BACKGROUND: In late 2012, Erdoğan ordered state officials to begin a new dialogue with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder Abdullah Öcalan, who has been incarcerated since 1999. The dialogue with Öcalan was the third initiative launched by Erdoğan since 2009. The previous two initiatives – a process of engagement and consultation with Kurdish nationalists in the so-called “Democratic Opening” and later direct talks in Norway with PKK representatives in what has become known as the “Oslo Process” – had both collapsed. Kurdish nationalists claimed that Erdoğan’s representatives only appeared interested in persuading the PKK to halt its campaign of violence rather than addressing the underlying issues of Kurdish political and cultural rights.
Nevertheless, in March 2013 Öcalan publicly called on the PKK to announce a unilateral ceasefire and begin withdrawing its units from Turkey to the organization’s main bases in northern Iraq while the talks continued. As part of the agreement, government officials undertook to promulgate a law to provide PKK militants with legal immunity during the withdrawal process – not least to protect members of the security forces who would otherwise be liable to future prosecution for failing to intercept members of a proscribed terrorist organization. Kurdish nationalists and government officials both report that work began on drafting the law but that its promulgation was vetoed by Erdoğan.
The PKK duly announced a unilateral ceasefire and began its withdrawal. But the absence of a legal framework not only delayed the process but dealt a severe blow to Kurdish nationalists’ already tenuous trust in Erdoğan’s sincerity, particularly as he refused to develop the dialogue with Öcalan into comprehensive peace negotiations. In September 2013, the PKK halted the withdrawal. But it maintained its ceasefire. State officials continued to meet with Öcalan on İmralı and he was also allowed to receive regular visits from members of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), who couriered messages between him and the PKK high command in Iraq. On February 28, 2015, the talks culminated in a joint announcement by AKP and HDP officials of a roadmap formulated by Öcalan for a resolution of the Kurdish issue. Although the AKP officials did not explicitly commit the government to implementing the roadmap, their presence during its announcement appeared to imply approval.
Even though he had approved every step of the process, in March 2015 Erdoğan publicly denounced the roadmap, declaring that the dialogue with Öcalan was over, that it could not be revived until the PKK permanently laid down its arms and that Turkey no longer had a “Kurdish problem”. Starting in April 2015, he banned the HDP from visiting İmralı. Erdoğan then launched an excoriating rhetorical campaign against the HDP in the run-up to the June 7, 2015 general election – particularly after HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş vowed that the party would refuse to allow Erdoğan to introduce a presidential system and concentrate all de jure political power in his own hands.
The results of the June 7 general election not only stripped the AKP of its parliamentary majority but dealt a fatal blow to Erdoğan hopes of introducing a presidential system. But he has continued to dominate decision-making in the AKP, including resisting calls for a resumption of the dialogue with Öcalan or even allowing him to receive any visitors.
Significantly, at no point during the dialogue with Öcalan – or during the Democratic Opening or the Oslo Process – and in contrast to the plethora of proposals coming from the Kurdish side, have Turkish government officials ever put forward any suggestions of their own as to how to resolve the Kurdish issue.
IMPLICATIONS: Since summer 2014, the PKK has been heavily engaged in the war against the self described “Islamic State” in Iraq and particularly Syria. In addition to deploying units of its own, many of the individual units of the People’s Defense Units (YPG) – the military wing of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – are commanded by PKK veterans. Privately, through late 2014 and 2015, PKK sources admitted that the deployments in Iraq and Syria meant that the organization lacked the resources to mount an effective rural insurgency inside Turkey. But they also needed something to show for their sustained ceasefire. Despite its frustration at the lack of progress, the dialogue with Öcalan had at least enabled the PKK to claim that it had forced the Turkish government to the negotiating table.
In the weeks after the June 7 general election, with Erdoğan still insisting that the dialogue with Öcalan was over, frustration in the PKK started to grow. On July 11, 2015, the PKK issued a statement warning that it would resume limited attacks unless the dialogue with Öcalan was revived. On July 14, 2015, Duran Kalkan, a member of the PKK’s Executive Committee, announced that the ceasefire was dependent on Öcalan being able to receive visitors and communicate his ideas to the outside world. Erdoğan could have defused the growing tensions by allowing a delegation from the HDP to visit İmralı. No concessions would have been needed, just access to Öcalan. Erdoğan refused.
Kurdish nationalists have long accused Erdoğan and the AKP of supporting the so called “Islamic State”. However, although Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) has maintained close links with other jihadist organizations, the AKP’s attitude towards IS has tended to be characterized more by non-interference than active collaboration. On July 20, 2015, a suicide bombing by a suspected IS militant in the Turkish border town of Suruç killed 32 young leftist activists – many of them Kurdish -- as they prepared to cross into Syria to help rebuild the PYD-controlled town of Kobane. Rumors immediately began to spread that the attack had been carried out with the assistance or knowledge of MİT. Again, Erdoğan could have defused the tensions. But, although he received messages of condolence from around the world, Erdoğan failed either to issue a public statement of regret or to express his own condolences to the families of the dead. For many Kurdish nationalists, what appears to have been an act of personal callousness towards those he regarded as his political opponents was regarded as evidence of complicity.
Early on the morning of July 22, 2015, two policemen were shot dead in their beds in Ceylanpınar in the province of Urfa. The PKK’s military wing, the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), posted a statement on its website claiming that the policemen had been “punished” by a PKK unit for assisting IS. The PKK high command later denied ordering the attack and the claim of responsibility was removed from the HPG website. But the fact that the HPG was prepared to claim responsibility for the murder of two policemen in their sleep nevertheless served as a reminder of how brutal the PKK is prepared to be. It was also a gift for Erdoğan.
Over the next two weeks, Turkish warplanes conducted hundreds of air strikes against PKK assets in northern Iraq, backed by cross-border artillery bombardments from inside Turkey. The PKK hit back by attacking military outposts in southeast Turkey and police stations in the west of the country, while calling on its supporters to stage insurrections wherever they could. The result has been a series of outbreaks of civil unrest, including the creation by PKK sympathizers of no-go areas in southeast Turkey and the imposition by the Turkish authorities of curfews and media blackouts amid widespread reports of non-combatant casualties.
In the past, the PKK had sometimes used individual suicide bombers. Although it has had the capacity for over a decade, in recent weeks the PKK has also begun to deploy vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) for the first time, including in Istanbul. Even though the violence has not reached the levels of the early 1990’s, the psychological impact has been devastating. For example, unlike in the 1990’s, when most of the violence was restricted to the southeast, rarely a day now passes without an attack or at least a bomb scare in Istanbul. Across the country, the result has been an almost universal sense of trepidation and despairing fatigue – and the fear that things could become worse before they become better.
CONCLUSIONS: The recent upsurge in violence could have been prevented. Brutal though it can be, the PKK was reluctant to open what is effectively a third front by returning to violence inside Turkey. Indeed, a revival of its insurgency now threatens to weaken the PKK’s ability to fight IS in Iraq and Syria, campaigns which have boosted the organization’s prestige to unparalleled levels both in the region and internationally.
The HDP’s success in the June 7 general election, in which it won 80 seats in the 550-member parliament, created an unprecedented opportunity to resolve the Kurdish issue. Although both the PKK and Öcalan would have needed to have been included, putting the HDP at the heart of a new initiative would have sent a powerful message to Kurdish nationalists – particularly Kurdish youths – that they did not need to resort to violence but could seek to achieve their goals through the democratic process. Such an initiative would also have resulted in a shift in power and influence within the Kurdish nationalist movement away from the men and women of violence to the politicians.
Instead, Erdoğan has opted to demonize the HDP by associating it with – not differentiating it from – the PKK; not just in his rhetoric but in ordering the arrests of dozens of HDP officials on terrorist charges. On August 12, Erdoğan declared that the military campaign against the PKK would continue and that there could be no talks until the organization “laid down its weapons, buried them and sealed them with concrete.” This is not going to happen. Ultimately, Erdoğan’s policies risk strengthening those who advocate violence, not weakening them.
A new general election is currently expected to be held in the late fall, probably in November. Erdoğan appears to be calculating that his hard-line policy will damage the HDP while boosting the AKP by attracting Turkish nationalist votes – and thus give the AKP a parliamentary majority and enable him to use his informal influence to continue to dominate Turkish politics. It is a risky strategy. Even if it succeeds there appears little prospect of Turkey enjoying political stability while he remains in office.
Critically, both Erdoğan and the PKK know that he needs to be able to show that his hard-line policies have brought results. He cannot afford to go into the elections with the country still wracked by violence. The fear is that Erdoğan may order an even harsher crackdown over the weeks ahead and that, with its rural units depleted by deployments to Iraq and Syria, the PKK may increasingly respond by staging attacks, including more suicide car bombings, in the cities.
Gareth H. Jenkins is a Nonresident Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.
(Image attribution: Wikimedia Commons; Boris Ajeganov)