Why Turkey and the PKK are resuming a conflict

Why Turkey and the PKK are resuming a conflict
By Bora Bayraktar
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Turkish Air forces have expanded their cross border operations to Iraq and hit several PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) bases. The PKK responded by saying a truce with Turkey that has been in place for two years has “no meaning anymore”. But from the Turkish point of view the truce had already been violated by the PKK. Now many people in Turkey are asking whether the peace process is dead.

Why now?

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu justified the recent airstrikes on PKK as a result of an escalation in violence from the other side. He pointed out that 281 terrorist attacks have taken place in Turkey since the June 7 elections. On July 12 the leaders of the PKK announced that their members would disrupt the construction of dams and kidnap workers. In the city of Urfa two policemen were shot dead in their homes. Another one has been killed in Adıyaman.

Expectations not met

By entering peace talks with Kurdish leaders, Turkey had expected to disarm the PKK. Officials have been in talks with the organisation and their imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan via Kurdish parliamentarians for years. Turkey let Ocalan publish written messages which were read in public meetings and, in March 2013, Turkey called on the PKK to leave its territory. Later in another statement Ocalan called for a Kurdish Congress to make a decision on disarmament. During this period, the PKK neither disarmed nor left Turkey but instead pursued a policy of inaction. The PKK still hopes to be recognised as legitimate military arm of a potential Kurdish self-rule. It seems that both sides lost their belief about reaching these goals through negotiation.

Why did the PKK restart violence?

According to Turkish officials speaking on condition of anonymity, when the Kurdish dominated HDP won 13% of the votes and 82 seats in parliament in elections this year, the PKK interpreted it as a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum on self-rule. Furthermore, the PKK did not want to lose its leverage on Kurdish politicians who now have a direct mandate from the people. Amid this ongoing political process, and in particular alongside the rising political fortunes of leaders like HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, the PKK leaders were perhaps afraid of losing their positions in Kurdish political life.

Turkish justification for the operation

During three years of talks between Turkey and the Kurds, Ankara hesitated to use force in order not to provoke a response. Many Turkish security experts criticised the attitude of the government and warned that the PKK would use its breathing space to restructure and prepare for a popular revolt. The Kobani War – a long-running battle against ISIL in northern Syria enabled the PKK to gain some sort of legitimacy in the eyes of the Western world. The PKK also strengthened its arsenal during this fight. Now Turkey is determined to downgrade the military capacity of the PKK. By launching simultaneous attacks on ISIL and PKK, Turkey is equating both entities to undermine the legitimacy of the Kurdish fighters.

Strengthening its position in peace talks

Turkish authorities got a more positive response from the HDP, the Kurdish public and Abdullah Ocalan than from active PKK leaders during the negotiations. In many cases the PKK was seen to be blocking progress through its hardline rhetoric. By degrading PKK capacities Turkey may be hoping to return to the negotiation table from a position of strength. The key point will be whether the Kurds are willing to continue talks after all this.

Fresh elections?

After the June 7 elections no party received a majority in the parliament and opposition parties are unwilling to form a government with the ruling AK Party. For this reason the chances of another vote in November are high. The AK Party’s leadership likely see military operations as bolstering the nationalist vote. At the same time, the violence could harm the popularity of Kurdish dominated HDP party, which had managed to gain unexpected support in Western Turkey in the last election.

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