Turkey in conflict: How Kurds' gains in Syria have pushed both sides to dig in

Seven months after the collapse of the Turkish-PKK peace process, the fighting is relentless and both sides are convinced now is the time to press their advantage.

Sertac Kayar/Reuters
Turkish police stand guard in Sur district, which is partially under curfew, in the Kurdish-dominated southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Turkey January 12, 2016.

The goal of the operation was simple and humanitarian: retrieve four corpses that had been rotting for weeks in this war-torn southeastern city.

A brief cease-fire was worked out in indirect talks between local Turkish authorities and young Kurdish militants holed up in a historic district of the city.

For a moment, it seemed a constellation of factors had aligned for success. Ambulances, local officials, rights groups, security forces, and media turned up for the extraction, which sought to alleviate the suffering of the bereaved families on hunger strike.

But an hour later, clashes erupted anew, the plan was scrapped, and everyone beat a retreat, evidence that both Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) are giving no quarter in this phase of their decades-old conflict over greater Kurdish rights and autonomy.

When the fighting reignited in July, it ended a two-year peace process that saw Kurdish culture flourish and political participation increase. But both sides now feel the time is right to press their advantage militarily, analysts say.

Bolstered by recent parliamentary elections that saw the party of President Recip Tayip Erdogan regain its majority, the government is determined to crush the PKK before even considering a return to talks. 

For its part, the PKK has been emboldened by Kurdish military successes in Syria and Kurdish fighters’ increased visibility and legitimacy as a vital ally in the US-led fight against the Islamic State (IS).

But the Kurds’ very successes against IS, which created a more cohesive swath of autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Syria, magnified Turkey’s concerns about Kurdish autonomy on its own side of the border.

“This war in the cities is a result of the conflict in Syria,” says Muhittin Kilic, a merchant in Diyarbakir. “Turkey does not accept the Kurdish cantons that were set up there, but the Kurds will not turn back now. We have no problem with the Turkish people but we want self-administration.”

Military operations continue

Today, the prospects for peace between Turkey and the PKK appear increasingly slim.

Ali Ihsan Gultekin, of the rights group Mazlumder, voiced frustration that the combatants in Diyarbakir couldn’t manage even the briefest of cease-fires. “Until the PKK disarms, these operations will continue – that’s the message from the state,” he says. “While the PKK says ‘if you disturb us in Rojava [Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria], we will make this area hell.’”

Many in Diyarbakir, which Turkish Kurds see as their capital, worry that the PKK – which has camps in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq – will launch more serious attacks when snow gives way to spring. Turkish jets have been pounding the Kurdish insurgents in what it describes as a broader war on terror, including against IS jihadists. But Turkey’s critics say it is devoting more of its firepower against the Kurds.

The fighting has been particularly grim in urban areas, with tens of thousands fleeing their homes to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Many describe it as the worst violence since the dark decade of the nineties, all the more brutal as it plays out in urban rather than rural areas.

Kurds represent the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but their ambitions of statehood were thwarted after World War I. In Turkey, they make up a fifth of the population – at least 20 million by most estimates – and have long clamored for greater linguistic and cultural rights as well as greater self-governance.

When Mr. Erdogan was prime minister, his government went further than others in terms of making reforms. Erdogan was crucial to opening talks with the PKK, which culminated in a 10-point peace plan. But wariness of the Kurds’ rise in Syria coupled with the collapse of the cease-fire has translated into a tougher line against the PKK.

Electoral calculations

Many in Diyarbakir see the turnabout as punishment for the success of a pro-Kurdish party that entered parliament in June at the expense of seats for Erdogan's ruling party. After failed coalition talks, the ruling party restored its majority in November elections. Many hoped that the dust would settle and talks resume after the vote.

Instead the violence escalated, reflecting new agendas in both camps. 

“After seeing the results of the Nov. 1 elections, Ankara decided to continue its pro-conflict mentality,” says Metin Gurcan, a columnist at Al-Monitor who served as a Turkish military adviser between 2002 and 2008. “Ankara needs conflict [to create the political environment] to discuss changing the political system in Turkey from a parliamentary one to a presidential one.”

The PKK, meanwhile, has grown emboldened by its increased international legitimacy after the successes of its affiliates in Syria. In Turkey, the militant movement took advantage of the cease-fire years to stockpile weapons in urban areas and establish an underground state in parts of southeastern Turkey, complete with courts and tax collection offices.

“The government decided that they would cut this once and for good, so they responded to the PKK end of the cease-fire with a huge amount of force,” says Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noting Erdogan capitalized on a broader consensus in Ankara to tackle the PKK.  “I think the fighting will continue until the government feels that it has entirely broken the back of the PKK.”

Russian intervention

Complicating matters is Russian support for Syrian Kurds and the souring of Ankara-Moscow relations after Turkey shot down a Russian jet on the Syrian border. “Russia is now providing weapons to the PYD [Democratic Union Party], which is the PKK’s outlet in Syria,” Mr. Cagaptay adds. “It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when some of these weapons will end up in the hands of the PKK.”

“The PKK elites and decision-makers think that it is the right time looking at global level dynamics,” concurs Mr. Gurcan. “Right now the PKK are talking with Russia, they are talking with the United States. The fight against IS provided them with a unique opportunity to increase both their international visibility and legitimacy.”

As the violence grows, some in Diyarbakir direct their anger at the state, others at the PKK. A sophisticated bomb attack against a police station last week caused primarily civilian casualties, killing three children, including a 5-month-old baby.

“They do this in the name of freedom and look at the mess they make,” says Hajji Su, pointing to the shattered windows of a mosque. “Civilians are dead. What is the difference between an IS attack and this?”

Many in Diyarbakir feel the state has used disproportionate force against young Kurdish militants and shoulders primary responsibility for civilian casualties in the southeast – 162 in total, according to local rights group. But others criticize the PKK for shifting the conflict to urban areas and using youth as cannon fodder. 

“These trenches and barricades are a historical mistake,” says Sahismail Bedirhanoglu, a prominent businessman in Diyarbakir who was involved in November efforts to persuade young militants to stand down. “We told them it is impossible to continue down this track. No state would accept this. It doesn’t matter if it is a democracy or a dictatorship, secular or Islamist government.”

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