Allegiances Tested in Turkey’s Broken Peace

Protesters call for peace, following Turkish airstrikes that killed hundreds of members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, as part of a campaign supposedly targeting the so-called Islamic State. Istanbul, Turkey, August 9, 2015. (Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images)

In late July, the simmering three decade-old conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) returned to the boil, ending the ceasefire in place since March 2013. As the Turkish military bombs PKK bases and Kurdish militants kill security officers and attack critical infrastructure, the entire peace process is under threat. Whether it can be revived will largely be determined by domestic politics and intra-Kurdish power struggles.

The recent violence in southeast Turkey has claimed the lives of at least 60 members of Turkish security forces, 88 militants, and 15 civilians, just as Turkish police have arrested over 1,000 suspected PKK sympathizers and declared over 100 “special security zones” in the Kurdish areas. The renewed clashes also follow Turkey’s decision to join the US-led air campaign against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in the border region with Syria. ISIS is suspected to be behind the recent attack in the Turkish town of Suruç, which killed 32 people. Turkey has been accused of using the ISIS campaign as an excuse for targeting the PKK and curbing Kurdish political ambitions.

Neither the PKK nor Ankara has an interest in returning to the damaging violence of the 90s, and even the current incidents of attacks and retaliation are damaging for Turkey at a time where the country faces early elections and finds itself increasingly vulnerable to violent spillover from the crises in Syria and Iraq.

The problem is that the peace process was never very solid to begin with. Although the Justice and Development Party (AKP)-led government has improved cultural rights for Turkey’s 10-15% Kurdish minority in recent years, the process of conciliation has all along been marred by discontent and mistrust.

It has also never been precisely clear what was expected from the peace process. Even if the parties had agreed on a roadmap, the expectations for where it should lead were not aligned. Many Kurds hoped for a sort of “democratic autonomy” and insisted that Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed PKK leader, should be released and allowed to reenter politics. The government, meanwhile, focused on improving social and cultural rights while refraining from discussing more thorny issues such as reintegration of PKK fighters and political autonomy.

This lack of agreement on the content and goals was a major obstacle for the talks, which managed to stop the violence for a few years but never amounted to a genuine process of reconciliation between the Turkish state and the Kurdish militants.

Progress was further stalled when the AKP failed to form a coalition government in Turkey’s June 7 general election. The country’s political parties, as well as the PKK, are now positioning themselves for the new elections in November. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hopes to win back the votes lost to the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which secured 13% of the vote with support from a diverse crowd ranging from conservative Kurds to liberal Turks, LGBT supporters and a range of ethnic minorities.

Unfortunately for the HDP, this fragile voter base makes it difficult for the party to take a stance on the conflict without alienating some of its supporters. Its deep roots in the Kurdish nationalist movement mean the party cannot completely disassociate itself from the PKK—a dynamic which the AKP has exploited for its own advantage. Struggling to strike a balance between condemning PKK’s violence while still defending its cause, the young party has so far called for both parties to the conflict to put down their weapons.

Whose Peace Process?

If the HDP is indeed able to represent the Kurds as a legitimate actor and assert the political influence its votes call for, the PKK could de facto be rendered largely superfluous. The current violence therefore also represents an intra-Kurdish power struggle over the title as the true Kurdish representative in the peace process.

To Erdoğan, meanwhile, sustained violence and political instability obstruct his project of promoting Turkey as a modern state and an attractive market for foreign investment. The lira has already dropped considerably since the renewal in violence and the clashes threaten to harm Turkey’s significant tourist industry. Moreover, it has become a personal prestige project of Erdoğan’s to be the political leader to finally achieve lasting peace.

Finally, the PKK also has reasons to avoid a full-blown conflict. One is that its supporters have come to appreciate the new state of peaceful normalcy during the ceasefire. Another is that the past 30 years of unresolved conflict suggest the group cannot achieve its goals by military means alone. The current fighting therefore reminds the government of the PKK’s ability to hurt Turkey’s economy, stability, and security and reasserts itself as the Kurds’ proper representative in the negotiations, in place of the HDP.

Getting Back to the Table

While the intensity of the renewed conflict is significant, the violence on both sides is still contained. Both the PKK and the government are flexing their military muscle, seeking to enhance their positions in preparation for talks to be resumed. To get back to the table, however, the parties will need an external factor or event that can justify a halt of the current cycle of attacks and retaliation. Save that, a new ceasefire is not likely until the upcoming elections cement a new power balance.

In the meantime, the actor with the most to lose seems to be the HDP—and those voters who tied their hopes of a peaceful solution to this new party. The delicate balancing act between disowning PKK violence and remaining loyal to its Kurdish support base is not its only challenge. Continued clashes in the southeast of the country will also hamper the party’s ability to campaign in these important Kurdish-dominated areas, whose support is vital for its ability to stay in parliament.

The AKP, on the other hand, seems well positioned to regain its dominant position in Turkish politics. Erdoğan is simultaneously being tough on the PKK, accommodating the nationalists, and keeping an door open for renewed negotiations by merely describing the peace process as “frozen,” thereby denying the HDP any space in the process. The HDP thus finds itself in a tight spot and its future influence on the peace process is likely to be determined by the way it maneuvers imminent campaigning and election. Regardless of the resulting power balance between the parties to the conflict, they will need to agree on a much more specific end goal if it is to result in a lasting solution.

Minna Højland is a Program Officer at the Center for Integrated Health, Bolivia, and worked on Turkish-Kurdish relations at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.