From the establishment of the Turkish State in 1923 by its founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk until 1974, the Turkish government had opposed the rights and demands of its Kurdish population. In 2013 after almost four decades of conflict, a cease in hostilities was announced between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). However, the ceasefire between the two sides did not last. After the success of the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey’s 2015-elections, the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unilaterally announced the end of Turkey’s cease-fire with the PKK resuming the conflict between the two sides. The current iteration of the war between Turkey and the PKK has been referred to as Erdogan’s war on the Kurds (1). This article discusses the causes and consequences of the failure of the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdish PKK. The paper concludes with a discussion on the future of relations between the two sides.
History of Turkey-PKK Relations
From its establishment in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk until the end of the 1970s, the Turkish state systemically denied the rights of its Kurdish population. For example, until 1980 the Turkish government had banned the Kurdish language in the country’s media and government institutions. This denial of basic rights made Turkey’s Kurdish community, living predominantly in the country’s southeast, often feel as though they were second-class citizens in the country and treated as such by the Turkish state. By persecuting its Kurdish population in this way, the Turkish state had provided them with a stimulus to endeavour for an independent Kurdish state (2). As a response to this poor relationship with Turkey, and to secure their rights, the Kurdish population gave birth to a new Marxist-Leninist movement in 1973 called the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) (formed by its leader Abdulla Ocalan under the Apochi group). Later, in 1978 the group held its founding party congress and in 1979 it formally announced its establishment. Abdulla Ocalan and his party began an armed struggle in 1984 with the aim of establishing a Kurdish State in the Middle East that hosts the world’s Kurdish population (northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, northern Iraq and northwest Iran) (3).
Title: Peace Process Failure between Turkey and the PKK Author: Hawre Hassan Hama Mashreq Politics & Culture Journal, Volume 3, Issue 11 (November 2018)
It was at this juncture that relations between Turkey and the PKK entered a hostile and violent phase. During this period the two sides attempted numerous times to negotiate with one another but all of these negotiations have failed to bring the violence to an end. For example, in 1993 the then Turkish president Turgut Özal’s attempt to utilize numerous avenues to negotiate with Ocalan and the PKK failed, and hostilities and violence between the two sides continued and increased until they reached their peak in the 1990s (4). Another attempt to negotiate came in 1997 when the then Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan tried to negotiate with the PKK, but this attempt was also unsuccessful.
The failure of negotiations and the continued violence saw the PKK being placed on the American and European list of global terror organisations in 1997 and 2002 respectively. In 1999 after years of violence, Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) was able to capture the leader of the PKK, Abdulla Ocalan, with an assistance of other countries. After his capture, Ocalan agreed to end his demand for an independent Kurdish state if Turkey would secure ethnic rights for its Kurdish population and consent to autonomy for the Kurdish population, albeit in the frame of a democratic Turkey (5). In support of this demand, Ocalan ordered an immediate but temporary cease of hostilities by the PKK. The cease of hostilities between the PKK and the Turkish State lasted until 2004 when conflict between the two sides resumed until the start of secret negotiations between Turkey and the PKK in 2009 to implement a peace process (6). These secret high-level talks between Turkey and the PKK were carried out between 2009 and 2014 in Oslo. The negotiations were carried out between Turkey’s MIT and representatives from the PKK and culminated in 2014 in another ceasefire, which lasted until July 2015. In the Turkish national elections of June 2015, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) secured 40.9% of the Turkish vote. The result was less than that which they expected to receive and left Erdogan’s plans to establish a new presidential system for Turkey falling short. The real victors of the election were the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP) who managed to achieve 13.1% of the vote share and secure 80 seats in the Turkish parliament.
The following month on 20 July 2015, a suicide bomber attacked Suruk killing 33 people and wounding many more. The bomber targeted a meeting of young Kurdish activists who were issuing a press statement on their planned trip to reconstruct the Syrian border town of Kobanî. Many Kurds believed that the Turkish MIT was responsible for the bombing. Two days after the explosion in Suruk, two Turkish police officers were found dead in what appeared to be revenge killings. The PKK quickly confirmed this by claiming responsibility for it.
Turkey responded by declaring a state of emergency, and in raids across the country, arrested nearly 600 Kurdish activists and PKK members. The Turkish State also restarted its airstrikes against the PKK (7).
Causes of the Peace Process Failure
- One of the primary causes for the failure of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK was the 2015 election results that showed a decline in Erdogan’s AKP support. The results prevented Erdogan from gathering enough support in parliament to change Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential one. Following the election results, Erdogan and the AKP set about on a new nationalist agenda to win back support through garnering Turkish nationalist sentiment by ending its peace process with the Kurds. In international relations theory, this approach is called a diversionary war.
- Some believe that Turkey is responsible for the failure of the peace process because the Turkish state is ideologically wedded to a Turkish nationalist narrative, and therefore, was not truthful in its commitments to secure Kurdish rights (8).
- The position of the HDP towards Erdogan is another cause. During the campaigning period of the June 2015 elections, the leader of the HDP Salahadin Dimertas announced, “we will not allow Erdogan to become president”. Yalçın Akdogan, the Deputy Prime Minister of Turkey and leading figure in the AKP explains that Salahadin Dimertas’ statement was a primary reason behind the breakdown of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK (9).
- Some observers argue that the agreement between Turkey and the PKK was an agreement reached between the two sides privately without the presence of any third arbitrating side. The fact that the terms and conditions were mostly unknown is a factor that contributed to its failure (10).
- Another view argues that the success of the HDP provoked the PKK to re-engage in violence because the success of the HDP wielded power on the expense of the PKK. The PKK feared the HDP would take over representation of the Kurdish cause, something that was difficult for the PKK to digest as they had for decades been the sole representatives of Turkey’s Kurds. It is this reason that some point to when attempting to explain the PKK’s objection to an AKP-HDP coalition government. According to this view, the PKK has had a negative impact on relations between the HDP and the AKP.
- Another cause of the breakdown of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK is that the HDP’s success frustrated Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The HDP was able to win more support in Turkey’s urban centres than the MHP. The AKP was also displeased with the success of the HDP. Ersin argues that the motivation to carry out military operations against the PKK and Kurdish areas was to punish those voters who had voted for the HDP. Had the HDP not passed the 10% election threshold, it would have been more likely that the peace process between Turkey and the PKK would endure.
- The peace process between Turkey and the PKK was in essence not an agreement. For it to be categorised as an agreement, it should have had an agenda and a third arbitrating side such as the European Union. In reality, the so-called peace process was a state that both sides brought into existence to strengthen themselves. On the one hand, the AKP used this period to work on improving their chances to win the June 2015 elections and to enhance the Turkish economy. What is more, the Turkish government used this period to increase its military presence in strategic areas (House Development Administration), which demonstrates that the Turkish government’s position to its Kurdish population had never really changed. The PKK used the same period to stockpile food, increase its bases, and win over public opinion through its attempts to solve the dispute peacefully (winning the PKK more support). Hence, this view demonstrates that there was no formal agreement between Turkey and the PKK and that the peace process was, in reality, a re-organising period for both sides. Thus, the peace process was destined to breakdown (11).
- The success of the Syrian Kurdish based People’s Protection Units (YPG) is another contributing factor to the failure of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK. The success of the YPG, which is mostly recognised to be an affiliate of the PKK, forced Turkey and the PKK to question each other’s motives. There is an argument to suggest that both Turkey and the PKK are tactically using their current hostilities to support their broader agendas in Syria (12). While the PKK plans to create an autonomous Kurdish government in Syria, the Turkish government fears this outcome because of the negative consequences it would have for Turkey. Turkish Kurds might be encouraged to demand the same model in Turkey (13).
- The final cause of the collapse of the peace process between Turkey and the PKK also owes to the fact that Turkey was under immense pressure by the international community to join the international coalition against the Islamic State. This option was difficult for the Turkish government as any weakening of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq by Turkey would likely read as a success and increase of the PKK’s power. Thus, when Turkey did eventually attack the Islamic State, it simultaneously attacked the PKK (14).
The Future of the Turkey-PKK Conflict
The central question is whether the current iteration of conflict between Turkey and the PKK will be short-term or long-term? On this question there are two competing views. The first argues that war will be short-lived because of the following reasons;
- In the past, between 1980- 2000, the Kurdish movement was for the most part rural based. The PKK’s initial aim was to encourage the rural Kurdish population of Turkey to engage in a revolution against the Turkish government. However, in the 2000s the PKK transferred its influence from Turkey’s rural areas to its urban centres. Hence, the conflict between the PKK and Turkey was no longer fought in the mountains of south-eastern Turkey. Instead, it is conducted in the south-eastern towns and cities, especially those urban centres in which the Kurdish parties of Turkey are most active and where they win the most votes. In these locations, it is difficult for the Turkish state to differentiate between individuals who work for Kurdish political parties and those who simply reside in them. Moreover, it is unrealistic for the Turkish government to engage in a policy of arbitrary detention, demolition and destruction of those towns and cities as it had done previously when the PKK based itself among rural populations.
- The latest Turkish engagement in violence against the PKK has had a political agenda, which was for the ruling AKP party to win more votes in the November 2015 election. This agenda is different from Turkey’s previous military operations against the PKK. The aim then was mostly the annihilation of the PKK. Hence, the decision to go to war with the PKK was not a decision intended to reach a final solution to Turkey’s PKK problem. Turkey’s war footing with the PKK can be reviewed whenever the Turkish government deems fit.
- Public opinion in Turkey does not endorse Erdogan’s decision to reignite a war with the PKK because they do not share the belief that this war will serve Turkey’s national security interests. The protests against Erdogan’s decision to go to war with the PKK by families who had lost loved ones as a result of the current Turkey-PKK conflict, and the large crowds their burial ceremonies had attracted still stand as evidence for this notion. Most attendees of these events directly held Erdogan responsible for the Turkish dead (15).
The second view is that the current conflict will be a protracted one between the two sides for the following reasons:
- The view that the current conflict between Turkey and the PKK has a political agenda may only have held weight until Turkey’s November 2015 election, in which Erdogan was able to achieve his political aims. However, the value of this viewpoint has significantly decreased because the voting period has now passed with Erdogan achieving his objectives, and Turkey’s war with the PKK has not ended. Nevertheless, the aim here is not to eradicate the PKK as this is a difficult and most likely impossible to achieve (as outlined previously). Instead, Erdogan may be seeking to continue the conflict to reach other aims. Turkey wishes to see the PKK’s influence in Syria and Iraq decrease at a time when the PKK is working to play a significant role in the Mosul offensive against the Islamic State. The risk to Turkey is that any PKK’s participation in the assault against the Islamic State in Mosul may work to change the international opinion of the group, which in turn may function to remove the PKK from the European Union and the United State’s list of terrorist organisations. A Turkish-PKK conflict would force the group away from Mosul and pre-empt any steps that may lead to the PKK being removed from any international list of terrorist organisations (16).
- Turkey, like any other state in the Middle East, wants to organise itself so that it can reap the most rewards and incur the least damage as a result of the Syrian Civil War. In this regard, the Turkish government is putting its weight behind the prevention of any autonomy for the Syrian Kurds (another Kurdish neighbour). In so doing, Turkey is campaigning internationally for the Syrian YPG to be recognised as a terrorist organisation, as Turkey believes the Syrian YPG and the Turkish PKK to be the same organisation. By waging war against the PKK, the Turkish government is hoping to weaken the YPG by taking the PKK’s focus away from Syria. Therefore, according to this view, the length of the Turkey-PKK conflict will likely last until the Syrian Civil War resolves. An earlier ceasefire with the PKK will allow space for the group to have a deciding role in Iraq and Syria and this is directly goes against Turkey’s interests.
- As long as the war against the Islamic State’s remnants continues, it is likely that Turkey’s fight against the PKK does. An early ceasefire between the two will allow the PKK an active role against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which in turn increases the YPG’s chances for autonomy at the southern Turkish borders (17).
- The Turkey-PKK war will likely continue until Turkey reaches its objective of weakening the PKK and forcing it to surrender to the Turkish state’s conditions.
Consequences of the Peace Process Failure for Turkey
- An increase in violence and instability in Turkey.
- Continuation and increase of the human and material costs.
- Damage to Turkey’s tourism industry.
- Damage to Turkey’s economy and the depreciation of the Turkish currency against the US dollar.
- Increase of western dissatisfaction with Turkey (18).
Consequences of the Peace Process Failure for the PKK
- Further destruction to Turkey’s Kurdish regions and the internal displacement of its residents.
- The PKK remains on the European and American lists of international terrorist organisations.
- The weakening of the PKK’s military standing and a marked reduction of its role in Iraq and Syria.
The peace process between Turkey and the PKK that began in 2013 was able to end the violent conflict between the two sides for two and a half years. But the electoral success of the Kurds in Turkey and their military successes abroad (in Syria) triggered another round of conflict between Turkey and the PKK. The restarting of hostilities was, on the one hand, caused by internal circumstances specific to Turkey, and on the other hand, caused by changes in the external conditions, namely the Syrian Civil War. The conflict’s future depends on changes to the internal and external circumstances that brought about the war in the first instance. In particular, it will depend on the gains or losses that will be made by the Syrian Kurds going forward. Turkey will likely continue the conflict to counteract Kurdish advances in Syria in line with Erdogan’s declaration that he would not allow the Kurds to gain any free space in Syria.
(1) David Barchard. (2015) How did the Turkish peace process collapse? Middle East Eye, available at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/how-did-turkeys-peace-process-unravel-so-fast-382609585
(2) Kirisci, Kemal and Winrow, Gareth M. (1997)The Kurdish Question and Turkey. An example of a Trans-state Ethnic Conflict. London: Frank Cass.
(3) Greg, Bruno. (2007) ‘Inside the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)’. Available at: http://www.cfr.org/turkey/inside-kurdistan-workers-party-pkk/p14576
4) Latif, T. (2015) What kind of peace? The case of the Turkish and Kurdish peace process, Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/latif-tas/what-kind-of-peace-case-of-turkish-and-kurdish-peace-process
(5) David, Phillips& Kelly, Berkell (2016) The Case for Delisting the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization, available at: https://www.lawfareblog.com/case-delisting-pkk-foreign-terrorist-organization
(6) BBC News, Profile: Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), 27 July 2015, available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-20971100
(7) David, Phillips& Kelly, Berkell (2016) The Case for Delisting the PKK as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Available at: https://www.lawfareblog.com/case-delisting-pkk-foreign-terrorist-organization
(8) Yanmis, M. (2016)The Resurgence of the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey: How Kurds View It, Rethink Washington DC: USA
(9) Akyol, M. (2015) Who killed Turkey PKK peace process? Al-Monitor. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/08/turkey-syria-iraq-pkk-peace-process-who-killed-kurds.html
(10) Latif, T. (2015) What kind of peace? The case of the Turkish and Kurdish peace process, Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/latif-tas/what-kind-of-peace-case-of-turkish-and-kurdish-peace-process
(11) Yanmis, M. (2016)The Resurgence of the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey: How Kurds View It, Rethink Washington DC: USA
(12) Aydintaşbaş, A. (2016) A Kurdish Autumn Becomes Turkeys Long Winter, Center for American Progress. Available at: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2016/04/19/135785/a-kurdish-autumn-becomes-turkeys-long-winter
(13) Pope, H. (2014) Turkey, Syria and Saving the PKK Peace Process, The International Relations and Security Network. available at: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/DigitalLibrary/Publications/Detail/?lang=en&id=187069
(14) Balta, E. (2015) How the Turkish elections changed the foreign policy of Turkey, Open Democracy. Available at: https://www.opendemocracy.net/evren-balta/how-turkish-elections-changed-foreign-policy-of-turkey
(15) Gursel, K. (2015) 6 reasons why Turkey’s war against the PKK won’t last, Al-Monitor . Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/09/turkey-kurds-pkk-daglica-war-be-sustained-bloody-day.html
(16) Bozarslan, M.(2016) Why the PKK is so interested in Mosul, Al-Monitor. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/04/turkey-iraq-syria-pkk-interest-in-mosul.html
(17) Eric R. Mandel, Qatar And Turkey As Supporters Of Terrorism, An Interview With Jonathan Schanzer, Vice-President For Research At The Foundation For Defense Of Democracies And An Expert On Terrorist Financing, The Jerusalem Post ,17 September 2014. Available At: Http://Www.Jpost.Com/Opinion/Qatar-And-Turkey-As-Supporters-Of-Terrorism-375642
(18) Akyol, M. (2015) Who killed Turkey PKK peace process? Al-Monitor. Available at: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/08/turkey-syria-iraq-pkk-peace-process-who-killed-kurds.htm