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Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years
Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
A man walks among the wreckage of vehicles as Turkish rescue workers and police inspect the blast scene following a car bomb attack on a police station in the eastern Turkish city of Elazig, on August 18 2016. Ilyas Akengin / AFP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict Kills almost 3,000 in Two Years

20 July 2017 marks the two-year anniversary of a collapsed ceasefire that previously held for two-and-a-half-years between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Crisis Group's new analysis of open-source data reveals that the ongoing cycle of violence has now killed three times as many as the 2011-12 escalation.

On 20 July 2015, an Islamic State (ISIS) suicide bomb attack killed 33 and injured more than 100 mostly pro-Kurdish young activists in the majority Kurdish town of Suruç in south-eastern Turkey. That same day in nearby Adıyaman province, an alleged attack by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) killed a Turkish corporal. This marked the breakdown of a two-and-a-half-year ceasefire between the PKK – listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the U.S. and the EU – and the Turkish state. It was also the start of a violent cycle that has taken at least 2,981 lives, about three times more than during the July 2011-December 2012 escalation, when Crisis Group confirmed almost 1,000 deaths.

Among the deaths confirmed through Crisis Group’s open-source data collection, nearly half were PKK militants (1,378), followed by state security force members (976) and civilians (408). The remainder (219) were “youths of unknown affiliation”, a category created to account for confirmed urban deaths, aged 16-35, who cannot be positively identified as civilians or members of the PKK or its urban youth wing.

Since [June 2016], around 90 per cent of all deaths, as tracked by Crisis Group, occurred in rural south-eastern districts.

Violence peaked between February and May 2016 when fighting erupted in some urban districts of south-eastern Turkey for the first time in the conflict’s 33-year history. The PKK had built up an armed presence in the region during the 2012-2015 peace process. Around one third of all deaths occurred in Hakkari province’s Yüksekova district, Şırnak province’s Cizre and Silopi districts, Şırnak’s provincial centre, Mardin province’s Nusaybin district and Diyarbakır province’s Sur district. In June 2016, the conflict moved back to its traditional rural arena. Since then, around 90 per cent of all deaths, as tracked by Crisis Group, occurred in rural south-eastern districts.

The PKK or its affiliates have not carried out any major attack in the country’s urban centres and the west of Turkey since December. U.S. pressure, intense operations by the Turkish military and PKK’s strategic considerations appear to have contained its attacks. Nonetheless, Ankara is alarmed by the boost of PKK’s self-confidence especially following the U.S. decision to arm the YPG, the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, for the Raqqa offensive. Once the Raqqa offensive ends, the likelihood of military confrontation may increase if U.S. engagement wanes or if Turkey decides to strike the YPG in north-west Syria. Moreover, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) – a PKK offshoot widely believed to maintain links to the organisation – threatened new attacks on Turkish cities and tourist sites in a statement issued 6 June. These dynamics could herald an increase in violence in the coming months.

What follows are five main conclusions derived from the data collected over the last two years by Crisis Group. The analysis focuses on the last eight months of the conflict (December 2016-July 2017), but also looks at broader trends.

1. PKK attacks on local ruling party officials have intensified Turkish nationalist feelings

The recent killing of Justice and Development Party (AKP) political figures and civilians in the south east has heightened nationalist feelings in Turkish society. Since March 2017, when the Turkish military intensified its operations against the PKK, there have been seven attacks on political figures and civilians in the region. All are widely assumed to have been carried out by the PKK, though so far it has only taken responsibility for three of them.

Attacks claimed by the PKK:

  • On 9 June, a group of militants attacked the official car of Kozluk mayor (Batman province) Veysi Işık, killing 22-year-old music teacher Aybüke Şenay Yalçın, who was walking by.
     
  • On 16 June, Necmettin Yılmaz, a primary school teacher, was abducted while driving his car which was found burned in Tunceli province. The PKK announced that Yılmaz was “penalised” for collaborating with Turkish security forces. His body was found in a nearby river on 12 July.
     
  • On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Diyarbakır’s Lice district Orhan Mercan was shot dead in front of his house. The women’s branch of PKK’s urban youth wing, YPS-Jin (Civil Protection Units-Women), claimed responsibility, alleging Mercan was spying for the state and trying to recruit Kurdish youths as spies.

Attacks attributed to the PKK:

  • On 9 March, gunmen wounded Tayfun Ayhan, AKP head of Esendere town in Hakkari province’s Yüksekova district, and killed his brother, Murat Ayhan, while they were carrying out campaign activities for the presidential system referendum.
     
  • On 15 April, the motorcade of AKP Muradiye district head Ibrahim Vanlı was attacked in Van province. Vanlı’s nephew Adnan Vanlı, himself a village guard, was killed.
     
  • On 1 July, AKP deputy head of Van province’s Özalp district Aydın Ahi was shot dead.
     
  • On 8 July, two lorries and two cars were attacked in Hakkari’s Yüksekova district. Four civilians, Harun İbişoğlu, Dursun Doğan, Sadık Aktaş, and Hüseyin Kartal, were killed.

The PKK’s targeting of AKP political figures is probably an attempt to show the state, the AKP and its local supporters that it can still carry out dramatic attacks, despite an intense military crackdown. But this could backfire: instead of weakening the government and the president, these attacks are strengthening AKP support. Reports of slain security officials, political figures and civilians dominates the national media, justifying, in the eyes of many, harsh anti-PKK operations. Fuelling nationalist fervour over the past two years has allowed Ankara’s political leadership to consolidate support for its agenda, strengthening its alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which helped it win the April 2017 presidential system referendum. Meanwhile, PKK attacks also allow Ankara to justify the prosecution of some opponents by labelling them “terrorists” or “collaborators”.

As the AKP continues mobilising nationalist segments of society and banks on its alliance with the MHP, it is unlikely that the political leadership will return to a more constructive agenda addressing Kurdish demands or resuming peace talks in the medium term for two reasons:

  • Following the April referendum, the AKP still relies on its alliance with the MHP – which opposes concessions to address Kurdish aspirations – to pass new internal parliamentary regulations and other adjustment laws.
     
  • Two significant elections are scheduled for 2019: local and presidential. The AKP and the president will continue to rally nationalist constituencies to mobilise support.

2. An escalatory cycle of increased IEDs against security forces and intense Turkish military operations

Around 60 per cent of all security force fatalities since July 2015 were caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During June and July of 2017, the number of IED attacks in rural areas increased, mostly along roads leading to military bases, including an attack on 17 July in Hakkari’s Yüksekova district that injured seventeen soldiers.

There are several reasons why militants use these devices:

  • IEDs are relatively cheap and easy to employ;
     
  • They can inflect greater casualties by targeting a group of security personnel with a single explosive;
     
  • Since IEDs can be detonated from a distance, militants can avoid direct armed confrontation, limiting their own risks.

This occurred amid intense military operations against the PKK in rural south-eastern districts which most recently focused on Lice district in Diyarbakır, Çukurca district in Hakkari and Başkale and Çaldıran districts in Van. The objective is both to target militants and destroy PKK ammunition depots.

Beginning in March 2017, the Turkish military carried out what it described as its most intense operations in years, deploying about 7,000 soldiers, special forces, police officers and village guards. In March, at least 79 PKK militants were killed, up from 23 in February, thirteen in January and six in December that Crisis Group could confirm.

3. Fewer PKK attacks prior to the April referendum

The number of security force members killed was relatively low in the run-up to the April referendum. While seventeen security force members were killed in PKK attacks in the two-and-a-half-month period prior to the referendum, this number almost quadrupled with 67 security force fatalities in the two-and-a-half-months after the referendum. There were no such fatalities in February 2017, the first month without security force being killed since July 2015. Aside from two urban IED attacks in Diyarbakır in January and April, the PKK or its affiliates did not carry out major, dramatic attacks in urban centres in Turkey and in the west of the country in the months prior to the referendum.

Sources close to the PKK told Crisis Group that they made the strategic decision to hold back in order to avoid generating further nationalist support for the “Yes” vote. As noted above, increased military operations by Ankara and U.S. pressure likely also played a role in curbing attacks. Regardless of the reason, this suggests the PKK has the ability to determine the timing and intensity of its attacks as well as to control its militants on the ground.

In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters.

In the run-up to the referendum both the PKK and the government used the threat of violence to rally their supporters. Cemil Bayık, a PKK leader, warned on 9 April that if the “Yes” camp won, “the war” would intensify. AKP officials raised the spectre of PKK terrorism in their campaign for a “Yes” vote. President Erdoğan on 2 March equated voting “No” with supporting Qandil (a reference to the PKK’s headquarters in northern Iraq). Other officials said a “Yes” vote would put an end to all terrorist activity in the country whether carried out by the PKK or by what the government calls the Fetullahist Terrorist Organisation (FETÖ), allegedly led by Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric living in the U.S. who the government blames for masterminding the 15 July coup attempt.

Ankara saw the referendum results as vindication of its hard-line approach: it interpreted the fact that the “Yes” camp received 10 per cent more votes in the south east than the AKP got in the 2015 elections as demonstrating support for its strategy to “eradicate” the PKK. In turn, a strengthened president mobilising nationalist support made it easier for the PKK to legitimise in the eyes of its supporters resort to violence.

4. Violence more dispersed in the south east

Although security force and PKK militant deaths have remained largely concentrated in the south-eastern provinces of Hakkari, Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır, violence was more dispersed in the south east over the past eight months. From December 2016 to July 2017, around 50 per cent of all confirmed fatalities occurred in these four provinces, compared to around 70 per cent in the previous sixteen months (July 2015-November 2016). Fatalities resulting from military operations rose in other south-eastern provinces, in particular Tunceli (28 confirmed militant deaths in February) and Bitlis (38 confirmed militant fatalities in May and June). Crisis Group also confirmed 29 militant fatalities in northern Iraq in March and April as a result of cross-border airstrikes by the Turkish military.

Confirmed fatalities in Tunceli, Bitlis and northern Iraq resulted from the military’s decision last spring to intensify its efforts to track down militants in mountainous areas and conduct cross-border operations in northern Iraq. At the same time, the military has been winding down operations in urban districts (such as Cizre, Sur, Silopi, Nusaybin, Yüksekova) located mostly in the provinces of Hakkari, Şırnak, Mardin and Diyarbakır, another factor possibly explaining the extension of deaths to other provinces.

5. Kurdish village guard deaths have increased since April 2017

Fifteen members of the state-funded Kurdish Village Guard were killed between April and July 2017, a slight increase compared to the first four months of the year. Ankara has ramped up recruitment for these paramilitary forces since January 2017 when it retired 18,000 guards over the age of 45 in a force that totals about 50,000. It plans to recruit 25,000 new paid guards, between 22 and 30 years old. Turkish media outlets reported that the newly-hired guards would be equipped with heavy weapons and take part in operations against the PKK.

Civilians interviewed by Crisis Group in Nusaybin in early 2017 confirmed that Kurdish-speaking security personnel – most likely village guards – participated in anti-PKK operations. Guards receive two weeks of basic military training immediately after joining plus supplementary training once a month.

Fifteen members of the state-funded Kurdish Village Guard were killed between April and July 2017

The government recently revitalised its system of “neighbourhood guards” in urban areas, probably in response to the PKK's urban tactic last year. The government plans to place neighbourhood guards in urban stations around the country to assist police and the military in maintaining “public order”. The nationwide recruitment process continues: about 280 guards were recruited in January 2017 to operate in several majority-Kurdish urban neighbourhoods (69 in Diyarbakır, 40 in Hakkari, 49 in Mardin, one in Şanlıurfa, 121 in Şırnak). As Crisis Group previously warned, these urban and rural guards sometimes use their state-backed authority to advance personal interests. The system could thus ignite tensions and clashes between Kurdish clans and large families in the south east, a situation that the PKK could easily exploit.

Looking Ahead: A Grim Picture

Violence is unlikely to diminish in the near future. Instead, there is a risk of greater conflict as Ankara steps up military efforts to eradicate the PKK (including through cross-border military actions), limit YPG gains in northern Syria and marginalise the domestic, legal Kurdish movement. As for the PKK, it remains focused on gains in northern Syria and may be further emboldened by the direct military support its affiliate, the YPG, now receives from the U.S. for the Raqqa offensive. The U.S. appears to temporarily have helped curb risks of escalation by pressuring the PKK to rein-in attacks in Turkey’s densely-populated urban centres including in the west of the country and by remaining closely engaged with the YPG (including in some instances by co-locating its special forces). However, violence could escalate once the Raqqa offensive ends, if US engagement falters, or if Ankara further intensifies military operations against the YPG around Afrin, in north-western Syria.

There is a risk of greater conflict as Ankara steps up military efforts to eradicate the PKK

Domestically, the government’s crackdown on the Kurdish political movement continues. Avenues for constructive engagement and political channels remain closed. As Crisis Group argued in its latest report, the marginalisation of the legal Kurdish political movement could have long-term consequences, legitimising resort to violent means and driving up PKK recruitment. A resumption of talks appears unlikely in the foreseeable future but remains the only viable path to resolving this deadly conflict.

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.