Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement
Turkey: The PKK and a Kurdish Settlement
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship
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.

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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

Podcast / Global

Turkey and Russia’s Complicated Relationship

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to expert Eleonora Tafuro, a research fellow at ISPI, to make sense of the complicated relationship between Russia and Turkey that has veered from collaborative to adversarial, often landing somewhere in between.

Russia and Turkey’s complex relationship sometimes baffles outside observers. In many respects, Turkey and Russia are fierce competitors: Moscow and Ankara back opposing camps in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkey is a member of NATO – the alliance Russia views as both adversary and threat. Nevertheless, this has not prevented collaboration between the two powers, who share profound economic and cultural ties and have made concerted efforts to deepen diplomatic relations, often to the frustration of Turkey's Western allies. 

This week on War & Peace, Olga Oliker and Hugh Pope talk to Eleonora Tafuro Ambrosetti, a research fellow at ISPI, about Russo-Turkish relations. Eleonora helps unpack the two countries’ complex relationship and sketch out the deep economic and cultural ties connecting them, as well as the numerous sources of tension pitting Ankara against Moscow. She discusses Turkey’s juggling act in balancing relations with the EU and the Kremlin, and how Russo-Turkish relations and soft power shape geopolitics in Central Asia, the Caucasus and Africa. Mainly recorded prior to the massive invasion of Ukraine by Russia in late February, this episode also includes a brief addendum to reflect those events.

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify

N.B. Please note that this episode was recorded in late January 2022.

For more on Turkish foreign policy, check out our Turkey regional page. For analysis on the Ukraine crisis and its global implications, make sure to explore our Ukraine page and read our latest Q&A: “The Ukraine War: A Global Crisis”.

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