Back to Bloodshed
Can Turkey's leaders quell the uptick in violence between the state and the Kurds before it gets out of hand?
The timing could not have been worse. On Wednesday, Oct. 19, militants belonging to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) launched a four-hour assault on an isolated Turkish army garrison in the southeast of the country, killing some 24 soldiers. The Turkish military responded with overwhelming force, commencing a 10,000-man land and air operation inside Turkey. Special forces also crossed into northern Iraq in an attempt to crush PKK bases located there.
The outrage in Turkey over one of the deadliest PKK attacks in recent memory threatens to undo the Turkish government's efforts to resolve its festering Kurdish problem through political means. Instead, pressure will mount on the Turkish government to double down on the failed strategy of using violence to repress Kurdish aspirations. President Abdullah Gül did not mince words when he said that the PKK "will see that the revenge for these attacks will be massive and much stronger."
The timing could not have been worse. On Wednesday, Oct. 19, militants belonging to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) launched a four-hour assault on an isolated Turkish army garrison in the southeast of the country, killing some 24 soldiers. The Turkish military responded with overwhelming force, commencing a 10,000-man land and air operation inside Turkey. Special forces also crossed into northern Iraq in an attempt to crush PKK bases located there.
The outrage in Turkey over one of the deadliest PKK attacks in recent memory threatens to undo the Turkish government’s efforts to resolve its festering Kurdish problem through political means. Instead, pressure will mount on the Turkish government to double down on the failed strategy of using violence to repress Kurdish aspirations. President Abdullah Gül did not mince words when he said that the PKK "will see that the revenge for these attacks will be massive and much stronger."
This latest attack — which is part of a broader campaign of renewed violence — may also indicate a split within the PKK between a moderate faction looking for a negotiated solution and hardliners, who are unwilling to give up the armed struggle. The hardliners may even be egged on by Iran and Syria, which are using the group to pressure Ankara to back off its criticisms of the embattled Syrian regime.
The PKK’s long-running guerilla war against the Turkish military stems from Turkey’s relentless effort to force the Kurds, who represent up to 20 percent of the population, to sacrifice their identity. For decades, the Kurdish language was banned, the very existence of Kurds denied, and any sign of Kurdish activism, however benign, was punished. The rise to power of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, however, has led the state to increasingly acknowledge the Kurds’ existence. For Erdogan, the Kurdish problem represents a roadblock in his efforts to position Turkey as a regional, if not global, power. As the prime minister gained the upper hand against Turkey’s powerful military establishment, which bitterly opposed any rapprochement with the Kurds, he was increasingly free to discuss potential solutions to the Kurdish problem.
Turkish Kurds are not uniformly pro-PKK, although the organization tugs at most Kurds’ heartstrings for giving their community a voice after a long period of oblivion. The main Kurdish political party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), is close to the PKK — it shares the same political base, and often the same members. A significant segment of the Kurdish population, especially the more pious and conservative Kurds, however, supports the AKP.
Most Kurds, irrespective of their political affiliation, almost always relate three demands, in the same order of importance, to resolve their conflict with the Turkish state. First, they want a new constitution to replace the military-imposed 1982 document, which equates citizenship exclusively with Turkish ethnicity. Second, they want complete cultural freedom to use the Kurdish language in all facets of everyday life, including politics, media, culture. Third, they want a relaxation of the extremely centralized nature of the Turkish state, which has given Ankara the power to stifle local expressions of Kurdishness.
Unlike in the early 1990s, Turkey’s Kurds, by and large, are no longer interested in establishing an independent state. This is primarily because they no longer solely occupy the traditionally Kurdish areas in the east and southeast of the country. Years of counterinsurgency campaigns have devastated many of these areas, forcing families to migrate to the coastal cities of the south and especially to Istanbul, which today contains two to four million Kurds, making it the largest Kurdish city in the world. This forced migration has led to the emergence of an alienated group of very violent Kurdish youth, who reside in the shantytowns of large cities and towns and are unwilling to heed the Kurdish political leadership.
In recent years, both the PKK leadership and the BDP have invested heavily in building the institutions for de facto self-government in areas where Kurds are in a majority. They created a parallel and clandestine organization, the KCK, the Union of Communities in Kurdistan, as a vehicle for integrating future demobilized PKK fighters, released prisoners and a core decision-making body. The Turkish government has relentlessly suppressed the KCK, imprisoning hundreds — if not thousands — of activists in order to prevent it from taking root.
Erdogan, to his credit, has understood that a non-military solution is the only way to prevent the continued deterioration of the Kurdish situation in Turkey. Once he defeated the military, he slowly began to couple police and military pressure on the Kurds with attempts to find a political solution to the conflict. Notably, he promised to push for a new constitution in the run up to the June 2011 elections. Although his primary motivation is to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into a French-style presidential one, a new constitution is likely to go along way to addressing some of the Kurds’ most important demands.
Equally important, however, were the revelations that the Turkish government had been holding secret talks with the PKK leadership ensconced in the Qandil Mountains, in northern Iraq, and its representatives in Europe with the aim of ending the conflict. In addition, the government had also been talking to imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, and using him until recently to send conciliatory messages to his followers. In the conversations with PKK officials, the government seems willing to consider relocating Öcalan from his island prison to some kind of house arrest. These are unprecedented actions — the Turkish public writ large reviles Öcalan and the PKK. Yet the revelations were received with great equanimity — indicating, perhaps, that the Turkish public, as much as its Kurdish equivalent, is tired of the fight.
In view of these developments, how does one explain the increase in violence? The government may have made two important mistakes. First, it has continued to quash the KCK, arresting scores of activists and BDP officials while also preventing some BDP elected parliamentary members from taking their seats. More importantly, the government cut off Öcalan’s access to his followers in a fit of pique in July, due to increased PKK violence. Yet he remains the only person with enough authority to signal an end to any fighting.
The real reason for the upsurge in fighting, however, is a potential split within the PKK. Cemil Bayik, the hardline leader of the military forces who is known as being close to Iran, has come out in opposition to both Öcalan and current PKK leader Murat Karayilan. This is similar to other conflicts where radicals, intent on pursuing maximalist goals, emerge to sabotage the process of reconciliation. In Northern Ireland, the Real IRA emerged to challenge the Good Friday Accords; likewise, Hamas’s 1996 suicide bombing spree ended the Oslo process, for all intents and purposes, by ensuring the election of a more hardline Knesset in elections that year.
These events have also taken place in the context of the declining fortunes of Iran’s primary ally, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s criticism of Assad and modest support for Syrian opposition forces has rattled both Tehran and Damascus. Erdogan had been Bashar’s most important supporter in Western and international conclaves. It is quite possible that both Syria and Iran have chosen to send Ankara a message by supporting Bayik’s decision to increase the level of violence. Turkish journalists have reported that Syrians had been talking of using "the Kurdish card" against Ankara, as Syrian President Hafez al-Assad had done in the 1980s and 1990s. Turkish authorities have let it be known that Iran briefly detained Karayilan, but released him despite their entreaties to have him sent to Turkey.
In a long interview some 10 days ago, Bayik came out in defense of the Syrian government — an uncharacteristic position, as the Assad regime has a long history of violently suppressing its Kurdish population. Bayik, in an unrealistic moment of bravado, even claimed that, were Turkey to intervene in Syria to create a protective zone for Assad’s opponents, the Kurds would resist and fight the Turks. He also said that Turkey was preparing to do to Iran what it was doing to Syria — namely, implement regime change.
This new wave of bloodletting — and the potential for more, given the military’s counterattack in northern Iraq — puts the process of reconciliation in Turkey on hold. Both Kurds and Turks will rally around their respective flags, and more importantly, whatever its divisions, the PKK will rally to fight the Turkish military. The conflict is growing increasingly dangerous — with heightened passions, there is the possibility that Turkey will witness clashes between ethnic Turks and Kurds, not only between professional soldiers and militants. In reaction to the attack on the Turkish outpost, demonstrators attempted to attack BDP party offices in different cities throughout Turkey, only to be pushed back by police.
Erdogan, who has been courageous, yet impractical and amateurish at times, has his back against the wall. He will need to claim some victory in the military incursion into Iraq. There is always the possibility that Bayik’s forces may also enlist Iraqi Kurdish civilians in their fight with the Turks, leading to civilian casualties and a souring of relations between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey.
Stil,l all is not lost. There is broad support in Turkey to change its 1982 military-imposed constitution. But this is a process that will unfold over the course of the next year. The government and parliament have indicated that they will pursue these reforms despite the violence, and hopefully time will heal wounds. Yet, the government continues to hold most of the cards: It needs to calm domestic passions and quickly engage the BDP and Öcalan to push the PKK to stand down. If the PKK does so, then Erdogan and Gül will need to make symbolic gestures to continue the political process. At root, this is a political problem: The Kurds remain Turkey’s Achilles’ Heel, and they will remain so no matter what military means are employed.
More from Foreign Policy
Lessons for the Next War
Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.
It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse
Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.
Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine
The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.
Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.
Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.