Arrow Left Arrow Right Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Twitter Video Camera Youtube
Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement
Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
Report 219 / Europe & Central Asia

Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement

Turkey needs to recover the initiative after the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) insurgency’s aggressive escalation of violence and implement a long-term conflict resolution strategy that addresses Kurdish grievances.

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

Executive Summary

Turkey’s Kurdish conflict is becoming more violent, with more than 700 dead in fourteen months, the highest casualties in thirteen years. Prolonged clashes with militants in the south east, kidnappings and attacks on civilians suggest hardliners are gaining the upper hand in the insurgent PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). The government and mainstream media should resist the impulse to call for all-out anti-terrorist war and focus instead, together with Kurds, on long-term conflict resolution. There is need to reform oppressive laws that jail legitimate Kurdish politicians and make amends for security forces’ excess. The Kurdish move­ment, including PKK leaders, must abjure terrorist attacks and publicly commit to realistic political goals. Above all, politicians on all sides must legalise the rights most of Turkey’s Kurds seek, including mother-language education; an end to discriminatory laws; fair political representation; and more decentralisation. Turkey’s Kurds would then have full equality and rights, support for PKK violence would drop, and the government would be better placed to negotiate insurgent disarmament and demobilisation.

The government has zigzagged in its commitment to Kurds’ rights. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) initiated a “Democratic Opening” in 2005, but its commitment faltered in 2009. At times, AKP leaders give positive signals, including scheduling optional Kurdish lessons in school and agreeing to collaborate in parliament with other parties on more reforms. At others, they appear intent on crushing the PKK militarily, minimise the true extent of fighting, fail to sympathise with Kurdish civilian casualties, openly show their deep distrust of the Kurdish movement, do nothing to stop the arrest of thousands of non-violent activists and generally remain complacent as international partners mute their criticism at a time of Middle East turmoil.

Contradictory signals have also come from the Kurdish movement, including leaders of legal factions and the PKK, which is condemned in Turkey and many other countries as a terrorist organisation. They have made conciliatory statements, tried to stick to legal avenues of association and protest in the European diaspora and repeatedly called for a mutual truce. At the same time, few have disavowed the suicide bombings, car bombs, attacks on civilians and kidnappings that have increased in 2012. Hardliners promote the armed struggle, radical youth defy more moderate leaders, and hundreds of young men and women volunteer to join the insurgency. European and U.S. counter-terrorism officials still accuse the PKK of extortion and drug dealing. Mixed messages have convinced mainstream public opinion that Turkey’s Kurds seek an independent state, even though most just want full rights within Turkey. The Kurdish movement needs to speak with one voice and honour its leaders’ commitments, if it is to be taken seriously in Ankara and its grievances are to be heard sympathetically by the rest of the country.

Finding the way to a settlement is hard, as terrorist attacks continue and the PKK mounts increasingly lengthy offensives. Turmoil in neighbouring Syria, where a PKK-affil­iated group has taken control of at least one major Kurdish area near the border with Turkey, worries Ankara and may be inflating the insurgents’ sense of power. Some on both sides are talking again of winning militarily and seem to have accepted many hundreds of dead each year as the cost, even though after nearly three decades of inconclusive fighting, public opinion among Turks and Kurds alike increasingly concedes that military action alone will not solve their mutual problem.

What has been missing is a clear conflict resolution strategy, implemented in parallel with measured security efforts to combat armed militants, to convince Turkey’s Kurds that their rights will be gradually but convincingly extended in a democratising Turkey. Now is a good time for this to change. An election (presidential) is not expected for two years. A new constitution is being drafted. The AKP has a secure parliamentary majority. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should seize the opportunity to champion democratic reforms that would meet many of the demands voiced by most of Turkey’s Kurds. This would not require negotiations with the PKK, but the prime minister should engage with the legal Kurdish movement, take its grievances into account and make it feel ownership over reforms.

Major misapprehensions exist on the question of what the Kurdish movement is and what it wants. The actions recommended below would move the conflict closer to resolution than military operations alone.

Istanbul/Brussels, 11 September 2012

The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria

Originally published in Middle East Eye

Directly arming one mainly Kurdish faction in Syria makes U.S. partly responsible for the fate of Syria’s Kurds. Given Ankara’s bitter opposition to the group, Washington should push its Kurdish partner to focus on regional autonomy in Syria, not its insurgency in Turkey.

With its 9 May announcement that it has decided to directly arm the Kurdish-dominated People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Washington has inserted itself even further into one of the region’s oldest and bloodiest conflicts: the 33-year-long fight between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the mother organisation of the YPG and a group deemed a terrorist group by not only Turkey but by the US itself.

In fighting the Islamic State (IS), Washington has been supporting the YPG indirectly for several years and meeting with its commanders. But the decision to provide arms directly further elevates the PKK’s Syrian branch’s status. By doing so the US risks a deep, immediate rift with Turkey, its sometimes difficult but critical NATO partner of 60 years.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them.

Playing sponsor to the YPG also means that the US is at least partly responsible for what may happen to Syria’s Kurds if and when the tide of the Syrian war turns against them. It would therefore do well to use its enhanced leverage to push its Kurdish partner to make the right choices.

For the US, any assessment should begin with a sober assessment of who the YPG is. US officials privately concede that the difference between the YPG and its civilian arm (the Party of Democratic Unity, or PYD) on the one hand and the PKK on the other amounts to little more than a useful fiction.

While the rank and file is mostly Syrian, the YPG’s upper command levels are heavily dominated by cadres trained in the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq and steeped in the party’s ideology.

Likewise, the idea that it would be possible to support the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their advance against IS without simultaneously strengthening the YPG, who form the alliance’s core fighting force and top command, as previously claimed, has little bearing on reality.

Fateful choice

US support has enabled the SDF - and thus the YPG - to push way beyond the Kurdish-majority areas in Syria’s north-east. Working ever closer with the US-led international coalition against IS, the SDF is now closing in on Raqqa, the jihadist group’s unofficial capital.

Yet as it controls an ever-larger area, the YPG-PYD is rapidly approaching a fateful choice which Washington should seek to influence: whether to continue to back the PKK’s decades-old struggle with Turkey, or to devote its territorial gains and accumulated diplomatic credit to consolidating and protecting the status of de-facto self-rule it has achieved as a project in its own right.

Since 2012, the PKK and its Syrian affiliates have pursued a dual objective: improving their strategic position vis-a-vis Turkey by establishing a continuous militarised land belt along the Syria-Turkey border, and establishing what they refer to as “democratic self-administration” over the Kurdish and non-Kurdish communities that fell under their control.

Initially, those two objectives were mutually reinforcing: while the YPG-PYD worked to build “Rojava” (Kurdish for “West-Kurdistan”), the PKK exploited its affiliate’s gains to apply pressure on Turkey.

Yet this previously successful strategy of imposing facts on the ground and seizing territory under the cover of the anti-IS campaign has shown diminishing returns, and is now approaching a point where US military support today could leave the Kurdish militia dangerously exposed tomorrow.

Breaking point

Relentless territorial expansion means the YPG-PYD are now ruling over an ever-growing number of non-Kurdish communities, while the preoccupation with military matters has crippled their capacity to govern. Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch the governance model to breaking point.

Taking Raqqa, an overwhelmingly Arab city of 200,000, will likely stretch [the YPG-PYD's] governance model to breaking point.

More critically still, Turkish hostility has increased along with the SDF/YPG’s military gains. While officially aimed at ISIS, Ankara’s incursion north of Aleppo in August 2016 was for the most part geared to stem the PKK’s westward advance toward Kurd-populated Afrin. In April 2017, Turkey went further and bombed the group’s positions in northern Syria and northern Iraq, not withstanding US objections.

For the moment, the YPG-PYD feels itself protected by the alliance with the US Indeed, Turkey’s persistent opposition to Washington’s cooperation with the YPG has yielded little of substance. That the US is “aware” of Turkish security concerns and would control the use of the weapons it hands out apparently has made make little impression in Ankara: “Every weapon provided to the YPG is a threat to Turkey", said Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Yet once the YPG’s utility in fighting IS expires in the latter’s defeat, it is unclear whether the US will continue to devote resources to northern Syria, including post-IS stabilisation.

As a result, the YPG-PYD’s prospects could take a nosedive: trapped between a hostile Turkey to the north no longer hamstrung by the US and an opportunistic regime in Damascus waiting for the Kurdish areas to fall back in its lap, it will need new friends.

These are in short supply. Russia will almost certainly privilege its relationship with Damascus, and has shown itself unable to override a Turkish veto on the PYD’s participation in the Astana or Geneva talks.

YPG-controlled territories in Syria as an alternative supply route to its ally Hizbollah on the Mediterranean, but ultimately it remains committed to Syria’s territorial integrity and is therefore unlikely to support the YPG-PYD’s aspirations of regional autonomy.

This absence of a viable, long-term regional or international backer, and the pressure from hostile neighbours, makes the future of the PKK’s Syrian self-rule project uncertain. Between 2013-15, Ankara showed it might be willing to live with the PYD as a neighbour if the PKK were to suspend its fight and withdraw its militants, a position it would do well to restate.

Although the environment has changed a lot since then, it is conceivable that if Turkey’s main strategic concern – a PKK affiliate geared for military confrontation along its southern border – is addressed, Ankara might be willing to give regional autonomy in north-east Syria space to exist.

Risk of chaos

For this to happen, the PKK needs to allow the YPG-PYD to think beyond its parent organisation’s decades-long fight against Turkey, and instead invest in sustainable governance and regional autonomy that achieves Kurdish rights in Syria.

This will require giving up any ambition to forcibly link Kurdish territories in Syria, and to give its self-administration real power - rather than keeping it under the thumb of PKK-trained military cadres, as is the situation today. 

Unless it changes strategy, the group’s current accomplishments in northern Syria represent the maximum it can realistically hope to achieve, and pushing any further will likely put the project in existential danger. This risks plunging yet another, relatively stable, region of Syria into chaos.

The US has leverage to influence the YPG-PYD’s behaviour, and should use it.