Ending the PKK Insurgency in Turkey
Ending the PKK Insurgency in Turkey
Report 213 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey: Ending the PKK Insurgency

To head off a serious escalation of the armed conflict, Turkey and the Turkish Kurd nationalist movement must immediately step back from the trap of a new cycle of tit-for-tat military and terrorist attacks that have killed 110 people since June.

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A surge in violence has dashed plans for a negotiated end to the 27-year-old Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Kar­ke­rên Kurdistan, PKK) insurgency. Since Turkey’s elections in mid-June, clashes have killed more than 110 people, country-wide ethnic friction has hardened opinion, and the government has started bombing PKK bases and talking about an imminent ground offensive in northern Iraq. The PKK must immediately end its new wave of terrorist and insurgent attacks, and the Turkish authorities must control the escalation with the aim to halt all violence. A hot war and militaristic tactics did not solve the Kurdish problem in the 1990s and will not now. A solution can only lie in advancing the constitutional, language and legal reforms of the past decade that have gone part way to giving Tur­kish Kurds equal rights. Given the recent violence, returning to a positive dynamic requires a substantial strategic leap of imagination from both sides. Neither should allow itself to be swept away by armed conflict that has already killed more than 30,000 since 1984.

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The Turkish Kurd nationalist movement must firmly commit to a legal, non-violent struggle within Turkey, and its elected representatives must take up their seats in parliament, the only place to shape the country-wide reforms that can give Turkish Kurds long-denied universal rights. The Turkish authorities must implement radical judicial, social and political measures that persuade all Turkish Kurds they are fully respected citizens. They should reach out to non-violent nationalists and not abandon long-standing negotiations on disarmament with the PKK, including its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan. Although justified in acting resolutely to block the PKK’s recent attacks, the authorities must avoid falling into the trap of tit-for-tat escalation. Many big Turkish strikes against PKK bases in northern Iraq solved nothing in the past. As the more powerful party, the authorities should instead take the lead in creating opportunities to end the fighting.

For all its gaps, flaws, and unravelling since late 2009, the promises of the Democratic Opening developed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) remain the best way forward. That initiative counts as Turkey’s most credible attempt to heal the open wounds of conflict between the state and its estimated 15-20 per cent Kurdish-speaking population. This report details more than a dozen concrete steps it has involved so far, including broadening access to Kurdish-language television, legislating the right to make political speeches in Kurdish and overseeing an end to almost all torture in Turkish jails. Others have led to a new sense of freedom in Kurdish cities, high-level talks with Öcalan and a greater readiness by mainstream commentators to discuss previously forbidden ideas, like a change in Öcalan’s jail conditions after a full peace deal or a federal disposition for the Kurdish-majority south east.

The outline of a deal to end the insurgency that was also under negotiation – an end to the fighting, major legal reforms, an amnesty and Turkish Kurd acceptance to work within the legal Turkish system – remains the best long-term outcome for both sides. But while making these reforms, the authorities have arrested hundreds of Turkish Kurd nationalists, including many elected municipal officials and other nationalist party members. More than 3,000 nationalist activists are behind bars, many punished as “terrorists” for the non-violent expression of opinions under laws for which the AKP is responsible. On the other hand, what should have been the centrepiece of the Democratic Opening – a ground-breaking PKK amnesty in October 2009 – foundered when Turkish Kurd nationalists exploited it for propaganda purposes.

AKP’s relatively open-minded approach has won it half the Turkish Kurds’ votes, but the government has to go further and fully engage the other half and its representatives, who are the decision-makers in the Kurdish nationalist movement. It should offer educational options that respect Kur­dish languages and culture and rewrite laws that unfairly jail nationalists as terrorists. It must also ensure its policies are fully implemented by all military, judicial and state bodies. Otherwise, as developments since the June 2011 elections show, the nationalists will feel unconvinced and threatened and be unready to reach a compromise deal.

AKP leaders must also speak out to convince mainstream Turkish public opinion that reform is essential to resolve the Kurdish problem; granting universal rights is not a concession; Turkish is not being undermined as the country’s official language; and almost all Turkish Kurds wish to continue living in a united Turkey. The government must order the security forces to try whenever possible to capture rather than kill PKK insurgents, and should engage the legal Kurdish nationalist party to the maximum extent.

For its part, the PKK must immediately end its attacks. The broader Turkish Kurd nationalist movement has to make unambiguously clear that targeting civilians, civil servants, police or military on routine patrols are unlikely to win them the greater rights that Kurds crave and deserve. Instead the deputies elected mainly from the Peace and Democracy Party (Barış ve Demokrasi Partisi, BDP) should take their seats in parliament and concentrate on winning change through the government’s promised constitutional reforms.

Turkish Kurd nationalists should be specific in their demands and stick to any agreements made, for instance on amnesties for insurgents. They must convince western Turkish opinion that they sincerely have switched from seeking an independent Kurdistan carved out of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran to seeking a democratic future in Turkey. The focus should be on building up a legal national political party, committed to ending the fighting and achieving universal rights through peaceful means.

Members of the international community now play only indirect roles in this conflict. Since 2007, the U.S. has supported its NATO ally, Turkey, with real-time intelligence from aerial reconnaissance of the mountainous border with Iraq, where most PKK fighters are based. EU states have woken up in recent years to the danger of allowing the PKK to raise funds and recruit in Europe. But Turkey will be unable to present itself credibly as the regional democratic standard bearer if it chooses military means alone to try to solve its Kurdish problem. Alongside legitimate security measures, it must fully satisfy the universal human rights of its Turkish Kurd citizens. As the security situation deteriorates in Syria and U.S. troops pull out of Iraq – both countries that have in the past been sources of external Kurdish instability for Turkey – Ankara faces an imperative to take courageous steps to resolve the principal domestic roots of its most urgent and dangerous problem.

Istanbul/Brussels, 20 September 2011

Podcast / Europe & Central Asia

Ending the PKK Insurgency in Turkey

Hugh Pope, Turkey/Cyprus Project Director for the International Crisis Group, looks at the recent spike in violence between the Turkish government and the Kurdish PKK insurgency and discusses what can be done to bring the decades-long conflict to a close.

turkey-podcast-22sep11
In this podcast, Hugh Pope looks at the recent spike in violence between the Turkish government and the Kurdish PKK insurgency. CRISIS GROUP

You can find below a transcript of this podcast.

Relations between the Turkish government and the Kurdish insurgent group the PKK have deteriorated sharply since Turkey’s mid-June elections. Clashes have killed more than 110 people, and the government has began bombing PKK bases. I am speaking today with Hugh Pope, Crisis Group’s Turkey/Cyprus Project Director, about the best way to end the armed conflict that has already killed more than 30,000 since 1984. Hugh is on the line from Istanbul.

Hugh, what’s behind this surge in violence?

The violence has actually been slowly ticking up in the months before June, but there are two main factors. One is that the Turkish government has started talking a lot tougher and acting tougher. On the other side, the PKK, the main Kurdish insurgent group in Turkey, has clearly decided to go on the offensive, and we can tell this because they’ve revived tactics of kidnapping, of shooting up civilians, of attacking off-duty officers. There are possible terrorist attacks as well on tourist beaches and in Ankara, none of which have been properly claimed, but appear or certainly are perceived by the Turkish side to be part of the escalation. What this is really bringing back to mind--certainly in the commentaries in the Turkish papers, with people talking of all-out war--it’s reminding people of the really bad old days of the Kurdish insurgency in the 1990s, when many, many people were killed.

And what were some of those policies in the 90s? What was happening then, and what are people fearing right now?

Back then it was a situation where we’d sometimes have 10 people killed a day, and that would almost be normal. We had a time when there were whole areas of the southeast of Turkey which were no-go areas. There were massacres. It was extremely vicious--there would be days when nearly 100 people could be killed. The situation has changed immensely since then. There’s been extraordinary normalization in the southeast of Turkey. The Kurdish areas of Turkey--Kurds are about 15% of Turkey--have shared in the extraordinary boom in Turkey as a whole.

What are the goals of the PKK and do they accurately reflect the larger Turkish Kurd national movement?

The PKK has great sympathy among Turkish Kurds. Typically, the main legal Turkish Kurd nationalist party, the Peace and Democracy Party, gets about six percent of the national Turkish vote, which implies that people who sympathize with these nationalist goals are about half of the Turkish Kurds. The other half tend to vote for the more Muslim-orientated, conservative Justice and Development Party, the ruling party.

The PKK has changed its goals. It used to be an independent Kurdistan, ideally for all 25 million Kurds in the Middle East, who are currently split between Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.

They’ve moderated that goal. They are looking for some kind of autonomy--they call it democratic autonomy. That is also the same goal that has been articulated by the legal Turkish Kurd nationalist party. And so, in a sense, you can say that they have agreed on what the slogan will be. Under that slogan, they have demands of education in their mother tongue, in the two main Kurdish languages in Turkey. (Although they always call it just Kurdish, there are in fact two languages of Kurdish in Turkey.) They also want constitutional recognition, by which I think they would be satisfied by a removal of all ethnic discrimination from the constitution, which has overtones of favoring Turkish ethnicity. They also want autonomy, which is also not very precisely defined, but in general probably means decentralization, allowing greater power to municipal administrations in Kurdish areas and everywhere else in Turkey.

These are all perfectly reasonable demands. In our report, we say these all should be implemented to some degree. The problem is that on both sides the rhetoric is heating up. When the rhetoric heats up, the political disconnect becomes greater. The Turkish authorities and the PKK actually went as far as to reach apparently a certain agreement on what they would do in terms of ending the insurgency. The trouble is that it broke down quite recently. The main problem seems to be that the understanding of each other’s positions shown by the Turkish Kurd insurgents and Turkish authorities is not shared by their respective popular constituents. There’s a credibility gap. 

The recent violence is a really sharp turn away from the conciliatory policies that the government has had over the past few years. There was a program called the Democratic Opening. What were the reforms that the Democratic Opening introduced, and do you think this violence has meant that that program has been a failure?

One of the reasons we wanted to put this report out was to try to draw attention to the very real changes that the Democratic Opening managed to usher in. It was never planned out fully. There was never a precise set of goals, but the ruling AKP party tried to create a situation in which taboos could be broken and everything could be talked about.

Within this context, they managed to bring for the first time 24-hour Kurdish language television to Turkey. They managed to open university institutes. We have changes in the law where, in elections, Turkish Kurd politicians can now speak Kurdish on the election trail. There is a general normalization of Kurdish culture, to the extent where the Turkish Prime Minister was summoning groups of writers, singers, theater people, film people, to separate meetings in Istanbul and urging them to embrace Kurdish themes and to actually perform in Kurdish areas and to use the Kurdish language--all of which did usher in a kind of Kurdish spring, if you will. It is, in our mind, absolutely vital that Turkey gets back to this reform movement. The reforms that were done are only partial.

So those are some of the broader goals. What are some of the specific things that the Turkish government can do to stop the current round of clashes?

These clashes have been going on for 27 years. Off and on, there have been sort of unilateral ceasefires, quiet periods, and now we have a hot period. These things are pretty routine frankly. There is a big movement now since the June general elections in Turkey to write a new constitution. The government has to go forward with that, and it has to give the Kurds universal rights in that constitutions and in the legal system. That’s not a long-term goal. That must be done now. And the Turkish Kurd nationalist movement must join in. They have 30 MPs who can take seats in parliament, and they are boycotting it currently. They should go back.

There’s a lot of public pressure to punish the PKK in its bases in northern Iraq by staging a Turkish offensive there. It’s pretty clear that Turkey wants to do something there to show that it’s taking action and, indeed, to try and limit the PKK. And of course, given the rise especially in terrorist attacks, Turkey has every legitimate right to take action to stop this happening. But it’s got to be very careful of unintended consequences. Any sense that Turkey is going for all out war will provoke a sense in the Turkish Kurd community that they will have to choose sides once again, that they’ll have to leave the middle ground, which was doing so much good in Turkey. If civilians start getting killed in northern Iraq, which the Turkish side has been very careful about this time, then things will of course also damage Turkey’s relations with the Iraqi Kurds and Iraq as a whole.

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