Where next for Turkey’s Kurdish conflict?


Turkey’s ongoing, domestic conflict with the PKK could change over the coming year, with a number of factors at play.

  • The December bombing in Istanbul has further hardened the government’s attitude.
  • Turkey’s increasingly hot proxy conflict with Iran means Iran may well, if it has not already begun, consider supporting the PKK
  • In Syria and in Turkey, Ankara is working to defeat militarily or obstruct Kurdish groups.
  • But it has also long been working on another option – supporting Islamist or conservative Kurdish groups into a position where it can negotiate with them.
  • If the AKP is successful in introducing the ‘presidential system’, this may provide the government with more political security to drive through peace, with rumours of new peace talks for April of 2017.

A resurgent conflict

The Turkish state has been in renewed conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and affiliated organisations since the breakdown of the peace process in June 2015 led to a re-emergence of fighting. The fighting escalated over 2015, leading to months of urban warfare, the destruction of several towns in Turkey’s Kurdish South East, the displacement of thousands, and the deaths of hundreds of combatants and civilians. Crisis Group International has documented the deaths of hundreds of civilians in urban areas in Turkey’s South East over the last year. Hundreds of Turkish soldiers and members of the security forces have been killed in the fighting, with the death toll among PKK fighters likely much higher.

Since last December 2015 the Hawks of Kurdistan Freedom (TAK) have promised to bring the conflict in the South East to the cities of the country’s West. TAK has carried out a series of bombings in Istanbul and Ankara, nominally targeting security forces and infrastructure, killing indiscriminately. Its attacks have now claimed the lives of dozens of civilians and members of the security forces. TAK has claimed it is a splinter group of the PKK, while some analysts and the Turkish government claim it is a branch or pseudonym of the PKK used for these types of attacks to prevent damage to the PKK’s increasingly positive image in Western countries.

Appetite for peace?

It is not clear whether there is appetite or political will for peace on either side of the conflict. The most recent TAK attack occurred on 10 December, killing 36 members of the security forces and eight civilians, causing further outrage among the Turkish public. In retaliation for the attack, mobs attacked buildings of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which has at least organic ties to the PKK. The general public in Turkey is strongly opposed to the PKK and sees it as a separatist group. The government will find it politically more costly to seek peace with groups supportive of the PKK’s ideology and demands under such conditions.  The PKK, for its part, has been imbued by the successes of its partners in Syria. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest the destruction of towns in Turkey’s Kurdish South East has served as useful propaganda for its recruitment efforts. In this situation, both sides have little impetus to try for peace. At the same time, there is the risk that the furore directed at the PKK for such attacks could eventually translate into more widespread dissatisfaction with the AKP for not seeking peace.

Iran’s involvement

There have been suggestions that Iran has strengthened its ties with the PKK in order to counter Turkish influence, secure Iranian access to Syria, and generally weaken Turkey’s security. Iranian forces and proxies have fought with Turkish proxies in Syria over the last years. Iran and Turkey, despite maintaining good bilateral ties, are increasingly clashing over Syria, especially since Turkey’s incursion into Syrian territory at the end of 2016. The evolution of Turkish-Iranian competition in Syria and Iraq will thus likely influence Turkey’s domestic conflict with the PKK. Turkey, Russia and Iran have held discussions on Syria. It is yet to be seen whether they will be able to resolve their differences. If Turkey aligns itself with the US against Iran, and Iran is indeed supporting the PKK, this could add fuel to Turkey’s domestic conflict.

Turkey has put a lot into a military approach

Turkey has already committed a lot of blood and treasure into the conflict against the PKK and now the Peoples’ Defence units (YPG) in Syria. Turkish forces are fighting Kurdish forces in Turkey and in Syria. Ankara considers Kurdish forces in Syria to be as hostile to Turkish interests as the PKK and makes no distinction between groups on different sides of the border. While the groups claim they are separate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which rules the Kurdish controlled area of Syria and controls the YPG, shares the PKK’s left wing ideology and there are at the very least organic ties between the groups. Ankara is pursuing a military solution to undermine the strength of both groups.

Given the amount Turkey has invested into this conflict, Ankara is torn between war weariness and being embroiled further in the Syrian conflict, on the one hand. On the other, the Turkish government would like a victory to present to its people. Long term, Ankara would likely wish to reduce the capacity of Syria-based Kurdish groups. The buffer zone proposed by Turkey to go along its border with Syria could be one way for Turkey to contain Kurdish groups.

Creating a different opposition

Ankara is pursuing a side strategy, by supporting conservative and Islamist Kurdish groups. There has been suggestion that the Turkish government is seeking to negotiate a peace with Kurdish groups more sympathetic to its aims. By doing so, Ankara likely hopes to undermine support for the PKK and side line the group in any peace talks. Recent government delegations to Turkey’s South East have made steps in this direction. This would give the government a much more acceptable peace deal to present to the public and could create lasting support in the region, however, it would not address the grievances of the groups actually in conflict with the state.

Political security with the ‘presidential system’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has long been seeking to introduce a ‘presidential system’ to Turkey, which would concentrate power in the presidency. The proposed changes have taken a strong step forward with the help of Turkey’s nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), but face resistance over criticisms the proposed system would damage the country’s democracy. If the system were to come into effect, this might provide Erdogan with the political certainty he would need to bring about a peace. During previous attempts at peace, Erdogan saw off accusations that he was giving into militant demands. With the outrage over the recent attacks, it will be political even harder to drive through peace, hence why the introduction of the presidential system could be important in this regard. However, gloomy predictions for the Turkish economy may complicate the government’s political calculations on this. There have been rumours of new peace talks for April 2017. However, the likelihood of this will depend on how the intervening  months play out.


23 December 2016

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Photo credit: Yenisafak.com.tr

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