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Turkey’s PKK Conflict Veers onto a More Violent Path
Turkey’s PKK Conflict Veers onto a More Violent Path
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
The U.S. joins the Turkey-PKK fight in northern Syria
Smokes ascends after Kurdish militants detonated a car bomb outside a military station in Semdinli near the border with Iraq, on 9 October 2016. AFP

Turkey’s PKK Conflict Veers onto a More Violent Path

The death toll in Turkey’s PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) conflict rose nearly 10 per cent over the past three months as domestic political and regional dynamics propel the 32-year-old conflict deeper into a more violent trend.

August-October fighting killed 444 people, compared to 402 in the preceding three months. The total death toll since July 2015 has now reached at least 2,301, according to Crisis Group’s open-source casualty tally. This is a rate double that of the last major bout of violence, from July 2011-December 2012, when less than 1,000 people were killed.

The harsh winter months in Turkey’s eastern mountains along the border with Iraq, where most of the recent fighting has taken place, will likely lead to the usual seasonal reduction in clashes. But all the other signs point to worsening conflict, including a deadlock in peace talks that showed promise in 2012-2013, polarised antagonists who believe a military solution is possible, and competition over northern Syria in which both sides are seeking maximum outcomes and competing for U.S. support.

What follows is an analysis of a multi-layered collection of open-source data collected over the past five years by Crisis Group to aid policymakers and public opinion better understand what exactly is happening and what options are available to de-escalate the conflict.

Turkey Forces the PKK East into the Mountains – at a Price

In the past three months the PKK conflict in Turkey continued to shift back toward rural areas from the urban districts where fighting was concentrated between December 2015 and May 2016. Between August and October, 83 per cent of casualties occurred in rural areas and 17 per cent occurred in urban areas.

Turkish operations have particularly targeted the two main provinces along Turkey’s Iraq border. These are of logistically strategic importance for the crossing and transfer of PKK militants and ammunition into Turkey from northern Iraq, where the PKK’s headquarters are located in the Qandil mountains. 49 per cent of all casualties between August-October occurred in Hakkari (35 per cent) and Şırnak (14 per cent). Fighting was particularly intense in the rural Çukurca and Şemdinli districts where 75 per cent of all Hakkari province casualties took place.

The gradual transition of the conflict away from urban restive areas in June has resulted in a decrease in civilian casualties – but at a cost, since whole districts of major towns have been destroyed. While the number of civilians killed was at a monthly average of 33 (January-May 2016), the last five months (June-October 2016) saw a monthly average of thirteen confirmed civilian casualties. The Turkish security lockdowns and curfews in previously conflict-prone urban districts continue, particularly close to the Iraq and Syria borders, and security forces have been concentrated there.

Clashes Mostly Pit Soldiers Against Main PKK Insurgents

Partly because Turkish state forces have pushed PKK fighters out of the cities, fighting is now largely concentrated between members of the Turkish military and the People’s Defence Force (HPG), the main PKK rebel force.

The number of security forces killed in the August-October period – 184 in total – was at an average daily rate of 2.04, a decrease from a daily average of 2.5 between May-July. Between August-October, 62 per cent of security force casualties were members of the Turkish military, 19 per cent were police officers, and 20 per cent were Village Guards, or Kurdish paramilitaries drawn from local clans and paid by the Turkish state.

As the Turkish military pressed harder against the PKK, the number of PKK militants killed rose, from at least 58 in August to 81 in September and 80 in October. Overwhelmingly they were HPG insurgents. This total is 19 per cent higher than the 184 killed in the preceding three months. Most PKK militant casualties were recorded in Hakkari province.

Casualties among the PKK’s urban youth wing, known as Civil Protection Units (YPS), have almost ceased in the last three months. While 40 per cent of PKK militants killed between April-June 2016 were YPS members, this figure dropped to only less than 3 per cent in the July-October period. Reasons for this drop include: the YPS has never taken part in the fight in rural areas; its members may have joined the HPG’s ranks; they may also have been discouraged after the complete destruction of south-eastern urban districts by the conflict earlier this year. The YPS casualties in the last months followed clashes during raids by Turkish security officials on YPS cells and homes in the region.

Village Guard Casualties on the Rise

September saw the highest number of state-funded Kurdish paramilitary Village Guards killed by the PKK. 43 per cent of all Village Guard deaths since July 2015 occurred in September 2016. This increase may be the result of three possibly interdependent dynamics.

Firstly, the PKK may be more inclined to neutralise or put pressure on its “internal” adversaries, whom the government has traditionally tasked with not only protecting Kurds in rural areas against the PKK, but also with spreading anti-PKK sentiments. Secondly, the return of the conflict into rural areas may have necessitated the government to give Village Guards a more proactive role in not only protecting their areas of responsibility but also in providing intelligence to Turkish security forces with regard to PKK activity and members. Thirdly, the Village Guard system – legally introduced in 1923 and updated in 1985 – has produced powerful armed men in the region who have over the years utilised their influence and state-backed authority to advance their personal interests through, for instance, illegal use of land and property. Some of the rise in Village Guard casualties could thus be a result of often-overlooked local rivalries.

Turkey’s deputy prime minister announced on 31 October plans to recruit 5,000 new Village Guards soon. The interplay of such dynamics is dangerous and has the potential of igniting internal tensions within the Kurdish community, and between clans and families, that could lead to deeper disruption of the social fabric.

PKK Escalates Actions After the Failed Coup Attempt

The PKK’s tactics took a more violent turn in August 2016 following the 15 July failed coup attempt in Turkey. This was most likely partly related to its perception of weakness in the Turkish security apparatus. It could also have been a reaction to Ankara’s Euphrates Shield Operation to thwart the ambitions of pro-PKK affiliates in northern Syria.

While the total number of state security forces killed six weeks prior to the coup attempt was 51 (a daily rate of 1.1), in the subsequent six weeks this number almost doubled, increasing to 96 (daily rate of 2.1). Another aspect of PKK escalation was its most extensive use yet of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDs). August 2016 saw the highest number of security forces killed in such attacks since violence resumed in July 2015, accounting for 71 per cent of all security force casualties in the month.

Since June 2016, the PKK has also been kidnapping, assaulting or killing more political figures than in previous months. On 25 August, in two separate attacks, PKK militants targeted the main opposition (Republican People’s Party, or CHP) leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s motorcade in Artvin, a Turkish Black Sea province. PKK militants killed Aydın Mustu, AKP Özalp district deputy head in the Van province on 9 October, and Deryan Aktert, AKP Dicle district head in Diyarbakır province on 11 October.

Deadly Zero-sum Approaches

The political leadership in Ankara is convinced that the PKK – internationally recognised as a terrorist organisation – can be “eradicated” through military means, and that its political supporters in Turkey can be crippled with pressure and prosecution. The Turkish public at large appears to be supportive of this approach, with anti-PKK sentiments running high.

Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield on 24 August to stop the Syrian Kurds’ People’s Protection Units (the YPG, which Ankara views as a direct extension of the PKK) extending its reach to control a contiguous land corridor along Turkey’s Syria border. It did this both by sending in its own troops and supporting local rebel groups of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). In an attempt to make up lost ground with the U.S., which has linked up with YPG in Syria, Ankara is also offering itself as an alternative to the PKK’s affiliates in the fight against Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq.

Ankara has declared an “all-out war”, intensifying military operations and advancing its domestic crackdown against alleged PKK supporters. Elected mayors of the 27 pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP)-run, an affiliate of the main legal pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) municipalities were replaced by centrally-appointed trustees in September and October for allegedly aiding or funnelling resources to the PKK. This move, rare but not unprecedented in Turkey, has sparked massive criticism from both the opposition and foreign observers.

Prominent Kurdish media outlets (among them Özgür Gündem newspaper and IMC TV) were shut down in the same period. Probes into alleged terrorist propaganda charges were initiated against more than seven hundred academics, and around eleven thousand teachers were suspended on charges of suspected links to the PKK. On 26 October, Gültan Kışanak and Fırat Anlı, co-mayors of the DBP-run metropolitan municipality in Diyarbakır, Turkey’s largest Kurdish-populated province, were arrested sparking protests that were broken up by Turkish police. Most recently, between 4-9 November, ten HDP lawmakers including the co-chairs Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ were also arrested.

As Crisis Group has argued in previous reports, there is no military solution to the conflict.

The government has now also blocked outside access to PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan – in jail since 1999 – for more than eighteen months. A key figure in past rounds of negotiations, his position on the sidelines makes a return to peace talks that ended in 2013 unlikely.

The countrywide domestic political backdrop also suggests a trend toward even more determined state policies. In the wake of the failed 15 July coup attempt, more pressure is being put on the country’s opposition forces and the media; a complete restructuring of state institutions is under way; and a brief bipartisan moment after the coup attempt has ended as the government presses for a full presidential system and the reinstatement of the death penalty.

The zero-sum approach appears to be shared by the PKK leadership. In the last four months (July-October 2016) the PKK leadership has repeatedly threatened to “spread the war to the cities” throughout Turkey.

Its focus is on its gains in northern Syria, where it feels emboldened by the progress of its YPG affiliate’s fight against IS in Syria and the support it receives from the U.S. Its high-ranking cadres believe a potential future success such as political recognition as a legitimate entity or actor in Syria could lead to similar demands rising in majority Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iran and Iraq. The targeting of political figures indicates that the PKK is not shying away from further escalating the conflict and provoking harsh retaliation by the Turkish military.

These domestic and regional parameters create an environment that is conducive to more violence in the PKK conflict. Inflicting as much harm as possible on the adversary may seem to be working out today, but as Crisis Group has argued in previous reports, there is no military solution to the conflict. As long as the parties hold to their maximalist positions, the political compromise that will be needed to make peace will be delayed and the risks will rise of escalation and more spillover from conflicts in the Middle East.

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.