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Turkey’s PKK Conflict Veers onto a More Violent Path
Turkey’s PKK Conflict Veers onto a More Violent Path
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.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan places cloves during a ceremony at Canakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Gallipoli Peninsula to mark the 103rd anniversary of the Canakkale Land Battles in Canakkale, Turkey, on 18 March 2018. Anadolu Agency/Kayhan Ozer

Turkey’s Siege Mentality

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is shaping a narrative of a country under siege, a ​victim of Western powers both in history​ and in today’s Syrian war​. While this rhetoric is popular, a broader platform is needed to bridge sharp divisions in society and mend relations with longstanding Euro-Atlantic allies.

The streets of the Dardanelles port of Çanakkale were packed with people in a jubilant mood. Beyond the centuries-old forts guarding the strait, Turkish warships rode at anchor on the horizon. Turkish flags of every shape and size waved madly in a wind so strong that the naval manoeuvres and air force fly-bys had to be cancelled.  

It was 18 March, Çanakkale Victory and Martyrs Day, when Turkey celebrates the anniversary of the British and French navies’ defeat in their 1915 attempt to force their way to Istanbul, then capital of the Ottoman Empire. On the same day, Turkey also honours the Ottoman soldiers who lost their lives as they beat back Allied forces in the Gallipoli campaign that began on 25 April 1915.

A previous generation used 18 March mainly to celebrate the memory of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the republic who made his name as an Ottoman officer defending the heights overlooking the strait. But in today’s Turkey, everything, especially history, is now pressed into the cause of popular support for the policies of the hour. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself appeared in Çanakkale to underline the message of a nation under siege.

In today’s Turkey, everything, especially history, is now pressed into the cause of popular support for the policies of the hour.

On all television channels and social media, he could be seen and heard announcing a new victory, this time the capture of the Syrian town of Afrin, taken over by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the support of the Turkish military. Images showed bearded FSA men entering Afrin’s centre and residents – among whom men of fighting age were notably absent – tossing rice from roofs and balconies. In the footage, Afrin’s people cheered the removal of banners of Syrian affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group with which Turkey has been engaged in a three-decade long struggle.

“What happened in Çanakkale is happening in Afrin. Just like we defeated those who were poised to celebrate their victory in Çanakkale, so have we defeated those who thought they were establishing a corridor of terror on our borders”, President Erdoğan told the crowds. “The wave of terror against Turkey is nothing other than an effort to revive the Çanakkale campaign a century later”.

Young people on the Dardanelles Strait seafront celebrate Turkey's First World War victory over the British and French navies on 18 March 1915. Turkish Navy ships can be seen in the background. Çanakkale, Turkey, 18 March 2018. CRISIS GROUP/Nigar Göksel

By “wave of terror”, the president meant not just the PKK and its affiliates – but something else as well. Into his narrative of a country under attack Erdoğan wove the failed coup attempt against him in July 2016, apparently mounted by loyalists of Islamist preacher and former ally of the ruling AK Party, Fethullah Gülen, based in the U.S. and labelled “FETO” by Ankara. “Turkish people who rose against the coup forces to protect their country acted in a similar spirit as their forebears did a century earlier”, the president said.

In the park and on the waterfront in Çanakkale, the multitudes rejoiced. They recited the anthems they have known by heart since primary school, sometimes swapping Erdoğan’s name for Atatürk’s and Afrin for Çanakkale.

The overarching narrative the government has persuaded society to adopt is straightforward. Just as the states that won World War I were stymied by the Turkish war of independence, those same Western powers, the PKK and “FETO” will be foiled by the “new Turkey” that Erdoğan says he is building. And perhaps because this siege mentality was present under Erdoğan’s predecessors, the secularist parties that ruled Turkey, no one seems to notice the logical disconnect: these supposedly perfidious Western powers are Turkey’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as well as being its leading economic partners.

President Erdoğan is not alone in promoting this picture of an outside world ranged against Turkey. It was fully endorsed by the head of the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahçeli, who was re-elected chairman at a party congress not coincidentally held on 18 March. It was Bahçeli who after the June 2015 parliamentary elections called for repeat elections rather than form a coalition with the secularist main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which had done surprisingly well at the polls. The MHP head told the congress he approves of the greatly enhanced executive powers that Erdoğan won in the referendum in April 2017: “Tayyip Erdoğan was globally encircled, and we could not escape responsibility”.

There is also a good case for Turkey’s leadership to adopt a more inclusive platform

The apparent unity leaves out large segments of society, however. The MHP welcomed members of other parties, but did not invite HDP, CHP or conservative secularist Iyi Parti representatives to the congress, breaking with a Turkish tradition whereby opponents are welcome at such events. Together, these three parties represent up to 40 percent of the population. The mayor of Çanakkale, a CHP member, did not attend the grand Çanakkale ceremony on 18 March because Erdoğan had ordered that he be barred from speaking. Notably, this mayor had won 54.5 percent of the vote in the 2014 local elections.

When I asked passersby in Çanakkale about Erdoğan’s intertwining of party politics, the Afrin operation and past martial triumphs, few really answered me. Some basked in his rhetoric of national pride. Others were reluctant to say anything. After all, courts have jailed more than 70 journalists in Turkey, and police have started judicial proceedings against hundreds of social media users who posted criticism of the Turkish campaign in Syria. I recalled the words of a journalist friend when he returned recently from Hatay, across the border from Afrin: “People are now even scared of commenting about the price of tomatoes”. Still, some in Çanakkale told me they cringed while watching television coverage of the behaviour of FSA fighters in Afrin because they were “shooting in the air like thugs”, or “looking like jihadists” as they chanted “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”). “Our glorious army should not be in the same ranks as these people”, one person said.

Whether ideologically aligned with the ruling elite or not, nearly everyone is pleased by the leaps forward in infrastructure that have been the strong suit of Erdoğan’s party. On 18 March 2017, Erdoğan held a signing ceremony for what will be the longest suspension bridge in the world, the Çanakkale 1915 Bridge across the Dardanelles Strait. This year on 18 March he announced that construction would be finished eighteen months ahead of schedule, on 18 March 2022, a year before the centennial of the Republic of Turkey. This bridge is one of many improvements that shorten distances for those headed from Istanbul to Turkey’s Aegean and Mediterranean towns.  

The happy crowds that gathered in Çanakkale to celebrate the heroic victory of 1915 are a reminder that many Turks are content enough with the current state of affairs, be it for material or ideological reasons. Indeed, Erdoğan seems unlikely to lose soon to opposition politicians who have little in common beyond personal dislike for him. Still, around half the society is aggrieved by his heavy-handed governance.

Some of those countries that besieged the Dardanelles Strait a century ago and are framed as “enemies” by today’s narrative have been Turkey’s allies for the past six decades, and share strong interest in the country’s stability, democracy and prosperity. While the critics of Ankara’s political leadership need to recognise that Erdoğan still enjoys considerable domestic support, there is also a good case for Turkey’s leadership to adopt a more inclusive platform – both internally and externally – for what is likely to be many more years of rule.

Photo Caption: President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan places cloves during a ceremony at Canakkale Martyrs' Memorial in Gallipoli Peninsula to mark the 103rd anniversary of the Canakkale Land Battles in Canakkale, Turkey, on 18 March 2018. Source: Anadolu Agency/Kayhan Ozer.