Written by Aytac Kadioglu.
Turkey’s Kurdish peace process was cut off by two catastrophic incidents in July 2015: the Suruc suicide bombing took place during a press statement outside the Amara Culture Centre which claimed 32 lives and two police officers were murdered by the PKK in their home. These incidents were the beginning of a terrifying escalation of violence. Hundreds of militants belonging to the insurgent Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), many Turkish security officers and civilians lost their lives in subsequent security force operations and PKK attacks as of 2016.
The Cessation of the Peace Process
So why has this violence flared now – and what are the implications for the long-standing peace process? To give some background, the peace process began with the Turkish government’s ‘democratic opening’ project in 2009. On the one hand, the official changes included some reforms such as Kurdish courses in private schools, the first official Kurdish TV channel and giving back the ancient Kurdish names of some villages. On the other hand, the secret talks between the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) and senior members of the PKK in Oslo between 2009 and 2011 formed the basis of negotiations. The Oslo talks were followed by covert talks between the Turkish government and the jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.
Nevertheless, slow progress in political efforts came to a halt before the national election on June 7, 2015. The Erdogan administration and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) sharpened their discourse in their election campaigns. While the HDP constantly said ‘We won’t let you become president’ and announced it as an election slogan, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was blaming the HDP for being a spokesperson of the PKK. Therefore, the Kurdish question was transformed to a zero-sum game which allowed the AKP to win a majority in the Parliament and the HDP to pass the 10% national election threshold. During the election campaign, the peace process lost its momentum and the dissatisfaction of the government and the pro-Kurdish side at each other’s demands emerged clearly. It was because of the fact that both sides have different demands and aims to achieve.
Consent vs. Demand
Although both the Turkish government and the pro-Kurdish parties (the HDP and its predecessor, the Peace and Democracy Party) had the consent for a non-violent resolution, the differences in their demands have affected the nature of the peace process. Whilst the pro-Kurdish side (the HDP and Ocalan) was demanding democratic autonomy, the Turkish government was opposed to this idea by assuming that it would damage the unitary system of Turkey. Furthermore, the HDP and PKK announced the declaration of democratic autonomy in different towns of eastern Turkey which was followed by the establishment of self-defence forces, the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) that was often referred to as the youth wing of the PKK in the region. These unlawful attempts created a great reaction in Turkish society and intensified the armed struggle.
Moreover, one of the major disputes along with the peace process was PKK militants’ withdrawal from Turkey. As a part of the peace process, the Turkish government and the PKK agreed on PKK militants’ withdrawal from Turkey. Even though the PKK began to withdraw in May 2013, they stopped their retreat and returned to Turkey by blaming the government for establishing the headquarters of the security forces in the southeast of Turkey. It was one of the most significant situations to interrupt the progress. It was mostly overlooked that the attempts to change the constitution significantly slowed down after this unsuccessful attempt. Afterwards, the Turkish government constantly blamed the PKK for not withdrawing from Turkey and for not disarming. Hence, the peace process had been limited to disarming the PKK instead of changes in the constitution that embraces all citizens of Turkey and rejects any type of discrimination.
The Influence of the Civil War in Syria
The last factor that interrupted the peace process was the civil war in Syria. Although Turkey paid great attention to the situation as a neighbour of Syria, it became top priority when the Democratic Unionist Party (PYD), which is identified as having the same basis of the PKK, became one of the major rebel groups in northern Syria. The PYD’s war against the Islamic State (IS) resulted in western states’ arming, training and offering financial support for the PYD which was strongly criticised by Turkish officials.
While Turkey was reluctant to join the western states in supporting the PYD, the country was shocked by the most dreadful terrorist attack in Turkey’s history. A peace event in Ankara was destroyed by the twin bomb attacks of the IS which claimed 99 lives and left many more wounded. After this attack, the government increased its support for fighting against the IS, but did not help the PYD.
The lack of Turkey’s support did not affect the PYD’s success. In contrast, the PYD expanded the territory under its control in the Turkish-Syrian border thanks to aid and air strikes of the western states. Because of this fact, the Turkish government aims to defend Syria’s territorial integrity for preventing the foundation of a Kurdish state in northern Syria which is a casus belli for Turkey. As one of the greatest aims of the PKK-PYD is to establish a Kurdish state in northern Syria, it is vital to bring the civil war in Syria to an end together with the violent conflict in the southeast of Turkey for the Turkish government.
Lastly, the PYD’s territorial gain led Kurdish people to think about a Kurdish uprising which is a threat to a peaceful solution. The current situation in the territory, therefore, did not help to apply political resolution efforts instead of armed struggle. The demands of the pro-Kurdish side and the Turkish government and the cyclical violence of the region demonstrate that the Syrian civil war and Turkey’s Kurdish peace process are two interrelated issues for Turkey. It is less likely to maintain the peace process and to disarm the PKK unless the civil war in Syria is de-escalated.
Aytac Kadioglu is a doctoral researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and a fellow of the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism (CST). His research focuses on non-violent resolution of ethno-nationalist conflicts and the application of conflict resolution procedures. He also looks at other internal and international security conflicts of states. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.