Since 20 July 2015, the PKK has killed at least 113 security personnel and Turkey claims to have killed over a thousand PKK fighters. The coincidence of new Turkish airstrikes against Kurdish targets and Ankara’s greater participation in anti-IS activities has led many to speculate that the US and its western partners have bumped the peace process down its list of priorities, choosing to focus instead on extracting greater Turkish security cooperation that could result in more short-term gains against IS.
In her report, Salih asserts that, while Turkish cooperation is undeniably valuable for the anti-IS coalition, a policy that traded participation against IS for the breakdown of the PKK-Turkey peace process would risk the spill-over of that conflict into northern Syria, weakening one of the coalition’s only effective non-Islamist partners on the ground in northern Syria (the YPG), and making it ever more difficult for the coalition to pull together a coordinated fight against IS.
Salih calls for European diplomatic attention to supporting the revival of the Turkey-PKK peace process, and greater political engagement with the PYD and conditional support to the YPG in the areas it already controls.
Stronger backing to the PYD/YPG should be tied to conditions that: dissuade the YPG from making unilateral advances into additional territories that are not predominately Kurdish and excluding FSA-affiliated partners from meaningful decision-making roles; discourage any policies that could result in the displacement of local Sunni inhabitants; and encourage the PYD to establish governance institutions inclusive of non-PYD affiliated Kurds, Arabs and other local ethnic groups in the areas it already controls. ECFR
by Cale Salih – The recent cycle of fighting between Turkey and the PKK risks escalating quickly to a point at which it will be extremely difficult for either side to backpedal.
Although there are hardliners on both sides who still want to fight each other, a return to conflict is fundamentally against both Turkey’s and the PKK’s strategic interests. It is hardly an attractive prospect for Turkey to confront a potential three-front war with the PKK – in south-east Turkey, northern Iraq, and northern Syria – at the same time as it faces the most serious and direct threat yet from IS. Soon after Ankara agreed to allow the US to use Incirlik to launch airstrikes against IS, IS released a video threatening Turkey, and specifically Erdoğan, directly.
Some in Turkey view the PKK as a long-term threat and IS as a short-term threat, when in reality the reverse may be true. The Turkey–PKK conflict has been managed at different points in the past, and the two sides have shown that they can de-escalate and negotiate when it suits their interests. The conditions that allow IS to thrive in Turkey’s neighbourhood, however – the civil conflicts and disintegration of state authority in Iraq and Syria – are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, Ankara has much less control over the factors that will determine whether IS is a short- or long-term threat, and the magnitude of that threat, than over those that will determine the same about the PKK.
On the other side, the PKK’s armed struggle against Turkey has long seemed outdated to many Kurds, especially in comparison to the Iraqi Kurds’ economically beneficial relationship with Turkey, and in light of Turkey’s relative progress on meeting Kurdish demands on democratisation during the most intense period of EU accession talks. The PKK’s military campaign has alienated many Kurds in Turkey who have now tasted peace and are not willing to return to conflict or who see economic promise in the AKP, as well as many Iraqi Kurds who do not want their relatively stable region to become a theatre of war for Turkey and the PKK. The PKK only recently regained its edge and transnational appeal for Kurds, thanks to its prominent role fighting IS in Syria and Iraq – not through fighting Turkey.
In seeking to influence Turkey and the PKK to reverse the escalation of violence, the EU must accept that it has limited direct leverage on either side, and that Turkey has long been sensitive to outside interference in what it considers to be a domestic affair par excellence. Although Europe was once the most influential external force driving Turkey’s democratisation, its clout has waned along with Turkey’s stalled EU accession process. Moreover, the Turkish government has rejected the introduction of a third-party mediator despite repeated PKK requests to have one.28 On the PKK side, the EU’s terrorism listing has had a double-edged effect: on the one hand, it has severely limited Europe’s ability to engage with the PKK; on the other hand, its potential removal at the end of a successful peace process creates an important EU carrot that gives Europe leverage over the group.
EU member states are unlikely to be able to play any formal role in the Turkey–PKK peace process, as Norway did in 2009,29 but Europe can still play an important soft power role in Turkey. Europe should do more to prioritise the peace process in recognition of its relevance to Europe’s own security interests. Whether and how to revive the peace process is a decision that will need to be taken by Ankara, but European member states and the EU should immediately move this aim much higher up its list of priorities vis-à-vis Turkey. Europeans should be pro-actively visiting Ankara to deliver this message, adopting it as a key talking point in its diplomatic engagement with Turkey, including at the leader and foreign minister level. This message can begin to be communicated now – while there are two HDP ministers in Turkey’s interim government, including Ali Haydar Konca, who has been appointed Minister for EU Affairs – but it should be significantly stepped up after the new elections on 1 November, whatever the result. On the PKK side, Europeans should strengthen contacts with the PKK’s Europe-based offices to deliver similar messages. After the snap elections and formation of a new government, Europeans should also increase their public condemnation of both sides’ escalation in violence.
The EU can also take steps that will facilitate the progress of the peace process, should it resume. It should do more to cooperate with Turkey in developing rule of law and justice reforms, with a particular focus on juvenile justice, an area that would benefit large numbers of young Kurdish prisoners.30 Prison remains one of the most significant politicising arenas for Kurdish youth, many of whom come into contact with PKK members and ideology for the first time while behind bars. Correcting Turkey’s juvenile justice problem is critical to stemming the growth of PKK-affiliated youth militancy, which has burgeoned in Cizre and some other Kurdish cities in the south-east. Building on the experience of EU member states, Europe could also stand ready to offer assistance with decentralisation and transitional justice, as these issues come into focus in any future negotiations. EU work with civil society, free local media, and youth groups in the medium term could help strengthen the hand of those who promote a more tolerant and nuanced view of Turkish-PKK relations. Read the full report.