickly after mid-October 2020, when KRG security services accused the PKK of assassinating the head of its local security forces, Ghazi Salih, in Duhok province near the Turkish border. Since then, the PKK have twice attacked the KRG-Turkey (Kirkuk-Ceyhan) pipeline, briefly interrupting the westward flow of oil, in October 2020 and January 2022. They also claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb killing one KDP peshmerga in November 2020. More recently, in mid-January 2022, as clashes between PKK and KDP-allied groups in Syria became more frequent, KRG authorities decided to close the Samalka/Faysh Khabour border crossing between Syria and Iraq.

The PKK’s Response

Turkey’s evolving tactics have to some degree paralleled the PKK’s efforts to step up its influence in northern Iraq’s Sinjar district and in north-eastern Syria.

The rise and fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) enabled the PKK to expand its reach in northern Iraq and north-eastern Syria in the period that began in 2014, when ISIS established its self-declared caliphate in the region. Before that, the PKK’s presence in northern Iraq had been largely confined to the Qandil mountains and the Makhmour district (the latter home to a Kurdish refugee camp of 10,000) farther south. In the first part of 2014, ISIS took over parts of Iraq to the south west and west of the majority-Kurdish areas, including the city of Mosul. Then, in August 2014, the jihadist group attacked Sinjar, a majority-Yazidi district in the Ninewa province, where KDP peshmerga forces had largely been in charge since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The peshmerga withdrew, but the PKK – with help from local partners – stepped in shortly thereafter. With an assist from U.S. airpower, a combination of pro-PKK groups (the YPG and Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units, or YBS) and KDP peshmerga forces – helped repulse ISIS in late 2015. After that, PKK elements established a presence in Sinjar’s west, while KDP peshmerga dominated its east.

Until the KDP attempted its independence referendum in September 2017, the district largely remained under the control of KDP peshmerga forces, while the PKK maintained a presence. Following the referendum’s failure, Iraqi federal forces pushed the peshmerga back from “disputed territories” – areas where both the central government and the KRG claim administrative authority – between Baghdad and Erbil, including Sinjar. Since then, the KDP has not been able to return to Sinjar. Instead, the district has become a PKK sanctuary, governed by an administrative set-up led by the YBS, which has links to the PKK as well as Iran-backed Iraqi paramilitaries.

As it is not far from the Syria-Iraq border, the PKK has also been able to use Sinjar as a hub for outreach into Syria. Operating from Sinjar, it forged tighter links with the YPG, its Syrian affiliate, which by 2017 had established its own self-described “autonomous administration” in north-eastern Syria. Washington and other outside powers back this administration in part due to the YPG’s major role in the anti-ISIS fight in Syria. International support not only allowed the PKK’s Syrian affiliate (along with non-Kurdish partners) to exercise governance in the country’s north east but also, in effect, put the YPG in charge of security in the area.

Ankara worries that Sinjar has become a land bridge connecting the PKK in northern Iraq with the YPG and other affiliates in north-eastern Syria.

Ankara worries that Sinjar has become a land bridge connecting the PKK in northern Iraq with the YPG and other affiliates in north-eastern Syria. Top Turkish officials have repeatedly vowed that they will not allow Sinjar to become a “second Qandil” –ie, another PKK bastion. To curb its reach in Sinjar, the Turkish military has ordered numerous airstrikes since 2020, targeting both PKK and YBS fighters. The PKK has taken advantage of the natural protection offered by the mountains, building tunnels and secure locations, and thus reducing the impact of Turkish strikes.

The Sinjar and Syria Fronts

The combination of Turkey’s stepped-up operations in northern Iraq and the PKK’s entrenchment in Sinjar has driven an escalation of tensions on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border.

In February 2021, Turkey threatened to launch a broader military operation in Sinjar when, in reprisal for a Turkish push into northern Iraq, the PKK executed thirteen Turkish citizens (including soldiers and police officers) whom it had kidnapped in Turkey in 2015 and 2016 and had been holding hostage in a cave. The incident stoked nationalist sentiment in Turkey, putting significant pressure on Ankara to react. On 15 February, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said: “From now on, nowhere is safe for terrorists, neither Qandil nor Sinjar nor Syria”. In another speech a month later, he said: “We may come there overnight, all of a sudden”. The PKK’s allies in Iraq were concerned. Expecting a Turkish offensive, the Iran-backed paramilitary groups deployed additional fighters to Sinjar, a move that Turkish pro-government media outlets saw as a clear sign that they were shielding the PKK.

Turkish officials say the possibility of a broadened military campaign will stay on the table until the KRG and the Iraqi federal government make progress on an October 2020 deal, backed by the U.S. and UN, that calls for the removal of actors from outside the district – including the PKK, its Yazidi affiliate the YBS and Iraqi paramilitaries – from Sinjar. The agreement envisions the establishment of a governance and security mechanism in which Baghdad, Erbil and displaced Yazidis would share responsibilities. The PKK and the YBS, along with the paramilitaries, reject the proposed deal, which if anything has pushed them closer together.

Meanwhile, as the PKK has lost ground in Turkey and parts of northern Iraq, its cadres have sought greater decision-making authority in areas controlled by the YPG in north-eastern Syria and recruited more fighters from among their Syrian affiliate’s ranks. “Northern Syria has almost become something like a pressure relief valve for the PKK. … The more Turkey squeezes the PKK in Turkey and Iraq, the more its cadres assert themselves in Syria”, a seasoned security analyst said. PKK-trained cadres embedded in the YPG in Syria increasingly appear to be in the driving seat in important decisions such as budget allocations, battlefield appointments and the deployment of military supplies in Syria. Also, in the last two years – in a likely attempt to make up for losses – the PKK enlisted numerous militants born in northern Syria, most of whom it sent to northern Iraq to fend off Turkish incursions. Over 14 per cent of the PKK militants killed in Iraq and Turkey in 2020-2021 were born in northern Syria, the highest share Crisis Group has recorded since July 2015. In fact, in the four years of escalation before 2020 the proportion of Syria-born militants among the total killed was never above 2 per cent.

In the last two years, the YPG has also clashed with Turkish and Turkey-backed forces more frequently in northern Syria. Turkish officials believe the PKK is behind an increase in roadside bombs and rockets fired from YPG-held areas at Turkish troops and Ankara-backed rebels in Turkish-controlled pockets of northern Syria as well as a number of cross-border strikes into Turkey. Members of the YPG’s civilian affiliate, the self-declared “autonomous administration”, publicly distance themselves from these attacks, while Ankara blames them on PKK cadres from Qandil either embedded in or operating independently of the YPG. Yet the Turkish military has also launched drone strikes upon higher-ranking YPG members. Turkey’s above-referenced strike surge in early February 2022 hit YPG positions in northern Syria’s Derik as well as Sinjar and Makhmour in northern Iraq. For now, the U.S. troop presence in Syria’s north east and the leverage Washington has over both sides continue to play a restraining role, but more YPG attacks on Turkish forces could prompt Ankara to broaden its military campaign and upset the fragile status quo in the area.

Looking Ahead

Turkey will almost certainly continue to rely on airpower to battle the PKK in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.

Turkey will almost certainly continue to rely on airpower to battle the PKK in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, with all the repercussions that entails. Its military campaign supported by advanced drone technology has been effective in curbing the PKK’s presence in south-eastern Turkey and northern Iraq. But it has also fuelled intra-Kurdish rivalry between the KDP and PKK in northern Iraq, and exacted a toll on civilians living in the area, compelling some to leave their homes. It has also generated a response from the PKK, which has strengthened its ties with affiliated groups in both Iraq and north-eastern Syria. The result has been new clashes between Turkey’s security forces and groups it partners with on the one hand, and those working with the PKK and its affiliates on the other.

With the growing intensity of Turkey’s campaign against the PKK in northern Iraq and Syria drawing in new actors, a number of factors could stir up the already volatile mix. A U.S. withdrawal from north-eastern Syria for now appears unlikely but would remove an important check on the PKK’s targeting of Turkish forces and Turkey. While Turkey’s air campaign has taken out key PKK figures, it could breed resentment among the population and help the PKK recruit more fighters, particularly from new areas to which fighting has spread. It is also unclear how the approaching 2023 Turkish elections will play into calculations, whether pushing Ankara to step up its air campaign or the PKK to stand down in anticipation that more attacks might help the Turkish leadership rally nationalist supporters at home.

The risk of escalation is higher than the chances that things will settle down, but there are measures that the parties and their partners from outside the region can take to improve the odds. In Iraq, progress on the Sinjar agreement could go some way toward addressing Turkey’s security concerns, though its rivals’ outright rejection of the agreement’s current form for now hinders such efforts (a forthcoming Crisis Group publication will tackle this issue in more depth). In Syria, as argued in a November 2021 Crisis Group report, the U.S. could try to persuade its Syrian Kurdish partners and, by extension, the YPG to rein in attacks on Turkish troops and Ankara-backed rebels. It could also push Turkey to refrain from widening its military operations in the area, which – depending on the extent of the escalation such operations might provoke – could result in the displacement of civilians and complicate efforts to contain ISIS. Such measures will be difficult to advance and would only go some way toward defusing tensions, but they could still be helpful to eventually forestall new bouts of violence.