The Turkish military has begun a major campaign against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) after a series of incidents apparently brought to an end a period of relative calm between the two sides.
But what has caused the breakdown of what had once looked like a road to peace and what are the motivations driving both Turkey and the PKK?
The end of Turkish-PKK peace deal?
After nearly three decades of open conflict between Turkey and the PKK, which claimed tens of thousands of lives, the two sides began a peace process in 2012 and a delicate truce has been in place since April 2013.
However, expectations of the peace deal have never come close to being satisfied. Turkey had wanted the PKK to disarm and to leave Turkish soil. It has not fully done either. The PKK, seeking an independent homeland including parts of Iraq, Syria and Turkey itself wishes to be recognised as a legitimate body with a right to defend itself.
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu justified the recent airstrikes on the 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.
After last week’s Turkish strikes on its positions in Iraq, the PKK has said that this truce has “no meaning anymore.”
The rise of ISIL?
Kurdish groups have been heavily involved in the fight against ISIL in Syria and Iraq.
This has allowed them to develop their military capability despite being officially designated as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US.
In Syria, Kurdish interests are represented mainly by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG). These groups have been receiving US air support to help them fight ISIS gaining them international credibility and fuelling hopes for the creation of an independent state.
Turkey had until last week refrained from joining the conflict against ISIL. But after the Suruc bombing, Turkey announced it would work with the US and strike targets belonging ISIS, while at the same time hitting PKK operations. It explicitly and implicitly equates both groups as “terrorists”.
Turkey denies it is targeting the PYD and YPG in Syria, despite the YPG’s claims to the contrary.
The domestic context in Turkey
The June elections left the ruling AK Party without a majority in parliament for the first time in over a decade. It is also struggling to attract any partners into a coalition and many expect new elections in November.
On one hand president Recep Erdoğan’s party lost support to the Kurdish HDP, which gained much more of the non-Kurdish vote than expected in the west of the country. On the other it lost nationalist voters who saw the peace talks with the PKK as a betrayal.
The AKP’s leadership likely sees military operations against the PKK as a good way to win back those nationalist voters in new elections.
Growing violence carried out by Kurds in Turkey could also erode the popularity of the HDP among non-Kurds.
From the PKK side, the elections can also be seen as an explanation for a return to armed action. According to Turkish sources, when the Kurdish-dominated HDP won 82 seats in parliament in June’s election the PKK interpreted it as a ‘Yes’ vote in a referendum on self-rule. Furthermore, the PKK had potentially lost leverage over Kurdish politicians who now had 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, one way for the PKK leadership to ensure they maintained their positions in Kurdish political life was to move the focus away from talking and back to direct armed struggle.