international analysis and commentary

Turkey and the Kurds: A storm is brewing once again

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After several years of relative calm, Turkey finds itself once again in the clutches of an escalating cycle of violence with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Kurdish peace process, initiated by the ruling AKP government in 2012 through the mediation of the representatives of the Kurdish political movement, HDP (then BDP), with the imprisoned leader of the terror organization, Abdullah Ocalan, has come to a grinding halt. The clashes in the past weeks have resulted in the deaths of dozens of Turkish security forces and scores of PKK militants, causing many in the country to fear that the situation may quickly revert to the 1990s, a period characterized by continual clashes between the sides. All of this comes at a critical time for the country which is facing major political uncertainty, renewed elections and to the possibility to step up its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Furthermore, as the Kurds (across the border) have proven to be the most reliable partners of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and Iraq, the escalation may have international ramifications. Yet de-escalation at the current moment may prove to be elusive, as there are many convoluted facets to the issue.

The military context: What triggered all of this?

In the months leading to the escalation, the clashes between Turkish security forces were limited to minor sporadic incidents. An ISIS-linked bombing in the border town of Suruc on July 20 which claimed the lives of more than 30 people who had gathered to deliver humanitarian aid to Kobane, acted as a catalyst for the dissolution of the frail peace process. The PKK responded by killing two police officers in their sleep for their alleged connections to ISIS and attacked another alleged ISIS leader in Istanbul, whereas ISIS clashed with Turkish soldiers near the border. Ankara responded with comprehensive anti-terror operations on both sides of the border, detaining hundreds for their connections to ISIS, PKK and far-left wing terror organizations, while conducting airstrikes on ISIS positions near the border and on PKK positions in Northern Iraq.

The brunt of the anti-terror operations targeted the PKK, and critics have blamed Ankara for using the ISIS terror attack as an excuse to attack PKK targets and escalating the issue purposefully for political gain. Meanwhile, the government has maintained that the operations were in response to increasing PKK activity (AKP sources highlighted more than 1,000 incidents since the beginning of the year) and pointed to the fact that it was the PKK that had called off the ceasefire unilaterally earlier in July. Neither of the positions is without merit. It is true that the PKK had increasingly created small-scale incidents as a display of force during the ceasefire, the operations have shown that the PKK had stepped up its urban presence in the opportunity that the ceasefire provided, and it was the PKK that called off the ceasefire initially. In the meantime, it is the Turkish extraterritorial military operations against the PKK that has escalated the military nature of the issue.

The political context: Why now?

The Turkish general elections conducted in June this year resulted in the loss of an AKP majority for the first time in 13 years. This was mainly due to the success of the HDP, which managed to pass the 10% electoral threshold for the first time in the history of the Kurdish political movement (and which preferred to run as independents in previous terms due to the exceptionally high threshold) and gain the same amount of seats with the Turkish nationalist MHP for the first time in the movement’s history. The HDP’s success lied in its ability to broaden its agenda beyond the traditional Kurdish issue and reach out to conservative Kurds, left-wing Turkish voters (some of whom preferred to distance themselves from other Kurdish political parties in previous terms due to its connections to the PKK), and strategic voters who believed the only chance of pushing the AKP below the majority line and curbing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ambitions lied in the HDP’s ability to pass the threshold.

The AKP and Erdoğan did not take these results well. Seeing the threat of losing its majority, the AKP had actively campaigned against the HDP before the elections, and has continued to associate it with the PKK afterwards. Erdoğan and members of the AKP have continued to bash the HDP for its ties to the PKK, criticized it for failing to demand the terror organization to lay down arms and openly suggested that members of the HDP should face criminal charges for their alleged connections with the terrorist movement. Critics of the government have blamed the AKP for delaying the formation of a coalition government, prolonging the political uncertainty and deliberately escalating clashes with the PKK with the hopes of inciting nationalistic sentiments to gain majority in the early elections by pushing the HDP below the electoral threshold or increasing its own votes.

In the meantime the HDP had to lead an uneasy balance between its declared goals of broadening its agenda and transforming the Kurdish movement into a solely political one, and elements of its support base that are sympathetic to the PKK. Therefore the resumption of violence poses several threats to the political future of the party by: challenging its legitimacy; introducing legal challenges to a number of its MPs; and hampering its goal of broadening its agenda and limiting it to the traditional Kurdish issue – thus reducing its potential for permanence and reducing its voter base. Amid mounting pressure, the HDP has initially called for calm and the resumption of the peace process, and lately, for the PKK to lay down its arms unilaterally and unconditionally.

The transformation of the conflict

Yet the latter call was not embraced by the PKK. For example, although a member of the top brass, Duran Kalkan, has argued that militants should only conduct retaliatory strikes and not target noncombatants, he argued that the HDP had not been successful in representing the Kurdish people and hence had no grounds for calling a ceasefire. Some commentators have suggested that the ongoing episode of violence does not run contrary to the interests of the PKK leadership; the success of the Kurdish political movement would inevitably render the military movement irrelevant, and as such, the top brass has little interest in the fruition of the peace process. Furthermore, due to the ongoing conflict, representatives of the HDP have not been able to meet with the movement’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, for the past month, and hence (as has been shown) have little, if any, influence over the PKK.

In time the PKK has changed both its declared aims and, as the latest episode shows, its modus operandi. Instead of attempting to gain territorial control and strategic parity through guerilla warfare to push for secession, the PKK now aims to challenge and erode the government’s authority in urban areas by militarily low scale, but politically significant, acts in line with its more ambiguous goal of “democratic autonomy”. The attacks are mostly uncoordinated, intermittent, with no clear initiation and termination phases. The PKK has delegated more authority to its local branches and affiliates and it is evident that the organization has in fact prepared for this scenario throughout the ceasefire[1]. These groups often organize violent street protests, block roads to check for identification and declare autonomy in suburban neighborhoods. They have also hidden amongst the populace (essentially using civilians as human shields), blurring the lines between combatants and non-combatants increasing the risk of civilian casualties. The use of such loosely affiliated networks increases the risk of unintended escalations and may potentially cause the situation to spiral out of control.

International dynamics

All this comes at a time when the Kurds have gained unprecedented international support from the West due to their role in combating ISIS. This support and sympathy skyrocketed during their protection of the Yazidis (a religious minority) against vicious persecution by ISIS. Furthermore, both Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have proved to be the only reliable ground force against ISIS, and have a significant role in the operations of the anti-ISIS coalition. In fact, the US continues to coordinate its air operations with the Syrian Kurdish PYD, an ideological affiliate of the PKK, much to the distaste of Ankara.

Although the ISIS threat is felt strongly by Turkey, for some in Ankara, including the AKP and many decision makers shaping the country’s security policy, PYD’s increased legitimacy and territorial expansion is viewed as part of the traditional Kurdish issue in Turkey that has spanned three decades. For this very reason, some policymakers have argued that the PYD presents a bigger threat to Turkey, which has traditionally viewed Kurdish independence or autonomy as existential threats. Although Turkey has come to admit, and even gradually embraced, the autonomy of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, this has been thanks to the ideological divide between the PKK and the Barzani government, which Ankara had hedged on even before the KRG’s autonomy. As an ideological affiliate of the PKK, the PYD’s advances remain problematic for many in Ankara, and the issue has proved to be an obstacle in Turkey’s cooperation with the US in the anti-ISIS coalition.

Due to the bond between the PKK and PYD, and the PKK’s active role in the anti-ISIS operations in both Syria and Iraq, commentators in the West have viewed the resumption of clashes between Turkey and the PKK as a factor that could hinder the coalition efforts. Ankara has not suggested that it aims to take military action against the PYD unless it is directly involved in attacks against Turkey or attempts to further its territorial expansion along the Turkish border. Still, if the situation between Turkey and the PKK continues to deteriorate, the issue may indeed become a complicating factor for Ankara’s relations with Washington and the coalition effort against ISIS. Two such worst case scenarios in this regard would be one in which the PKK uses Syrian territory under PYD control to launch attacks against Turkish positions, or alternatively, if the PKK uses weaponry transferred by the coalition to Kurdish forces against Turkish targets.

Ankara’s operations against PKK targets in Iraq have also complicated its relations with the Middle Eastern states. For one, Turkey has been condemned by the Arab League (with only Qatar abstaining) on August 5 for violating Iraqi sovereignty during its air operations against PKK positions. More importantly, Tehran, which has also had its own Kurdish nationalism issue with the PKK affiliated group PJAK and which was previously believed to support the PKK against Turkey, criticized Turkish operations suggesting that they would hamper the anti-ISIS efforts. Furthermore, Tehran has also criticized Turkey for not doing enough to protect Iranian trucks transiting through Turkey against potential PKK attacks. In the meantime, quoting intelligence reports, Turkish news agencies have reported that some of the PKK top brass had fled to Iran after Turkish airstrikes, rising eyebrows in Ankara over the potential for Iran’s renewed support for the organization.

Prospects for the near future

Although Turkish citizens wake up every day to read yet another report of casualties, the situation has not escalated to a level that resembles the peak of the conflict during the 1990s. In fact, the current scene suggests that both the Turkish security forces and the PKK are showing restraint. Still, the longer the cycle of escalation continues the more likely it will be to spiral out of control and deepen the political and societal rifts in the country.

Any reversal at this point would depend on a number of factors, including: the overall political climate of the country, Ocalan’s stance, the results of the renewed elections scheduled for November 1, and international dynamics. These factors will also shape the HDP’s political future – which according to current polls has not lost its constituency and, in fact, has consolidated it.

Although the majority of the people have raised their voice against the ongoing violence and criticized both the government and the PKK, in some cases very vocally and dramatically, the sides have time and again declared their intent of continuing to fight. This insistence may be the harbinger of bleak days for both the country and the region in the near future unless cooler heads prevail.

 


[1] Gurcan, M. (2015, August 22) Radikal “Türkiye ile PKK arasındaki çatışmanın değişen karakteri” (The changing characteristics of conflict between Turkey and PKK).